Episode 4 - The Body
We’re given bodies and the agency
to sleep, wake, and dream.
But what of the orbit?
The gravity of the collapsed star
in our chests, the oppressive power of
all that wing-pins us in place?
- from the poem “the theory of us” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
Joe didn’t beat my mother to death. I say this to myself on a loop in the days following the preliminary autopsy results. At least he didn’t beat her. It could’ve been so much worse. She could’ve been unrecognizable. He could’ve buried her somewhere and said she ran away. He could’ve done so many things.
Of course, there is a harder, more unforgiving part of me who is quick to say Kory, she’s still dead. And if really was an overdose, he would’ve known what that was when it was happening and he let it happen.
I know this voice. She’s been with me a long time. I call her Hardass Kory.
I picture this version of me in dramatic armor with a flaming sword and eyes full of hellfire. Sometimes with black wings flowing down her back.
I honestly can’t tell if she’s an angel or a demon.
I only know that anytime the pain comes. Anytime I stay down too long, it’s her voice that says, “get up” in a tone that brooks no argument.
Why am I talking about this imaginary friend?
Because this is who I’m doing battle with now. In the wake of my mother’s death, in the face of a loss I’ve never suffered before, it’s this hardass who has shown up.
She wants me to push through, to armor up as I always do when my heart is breaking.
But the funny thing about a death is it shakes everything loose. Even things you thought would never change, begin to shift. When someone you love dies, you simply can’t do what you’ve always done.
I don’t know why but it doesn’t work anymore. This sort of loss stops you, stops everything.
This is the first time I’ve wanted to fight for my grief.
I feel myself digging in. Becoming obstinate. I’m demanding my right to feel all this hurt.
I’m thinking things like “you took my mother, but you’re not going to take this too, you bastard.” And I’m not even sure who I’m mad at. My uncle? The world?
I flip through my mother’s photographs, remembering hard times and good times.
I’m deliberately ignoring all of the:
“Get up. You have a business to run and books to write. Hell, you have a house to clean. Stop crying. You have work to do.”
It doesn’t help that Hardass has reinforcements.
People don’t like it when you’re depressed. It makes them uncomfortable. I can see it in my wife’s face. She doesn’t know what to say, what to do for me. She’s tiptoeing around the edge of my grief, trying to ride the waves as one minute I’m okay and the next I’m not.
Hardass uses this as ammunition.
“See, you’re making it worse. And you’re stronger than this. It’s not like you didn’t know this was coming.”
“Who cares if I knew she was going to die. It doesn’t make it less sad.”
“No.” I’m petulant as I lift another photograph from the pile and pull another tissue from the box. “If your mother being murdered isn’t reason enough to be sad, then I don’t know what the hell is.”
And it isn’t only her that I’m mourning. It’s every hope and dream I had for us.
I used to dream that one day I’d be disgustingly rich, and that when I was I could afford to buy my mom her own house, far away from Joe. That I could afford to take care of her, buy her the nice things she’d never had and generally improve the quality of her life.
But those dreams sinking like stones thrown.
But dreams aren’t the only things unraveling.
There are things I’ve carried all my life—coping mechanisms and reflexes—and I don’t know if I want them anymore.
Hardass is great for some things: persistence. resilience. motivation.
But I’ve only been hard because I’ve had to be.
And in light of my mother’s death, I’m beginning to wonder if I have to be hard anymore.
If you’ve ever lost anyone—whether it be death or divorce, whatever—you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Time feels precious now. You begin to wonder why you do things, and if you really want to.
The truth is that Hardass hasn’t always helped me. She’s kept me safe, kept me going.
But sometimes I’ve also pushed back against people who only want to help me. My responses to a challenge or difficult moment can be more aggressive than it needs to be.
When I don’t like something, when I want to change something, I can be brutal.
And what has that ever gotten me?
I’m beginning to imagine a new, terrifying possibility.
I could be gentle.
Not only with others, but with myself. That maybe this is long overdue.
Of course I get immediate pushback.
Gentle? Are you kidding me? This world isn’t gentle. People aren’t gentle. It’s going to hurt like hell.
The world isn’t gentle? Maybe that’s the problem.
We aren’t as kind as we could be. Especially not with ourselves.
But grief requires a gentle hand.
A soft place to fall, to rest.
I realize that now, as I lay in my own blanket of grief, my face swollen and voice thick.
I need gentle. I just don’t know how to do that.
My belligerent moping is interrupted by a call from the medical examiner’s office.
“Yes, ma’am, we’re calling to ask you for details about your mother’s arrangement.”
My mother’s arrangement.
Because there’s still the matter of her body.
“Oh, sorry,” I begin. “I didn’t realize she was….was ready. Are you sure? My mother wants—wanted—to be cremated. I didn’t think I could do that before the investigation was over.”
“Yes, ma’am, Dr. Wright took all the necessary samples. We have what we need. Your mother is ready to be discharged to you. We just don’t have the name of the funeral home you’d like us to release her to.”
My attendant on life.
You might think I’m a moron but this is actually the first time I realize I’m going to have to make the arrangements for her.
“Did you have a funeral home in mind?” the woman on the phone asks.
“Uh, no. No. I don’t.”
I’ve never buried anyone and I feel like it shows. Even with my two dogs who passed, the doctor took the bodies away and gave me back the ashes. I hadn’t had to do anything. They just called me when it was all finished. And I’d got to the office to pick the ashes up—which had been disturbingly, put in a gift bag.
“Do you recommend a particular funeral home or …?”
“We aren’t allowed to do that, ma’am,” she says. “But I can send you the list of places you can call.”
“Do you have any idea how much a cremation costs in Tennessee?”
Like everyone else in the pandemic, I’m trying to watch where my money is going. I’ve heard burials are ridiculously expensive, but have no idea how much a cremation costs.
“I can include the number to social services. If your mother qualifies, they cover the burial costs.”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you. Oh, one more thing.”
“My mother had a cross. Do you have that? If so, can it be mailed to me? I’m happy to pay for that.”
Because I’d bought my mother that cross for Mother’s day a couple years ago and wanted it back if possible.
“Let me check on that for you.”
Silence on the line. While she’s gone, I get an email alert and check it. It’s the list of funeral homes as well as he number to the social services office.
Then, “Ma’am there was no jewelry on the body when it came in.”
“None at all?” I ask, my blood icing.
I think again of what the detective vaguely referred to as “the state of her room” on the morning he found her. When I’d asked for clarification, he’d said it looked like things had been thrown around, like maybe there was a fight.”
This tracks with Joe’s story that they’d had a fight about money.
Though it wasn’t like my mother had much of value in that room.
Her tv and bed.
When Joe had called to tell me my mother passed, he’d offered to send me her belongings.
The only possessions I could think of--The books I’d signed and sent her. The stories, unpublished, that she’d kept for me. Things I’d written while in school. An abundance of photographs.—were only sentimental items.
The possibility Joe would actually box this stuff up and send it to me was slim.
When he’d offered to do that, I’d asked about the necklace.
This necklace wasn’t extravagant. I think it cost me about $150. It’s not like it came from Tiffany’s. But it was pretty and she’d worn it every day.
When I asked Joe about it on the morning of her death, telling him to please to look for it, if he said “I think I know where that is.”
Then proceeded to describe it perfectly.
“I’ll look around for it,” he said, as if it could be anywhere but my mother’s neck.
I assumed he didn’t have a chance to do this, since he ended his call with me when the police arrived and then was arrested shortly after.
So when I ask the morgue attendant to double check if she was brought in with any jewelry and she says no again.
I’m left with only question:
Did Joe wait until she stopped breathing to take it off her neck?
Several calls back and forth with the social services offices leads me to discover that my mother does in back qualify for state aid. The fact that her income was only $795 makes this possible. I’m grateful. Between calls, I’d gone through the helpful list of funeral homes and the even the cheapest cremation was $900 plus the cost to ship her to me. Most ran north of $1500.
So, though cumbersome, I was still grateful to fill out the lengthy application for the assistance. I’d provided all the information about her and her parents that I could recall but there was a snag. They’d gotten her age wrong—it was probably Joe who miss informed them—and this holds everything up. The paperwork has to be redone. They’re very particular about making sure it’s the right body that’s getting cremated.
I appreciate this. I want to receive my mom, after all. Not someone’s grandpa.
Yet due to the confusion, my mother’s body ends up being in the cooler at the medical examiner’s office for almost a month before it’s finally released to the funeral home that agreed to do the cremation at the state’s affixed price.
Overall I end the ordeal grateful to have had the help. I’m almost ready to forgive SSI for what they did.
One pain point for me in all of this is the matter of my mother’s disability check. Her mental condition required that she have a guardian, a responsible person that received her money on her behalf. This was my grandmother, when she was alive, and when she died, the official caregiver had to be reassigned.
Which apparently they did without fanfare, putting my uncle in charge of her well-being without so much as a background check. She told me about how they went down to the SSI office. Proved who he was and let him fill out the paperwork and that was it. They put his name on her money. Just like that.
Why didn’t anyone check his arrest record, his history of violence against her before giving him control of her money? Why hadn’t someone come to the house and inspected their living situation?
Surely, if someone had looked closely, they would have realized it wasn’t safe to give a violent addict control of his sister’s money. That her housing situation was dire with the unpaid mortgage and utilities.
A background check and home visit isn’t expecting too much. I had to do a ten-page application, with references, and a home visit just to adopt my dog!
I would expect at least as much for a human life.
It’s true families like mine are complicated and the system puts a lot of the burden of caretaking on families who are not equipped or capable of that caretaking.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love my mother. It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried nearly everything to secure her wellbeing and happiness.
It’s that everything about my mother’s psychosis and caregiving would have destroyed me. This life I worked so hard to create would’ve fallen apart. My wife loves me. But she isn’t built to endure what my mother would’ve done to our lives.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a resilient person. I’m even a fully functional adult most of the time. But I have managed to overcome much of my trauma for one reason: I self care like it’s an Olympic sport. I’m not kidding. I spend more time on self-care than Michael Phelps spends in a pool.
I exercise most days, I watch how much sugar I eat because it makes my moods go too high or too low. I won’t get out of bed unless I’ve had 8-9 hours of sleep, even if this means snoozing on and off until almost noon. I make time for friends and for reading. For writing and journaling and doing things I love like painting. I meditate every day for thirty minutes and drink only water and tea and very rarely coffee cause it makes me jittery.
I walk my dog. I get fresh air.
It takes so much time and work for me just to care for myself and to be a good, healthy, present person for the people I love.
Healing trauma is no joke. And it took me fifteen years of fighting tooth and nail to get to where I am now, in a place where I can take care of myself like this.
We don’t live in a society that allows this. I had to break a lot of rules.
Rearrange my career and time, and I recognize this is a privilege a lot of people don’t have.
People like my mother need care.
But they can’t get it from their own broken homes. What that will get you is two sick and miserable people.
I’m worried this might sound like ‘ lock her up in an asylum’! Because those are the only sorts of places that I imagine we have now for someone who needs the level of support she needed.
But, no, locking her away somewhere wouldn’t have helped her.
Treating her like a dirty secret would’ve only ensured she never got well again.
And I know that the solutions aren’t easy and we might not have them all yet.
We simply don’t have the mental health infrastructure we need in America. Places and spaces for people to move away from their toxic environments to heal their unresolved traumas, to whatever degree they’re capable of. A place for people to heal where they feel free rather than confined. Supported rather than judged.
I might have dreamed about the day I would have the money to throw at this problem, to give my mother something better. But my chance has passed.
And I know that it’s really not that easy.
It hadn’t been much, but hadn’t I offered her my little duplex once upon a time?
I know people are trying. Changes havebeen made.
It’s just so hard to look at all that’s not been done and feel anything less than exhaustion at what still needs to be accomplished.
But I can hope. I can believe that one day we will make something better.
I don’t know my mother’s full medical record. I don’t know why exactly what part of her record qualified her for disability. I’d been told that she was diagnosed with manic depression and schizoaffective disorder when I was young, by the time I was seven or eight. If you haven’t heard of manic depression, it’s because now we call it bipolar disorder. By today’s standards she would be classified as Bipolar I—distinguished from Bipolar II by her extensive manic episodes.
I don’t know if this diagnosis was accurate. When later discussing it with a psychiatrist, she said it sounded more like borderline personality disorder to her when considering how fast my mother could experience a mental shift. And Seroquel, one of my mother’s medications, is given to people with borderline personality disorder as well, so it’s possible she was rediagnosed later after another evaluation.
Regardless of which diagnosis fits better, I can think of two good examples that illustrate these the swings.
One happened when I was fourteen, maybe fifteen.
Shay, my mom’s girlfriend at the time was driving her cool green mustang. She had the bass turned up so that the backseat rattled. I loved it.
My mom was in the passenger seat singing along with the radio. Cracking jokes.
She could be funny when she wanted to be, my mother. She had a fantastic, sarcastic wit that I loved.
On this night, I don’t remember about what, but she had us rolling.
We’d just had a nice dinner—probably McDonald’s or Taco Bell—something fancier than our usual dollar store Hamburger Helper affair.
I was in the backseat, laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. I looked out the window, seeing the streetlights streak by. I remember being happy.
Then the shift.
Shay screamed, “Leitha, no! Leitha, come on!”
The car jerked.
I look away from the window in time to see my mother hit Shay in the side of her head. Once, twice. She’s trying to grab her hair and pull.
She was crying.
Two seconds ago we were laughing, having a good time. Now my mother is crying with tears streaming down her face.
Shay’s trying to drive with one hand and protect her head with the other. “Leitha, stop!”
“Hey!” I scream. “We’re on the road!”
The car jerks again.
We travel across the median as a car swerves then honks long and loud.
“Christ!” I swear from the backseat, now scrambling for my seatbelt, trying to find the buckle with shaking hands.
I’m convinced we are going to crash and alarm bells in my head are yelling in a mock spaceship voice Prepare for Impact.
Shay slams on the brakes and the car comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the road.
The car behind us whips around, more honking. Someone is swearing with their middle finger out the window.
I give up on getting my seatbelt buckled and instead reach around the seat, grabbing my mother and trying to pin her against the seat.
Shay manages to get us onto the shoulder before we’re killed.
At first she resists until I say, Mom, no. Stop it. Just stop.
And she stops.
She goes soft against the seat while I whisper. “It’s okay. Mom, it’s okay. Just breathe. Breathe.”
I hold her even after she begins to cry. I tell her I love her. I keep telling her everything will be okay.
Once when I was in third grade, I was in a musical. Nothing special. We were little kids and the expectations were low, which is good because despite my thick, wavy hair, I’m no Shirley Temple.
But I was excited because my mother was going to come see me sing in my little costume up on the stage with everyone else. She’d been very excited about it. All day she kept bringing it up, singing my songs with me. Her enthusiasm was contagious. All my nervous evaporated in her deluge of encouragement.
Since we were to rehearse one more time after school the concert, I wouldn’t see her again until that night. “You’ll be amazing baby!” she told me as she kissed me that morning before I began my walk to school. “I’ll be cheering the loudest!”
Before the show began, I stood on the stage with the other kids, searching the crowd for her face, trying to find her. But I couldn’t spot her in the mass of parents waving, cheering, taking their seats.
Then the lights went down, and I had to focus on not sounding like a strangled goose.
When the show was over, I ran off the stage, pumped to find my mom and what I assumed would be a rain shower of praise.
But as kids chatted excitedly with their parents. Hair was ruffled and backs were rubbed, I kept searching. I weaved my way through our little cafeteria, searching face after face. But she wasn’t there.
“Ms. Weatherbee, I can’t find my mom,” I told her. Now I was close to tears and I’m sure she could see that.
“Let’s go look outside, sweetie. Some of the parents are outside smoking.”
But my mother wasn’t outside with the smokers.
In fact, after all the parents cleared out and it was only me and Ms. Weatherly in the cafeteria in front of the makeshift stage with paper mâché decorations, my mother still didn’t show.
The police arrived first and collected me.
They tried to assure me they were looking for my mom. Not to worry, that I was safe. I said nothing
After the police car rolled up outside our little two-bedroom trailer that we shared with Shay, they found the house locked. The windows dark.
I said nothing as they broke in and let me get ready for bed. These officers in uniform standing large and awkwardly in the living room as I brushed my teeth, my hair. Changing into my pajamas, throwing my book bag on the floor, homework forgotten.
As the hours passed, they kept insisting I could go to bed and sleep and me insisting that I couldn’t possibly.
It was almost midnight before one said “Hey, honey did you eat dinner?”
They stayed with me until Shay got off work at 11. Until she could come home and stay with me.
But my mother was harder to track down.
They eventually found her car in a ditch, 45 miles away. My mother had pulled off and passed out. Her mood had turned. The mania I’d basked in that morning had swung into depression again. Sometimes it did this on its own. Sometimes when a pill wore off or she’d begun to drink.
And that’s what happened that night.
As I was singing my first song of the night, on the stage with glitter on my cheeks and an oversized scrunchy in my hair, my mother was behind the wheel, driving, trying to put as much distance between herself and her life as she could.