The last time I saw my mother alive she was drunk. So drunk, in fact, that when I pulled the car over to where she waiting on the sidewalk for me to pick her up she didn’t react, just kept swaying gently back and forth with her eyes closed. My anger, quick and eager to rise by then, clouded my vision. I let the car idle next to her for a minute while I blinked and tried to assess how bad it was.
I could see she had tried, but her expensive cashmere sweater was buttoned one button off all the way down, and her hair–cropped and dyed golden blonde to hide the grey–was perfectly styled in the front but unkempt and matted in the back as if she had been sleeping on it for days. One set of her false eyelashes had started to fall away and dangled precariously above her overly-rouged cheekbone.
“Mom,” I spat, with enough force to blow her eyes open. She blinked slow, squinted, and tried to focus, climbing into my car with exaggerated care and looking for a second quite a bit older than her 62 years. I hated myself for the hard lump of contempt in my throat, hated who I became around her, hated the ugliness that sat tangible in between us there in the car.
How does that happen?
When I was a little girl I adored my mother. It seemed easy to love her then, maybe because of the optimism of childhood, or maybe because she didn’t drink that much yet, or not that we saw, anyway. In restaurants she would order a glass of white wine and leave it mostly untouched, looking past it the same way she looked past the temptation of the perfect desserts in the glass case. Or maybe it was because everyone else loved her too, the mailmen and the handymen and each one of her four husbands, sure, but also anyone lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time with her. She would smile at you and it was like you had been given a gift that you would then spend the rest of your life chasing after. Like heroin.
I don’t know when any of that shifted, really, and whether it was a gradual descent into the depth of the hole we ended up in or if it had happened all at once. What I do know is the first time I saw her drunk–years later, when I was a mother myself–I was stunned silent, staring at her open mouthed with my head cocked to one side while I tried to figure out what was different, like walking into a room in your house where all of the furniture had been rearranged and you don’t know anymore where to step without bumping into something and getting hurt.
For years after that first time I kept trying arrogantly to fix it, staging catastrophic interventions and pouring out liquor bottles, sucking up promises of recovery like an overeager child. There wasn’t contempt in me then, not at first anyway, just sadness and pain and a growing sense of helplessness. But a decade of disappointments and lies went by and I went mostly numb with it all, slowly distancing myself from the first relationship I ever had with the most tentative of baby steps, always looking over my shoulder in hopes that she would be following. She never was.
So I dismantled my past. One by one, I took the pictures of us smiling and happy together down from my walls. I threw out the greeting cards sent on birthdays, then the Christmas gifts and mementos and eventually, anything that reminded me of my childhood at all. Like vodka down the sink I poured my mother out of my heart, thinking in doing so I was protecting myself from her.
And I did a good job. When my sister called me to tell me she’d died, my hands flew instinctively to my mouth to stop a rush of grief that wasn’t there. “Mom’s gone,” she said, and I sat and waited to feel something. Nothing came. It was like that through the funeral and the weeks that followed too, an emptiness that sat in my chest where the heartbreak should have been. I wondered if I had insulated myself so much against the pain that I would never find my way to grief again. And further, was my ability to do so an achievement or an abomination?
Then one evening at dinner my daughter tilted her head just so and smiled at me and I was struck with the force of memory. “Your grandmother always did that,” I said without thinking, realizing it was the first time I had mentioned her name with ease in a decade. Other small stirrings of memory started to bubble around inside of me like carbonation, things I had shoved down now occasionally rising to the surface and popping. All at once I would see us around a dinner table, laughing, or her hand on my back after a nightmare. Her cheering for me while I raced around the track in high school, or shopping together for my ball gown senior year. I would hear a song in the car and remember us singing together on our way to summer vacation. I’d smell her shampoo on a crowded elevator and be ten again, climbing into her bed, resting my head in the warm space she’d made on her pillow.
What was happening to me, I wondered, nursing the ache in my heart that was familiar in the way that any muscle will ache when you try to use it for the first time after years of atrophy. Was it possible to fall in love with someone who wasn’t even here to love anymore? It seemed ridiculous, really, until I remembered how much I had loved Jim Morrison and Janice Joplin when I was in high school, both long dead before I was even born. And neither of them had ever brushed the tangles out of my hair or the tears from my eyes the way she had, before.
Still, I proceeded with caution, opening to her the way I would ease myself into a cold lake: one inch of soft flesh at a time, protective, ready to recoil and run at the slightest provocation. But of course, none came. The worst had already happened, which meant there were no more disappoints to protect myself from. Emboldened, I disappeared into the attic for hours, searching through a decade of castoffs until I found it: the picture of her in a small frame that I wasn’t even sure I had anymore. I carried it downstairs pointed away from me like a small child carrying scissors and put it on a shelf in the back corner of a dark room where I was sure to rarely see it. A few days later I moved it more into the light, and again a few days after that, until it sat on the dresser next to my bed and was the first thing I saw in the morning when the sun came through the blinds to wake me up and I would remember, my breath catching in my throat where the lump of contempt no longer sat. There was something else there now in its place. Grief? Maybe. Maybe love. I’d started to see how the two are really just different flavors of the same thing.
So now, safe, I willed myself to remember. I reveled in it. I stared at myself for hours in my bathroom mirror. Did I have her eyes? Her smile? Her hands? I remembered her laugh, how it used to tumble forth at the most inopportune moments and everyone else couldn’t help but laugh too, even when they were the punch line. I cooked her dinner recipes and put on her diamonds and smelled the remnants of her perfume on the clothes she had handed down to me years before and eventually, in a relief that felt like exhaling a breath I had been holding for a decade, I cried the sea of tears I had held inside for ten years.
Today I don’t remember her at all like she was that last day, swaying and sad and sick. I remember her the way she looks in that picture from the attic that now sits next to my bed: her head tilted up towards the camera or the sun or the person taking the picture, which probably wasn’t me but could have been. If I squint my eyes just right and let the sepia-toned edges blur, she is my daughter. A little more, and she is me. Like the picture itself, it took her dying for me to find her again, but I have. She is right here. In us.