It is a November afternoon when the light is transitioning to dusk. The TV is on to CNN. The virus is spiking. I rarely go out. I spend time reflecting on my life. If you don’t face your grievances, your feelings, your truths, you remain a half person until you’re out of breath. The first person I need to face is my mother. All my life I have hated her. Blamed her. Feared her. She has been dead since 1993.
Here is where the story begins.
I close my eyes and slowly begin the descent into my subconscious. Here it is gray and a pale brown bird floats above me. It has wings big as the sky and its’ wings make flapping sounds. A hole is poked so I can see out and no one can see in. My mind goes back into the night you died.
It is a windy April night. I return home from having dinner with friends. I check messages on my answering machine. My forty-eight-year old brother in a high pitch urgent voice says, “Mother is in ICU! She had a heart attack! Hurry!”
When I arrive at the ICU unit, my brother greets me. His auburn thick hair slicked back is vivid against his chalk white face. His eyes are pale, dim, as if all the dreams were sucked out. Quickly, excitedly, he tells me that earlier that evening he had baked you a white birthday cake with lemon icing, your favorite, for the next day. Then you both were watching Jeapardy. “I looked over and she was slumped over,” he said. “I called 911 and twenty minutes later an ambulance took her to the hospital. Doc said she was brain dead.”
You lie in a narrow hospital bed, the metal bars up. A plastic morphine bag attached to your IV, slowly drips pale orange liquid into your veins. Your head is held slightly back, as if you’re trying to escape death. You try to open your eyes, but only the whites show. I sit on a metal chair next to your bed, touch your pale age spotted hand. Bundled in my black thrift store coat, I shiver. I have a migraine. So many times I had wished you dead, and at this moment the whites of your eyes rolling, instead of hating you, I am whispering that I love you, and I only feel this hot pity. Do you hear me? It’s odd saying I love you as I had only hated you. As if the blame finally released .
My brother watches, his small mouth pursed, frowning. He is agitated. His methadone is wearing off and he glances at his gold Rolex watch, the one you bought him for his 40th birthday. You bought him lavish clothes and cars and anything to keep him from leaving you. “I need my dose,” he says, getting up to leave the room. He will return soon. Do you remember? You drove him to buy heroin, while you waited in your long black Cadillac with the fins. “His medicine,” you said. “He was born with an enlarged heart,” you repeated. He never held a job. Even when he stole money from you. Crashed cars , and threatened to kill you,” you said in your baby voice, “He makes the most wonderful pies.” When he announced he was gay, you bought him a gold Porsche.
Do you remember? When I had a nervous breakdown? I was forty-five and the love of my life left right after the abortion. I couldn’t walk without holding on to a wall, and had lost forty pounds. Remember when you drove me to the doctor? After the appointment, at the pharmacy we sat in your parked car, your hands clutching the wheel. I couldn’t stop shaking. How I wanted to talk with you, to hold you. You stared straight ahead. To cover our silence, I pressed the electric window, the window going up, down. Still, you stared straight ahead. “Mother! We need to talk before it’s too late,” I pleaded, my trembling voice thin in our silence. Still, you stared straight ahead. You turned on the ignition, and drove me home.
Mother, your story had a bad ending. Your son was in charge of giving you your prescribed six heart pills a day. After you died, I found a full vial of the six heart pills, the bottle marked with the date of the day you died on your birthday. I found the vial on your son’s desk. He murdered you on your 80th birthday. Remember? So often he had said that he was going to kill you. Once you confided to me that you were afraid of him; he had threatened to kill you. “He has such a bad temper,” you said in your baby voice. After you died, I asked him if he murdered you? What do you think?” he said. He smiled.
This story is not over yet. I have to go back to that night you died. This time I won’t leave you . I will stay close to you. I submerge deeper into my subconscious. The pale brown bird floats in circles. I kneel close to your bed, and study your pale, perfect face, the kind of face you see in ancient gold lockets. Your damp wavy hair on the flat white pillow, like sprayed bronze. You’re still frowning. Your pale blue veined hand moves slightly near mine, as if you’re struggling to stay alive. I hold it. It is warm, and then, you pull it back, as if trying to pull back time.
As your breathing subsides, I sit by your bed. Your son has not returned. As I watch you struggle to breathe, as if my bones explode, I feel overwhelming compassion. I tell you what a great artist you are. That no one arranged flowers like you. I tell you that like branches on a tree, we are rooted into eternity. I hear you playing Chopin. Your thin long finger is on mine.
The morphine bag is empty. I call the nurse. “She’s gone,” she says, examining your heart. I lean close to your face. Your mouth is open. I go close to make sure you’re out of breath.
I open my eyes. Tears soak my face. If only I had cried when you were alive. If only we had cried together. If only I had held your frail body close, whispered I’m sorry for your hurt. If only I had warned her that her son would murder her and if only … If only I had comforted you.
I dreamed about you. I could see the yellow dots in your hazel color eyes. You were wearing a white silk white as your skin. Your eyes were wide open and all the tubes were gone. You were crying. I moved close to you. I wanted to make sure this was real. I believe dreams are our real life. You were agitated, sorry that you hurt me, hurt your husband, and children. Without your rage your defenses were down, your usually composed face contorted into pain. Tears, oh so many tears. I hold you close to me. You told me some of the horrors you suffered as a young girl, the sexual abuse, the beatings. I hold you and whisper that I’m sorry you suffered so in your life. That I loved you and I hoped you would heal. “Separate from your rage. Pretend it’s in a box,” I said. I held you tight but then you floated into the swirl of air. When I awoke, I felt your tears on my face.
If only I had known how wounded you were. Compassion is something I wrote about, but never felt. Or was afraid to feel. But looking at you as you died without knowing who you are, I realize that compassion is only the release of blame, of getting out of myself. If only I had told you this.
The moon fades into the night. It is completely black now. The rain is lighter but you can hear it spray the hills. A ray of light from the street lights cast an eerie orange light along the streets, but soon the light will come, and soon life will begin again and oh, I love the way Billie Holiday sings. I love that she goes deep into her emotions, and so deep she goes out of breath.
Barbara Rose is an author. Her latest novel was released Feb, 2020, by Post Hill Press/Simon Schuster. She is working on a book of short stories about a woman, during the pandemic, searching for her truths and making peace with her past. To see her recent podcasts and TV appearances, go to www.barbararosebrooker.com