It is strange and surreal to be almost as old as Mama was when she died; it's like being safely tucked inside a shiny ocean-pod, propelling here and there underwater to view the funereal wreckage of the Titanic. If you focus on the sparkling rays of light coming from the water's surface, it's not so scary. Just don't let your gaze linger too long on the spirits darting in the shadowy corners of the debris.
As I near my Mama's death-age, I sometimes compare our lives. Mine is full and healthy, a giant sun with rays shedding light into so many realms: wife, mother, neighborhood activist, progressive Christian, environmentalist, professional working in the city. In contrast, by the time my Mama slipped into a coma, her darkened world had narrowed to match her atrophied, shrunken body. Everything fit within the four walls of her bedroom.
By second grade, my sister and I knew our Mama was sick. Years later I found out that Mama had battled an eating disorder for 13 years, beginning with the birth of my sister. I say battled, but I think that might be overstating it. People battle cancer: "We'll fight it with the most aggressive treatment available!" The will to live is assumed. Not so with eating disorders. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say my Mama was seduced unto death by a disease that promised happiness and wholeness if she'd only get rid of the pesky food she'd just eaten.
She held up her end of the bargain quite well, with a cleansing trip to the bathroom after each meal. If the first trip didn't do the trick, she booked her next one by visiting the stash of laxatives she kept hidden underneath the bottom drawer in her bedroom vanity. My sister and I discovered the stockpile when I was in the 3rd grade. Our growing suspicion, which had been fertilized by overheard morsels of grown-up conversations, was confirmed. We were incensed. Why did she hide these from us? Did the same hands that prayed for healing bring these poisons to her lips? We gathered them up in our arms, flushed them down the toilet, and substituted anger even though the recipe called for confusion and sadness.
As a form of suicide, I can't say I'd recommend slow starvation. It can take years to accomplish, and it is very painful. The imbalance of Mama's electrolytes gave her muscle cramps just short of hell. She shuffled to the bathtub, and lowered herself into the hottest water our heater had to offer. When that didn't bring relief, my Dad, sister, and I took turns boiling water on the stovetop, carrying it to the bathtub, and dumping it into the space Mama made for it. I stared, mesmorized, as she paddled her hands at her sides-- back and forth, back and forth-- swishing the water to spread the heat.
We know so much about eating disorders these days, you'd think my Mama could have been saved. But this was 20 years ago, and people didn't understand what was happening. Most folks averted their eyes and pretended not to notice, that is, at least while we were within earshot. I vacillated between relief-- please don't pick at my family's scabs and undercover our hidden shame--and fury-- why doesn't someone stop her from doing this to herself?
Sometimes Mama would say, "I wish I'd die so you could have a healthy Mom." What could we say in response? We thought, "This is your choice! You could be healthy!" We thought, "Go ahead and die then if that's what you want!" We thought, "Please don't die!" We said nothing.
We enjoyed periods when Mama broke up with the disease. She went East to a clinic, and when she came back she had gained a few pounds, and you could make out a hint of sparkle in her eyes, like stars hidden behind dense night clouds. She didn't look healthy so much as puffy from all of the intravenous fluids she'd been given. But this was, at least, a start. She brought back a brown-and-white stuffed bunny for each of us, as a souvenir from her vacation. She played the piano with gusto while the rest of us lay on our backs in the living room, chanting "more! more!" whenever she'd stop. But it didn't take long before she and the disease made up, the diuretics melted off the pounds, and the piano was silent again.
At her best, Mama gave me tiny glimpses of grace. In the 4th grade, I hated my teacher, Mrs. C. One day, in a rage, after Mrs. C insulted me in front of the entire class, I wrote "Mrs. C is an a**hole" on the bathroom wall. Unbeknownst to me, my pal Sherry had seen me do it, and ratted me out faster than a Libby leak on CIA identities. Mrs. C marched me into the bathroom, pointed to my art, and asked me the grade-school equivalent of "When did you stop beating your wife?" She said, "Why did you write this?" Digging my shovel down, getting a huge load of dirt to deepen the hole I'd gotten myself into, I dumped out the shovel definantly onto her feet: "Because you are," I replied. At home, there were major consequences for my actions. But after I'd quit the soft-ball team (punishment A), written and presented my letter of apology to the school's principal (punishment B) and to Mrs. C (punishment C), here's what Mama said: "Well, at least you wrote the truth. Mrs. C is an a**hole."
When I was in the 6th grade, Mama didn't get out of bed much. Each time she tried but failed to get better, my sister and I collected our bitterness, smoothed and shaped it into a nice rectangular brick, and hoisted it up onto the wall we'd erected around ourselves. When Mama fell into a coma, we pretended to barely notice. Then she was gone.
Sometimes it's hard to be without my Mama. I have so many unanswered questions: What was it like for her to be sick for so long? What was going through her head? What did she want to be when she grew up? What was it like giving birth to us? How did she fall in love with my dad? What was her favorite Christmas? I have no answers; I have only a photo album, my baby book which my Mama filled out, and a few surviving stories that extended family feels are "safe" to tell.
Last Thursday, a day before my sister's 34th birthday, I listened to author Anne Lamott read from her latest book at a local bookstore. Before the reading, Anne said that in her view, grief and anger are two of the truest things on Earth. She said, "Most people claim they want their friends and family to be happy after they're dead and gone. Not me! I want to be remembered! I want people to be very, very sad, and in every situation to think, this would be so much more fun if Anne were here. Remember all the fun we used to have?'"
At the reading, we all laughed, thinking how Anne had captured the truth in all its selfish hilarity. Later, thinking about my sister's birthday, and my Mama's death-day, I thought, maybe the best thing I can say is this: I remember you, Mama.
I remember you.
And Happy Birthday, Sister.
My kind friend over at Little Monkies honored me with a Perfect Post Award for this post. Thanks, Fran!