October 8, 1994 11:15 pm
I was covered in blood. I was covered in blood, but I was almost free. The only thing left that connected my mother and I was a slimy cord made of a single vein and mucopolysaccharides, carrying oxygen and life from my mother’s womb to my body. She was holding my 7 pounds 11 ounces in her shaking arms, sobbing and smiling into my squished, chubby torso.
Years later, she tells me this was the moment her womanhood merged with motherhood. This was the moment that gave her meaning and understanding and love she never knew before. A love she never received from her own mother, but spent searching for in Los Angeles monasteries and cocaine binges in the Bellingham lake house in her late 20’s. I don’t remember this day at all, but the story has been told to me so many times that I’ve started adopting it as my own. I suppose it is my own, my very first story.
On this day, David cut the umbilical cord that officially divided my mother and I into two distinct individuals. The nurses’ scrubs were covered with the mixture of my mother and me, and my father, but he wasn’t in the room with us, or in the hospital, or even in the state. He wasn’t invited. I suppose that’s what happens when you abuse the body and mind of your child’s life supplier.
My mother handed me hesitantly to the woman with the smiling eyes. You couldn’t see her lips part, or her teeth grin. The mask covered the lower half of her face, but my mom could tell she was smiling. She relaxed her arms enough to imply the consent of my departure. A proper scrubbing was what I needed, they told my mother. It will only be a few moments. I cried as the only home I had ever known was washed from my skin. I felt a funny, brisk coldness against my skin. I felt naked.
Wrapped in a yellow cloth, my tiny frame was gifted back to my crying mother. I tried to open my eyes. I tried to open my eyes to say hello and thank you and I love you to this stranger I had known my whole life and longer. But my mother took my words and turned them into her own, into the most important words I would ever hear, into the most important words I would ever know.
Oh, my little pumpkin, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.
March 8, 2005 8:34 pm
I was laying on the couch of the man who cut me to freedom 11 years earlier. David, now nicknamed DD, now 71 years old, sat across from me petting his new kitten I just picked out for him. I wanted him to have a companion when I wasn’t around. When I was at school, or with my mom, or at theatre rehearsals. I wanted a younger sibling to play with, even if it was tiny and furry and responded to my stories in tiny squeaks.
DD laughed as it jumped up and down, letting out little sounds in protest to his teasing. Whose Line Is It Anyway? plays low in the background as I begin my reading assignment for the night. The phone rings its familiar tune, and I reach across the back of the couch to answer. “Hello?” I answer.
My mother greets me on the other end. I hear a smile in her voice, a small giggle in the close distance. She was breathing heavy, like she had just been on a run, or perhaps been laughing uncontrollably. I hoped it was the latter. Who would want to run on their birthday, after all?
“Ali, Ali, what are you doing right now? Can you talk for a moment?” she asks. I tell her yes, wondering what gift Tom gave her for her birthday, wondering what had her so happy. She hadn’t sounded anything but tired and sad and in pain for 6 months now. I almost forgot what her voice sounds like happy. It must be that trip to Hawaii she’s been wanting to take, I think to myself.
“Tom asked me to marry him, honey! Tom and I are getting married!” she squealed into the other end of the phone. The picture of sand and beaches and waves faded in my mind, replaced by a blank frame. Replaced by nothing at all. I didn’t respond.
“Ali! Ali, did you hear me? Your mom is getting married! You’re going to have a stepdad!”, she said, her voice lifting to an octave I didn’t recognize coming from my mother.
A habitual “congratulations” stumbled from my lips. DD looked at me with confusion, reaching his hand out to talk to mom. I mouth Tom proposed in his direction and his response mirrors my own. Lifting the phone to his ear, he put on a smile and began his congratulations, his words of excitement and happiness and complete bullshit.
I couldn’t help it. I didn’t even know it was coming until it did. I began crying. Uncontrollable, inconsolable sobs lept from within me. DD held me, while Louis pawed at my foot begging for attention. He held me while we blankly stared as skit after skit passes, as the sound of audience laughter came and went in our consciousness, as Louis fell asleep at our feet.
September 12, 2004 10:55 am
I was jumping on our new backyard trampoline. The perfect present for my first double-digit birthday. Mom would only allow me to have the one with the giant net surrounding it, she was afraid of broken bones and skulls and blood, but I couldn’t care less. Its turned me into one of the most popular kids on my block. Suddenly Chris and Evan wanted to hangout every day after school. Suddenly I didn’t feel as lonely as I did my first nine years without a trampoline. I landed my first front flip within an hour, and spent the rest of the afternoon in a giddy haze.
DD was sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the lawn, the shade covering everything but his feet. I could see him turning the page of the Seattle Times through the badminton net set up halfway between us. Catching my glance, he smiled and folded his newspaper in half… “Holly will be home soon. She’ll probably need some rest after today”, he yelled. I ignored him and leapt from one side of the net to the other. A minute or two passed.
“Ali! What do you want for dinner?” DD asked. The question of food made me realize how hungry I was. Made me realize that it was Tuesday. “It’s Taco Tuesday, DD! Mom always makes tacos on Tuesdays!” But DD wouldn’t know that. He doesn’t come around here much anymore. Instead my mom began driving me just the few short blocks up Mountain Park Boulevard to his bungalow in the woods every Tuesday and Thursday night. Sometimes DD picked me up from school, and we made frozen pizza and watched NCIS marathons.
For the first year of my life, the bungalow wasn’t my occasional getaway. It was home base. I took my first steps on the faded brown tile in the living room. I took daily naps in the crook of DD’s arm or on his round donut belly. I spoke my first word, “Dada”, at the man who was never supposed to be my father. A man whose genetic code looks vastly different than mine.
DD was our guardian angel, stumbled upon at a Deepak Chopra book signing after she had just left my father seven months pregnant. DD was our most generous friend, a man who took us both in when we had nothing to offer in return but love, and another opportunity to see a child grow. He gave my mother and I the downstairs bedroom after I was born. He helped my mother find a new job and an attorney when my biological father decided he wanted to make her life hell again. DD’s tiny basement bedroom was my first worldly home. It was heaven compared to where we would’ve been with your father, I overheard my mother say on the phone to my aunt years later.
After 12 months had passed and I took my very first step, my mother needed her own place to raise her only child. She began to realize just how important keeping a little space between heaven and earth can be. So we moved down the hill to our very first condo with just the two of us. There was a balcony where I played the first time I ever saw snow. There was a
ficus tree I watered every week starting at the age of three. DD and I began our special bungalow sleepovers.
Eleven years have passed since then, and now Tom stands in the place where DD once stood. He doesn’t like DD coming around. David takes up too much space. He and Ali are too close. He isn’t even her father. And although DD never mentioned it to me, I got the feeling that he doesn’t like Tom either.
September 12, 2004 6:02 pm
I was sitting in the quiet upstairs bedroom, tucked around the bannister, out of sight when she came home. I heard a fumbling of keys, a groan of pain, and low murmurs coming right outside the threshold to our home. After a few moments of struggle, DD made his way to the
front door, unlatched the lock, and welcomed my mother home. I stood at the top of the staircase, peering down to the foot of the stairs. She only needed one day of rest, they said. It was a minor, common procedure. Nothing to worry too much about.
But the person who kissed me goodbye that same morning was not the same person who walked into our home. This woman was pale, limp, and looked a color of green I hadn’t seen on skin before. Red, blotchy patches covered her sinking cheekbones, as she leaned into Tom and DD for support. She could barely keep her head up. She could barely move an inch on her own. A look of confusion filled DD’s face, and both he and Tom lifted my mother up and began carrying her up the stairs in my direction. She reached for my hand, eyes closed, and squeezed for a few brief moments, until her fingers slipped from mine and she disappeared into her bedroom.
I stood there for minutes, trying to listen to the quiet conversation on the other side of the door. I didn’t hear my mother’s usual soft voice; I just heard tiny whimpers and endless questions with no answers.
I sat down at the top of the stairs, following the trim with my eyes until it wrapped around the wall entering the living room. Until it reached the brick fireplace where my mother once heated up the whole downstairs. I tapped my feet to the rhythm of the rain, longing to climb into my mother’s old squeaky bed passed down to her from her own mother. I wanted to
lay with her and try to figure out today’s crossword puzzle in the newspaper until our eyelids got too heavy to read another clue and we drifted off linking definitions with the words “alone” and “abuse”. I wanted to fall asleep cocooned in the frayed, worn quilt my mother had made me
when I was five, listening to her tell me the stories of her day. Then we would wake up the next morning, tangled in the layers of sheets she always insisted on sleeping under. We would sing Frank Sinatra and wear our favorite slippers and eat peanut butter pancakes. We would make up song titles for our new hit Broadway musical and invent new spells to cast on our enemies and walk down the hill to the used bookstore. Everything would be the same as it had always been.
December 12, 2016 2:38 pm
“So tell me more about this father of yours,” Judy asked. This was the single worst part about seeing a new therapist. You had to recount your whole life story to them. You had to catch them up with all the years they missed so they could investigate just how fucked up you are. “He’s not around much,” I say. “My mom left him when she was six and a half months pregnant because of the abuse. Because she knew that if she didn’t leave, I would be next.”
Judy nods, jotting scribbled notes on a yellow pad. I wonder how many secrets are on that mass of wrinkled paper. I wonder who warms this same seat as me. I wonder who uses the kleenex to my left, and asks for the bathroom code down the hall. I wonder what they do for work, or if they have any pets. I wonder who they fall asleep next to. I wonder how fucked up they are. Judy sits across from me in an old leather chair, legs crossed with a neutral expression. I’m tucked in the corner of a burnt orange love seat, trying desperately to slip in between the cracks of the cushions and disappear altogether. “So it was just your mother and you growing up then?” she prods.
I feel myself starting to get a little annoyed at all her personal questions, as if I’m not giving her a quarter of my paycheck each month to do exactly that. I start to feel an itch appear at the base of my spine, a nervous habit I developed at the beginning of college. “No, my godfather DD raised me alongside my mom,” I say. “He’s my father, best friend, sister, and weird uncle all wrapped up into one.” Judy laughs. She has a pretty smile that shows her one crooked front tooth and accentuates the wrinkles in-between her eyebrows. I’m starting to like Judy. The laughter makes my shoulder relax, and I begin to tell her the story of DD and my mother without being prompted.
August 12, 1994 4:09 pm
My mother is sitting on a pile of broken down moving boxes in her childhood bedroom, staring at the painting she did for her father in the second grade as I stretch my legs straight into her bladder. Her face and lips are dry and cracked from days of crying and screaming and not sleeping. She can hear her own mother in the living room just feet away, playing Clair de Lune
on the piano. The deja vu hits Mom hard, and then I kick her rib cage even harder. I’m starting to get antsy in here, and mom knows it. But she has nowhere for us to go, and the last thing she wants to do is raise her only child in a home full of mold and broken promises. She has only enough money in her savings to last us a few months.
She had the choice to choose between financial security and happiness. When seven months pregnant with a baby girl and no job, that’s not an easy choice to make. But she chose freedom, and now she’s sitting in her childhood bedroom that hasn’t been touched or changed in over 20 years. Her high school cheerleading costume is still hung on the hook on the back of her door, reminding her of the first time she met my father. Reminding her that the only good thing she got from him was me, and I haven’t even arrived yet.
Mom hasn’t prayed in years. She stopped going to church when she was 19, and packed her bags for California. As she drove down the 101, she stopped at a gas station and bought Advil. She had never taken pain medication before, but the headache from driving so long was getting worse and there was no one there to reprimand her for not praying the pain away.
Remembering how much praying used to calm her as a child, she gets down on her knees, crying into a musky pillow. God, give me some direction. Help me raise this child.
After minutes of silent begging and pleading and no response, she pushes herself off the floor to sit on the edge of the bed. Lifting her purse by one strap, she spills the contents at her feet. Shit. Wiping the snot with the back of her hand, she start placing her wallet and glasses back in the ripped, brown tote bag. A blue flyer she had grabbed a few days earlier at the bookstore down the street catches her eye. Lifting it up, she sees the familiar advertisement for Deepak Chopra’s latest book reading in Bellevue. She had snatched it at the counter when buying a used book about parenting as a single mom. She loves Deepak Chopra’s writing and speeches, and heard him talk in Los Angeles at The Last Bookstore five years before. Scanning the brochure, she sees that the reading is for tonight at Barnes & Noble. It begins in 30 minutes.
Scrambling to stuff all her junk back into its place, she grabs her jacket at the foot of her bed and walks into the living room. “Mom, I’m going to Barnes & Noble. I’ll be back in a few hours.” She says. Grandma doesn’t hear over the melodic hum of West Side Story’s “Maria”. Finding her keys still stuck in the lock, she hobbles to her car parked on the street. She knows she’s already late and traffic is bound to be horrible. She’ll have to stand in the back and lean against a bookcase, but she needs this. Pulling the driver’s seat back to fit the two of us behind the wheel, she puts the car into drive and watches as the reflection of Grandma perched in the front window gets smaller and smaller.
August 12, 1994 5:23 pm
Pulling into the parking lot, Mom finds a single parking spot in the back corner. She steps into the warm August air, and wobbles to the front door. She can see the crowd formed in the back of the store. Deepak is in the middle of reading an excerpt as she squeezes into a small space for the two of us. After a few minutes of standing, she notices her feet starting to ache. Fidgeting to find a better position, she knocks a book off the Mystery shelf with her elbow. Cheeks flushed, she begins to lean over and pick up the novel to put it back in its proper place, a small cramp forming in her lower back. She hears a quiet whisper in her right ear. “I got it,” the stranger says. She smiles at the little act of kindness, looking up expecting to see the face of the person standing next to her. It’s the face of an older man with wire-framed glasses and a thick bear, wearing a look that turns from gentleness to sadness when he notices how red and puffy her eyes are.
“Why don’t you take my seat?” he asks. “It’s a few rows up on the end. I’d rather stretch my legs back here anyway. I’ve been sitting all day at work.” Surprised at his offer, she nods and mouths thank you as she makes her way to the chair with his jacket on the back. Sitting down on the hard aluminum, she turns around to give this kind stranger a smile of gratitude. The pain in her back and feet begins to fade.
An hour passes, and Deepak Chopra ends his last reading with a poem. For just a little while, Mom forgot all about her worries of where to live, and how to feed and clothe us both. Using the back of the chair in front of her for support, she begins to stand, getting ready to get in line for a signing. She feels a small tug at her back, turning around to see the chair stranger
lifting his jacket over his arm. Smiling, he introduces himself. His name is David.
“I’m Holly,” she responds. “And who’s that?” David asks, pointing at her protruding stomach. Laughing slightly, she introduces me. “This is Alita,” she says. “Just a few more months until I get my proper introduction.”
“Well Holly and Alita,” David says. “It looks like you both need to have a little bit of fun.”
December 25, 2004 8:07 pm
It was Christmas Day, and the house was dead quiet quiet. The only two signs of the holiday were the neighbors lights flickering through our front window, and the faint scent of pine filling the downstairs. Mom wasn’t singing Christmas carols, and there wasn’t a half-eaten cookie sitting on our mantel. She had gone to bed before dinner, a common occurrence the past few months since the surgery. Oxycontin wipes people out.
For Christmas this year I got new pajamas and a mini TV set for my bedroom. Something to keep me company when the house went quiet before dusk. Tom wasn’t around much. He spent most of his nights at the bar down the hill. I hadn’t seen much of Mom recently, either. For the first few months, she still stayed up until my bedtime to kiss me goodnight, but it became harder to stay awake the higher the dosages went and the more frequent the hospital visits became.
When Mom felt really bad, she’d call DD and he would come pick me up for an extra weekly sleepover.
I wasn’t allowed to have friends over because Mom could barely take care of me. She didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else. So I learned useful skills to keep myself occupied. I learned how to cook easy meals and do my laundry. I learned how to get on dial-up internet to Google math homework help. I learned how to play a few chords on the guitar, and do a double backflip on the trampoline. I learned how to set an alarm, and get to the bus stop on my own every morning.
Some days, Mom seemed like she was beginning to be herself again. She would drive me to school, make my favorite dinner, and watch me jump on the trampoline outside. Other days, Tom told me she was dying. He said he didn’t know how long she had, but perhaps not more than a few months. I kept asking what was wrong with her, and he kept mumbling things about blood circulation and malpractice. No one had any answers, but he pretended to know what was happening.
The worst days were the ones when I would find her weepinging in her bedroom. As I gently lifted her onto her bed, she would tell me how sorry she was to be leaving me as a child. She told me DD would take care of me, that they had it all set up. I would tell her she wasn’t leaving. I would tell her I was right there.
Tom started sleeping in the guest room. He couldn’t stand the sobbing. Her worst nights, I would lay next to her until she fell asleep. I would lay with her until her breathing steadied, and then I would slip into my back bedroom to be alone.
For the first year, I didn’t feel any different. My undead mother was writhing in pain in front of me every single day, but I didn’t feel sad. I felt numb and dazed. I felt exhausted. But I didn’t feel sad. The few moments I did let myself break down, I made sure to do it in private. I made sure to do it after Mom was asleep, under my covers, with the white noise of the TV blocking out any excess sound of my weeping. I would not let myself cry in front of her. I would not show her how scared I was. Someone had to stay strong enough to keep her alive.
June 16, 2007 4:39 pm
3 years later, I was starting to hate my own mother. I hated her tears. I hated all the times I had to hold her while she cried. I hated her pain. I hated the way she began to hate herself. I hated the way she was barely holding on, just for me. I hated I hated how it made me feel. But mostly, I hated how it made me feel nothing at all.
I wanted my mother back. I wanted to see her smile. I wanted to see her live. I wanted her to go one single day without pain. But if I couldn’t get her back, I wanted her to go peacefully. I wanted her to have some dignity left when she died. I didn’t want her last moments to be excruciating, but I didn’t want them to be unconscious other. I wanted to tell her that I loved her. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I wanted to tell her I forgave her. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t her fault.
August 10, 2007 1:12 pm
This was the day we had waited two years for. My mother was getting on a plane to Minnesota to become a patient at the Mayo Clinic. They wouldn’t admit her initially. Her case was too peculiar, and too complex to put that many resources into. After a year of begging and pleading, they agreed to a three-week stay for testing and research. “Pray for your mom”, Mom said. “In three short weeks, you may just get her back.”
I spent the next 21 days in DD’s bungalow. He did anything he could to keep me mind occupied. We went to 8 movies over the weeks. We tried new recipes and visited the animal shelter just to see new puppies. The only time he’d mention Mom was when it was time to call her to check in.
I called her twice a day. She spent most of her time being rolled from one test, one blood drawing, one specialist to the next. Some doctors said her condition was so rare, that she had one in a million chance to be affected in this way. Others said the chronic pain was all in her head. Neither answer helped, and new medicine became her only hope. Her prayer for healing shifted to a prayer for functionality. They needed to find the perfect dosage and combination of pain medication that would allow her to function daily, that would allow her to take steps forward.
After three weeks, she returned home to me. I was waiting at the bottom of the stairs when I saw Tom’s car pull up. Once we brought her bags into the house, Tom got back in the car and left. “I think he’s going to the bar, Mom.” I said. “I know, sweetie.”
She didn’t look much different. Her coloring still reminded me of a fading ghost, but she wore a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time. That evening we ate oatmeal for dinner. Mom told me she was going to get better somehow. “Did the Mayo Clinic fix you?” I asked. “No, it didn’t fix me. Mom’s not broken, darling.”
She told me she didn’t want to talk about it for the rest of the evening. I had so many questions, but I stayed silent. She asked me if I wanted to have one of our mommy and me sleepovers that we used to do years earlier. I asked about Tom, and she told me he moved all his stuff into the guest room anyway. We dressed in our matching pajamas from five Christmases ago. They barely fit me, but Mom had lost weight since then. They looked baggy on her.
We crawled into her old, rickety bed and piled blanket after blanket on top of us. We did crosswords and word searches until our eyelids got heavy. Mom hummed “Can’t Help Falling In Love” as she turned off her bedside lamp. In the quiet, dark room, my mother held me as I cried. After minutes of silence, we both slipped into a dark oblivion.