My Broken Mother, My Broken Heart
When I was small, I would watch my mother lace up a pair of Pumas. She called them her “shitkickers,” and she wore them whenever she was ready to fight. I remember her walk — that fearless strut down Fort Hamilton Parkway in her black leather jacket — and how everyone seemed to yield to her. I think about the way she pinched a Kent 100 cigarette between her fingers, and how she would rope her thick hair into braids. Later, she would pull at the rubber bands and her face, once taut and tight, would soften. My mother was cashmere. At night, I would curl up close and bury my face in the thicket that was her hair. She used to joke and say the Pumas were her fighting shoes, and three decades later that’s how I remember my mother — a woman who wouldn’t go down without a fight.
My mother was also cold and impenetrable, a forest in which I was forever lost. That’s the way I remember her, too.
You’re my mother, not a memento.
I haven’t seen my mother in 22 years, and I’ll never see her again. She died, in 2015, of metastatic cancer. I wrote a book about how my mother was my first and only hurt, and I spent two decades running away from her because being with her was killing me. I once told her, with a face full of tears, You make it impossible for me to love you. She never could understand why I wouldn’t just leave the past in the past. Why I couldn’t put it in a box and bind it up neat and shelve it away. I kept telling her it wasn’t that simple. You’re my mother, not a memento.
Before she died, her other daughter reached out to me. My mother was pregnant with her when I told her, over a telephone line in a college dorm room, that we’d never have a relationship. I am done, I said. I wonder if she knew then about the child she was carrying; I wonder if she wanted to forge a family again. I’ll never know, but I do know this: her second daughter was privileged to know a version of my mother I could barely remember. A woman who was flawed, beautiful, and fiercely protective — a lioness — at least before the drugs, and the men, and her own demons swallowed her whole.
At first, I didn’t believe she had cancer; my mother had lied about this before. And when I learned that it was true, all the messages I received were about taking care of a 17-year-old half-sister I had never even met. But I had to be there. It was my duty.
Something within me broke. I never knew a childhood — it was as if I left the womb a fully formed adult, forever tasked with carting my mother to emergency rooms because of the drugs she took. There’s me, filling out intake forms and smiling at the strangers who pitied me — everything’s fine, just fine. My childhood had been all about taking care of her, and now this? Return to a family that I spent two decades in therapy trying to recover from? I suddenly developed an allergy to the emails in my inbox. I couldn’t get caught in that snare again.
The first time I said “no” to my mother was in 1997. The second time was in 2010, when she reached out to me through my publisher, hoping for a relationship. She wouldn’t sue me if only I would take her call. Couldn’t I just take her call? I took her call and three calls later I regretted it. The only thing that had changed about her aside from her location was the fact of a new daughter who she loved. She never took responsibility for our life together, what she’d done, and couldn’t I just forget it?
The binds of blood are tenuous at best.
Three years ago I said “no” for the third and final time. No, I wouldn’t care for a teenager I didn’t know. No, I wouldn’t visit my mother as she lay dying.
And then she died.
In the days after she passed, I was deemed evil and cruel, a heartless bitch. My mother’s daughter wrote that I was a liar — that the first 20 years of my life were fiction. All the hurt — none of it happened. I won’t tell you where she’s buried.
The wish to see her, to have her alone to myself, to hold her hand in mine, one last time — this is what remains.
I wasn’t angry with her, even if she was bent on denying me my history. She was subsumed with grief. Grief — what a fucking cheap thief in the night. Death takes it all, and grief is a persistent reminder of what was lost. It shines a light on the remains left for the living. In that moment, my mother’s daughter needed someone to hate and I was content to be cast as the villain in the story of her loss.
My mother is alive. My mother is dead. How do you exist in the crawlspace between the two?
When my mother died, I went numb. I was cypress. I was bone. At the time I thought maybe I felt nothing because I’d spent the better part of my adult life mourning her. The permanence of her death didn’t hit me until five months later, when I moved to California and was finally alone with my thoughts. No friends, no distractions, no New York — just the constant sun and me bearing the weight of my sadness. Did she succumb to cancer or did she fight? Sometimes I imagine her sliding into her sneakers and lacing them up for one final go.
The wish to see her, to have her alone to myself, to hold her hand in mine, one last time — this is what remains. Regret. For the first time, I felt regret. A tsunami of it. I don’t know what I would’ve said to her, or if words were even necessary. I think I would’ve felt her hair, curled it between my fingers, and taken in as much of her as I could. Before she was gone.
Or maybe I would’ve asked her to tell me when she was happiest, because I really want to know.
I am 10 and we’re lying on the sand in Coney Island. A ticker tape of bodies on the beach. Later, at home, we’ll shake the sand out of our shoes and towels. Our clothes will be damp and heavy from the water. We will huddle and fork Chef Boyardee ravioli into our mouths. We will watch late-night horror movies until there’s snow on the screen — a white nothingness that will carry us into the warm night. You will pull me close and I will say closer because I am 10 and I love you and I can’t even imagine a day when we’d be apart.