for a split second last night i had a meltdown because i spilled my father.
his ashes are in a dusty box in a gap shopping bag on the shelf in my hall closet where i keep all of my coats and the space heater and a box of miscellaneous crap that i have moved with three times but can't bear to go through, next to a package of the most gorgeous bed sheets from the company store that are too big for my bed. i can never get myself together enough to handle that kind of thing, to return shit i've ordered that's wrong or photocopy and staple receipts and fill out paperwork to get rebates or register electronic equipment that i've purchased so i can use the warranty when i inevitably break it.
and they were so expensive, those sheets. ugh. i got two sets, and i left them out on my desk for the longest while promising myself every day that i was going to get it together and send them back, until finally i read the receipt and realized i was four days past the window of hassle-free exchange. so then i opened one set and put them on the bed, but i was so irritated at all of the extra fabric flapping around that i ripped them right off. so the unopened package went into the closet, primed and ready for the day i finally get a bigger bed. it's been two years.
winter is going to be here in approximately ten minutes, so i decided on a whim last night that i needed to take my fancy coats to the dry cleaner. i had a bunch of coats over my shoulder and was wrestling to get my beautiful houndstooth off the hanger when it suddenly broke free and knocked the bag off the shelf. i backed out of the closet in enough time to watch it hit the floor and immediately started hyperventilating, fear-stricken at the prospect of sweeping up my dad's burned up skin and bones and brains.
it took eleven years for me to even get his ashes.
he died the year after i graduated high school. it was early february and i was in my dorm room at northern when one of my sisters called to tell me that he'd had a series of strokes and was being shipped from memphis to evanston so he could be under the care of his lifelong physician, dr. ira weiss. he was lucid but clearly out of his mind, as was evidenced by my final phone conversation with him, during which he described to me a trip through the morgue that he'd taken on a bicycle in the middle of the night with a zombie that he really believed was real, not the obvious figment of his imagination that was instantly apparent to me.
he was found naked and frozen to death in some dude's backyard on valentine's day, a week or so after that conversation. mentally ill and robbed of his dignity. i had received a call from a detective two days before, informing me that my father had walked out of the nursing home he'd been put in and hadn't come back. incidentally, that nursing home was down the street from the one my mother was in, and he stopped there to visit her and steal ten dollars from one of her roommates on his way. i turned eighteen years old february 13, 1998, miserably floundering in the corn fields in dekalb, while my father was improperly clothed against the elements, sleeping in streets and alleys eating garbage and slowly freezing to death, like some sort of animal.
people always pretend like they want to know about my parents. and i'm not such an asshole that i don't appreciate the intent, believe me. because i want to talk about it. i want to talk about it every day, all the time. but no one really wants to know that my abusive, alcoholic father died in the street like a rat while i sat helplessly in a dorm room not fully understanding what was really going on, and it's not fair to lay that all on someone who might like me but doesn't have extensive grief counseling experience. so i don't talk about it much, because i can't say "oh, he had cancer" or "jeez, it was a heart attack," something that ties up neatly.
some unsuspecting dude came out of his back door one morning to find my dad lying naked atop his folded clothes, dead of hypothermia, and there's no way to make that pill an easy one to swallow.
i will never forget the detective's voice when he called. there was no caller ID on the phone in our room. cara and i had two distinct rings, so we'd know who the phone was for, and when it trilled my double ring i mindlessly picked it up, expecting it to be chris down the hall asking me if i wanted to go down to dinner. cara and i sat hugging on the floor while the detective explained everything to me, and it was so surreal to be in that place listening to that news. on the other side of our door horny college freshmen were running and screaming and puking and bitching about term papers. i think it was just an extra touch of cruelty that this had to happen while i was surrounded by raging youth. i was strangely disconnected from the whole thing; i remember hanging up the phone and going with cara down to dinner. my father had just died, and i had cereal and an ice cream sandwich.
cara and her mom drove me home for the funeral. it wasn't until i saw him in the casket that i finally understood. it had been a couple years since i'd seen him, and he was so heavily layered with makeup (freezing is an ugly way to go) that he was almost unrecognizable. i'm not one to put lipstick on a pig; my father was a wino who spent a great deal of my life actively refusing to be a father to me, and his funeral was packed wall-to-wall with other drunks and ne'er-do-wells, but he was still my fucking dad. the ONE THING i remember from his funeral was precious dr. weiss, a deeply religious orthodox jew who'd spent two days on his bicycle looking for his friend, my missing father, who sang the lord's prayer in hebrew over his body.
i can't remember my dad's voice. my mother's, either. trust me when i say that this is the kind of thing that will haunt you about your dead parents, and i hope it never happens to any of you ever. because you think you will, you think they'll remain vivid in your mind forever. or maybe because you don't think it's the kind of thing you have to worry about happening that you don't think about it enough, and then you realize one day that you are twenty-nine years old and if you heard a recording of your mother's voice what it sounded like would be a surprise to you.
in my mind their voices sound the same as all of the other voices in my head, the one that yells at slow milkshakes crowding up the supermarket and scolds me for saying something dumb in front of attractive dudes. you think you'll be all broken up about the ways in which you've disappointed your dad or the time you called your mom a "bitch" and she heard you--all that goes away. what really gets you is how she fades to the back of your mind like a movie character or something. how you can remember a shirt she wore one time when you were in the second grade but you have no idea what she liked to eat or what soap she used. i don't remember much of anything. and because i was so young when either of them was in anything closely resembling good health, all i remember is SICK.
i couldn't even go pick up his ashes. though he was in my sisters' lives for fifteen years before i came crashing through the ether to fuck everything up, he was not their father, so his cremains were mine to hang on to. but something in me couldn't drag myself to go get them. i went back to school the next day, and i thought everything was cool. i thought i was okay, that i was handling it. and i was, until the day i came back from class and couldn't stop crying. i was grief-stricken and stressed out and losing it, and finally cara called the cops while chris sat across from me on her bed holding my hands in his and muttering the lord's prayer or something until they got there. the police came and an ambulance came and they were nice enough not to turn on the siren during our trip to the hospital. a "danger to myself" apparently, i was sedated and put in soft restraints, and this super-nice cop dude stayed with me the entire time. i went back to the dorm a couple days later with a fistful of prozac and orders to see a therapist twice a week. i dropped out of college at the end of that semester. i also stopped taking the prozac; it shuts off your ladyfaucet COMPLETELY. and fuck that.
the first time i got pulled into the social worker's office was in the seventh grade. i had worn pajamas to school three days in a row (this was in 1992, mind you, before it became fashionable to do so and signaled some sort of problem in the home), and someone had alerted them to my "situation." dun dun DUN.
before i was born my mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and shortly after that it kindly went along its way and settled into remission. it came hurtling out of remission in 1990 following a not-so-awesome brain operation. she had been in a car accident one day while i was at school; not wearing a seatbelt, she flew across the seat, clunking her head against the rearview mirror. she seemed pretty okay afterward. a couple days later i was home from school (i was in the fifth grade) for one of the jewish holidays, and my mother woke up but never got up. she sat on the edge of her bed for hours, drooling and unresponsive, while i watched cartoons. finally i went next door and got our neighbor, who in turn called an ambulance.
turns out she had a blood clot in her brain caused by the accident. GNARLY. so the doctors shaved her head and cut it open and pulled out the clot, leaving extensive brain damage and an un-remissioned multiple sclerosis in their wake. at that point conditions at home could scarcely be described as "normal," but once she came back it devolved at a furious pace.
multiple sclerosis is fucking awful, and i will describe it to you the way it was described to me by one of her neurologists when i was a child. think of the brain as a series of wires. the disease goes through the brain eating away at the protective coating on the wires, eating away and eating away until it renders the wires themselves totally useless. when you are watching it kill someone it looks sort of like this: limp; cane; walker--> wheelchair; carry--> lift--> hold--> point; paragraphs--> sentences--> words--> sounds. you slowly become a prisoner in a body you can't use, with a mind you still can. it's utterly heartbreaking.
none of what i am about to say is meant disrespectfully, it is just the unfiltered truth. i feel like you can't really have an idea of who i am without really knowing how the formative years of my life went down. my mom was physically and mentally incapacitated for the last few years i lived with her, until my freshman year of high school, when i was thirteen years old. i think i understand why people don't call government agencies when, perhaps, they really should. because you can't really believe that it's you these things are happening to, you know that you are a better person than your circumstances indicate. pride is an intensely powerful emotion, particularly for people who used to be great but are rapidly deteriorating due to no fault of their own.
and you really don't think it's you whose house is unclean, whose laundry is regularly unwashed, whose pantry is stocked with bullshit that is cheap and terrible for you because you don't have a choice. or maybe you do know but admitting it is really just too hard. you might not notice that your child isn't clean, or that she has both worn and slept in the same clothes for the last week. you certainly don't notice that her hair isn't combed, or maybe you do but you can't do anything about it, because you're living on social security and section eight and who has any money to fix anything anyway? my mother was trapped in a body she couldn't use with a brain that didn't work as well as it used to, and that was hard for both of us.
in hindsight i feel downright horrible, as i was a selfish pre-teen consumed with all of the things i wanted and couldn't have, and i didn't do anything to make that easier. i resented the bar in the shower and the raised toilet seat and the walker i was constantly tripping over. it was just the two of us, moving from one wretched apartment to another, sharing our space with mice and other creepy crawlies. no one else (as far as i knew) had a mother who couldn't get herself off of the toilet or down the stairs; i was extremely jealous of the normal lives of my classmates as i imagined them: mothers and fathers (together! what a novelty!) who drove cars and went to the grocery store and sponsored sleepovers and supplied lavish christmases and birthdays and weren't hospitalized regularly or lapse on the payments for your bedroom so that one day you came home and discovered you had to sleep in bed with your mom. we could never keep a phone on, so we moved to a place down the street from the fire department so i could walk down there if something really bad happened.
i was SO ANGRY. and totally embarassed. because if i couldn't really understand what was going on there was no way the other kids would. so i kept a lot to myself and cracked jokes and made nice and tried to blend in as much as i could. i wanted things to be simple. i just wanted to have cable and new shoes and shirts from the gap, not clean up and count pills and come straight home after school. i wanted to live in the kind of place i could invite my friends over to, with the kind of mom who had cookies already baked and dinner on the stove. my mom was the fucking greatest, and i miss her every minute of every hour every day, and if she'd been a whole person i have no doubt that she would have been everything a kid (even a selfish, spoiled one) could ever ask for. but she wasn't, so she couldn't.
i was in both the choir and the marching band (nerd alert!), and one day went to school early to audition for one of the piano parts in jazz band. i stayed late to practice afterward. we always had a piano in the house (we might have been lacking electricity at some point or another, but i ALWAYS had a fucking piano), but i needed to rehearse with a metronome and had just broken the rickety old one perched atop my rickety old piano. i hated going home. hated it. because when i wasn't there i could pretend that that wasn't my life, that the broke and the sick and the tired and the sad were all happening to someone else. walking through that door just crystallized my reality for me, and i'd try to stretch the hours between school and home as far as they'd reach, and then go a little further past that.
when i saw her i knew instantly that this was it. that our crippled way of "just getting by" together, as a unit, was totally fucking over. i saw her the second i opened the door, sprawled face-down on the hardwood, lying in a pool of her own urine and crap, crying. she'd fallen half an hour after i'd left for school at 6:45. her body, the vicious traitor, could barely go from sitting to standing, let alone from horizontal to vertical. she'd lain there all day waiting to hear my feet on the stairs, my key in the lock, too ashamed to call out so one of the neighbors might hear her. and i couldn't be bothered to come home straightaway because there were things i wanted to do for myself, things that didn't involve coming home and helping her.
she never came home after that. first the hospital, then a nursing home. for a fifty-something year old woman whose main concerns should have been oprah and making sure i didn't break curfew and kept up a decent GPA. i remember telling my mom about having lost my virginity. dementia had started to take over by then, and i sat across from her bed as she stared blankly at the little television she and her roommate shared. most girls would be quaking in terror, but she didn't even know what i was talking about.
the picture came sharply into focus at that moment, that she would never ever really know anything about me. you're not a real person when you're a child, no real thoughts or opinions or personality or experiences, at least. you're a little hurricane, blowing through the house running and jumping and kicking and laughing and playing. you're told what to do and when and how to do it. she and i didn't have conversations; i talked about kid stuff, and she talked about mom stuff. i was fourteen (huge whore, i know) at the time, and i realized that she would never know anything about who i'd become: what kind of person i'd be, what i'd like, who i'd end up with. she would never meet my children or see my grownup house or have an adult conversation with me. we were never going to argue over politics or where to have thanksgiving this year.
i came home from northern in june, almost four months after my father's death. sarah and i went to the nursing home to visit my mother, who at that point had been in hospice care for a number of months, and her lungs started to fail the second we walked in the room. she was shipped to the hospital, where my sisters and i were informed that she would die within a matter of days from whatever disease had overtaken her lungs. she was put on a morphine drip and died later that evening, surrounded by the stupid assholes she'd given birth to who couldn't help but bitch and fight with one another, even as she went from being a "person" to being a "body."
we each got a turn to talk to her before the morphine made her lose consciousness, and when i went in to say my goodbyes i remember thinking, "what the FUCK do i fucking say NOW?" what does your retarded teenage ass say to your feeble, dying mother? what resonance or profound wisdom did i have to impart? when i walked in my oldest sister was in there, bitching at me about one thing or another, and i couldn't resist being drawn into the argument. your siblings always know what the fuck to say, don't they? the perfect thing to make you ignore your dying mother in favor of snatching at her. finally my sister got the fuck out and i could focus on telling my mom i'd miss her and she'd have a good time in heaven and that i loved her.
she cocked her head and gave me a look before using her skeletal hand to pull the oxygen mask away from her face. i was waiting for some profound piece of knowledge, some sage words of wisdom, or maybe the admission that i was, indeed, her favorite child, when this bitch looked right at me and said:
"are you sure?"
my five minutes were up, the clock eaten away eaten away by some stupid argument, and i was hustled out of the room so my next sister could come in and say her piece. those are the last fucking words my mother said to her youngest child, and if you think someone's haunting you from the grave, try walking around carrying that.
so if i am a bitch to you or i say something inadvertently nasty and you think to yourself "goddamn i hate that fucking asshole! i hope something terrible happens to her!" you can fucking rest easy.
i already got mine.