Two years ago
I sit down next to Mom on the couch. Her wig is crooked. The house smells like pee.
"That’s funny," she says. "I can’t feel my arm." She continues to talk, but her words are a wash of syllables.
"Mom!" I run to the phone, call 911, and follow the ambulance to the hospital.
"Untreated, high blood pressure and diabetes are a lethal combination," the doctor says. "It’s been six months since your mom filled her prescriptions."
One year ago
The emergency room nurse palpates my mom’s wrist in search of a good vein.
"She been taking her meds?"
"She told me she has, but I don’t see her often."
"Good thing you brought her," the doctor says. "She might not have made it."
My sister arrives a day later, after Mom is stable enough to be transferred to a room in the cardiac unit. Mom sees her and struggles to hoist herself upright. A nurse leans in to help, but mom shoos her away.
"You’re like a cat," my sister says. "Nine lives."
Mom laughs weakly. A woman enters carrying food on a tray.
"They treat me like a queen here," she tells us.
I’m out of town on business when my sister calls.
"A stroke," she says. "It’s bad."
I hang up the phone.
"Don’t die, damn it."
I say this aloud. Send the command to my mother through the ether.
"Not until…" My words trail off. Until what?
I throw open my suitcase and pull clothes off of hangers, out of drawers, and toss them in. I sweep everything off the bathroom counter and into my purse. I look up at the mirror and catch a glimpse of my mother’s image superimposed over my own.
"Not until I figure out how to love you."
I zip the suitcase closed.
I’m two years old and I can’t breathe. My mother holds me upside down by the ankles and jerks me hard to make me cough up the pennies. She swings me up, her eyes stretched wide and pounds my back. I cry when the last penny breaks free, but she keeps pounding. Holding me tight, she falls back on the bed and now she’s crying. The sun goes down, the room fills with shadows. She’s still holding me when my dad comes home.
"You weren’t here," she says.
My dad is teaching me how to juggle. He puts an orange between his chin and chest.
"Look, Mommy," I say. "Dad has an Adam’s orange!"
Her eyebrows come together for a second, and then she laughs and laughs.
We are all in the car for the long drive to my grandparent’s house. I yell "Front!" so my sister and little brother have to sit in the back with the luggage that didn’t fit in the trunk and the dog that needs a bath. I get to sit between my parents. I snuggle close to Mom and breathe in her smell—perfume and cigarettes. I never get her to myself like this.
"Don’t lean on me," she says, pushing me away so hard that I bump into my dad.
"Hey!" he shouts, grabbing the steering wheel tight.
"See that?" my mom says. "We could have been in an accident. Now sit up straight, young lady, and act your age."
I get to wear my new dress to a church we’re visiting. It’s not like any church I’ve been to. It’s huge and they have real singers, like in a band on TV. One of the women looks like she’s made of sparkly light. I wish I could stare at her and listen to her sing forever. I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to look and it’s my mom. Her face is soft. Like she feels about me the way I feel about the sparkly lady.
It’s past midnight. I’m sitting against the wall in the upstairs hallway. I pull my nightgown down and tuck it under my feet. It’s dark. I’m hidden, but from here I can see through the bars of the banister, down to the front entry. I can’t see my mother, but I know she’s down there, sitting somewhere in the dark too. I see the door open and my father walk in.
"Why’d you even bother coming home?" my mother says, and I can tell she’s been practicing the line. Repeating it over and over while she waited. She delivers it like she’s Erica Kane, the famous soap opera character.
"That’s a fine welcome." My dad’s voice is slushy, like he has too much spit in his mouth. I hear her run to the bathroom. Hear the medicine cabinet open, the rattle of pills in a bottle.
"Oh, like that’s going to help!" my father says.
"Let go of me!" Mom yells in her Erica Kane voice.
"Drop them." I hear the bottle clatter to the floor.
I creep back to bed and stare at the ceiling until it turns from black to grey to pink.
I smile when I see her sewing at the kitchen table and hold up a school paper. At the top of the page ‘A+’ is written in red.
"Read it to me," mom says, squinting as she pushes thread through a bobbin.
I do. It’s a story I’ve written about an abandoned house. The house is sad because it remembers what it was like when it was filled with a family and now it’s just full of broken-down things.
"The End," I say. I look up and she’s crying.
"It’s beautiful, honey," she says. "Just beautiful."
I'm 17-years-old now and I have a mad crush on Harrison James, a black boy with the curliest eyelashes on the planet. His laugh is so loud it sounds like he swallowed the microphone he sings into at Jazz choir rehearsal. Just before dinner, I’m reading on our front porch when he pulls up on his bicycle and makes his way toward me. My mouth falls open, but no words come out. He laughs his amplified laugh.
"This is for you," he says. He reaches for my hand and closes my fingers around something small. Then, before I find my voice, before I see what he’s given me, he bolts for his bike.
It’s a cassette tape. I carry it as though it’s a small bird into the kitchen where my mom, her back to me, stirs spaghetti sauce.
"I saw that boy," she says.
I’m so happy. I sneak up and wrap my arms tight around her from behind. "He’s…"
"Let go of me!" she shrieks.
The spoon flies from her hand, splattering hot spaghetti sauce on my new white hoodie.
My dad yells from the living room "What the hell?"
"Your daughter just tried to kill me," she hisses back.
I’ve just introduced my mother to the first man I’ll marry. He lifts her hand to his lips. A faint line of powder rims his left nostril.
"I see where your daughter gets her beauty," he says, and kisses her hand. My mom beams.
I wake up in the intensive care unit to a chorus of beeps, the squeeze and whoosh of a blood pressure monitor. There’s something rammed down my throat. I can’t swallow. What happened? I remember blurred vision. I remember searing pain in my back. My baby! My heart races as I open my mouth to ask, but the thing in my throat makes me cough and a place low in my stomach feels like it’s ripping open.
"Shhhhh," my mom’s soft hand covers my own. "She’s perfect, honey," she says. "Just perfect."
Still in my pajamas and holding my baby daughter in my arms, I stand in my mom’s kitchen. My oldest daughter, a toddler, holds onto my leg. Heavy raindrops pelt the windows, but inside the kitchen is warm and cozy and smells like fresh baked bread.
"Good morning," my mom says.
My daughter peers up at her shyly. My mother glares at her. "Well, don’t just stand there looking stupid," she says. "Say ‘good morning.'"
My mom picks up on the forth ring.
"I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with the wrong man," I say.
"You should have thought of that before you married him," she says.
I hold the phone away from my ear, stare down at the things I found stuffed under the mattress. An eviction notice, IRS statements, and a small mirror.
A plastic film bottle containing a razor blade.
I hang up.
My sister sits next to me at Mom’s kitchen table. Mom refills our coffee cups.
"We moved back to the area to see more of you kids, but no one visits," she says.
"Yeah, well," I say.
My sister clears her throat.
I watch my mom from the chair next to her hospital bed. She opens her eyes, sees me, and smiles.
"So here we are again," I say.
Her smile fades.
I find my sister sitting in the waiting room. I take an envelope out of my purse and hand it to her. Inside is a sampling of cards, letters, and recipes Mom has given me over the years. She pulls out a few and browses through them. I stand behind her and read over her shoulder.
There’s a chatty letter on floral stationary: Your Uncle was here Friday with your Aunt Lucy, who still bosses him around and talks nonstop. I wish you’d been here to make us laugh.
There’s a recipe for Bourbon Balls with a note scrawled in the margin: I’m making these right now! Remember the Christmas you were nine and you ate so many, Grandma thought you’d been drinking? Haha!
A 40th birthday card with a quote from Ann Landers:
At 20, we worry about what others think of us. At 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At 60, we discover that they haven’t been thinking of us at all.
"Did she include a check or just straight-up guilt," my sister asks.
A recipe for Apple Strudel: Double the strudel. It’s the only thing people really care about.”
I point to the note. "Now that’s true."
My sister stares up at me.
"Big deal," she says.
Over the years, my sister and I have reassured one another that we are not our mom, but her voice lives in our heads. So much so, that we speak for her when she’s not in the room. She is a secret language we share, an accent that no one else can place. When my sister says "Big deal," she says it in our mother’s voice before switching to her own.
"Don’t sugar coat it," she says. "She was awful. Still is."
But I worry. I worry about how, in the language of this culture, the word "blame" is synonymous with the word "mother." I worry that my sister and I have become attached to the stories we rehash.
I worry about how my brain holds on to a million tragedies, insults, and slights for every joyful moment.
In the intensive care unit, my mother sleeps to a chorus of beeps, the squeeze and whoosh of a blood pressure monitor. In a chair up against the wall, I tuck a blanket under my feet. I hold the strudel recipe and run my finger over her handwriting, even and strong. I look up at her, frail and alone in her hospital bed. Her mouth is slack. The screen above her head traces the erratic pattern of her heart.