Saturday, 29 April 2017

Brace: a tribute to Mom

Reading: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Listening to: "Halo" by Beyonce
Outside: Tame gray clouds, April begins its May transformation

From my seat on the plane at Manchester Airport, here's what I wrote in my journal on Friday, April 14th, 2017:

Brace. Brace. Brace.

The emergency position, preparing for collision.

I'm on the plane now.

She was on Page 6  of The Girl in the Glass. That's the last page she got to before the fall that ended it all.

Mom died the evening of Tuesday, April 11th in Dothan, Alabama. Jenny held her hand as it happened.

When the plane's going down, that's what you do. Head down, hug your knees. And brace. 

I wasn't ready for the hit.

My plane is nosing its way out now and we prepare for takeoff. A tired baby cries up ahead. Baby knows how I feel. We point toward Alabama, toward my mom who is and is not there.

Great memories and devilish good looks - Mom and me, Halloween 1987.

Grief comes in waves, just like my friend Matt told me it would. "And the best thing to do is just let it happen," he said, and I believe him. It rushes over me on the train home from work, when my mind wanders from the page of the book I'm reading and revisits the way her hands looked in the coffin. It churns around my feet as I walk home from the train station, when I walk my daughter to school, trying to trip me up. It's there, pulling me under, when I'm trying my best to stay afloat. It knows when I'm tired, when that last sour swirl of wine in the glass opens up a new memory: the last words she said to me, the last photo I took, I'm sure grief's current will pull at me for months and years to come. I brace myself.

My snapshot: Mom visits Panama City Beach, Florida, her favorite place.
My stepdad Jim captures the moment, too. Christmas 1999. 

Her funeral was the hardest thing I have ever been through, a world apart from the physical hurt of drug-free childbirth and all that breathing and heaving and pushing. Mom in her Elvis-pink Cadillac coffin. The pictures of hers, mine and ours on every TV screen in the funeral home, each snap of a moment of a life scrolling past. My sisters and stepdad, each wielding the weight of their grief in delicate dabs. Their linen handkerchiefs. The stained glass window rising up over Mom, the dark wood panelling, the Titanic first-class beauty of it all. The conversations with known and unfamiliar cousins and Joycie and neighbours, handshakes and hugs. Mom put on a pedestal one last time.

Among other things, here is what I said at the podium:

The following is a letter I wrote and sent to my mom a couple years ago, just before my daughter’s first birthday.
(Sunday, November 16, 2014)

Dear Mom,

I’m listening to a song on Youtube that debuted on the radio in 1996 (“Standing Outside a Broken Telephone Booth with Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods) and all at once it takes me back to what was happening when I heard this song back then – I was an early teen, still eager to start my period, anxious about starting high school. I had gone to Ball State Swim Camp – or would be going soon – to live like an amphibian in Muncie’s finest chlorinated. I still dream about swimming those lengths.
          And at the same time, this song reminds me of how much things have changed since then. While I haven’t gotten much taller, I have done a lot of other things: I walked the halls of Mt. Vernon High School, and even graduated a semester early.  I learned to drive. I learned to fall off horses (and climb back on). I took a full time job, several. I went to Ball State University, met friends I love and keep in touch with today, graduated. I jumped over the Atlantic, sleeping alone next to my luggage at London Heathrow Airport, and learned all I could from my wine-drinking professors in their Victorian terraced offices at the University of Leeds. Graduated. I’ve gotten married and I’ve had a baby. I’ve had serious consideration from dozens of literary agents. Rejection. And hope. Lots of hope.
          Most importantly, I have learned to live with the Skeleton Woman. There are lots of other names for her, but I prefer this one; she is the very bones of everything. She invites each of us to deal with things. The low things, the sad things. Deep things. Some folks run from her all their lives, scared and exhausted. They have poor relationships – they cut ties from everyone and everything as soon as things get bad (or, at the very least, not so pretty). I once did that – I tried to run away from things that didn’t make me happy.
          Your divorce from Dad was one of the hardest times in my life. As it was for you, too, I’m sure. It was the dying of something big, and I almost couldn’t deal with it. Skeleton Woman knocked on the door then, all tangled up and waiting. She wanted untangling– a leg bone from her ribcage, a wrist pulled from behind her spine – she wanted sorting out. She needed to be unfolded and lined up, gently put right again. She was introducing me to a new beginning that I didn’t know could happen. (She waited.)
          An even harder time for me was when you battled breast cancer. I lived with you at the time. I was seventeen, eighteen. We shared the same apartment. I went to high school and you gave yourself the “F-ing Shot.” It was a horrible time for both of us. I will never forget the day you got your hair shaved off so it wouldn’t be so obvious when it fell out. You were deliberate and uncomplaining. You still made me dinner every night. Your enthusiasm for The Brit must have taken super-human effort. It is hard to be enthusiastic about anything when you’re nauseated and not feeling well.
          This time, it was so bad that I blocked it out almost completely. Well, Skeleton Woman has caught up with me now. I’ve untangled her and this is what I see: an apology owed to you for a long time. This letter is to apologize for not being the supportive daughter I should have been. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I should have cooked, cleaned, listened. I should have been there. I wish I could turn it all back and do it right this time. I just hope you can forgive me for being a selfish teenager, a girl who couldn’t accept such a big change.
          Life’s crazy: we spend so much energy running.  But eventually we take a rest, unfold, and discover that without things to run from, we never learn what to run to. (They are the same things!)
          Since I’ve had Lena, I feel closer to you than I ever have. I can’t explain it, and I don’t know if it’s something that can be explained. I can see your foot tapping the air when I hold her for her bedtime bottle. I can see Lena gripping your finger as she wobble-walks across the floor. I can feel your frustration when she won’t stay still on the changing table – a deep, reassuring breath – yours. Because, this time, I am you and Lena is me. This is the most beautiful thing about Skeleton Woman – she’s there for every cycle, every mood, every ending and every beginning. She wants us to learn to start again every time, and to embrace it. I feel like I have a second chance now to do the right thing.
          From the very depths, as soft as the jingle of a yellow baby-rattle, my hope rises from this page: that you read this and smile.
          Thank you for being such a great mom. I only hope I can do as well with my girl as you did with me.
                                                          Love you forever,                             
                             Your last-born,

Mom asked me to call her after she received this letter. She told me over the phone that I had been the caring, supportive daughter that she needed. She said I wrote the checks and paid the bills. She said I did the laundry, the dusting, the ironing and the dinners. I made her apartment a home. “You must not remember it, but it’s true,” she told me. “I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you so much.”
         And so my guilt evaporated. My faith in myself was restored. As a daughter and a mom and a woman with a memory sometimes flecked with darkness, Mom was there to light me up. It’s what she did best.

And now the Skeleton Woman is back again. She’s waiting at my door all in a tangle. This time, I take these bones, one by one, and lay them gently out and remember. This time, I will place them piece by piece, dusting off the memories of who I am because of you, Mom.
        Because of your wit, your wisdom, your practical jokes. Your fierce love.
        This time I will be untangling, remembering and recovering, and loving you deeply for the rest of my life.            

Thank you.

The last photo I ever took of my mom. She shares a story with Lena. December 16, 2016.

So, wow, Mom. Skinny-Minnie, mixer of fruitcake, harvester of pumpkins, cleaner of floors and dabber of tears. Sea-lover, sun-worshipper. Voracious reader (gosh, I wonder where I got that from!), practical joker, artist. I certainly have a lot to live up to.

I touch the Gulf of Mexico at Panama City, Beach, Florida, Christmas 1999.
Mom's last picture of 16-year-old me.  

I'm now tied to the tide of grief. The tangled-seaweed surge of the surf, it pushes and pulls. The salt of it. But here's one thing: its swirl-of-hurt current brings up the good memories in all of this, and the thing she loved the most: the expanse of the sea, the priceless warmth of the sun on her skin. And here, I wade into it, imagining the beach again.

Thanks, Mom, for everything.


  1. Wonderful Vee,you made me cry.Having a child does make us realise what our parents must have been through and we feel guilty for all the hurt we may have caused. but as a parent you can see also the other side that is what being a parent is all about . Taking the good and the bad. your mum must have been a wonderful lady as look at the beautiful loving and caring daughter she raised. i am sorry I never got to meet her but I am privileged to have you in my life and wherever your mum is now I can reassure her that I will look after you, take care of you,and love you for herxx

  2. Thank you so much, Mumsie. You have looked out for me since I moved here 10 years ago. Mom would have loved you and your constant support. Thank you for being so cool, my Mumsie and my friend. Love you so much!! Xxx