Athens, GA. June 17, 2011
After seven mornings, my body seems to have mostly acclimated itself to the hour in Georgia, despite my best efforts. In Los Angeles, I wake around six o’clock. Every morning. No matter what. There are no shades on my windows. I live on the second floor and since there are no apartments directly across the way, I don’t think about it much unless I have a lover in my room. I do not have a lover so I don’t really think of it at all. I like waking up with the sunshine. I like that I can tell what time of day it is by the way the sunlight comes into my room. I like not being disturbed by an alarm.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried my best to stay on Los Angeles time. I’ve tried to sleep until nine a.m. The house has only one floor and the bedroom has slats on the windows and so I close them at night. Not because I have a lover. I do not have a lover here, either. It’s just different when the window is on the ground floor, facing the street. This morning I woke at seven thirty. That means it was four thirty in Los Angeles. That is early, even for me.
I dreamt about work last night. The ghosts didn’t come while I was sleeping but I stumbled out of bed into the kitchen, had a drink of cold sparkling water and some almonds. Food comforts me in the middle of the night. The kitchen gives me somewhere to go when it is the middle of the night, I wake and I cannot stay in bed. I don’t know what time it was when I woke but I went to the kitchen and I went to the bathroom and when I got back in bed, it was 4:35. That means it was 1:35 in the morning in Los Angeles.
Today is the seventeenth of June. It is the birthday of a girl named Megan who was my best friend when I was a child. It is also the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. A few weeks ago, my father gave me her death certificate so Ron, my stepfather, could request her medical records be released to me. I pored over it, looking for clues. I don’t know what I was looking for clues to and I don’t remember what time she died but I think it was around the time I stumbled to the kitchen last night. When I read her death certificate, I learned that they performed an autopsy. I don’t understand why you would perform an autopsy on a woman who died in the hospital, indisputably of Cancer.
On the death certificate, they listed her cause of death as Breast Cancer. For years, I have told people who asked that she died of Liver Cancer because that is where it ended. I didn’t know that doctors look at where the Cancer began and call that the reason you died. I guess now, when people ask, I will tell them she died of Breast Cancer. Somehow, that makes me more afraid it will happen to me too.
She was thirty four years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I am thirty three years old.
I have always been afraid to have children because I am afraid I will die and I will leave them alone. I am afraid of dying on children I do not have because my mother died on me. She didn’t mean to and it was nothing she could control. I have never really gotten over it.
I don’t think it is the sort of thing you ever really get over.
Like first love, only you don’t get those wistful feelings of nostalgia when you look back.
I think about her every day. For twenty years, I have thought about her every day.
She has been dead longer than I had been alive when she died. I never really got to know her as a person and so she is an angel. You might think that should matter but it doesn’t. You might wonder how a grown woman can miss her mother twenty years later. You might wonder why that makes me afraid to have children. I have never wanted to put a child through that. A child shouldn’t have to carry that pain.
I know someone who would tell me I hold on to everything and I need to let it go. I know someone who would tell me that the sadness they see pervading my life makes me difficult. I know someone who would tell me to not think about it.
I think only people who haven’t experienced it would say that.
When the person who gave you life, who feeds and clothes you, who makes you laugh and helps you with your homework, who you depend on for all of the things that keep you alive, dies and leaves you, you die a little bit too.
I don’t know if this is true when you are a grown up or if it is true for all children. I only know that is was true for me when I was a child.
Twenty years ago today, I think it must have been five o’clock in the morning in the apartment by the beach, my father woke me and my brother. He said he had a surprise for us. It was the first day of Summer vacation and my heart raced with anticipation. I remember thinking we were going to Disneyland but he didn’t seem excited. We sat on the couch together and huddled up close; my father facing forward, my little brother and I on each side, facing him and each other. My feet were pulled to my bottom. He told us a story. He told us how, after I talked to my mother on the phone the night before, when I called to say I was going to stay at my dad’s one more night and I would see her in the morning, she was feeling very sick. He told us that Ron took her to the hospital. His story felt like it was a million years long. I interrupted him, “She’s dead, isn’t she”? “Yes,” he said, and he started to cry.
I screamed, I jumped from my seat and began racing with a fury around the apartment, as though I could outrun my heart; as though, if I moved fast enough, I could keep the parts of my heart in the shape of my mother from falling out.
No matter how fast you move, those pieces of your heart always fall out.
All you can do is try to pick them up, to gather them into a mosaic but you can never put them back in. Once pieces of your heart fall out, the shape of you changes and even if you pick them all up, you can’t put them back in.
Sarah was my best friend when I was thirteen and I called her even though it was early. Her mom answered and I told her. Sarah’s mom put her on the phone; she let her skip school and they came over. We went for a walk and I held her mother’s hand and her mother held mine. She held my hand and she hugged me and she told me it was going to be okay; that she could never replace my mom but that she promised she would do her best to be the second best mom I ever had. From that day, her mom was the closest thing I had to one.
Seven months later, when we were still thirteen, Sarah would call me in the morning and tell me her mother was dead.
When we were ten, I promised Sarah I would never leave her.
When we were thirteen, she promised me too.
When we were fourteen, we were on drugs; trying to keep our pieces from falling out and fill the holes all at the same time.
I have always been sensitive. When I was in first grade, my teacher Miss Tanner said to me “Corrie, don’t be so super sensitive.” Until then, it had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with being sensitive or that I was too anything. My mother would tell me that my sensitive heart was a gift from G-d and that it would help me help people. She never told me not to cry when I saw someone who was sad. She told me that my sensitive heart was part of my gift to the world. Sometimes, people after Miss Tanner have told me that I am too sensitive.
I think they are wrong.
When someone dies, you have a picture of them in your head and that picture stays with you.
When I left for my dad’s apartment at the beach on Friday, my mother was on the sofa in the living room. She was tired and didn’t feel well. She was a little bit puffy. I always imagined that was the way she looked when she went to the hospital that Sunday night and that it was the way she looked when she died a few hours later.
When I decided I wanted to learn about my mother as a woman, I called Ron and asked him if he would talk to me about her. He is married to a woman named Susan now and I wasn’t sure how she would feel about it but he said yes, that he would talk to me and that he would love to see me.
On Mother’s Day weekend, I drove to Las Vegas because that is where Ron and Susan have made their life together.
Ron talked to me and answered my questions and told me the answers to questions I hadn’t asked.
That is not how I know she had an abortion.
That is how I know she thought Cancer was her punishment from G-d.
That is how I know she did not look the way I remember her when she died.
On Friday afternoon she was on the sofa and by Sunday she was bed-ridden. They had a waterbed and she couldn’t get comfortable so Ron went out and bought a regular mattress for her so she could rest. Her body swelled, she couldn’t move and her face became distorted and nearly unrecognizable. When he brought her to the hospital, it wasn’t because she felt so sick. It was because he just wanted them to make her more comfortable.
They drained quart after quart of fluid from her mid-section. Her body had swelled to over two hundred and thirty pounds.
Last month, he told me the story of her last night in the middle of a crowded restaurant, over brunch on Mother’s Day. That was where we were when I asked.
When he was at the hospital with her that night, she told him to go ahead and go on home; that she would call him and see him in the morning.
In the morning, he couldn’t bring himself to go to the hospital and identify her body. His brother went for him.
When he told me that story, I changed. There are moments in life that change you forever and you never know when they are coming or what they are going to be. I will always have the image of my mother on the sofa, but now I know that isn’t really what she looked like when she died.
I will always have the image of my mother as an angel, but as I learn about her, I will know that isn’t really what she was like when she lived.
I hope that I will never understand what it was like to be my father that morning; to gather his children and tell them that their mother was dead. I will never know what it is to be a man who lives with his son and suddenly has his thirteen year old daughter who came for the weekend, forever.
I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to stay with Ron and my step brothers, Chris and Tom in the house we shared as a family in Orange. My mother wanted that too. She didn’t want me to live with my father. I think she knew he wouldn’t know what to do and that he would do his best but that his heart wasn’t able to give my heart what it needed.
I didn’t know about that until much later. I don’t know if my father knows about that. I should ask him. Even if he knew, he never would have let me stay in Orange. What do you do when your children’s mother dies and you are left to raise them on your own? You do the best you can. You are human and you are imperfect and you do the best you can and hope that someday they will understand that.
When I planned my trip to the South, I planned it so I would be alone here on this day. I planned it so I would be alone in a place where I cannot try to outrun my feelings and the parts of my heart that haven’t fallen out yet. I came here to be alone because I can only fall apart when I am by myself.
I am thirty three years old and sometimes I wonder if I will have children, if I will have cancer, if I will have a poorly written suicide note.
For years, when I have thought it was time to put my affairs in order, to organize my cabinets and drawers and dispose of unnecessary things so that other people don’t have to, I have arrived each time at the realization that there is writing I have to do. I think sometimes that is what keeps me alive, the writing that I haven’t done. I am sometimes afraid that I will finish it and it will all be over.
I don’t know why that seems like a perfectly reasonable thing.
I am not as sad as this might sound.
Ron sent the request for my mother’s medical records the week before I came here. When I planned this trip, I envisioned that I would spread them out in the middle of the floor and piece together the details, the things no one knows. They did not come before I left and may not come at all. I spoke with one person who told me they would be available and another who told me records are destroyed after seven to ten years. Then the second person told me that maybe they would be there; that there was hope.
Maybe when I get home tomorrow the records will be there and maybe there will be a letter telling me they are not coming.
In those pages are the answers to questions I have that no one knows the answer to. I guess we call those mysteries. No one knows exactly when my mother was diagnosed with Breast Cancer for the first time. If maybe it played into her decision to have an abortion. Until I knew she had one, I would have told you my mother never would have had an abortion.
Eleven years ago, after by brother Tom died, his mother Laureen took me to lunch. We sat in a booth in a Mexican restaurant in Orange, CA and she told me my mother had an abortion. She told me my mother was pregnant with twins just after she and Ron married, that her Cancer was in remission and the doctors told her that her body was strong enough to carry the babies to term but that she would die. They gave her a choice to die for the children she carried or live for the children she had. Laureen told me my mother chose us. She told me that she never got over the pain of her decision. She said she thought that it killed a part of her she needed to fight the Cancer.
I’ve never really talked about that to anyone.
This last Mother’s Day weekend, Ron and I sat in a booth in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, NV and he told me my mother had an abortion. He told me that it was not long after they started dating which was years before they got married. He didn’t say anything about doctors. He told me that they talked about it at great length and that it was the hardest decision my mother ever made. He said it tormented her. He said this was before she was diagnosed with Cancer and she believed Cancer was her punishment from G-d for killing one of his children. I asked him about twins. He said no.
Their stories are different. The only parts that are the same are her abortion and her torment.
The truth is somewhere in the pages that may or may not be on my doorstep when I get back to Los Angeles.
That is not my only question. It is not even the question I began with.