Episode 1 - Two Calls / One Death - Transcript
A moment of silence
for the long awaited death
of an uneasy mind. And the belt I’ve worn
all my life, ever tight across my chest,
removed, put to bed.
But then I will pick up the phone. I’ll dial
her number and find no one is waiting.
- from the poem “after everything I’ll miss her” written by me, K.B. Marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
When I wake, I see that I’ve missed a call. Mom the screen says.
I decide to listen to the voicemail first before returning her call. It’s important to prepare myself for conversations with my mother. They are, in their own way, treacherous battles fought over deep ravines. Sudden drops abound.
The voicemail will give me a clear read on what I’m walking into. A glimpse at the emotional landscape I’m being asked to traverse.
Will it be another plea for money? Or an emotional whirlwind where she tells me how stuck she feels, how trapped and scared about her future? Maybe complaints about the no-good heroin addict brother who steals her cash and sometimes beats her?
Perhaps she just needs a good cry about her mother, my grandmother, who died just four months ago.
Listening to her, being there for her in these ways are all that I can do now. So I play the message.
But it isn’t my mother’s voice.
The call that came through at 8:58 on the morning of July 4th, 2020 was from her brother. In the nineteen-second message, he says,
Kory, this is your uncle Joe. I need you to call me right now. I need you to call me right now. If my voice is putting fear in you, that’s good. It’s about your momma. I need you to call me right now.
Putting the fear in me?
What the hell is he talking about?
I listen to the message twice. With each second, my heart climbs higher from my rib cage up into my throat and knocks against my vocal chords
When my wife asks,
I can’t answer her. It’s impossible to speak.
Now it’s 9:41 a.m.
I call him back.
He doesn’t answer.
“Babe, what’s happening?” Kim asks again. “Are you okay?”
I’m shaking, and not from cold. I’m afraid of what’s coming
I try again at 10:01. But doesn’t answer for a second time.
“He’s going to tell me she’s dead,” I say, refreshing the home screen of my phone over and over and over again as if this will summon a call.
It rings at 10:06.
I skip the polite greetings. “I got your message. What’s going on?”
“Your momma’s gone,” he says.
The world stops. The silence in the dark bedroom of my house stretches infinite.
“What?” I ask.
“She’s gone. Your momma’s gone.”
Here my mind divides itself. There is the Kory in the bed under the covers, listening to the words being poured rapid fire from my uncle’s lips. Then there is the Kory who is outside of herself, watching it all, observing as if from a great distance. This Kory is noting my apparent shock, my disbelief as if it’s happening to someone else.
I manage to ask, “What happened?”
“I came into her room this morning and found her dead in her bed. She was blue. Totally blue.”
I’m unsure if he is crying or if his voice is shaking with adrenaline. The three dogs, my mother’s two mutt terriers and my uncle’s chihuahua are yapping in the background.
My treacherous mind thinks: dogs will eat a corpse. I hope he’s closed the door.
“Where is she now?” I ask.
“In her room. I called the police and they’re on their way.”
To tell you the truth, I’d expected myself to be more prepared for this moment.
For years, I’ve feared and dreaded this conversation. My mother had so many near misses over the year, it would’ve been impossible to reach adult hood without imagining her death.
I believe these imaginings began when I was eight and my mom disappeared for a few days. Her car found in a ditch. She’d been drunk and had driven it off the road, and left with the first man who found her.
Since then I’d known it was only a matter of time before someone would make this call, and in it, tell me that my mother had died in some tragic, heartbreaking way.
But now that it’s here, to my surprise, I’m disbelieving.
I just spoken to her yesterday. She was fine. In better spirits than she’d been in weeks.
How could she possibly be dead?
Then he asks me about the insurance policy.
“Do you have an insurance policy on her?”
“How in the world could I have an insurance policy on her?” I ask.
When my wife and I got our insurance policies, a woman with a medical kit had come to our house. In our dining room she’d drawn our blood, measured us, weighed up, had us fill out detailed medical questionnaires with official-looking ink pens.
They made sure we weren’t secretly on death’s door, looking to scam the system. From this experience, I assumed all policies had the same requirements.
My uncle is quick to inform me otherwise.
“Oh no,” my uncle assures me. “You can take up to $50,000 out on a person. Without them even knowing.”
This is news to me. And such a specific number, I think.
So I tell him that’s not what happened when we got our policies.
“You must’ve gotten a big policy,” he says. “How much did you get yours for?”
I don’t want to tell him. Somehow in my mind, equating my life with a dollar amount seems like a mistake with this man.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Yes you do. You’re lying. You’re sure are from this family, aren’t you?”
I say nothing to this.
“Well never mind,” he quickly adds. “I’d hoped maybe you’d get a little something out of this, but it’s fine.”
Now he sounds angry.
“I’ll take care of everything. I’ve done it for Nana, and for everyone else. So don’t you worry about a damn thing.”
Though he won’t, in fact, take care of everything. I’ll be the one that handles my mother’s cremation and miniscule estate, but those are problems I don’t yet realize I have.
I ask him how she died.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I went in there and she was blue.”
“Are they going to do an autopsy?”
At this he’d laughs. “Of course they’re going to do an autopsy. When someone as young as her dies they’re going to check it out.”
“Well what do you think happened?” I can’t imagine people just walking into bedrooms and finding dead people.
According to the internet, only about 20% of people die at home.
“She was so blue,” he says again, as if this is supposed to mean something to me. “I think she took something. I don’t know how, but I know what an overdose looks like and she’s blue just like that. I need to check my safe. I need to make sure everything is there.”
This startles me. Until this moment, I’ve been under the impression my mother had died because her poor health had finally caught up to her.
My mom had a litany of health problems for years.
But here he is alluding to the possibility of an overdose. That somehow my mother got a hold of something, took something, and it killed her. But my mother said she’d been clean for months. On absolutely nothing at all, not even the celexa and Seroquel prescribed to her.
Joe supposedly had taken her pills and locked them up in his safe back in March.
The safe he’s referring to is his drug safe. Where he keeps his heroin, pills, anything else he buys from the street.
My shock begins to morph into something harder. Not quite anger, but I’m moving in that direction.
“You said she hadn’t taken anything at all since February. You said you’d locked up even her pills. You both said she was totally clean. 100%.”
“That’s true. I did lock them up!” he insists.
“Then how did could she have taken something?” I ask.
“I don’t know! Maybe she broke into my safe.”
I try imagine my mother, 5’4 and 130 lbs breaking into a safe like some safe cracker from Ocean’s 11.
It doesn’t help that my mother is—was— nearly blind in both eyes and had even lost her glasses months ago. I’d been trying to get Joe to take her to the eye doctor, volunteering to pay for the exam and glasses, but he’d claimed they’d been closed.
Does he really expect me to believe she cracked it open with a bobby pin or something? Or that somehow she’d lifted it and dashed it against the concrete until it opened?
This idea that my mother would have the patience, fortitude, or even tools to crack a safe is ridiculous.
I’m unable to hide my disbelief. I know he must hear it. “You think she took something?”
“All I know is I went in there and found her and she’s blue! The color of her face is dead blue.”
He must mistake my silence for resignation and moves to end the call.
“Your mother didn’t love anyone,” he tells me. “but she loved you. If heaven is what you want it to be, she’s with you now.”
Here the tears building in the corners of my eyes spill over at last.
“I know I’m never going to hear from you after this. I know you don’t like me much.”
He pauses, probably expecting me to do the obligatory no, no, don’t say that. I don’t hate you.
I say nothing.
So he adds, “I know you haven’t forgiven me for what happened all those years ago. So, so long ago.”
Though I’m not sure it’s so much a matter of forgiveness as trust. I don’t trust him.
Even as a child, even before he gave me a real reason to keep one eye open, to never turn my back, he’d felt dangerous.
And I have the good sense—most of the time—to stay away from what’s dangerous.
So he’s right. When this call ends, I’ll have no reason to speak to him ever again.
I’d only tolerated him this long because he was the official caretaker of my mother. Because speaking to her often meant going through him.
Faced with this fact, I do what I think is best.
“I forgive you.” I choke out. “I forgive you for everything.”
What an idiot I was, to believe forgiveness could be so easy.
It will be four hours before I receive the second, more illuminating phone call.
In the meantime, I have my cry in the bed, my wife Kim rubbing my back, pouring apologies into my ears.
The usual “I’m sorrys” and “it’s going to be okays.”
When this peters out, I get up, let the dog out, and begin the usual Saturday morning clean. I don’t make it very far.
In my office closet, I find a large folder of photographs that Mom sent me years before.
I comb through them, laying them out in rows on my wood floor.
My grandmother dead. My grandfather dead. My aunt dead. My mom dead.
Joe is the last one.
As I stare at each glossy face, my mind keeps reviewing the last four months of my mother’s life over and over in my head. At this point I still believe it’s her body that must’ve killed her.
And there are many suspects in this scenario.
There was her Hepatitis C.
Back in the 90s she’d gotten involved with a bad guy. I was told later that this “bad guy” was actually her first husband.
Fun fact: My mother had married three times in her life and all three men shared the same first name.
When David #1 resurfaced sometime in the early nineties, he introduced my mother to cocaine. But not the stylish kind that starlets snort in the bathroom as they retouch their eyeliner. No this cocaine was shot into the veins. And sharing dirty needles with the ex-husband you married at sixteen is a bad idea, folks.
Fortunately, the evil ex nor the needles stuck, but the Hepatitis C did.
Living with Hep C made her tired and nauseous and made her need to quit drinking imperative.
And she did quit drinking. I was proud of her for that.
If it wasn’t Hep C or its complications that had killed her, there was still COVID-19 to consider.
At four months into the global pandemic, she would’ve been easy pickings for a virus like that.
She’d been smoking since she was fourteen—reminding me as often as she could—that she’d quit only for the nine months that she’d been pregnant with me.
“And when the nurse asked me if I wanted to breastfeed?” she’d crowed. “I said, hell no, give me a cigarette!”
“But look at you. You’re perfect.”” she’d always add, beaming every time she told me this story, proving how she believed her months of sacrifice had paid off.
Assuming that she hadn’t been killed by hepatitis-complications, the coronavirus, or even some undiagnosed smoking-related illness, there’s her most recent symptom to consider.
Her memory loss.
It began in March. I’d called to check in and in the course of our conversation, she’d casually said, “so you know Nana passed.”
I hadn’t known that her mother, my grandmother had passed away.
In fact, I’d called on March 3rd to check on the family and see if they’re faired all right against the tornado that had blown through Nashville the night before. My uncle, who always answered the phone, had said, “we’re all right here” and hung on me.
In fact, my grandmother had been dead for two days and my mother had been in the hospital.
I suspect he was too high on heroin to think this might be something I’d want to know.
“No one told you?” My mother had said as if there were legions of family members that could’ve stepped up and informed me, and not in fact, one lying man.
“No. He didn’t tell me.”
It had been the internet that had told me that Nana’s memorial had been on March first.
My mother’s outrage on my behalf was touching. Until the next time, I called.
“So you know Nana died,” she said again.
“You told me.”
“Oh, did I?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I’ve been having problems remembering things.”
“What do you mean you’re having problems remembering things? What kind of things?”
“Well, I was in the hospital for ten days and now I don’t remember things well.”
This is the first I hear of the hospital.
At this point, I ask to speak to Joe, but she doesn’t hand the phone over.
“What the hell happened? Why were you in the hospital?”
My mother asks him and I can hear him through the phone say, “You had a nervous breakdown.”
“I had a nervous breakdown,” she parrots.
My interrogations get me nowhere. Joe doesn’t clarify what landed my mother in the hospital, but instead spends five minutes assuring me that they—presumably the doctors—wanted to institutionalize her, but he—good brother that he was, saved her from that dark fate.
“I got her out of there fast. I wasn’t gonna let them take my sister.”
“What caused this breakdown? Her pills?” Because I’m not letting him go until he tells me something.
“Yeah. She took her pills wrong and went in.”
Went in, I’m assuming to the hospital.
“But they wanted to institutionalize her, and I said hell no, so I got her out of there.”
“What about the pills?”
“I’ve locked them up. They’re in my safe, she can’t in there.”
So why the memory loss, I wondered.
Was it some reaction to being taken cold turkey off her meds?
My mother has needed mental health medication for decades. She’d been diagnosed as manic depressive when I was a child. Later the industry would start calling it bipolar disorder. Later they added schizoid affective disorder onto her diagnosis because sometimes she suffered from delusions and lost touch with reality.
For all of this, she was given prescriptions for celexa and Seroquel, but I also that health meds tricky.
She’d had bad reactions before but that was back when she was still drinking. And in these reactions, her psychosis would be so pronounced, often terrifying, and require professional help. Alcohol and medication doesn’t mix.
But she’d stopped drinking a long time ago. So what had happened this time?
“She’s much better off of them,” he tells me. “Much more steady.”
“What about the memory loss?”
He assures me that she’s remembering more and more each day and that he thinks this will pass. She just needs time to adjust.
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“A lot safer than the alternative,” he tells me.
I consider this.
If someone stops taking a medicine after a long time, there will be side effects, right?
I’m no doctor, but I’m also not there in the house with them. On no front am I qualified to know what care she needs.
But the memory loss concerns me.
And it makes me wonder if it was masking a more serious system, especially when Joe tells me about the seizure.
He said they were standing in the kitchen. My mother at the counter making herself a sandwich. Then my mother’s eyes rolled up into her head and she dropped.
Those were his words “she dropped” and began to have a seizure, turning blue. He did compressions, trying to get her to breathe and was successful in resuscitating her.
“Why didn’t you talk her to the hospital?” I’d asked him. “Call an ambulance or something?”
“If it happens again, I will,” he’d said. “I absolutely will.”
My belief that my uncle simply didn’t want to take my mother to a hospital during a deadly pandemic, that his fears were natural rather than malicious, evaporate when my phone rings at 2:25 that afternoon.
It’s been four hours now of me not cleaning my house. Me lying on the sofa with my pug Charley snoring on my chest, when the Nashville area number flashes on my screen.
“Is this Kory?” a man asks. “Leitha daughter?”
Somewhere in the background someone speaks. The man says, “Yeah I’m talking to her daughter now.”
My heart takes off like a rabbit who hears a twig snap. “Yes. This is she.”
“I’m Detective Barnes with the Nashville Police Department. What can you tell me about your mom and her brother’s history together?”
“Oh, uh—I—” I can’t string a coherent thought together.
“Violent,” I finally spit out as if this one word answers his question.
“He’s hit her before. Choked her.” My breath is shaking but I’m quickly collecting myself. “He struck her with a glass ashtray in 2005. It caved in her head and she had emergency surgery to let the blood out. She almost died.”
Oh god, I’m babbling.
I’m trying not to relive that day, but the memory swells like a wave.
Already I’m walking into the dark hospital room to find my mother, small and wrapped like a doll in the hospital bed. The layers of gauze make her head look swollen. From her left side, a tube runs out, draining the blood that would otherwise drown her brain.
In the days that followed, she could smile at me, but not say my name. She couldn’t walk without help. She had to relearn how to speak, how to move her body.
And I had to watch.
Me sitting in her rehabilitation room. Her asking me to shave the other half of her head so it will all grow back even.
Me with a razor, doing a terrible job of it, because I’m trying to be careful of the sixty-plus staples holding her scalp together.
That’s been my role in this life, it seems.
Bear witness to her suffering. And have no power to prevent it.
I shove the memories down but I can’t escape the familiar feelings of helplessness. Fear.
I wrestle with the old desperate need to save her. To protect her. My mother.
The detective is still talking.
“The condition in which her body was found, the state of her room, her clothes. And he keeps changing his story.”
The state of her body.
I’m certain he’s telling me my mother has been beaten to death. That her final moments must have been full of pain, and terror. That the ashtray came down again, but this time there was no one to make the call, to alert the police, to get her to the hospital in time.
I feel like someone has kicked me in the guts.
“What do you mean? A-about her body?” I ask.
“She was in the bedroom. The room looked like it’d been tore up. Her clothes were askew. He said they had a fight about money.”
Her room torn up. A fight about money. A fight about money?
Was he telling me my mother was beat to death by her brother over money? Her own money?
My fear transforms into raging anger.
“The only money in that house was hers!” I tell him. “He didn’t even have a job. How could she steal her own money? He stole money to buy his stupid drugs!”
The detective has no answer to this.
I’m shaking now. “You think he hurt her?” I ask him.
“His story keeps changing. First he said he found her in the bedroom. Then we started asking questions and he said he came home and found her in the floor and put her in the bedroom hoping she’d be all right. He says he thinks she got into his heroin and took that.”
“My mother has never done heroin in her life.”
She had vices. Absolutely. But heroin she detested.
“To be honest with you, I think he did something to her. I just don’t know that I can prove it.”
I feel sick. I’m hoping I can get through the call before throwing up.
“There’s still the outstanding warrant on him for the strangulation,” the detective tell me. “We’re going to book him for that. We’re taking him in now. I’ll call you once we get the autopsy results and let you know what we find.”
The strangulation. Right.
When my mother had called me from her bathroom, and whispering into the phone had said he strangled her, I’d called the police, told them to go out there to the house and check on her, just like I had for the ashtray incident.
They’d noted the bruising. Had opened the warrant.
But my uncle is very good at disappearing before the police shows up. He’s pulled this magic trick more times than I can count.
So they hadn’t taken him in February. Or any time since, it seemed.
Later I would be on the phone with AT&T for over an hour, trying to find the exact time I’d called to report the strangulation. Turns out it had been 2:47 pm, Saturday, February 16th, 2019.
Just seventeen months ago.
Now that felt like another lifetime.
“Once we do the preliminary examination, I’ll give you a call.”
“You’ll call me after the autopsy,” I say.
“Yes ma’am,” the detective says. “Should be tomorrow or Sunday.”
The call ends and as I sit there holding my phone. In the beats following, I cross some surreal line between reality and fiction.
This can’t be happening.
I didn’t just get a call from a detective. He didn’t just tell me my mother might have been murdered by my uncle. I’m not waiting on the results of an autopsy.
I write crime fiction. I don’t live in it. I research and plan unfold investigations to entertain people.
Homicide detectives aren’t supposed to call me.
Murderers are supposed to be faceless mafioso or perverts who bury their victims in the deep dark woods.
He’s not supposed to be my own flesh and blood.
He’s not supposed to be a man my mother trusted.
“This can’t be happening,” I say to no one. “It can’t be.”
I probably don’t need to tell you that when this call with the detective ends, I’m not okay. The tears that follow make my good cry in bed that morning seem like a mild malaise.
Sobs wrack my body until I can’t breathe.
Yet by some miracle, I manage to hold in the worst of it until Kim leaves, agreeing to do the weekend grocery trip that I’ve been, understandably, excused from.
She probably wants a break from all this crying. I can’t blame her.
Regardless, the moment she closes the front door, I collapse.
My knees hit the rug in our living room and I wait. Apologies poured from my mouth until I’m wheezing, choking on my own snot and spit.
I cry for my mother, sure.
I can’t imagine a death like the one the evidence alludes to.
Such a death brings up all my old codependent feelings of helplessness, reminding me again how many times I’ve tried to get her out of bad situation after bad situation and how I always, always failed.
The words I cry aloud on the floor of my living room, my arms wrapped around me, rocking myself back and forth into oblivion don’t emerge from fear or even grief.
I’m drowning in guilt.
I’m sorry, I cry. I’m so sorry I chose myself over you. I’m so sorry. Momma, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
And I did chosen myself.
After my mother’s ex calls me to say she’s found my mother unconscious, after she describes the goose egg on her head and shares my grandmother’s weak ‘oh her and Joe just got into it again’, after the emergency surgery, after the weeks of rehab, me shaving her head in a handicap bathroom with a disposable razor, I choose myself.
When she was healing, after she relearned how to talk, but wasn’t yet walking well, she agreed to come live with me.
It wasn’t ideal for me, but I was ready to do anything to keep her away from him.
I was a busy college student, taking classes even in the summer so I could graduate with my Bachelor’s in December. I’d spent money and time I didn’t have fixing up the spare room of my little two-bedroom duplex for her so she’d feel comfortable and welcome.
I’d bought a bed, bedding. I’d fallen off a chair and bruised the hell out of my knee trying to hang curtains for her.
A couple of weeks before she was scheduled to be released, I received a call from the rehab saying she’d left early against their wishes. Someone had signed her out. It took me a minute to find out which traitorous friend it had been, and that they’d dropped her off back at my grandmother’s.
Where my uncle lived.
I wanted to pick her up immediately. I was afraid of her spending a minute more in that house with him.
So I drove the hour between the city where I was going to college and where she was.
I had one condition for this arrangement. She could live with me as long as she like, expense free in her new room and I’d cover us with the income I made from my two jobs: a campus job and a job at the AT&T call center where I answered tech support calls.
The money wasn’t much. It’d be tight, but I was determined to make it work if it mean keeping all the bones in her skull intact.
All she had to do was not drink.
She could smoke her customary two packs a day, even though I hated it, but not drink.
She’d been a drinker since I was a kid, and had more than a handful of DUIs to her name.
But I was told the alcohol dependency cleared her system during the surgery and rehabilitation that followed. Considering this and the fact her drinking had already cost me so much of my childhood and well-being, I didn’t think this was too much to ask.
I’d been wrong.
When I arrived at my grandmother’s I refused to go in because Joe was there. I told her to come out and meet me.
My personal issue with my uncle, if we overlook how many times he’s put his hands on my mother, is that he tried to wrap his hands around my throat at my grandfather’s funeral in 2001 while he was high on crack cocaine.
I wasn’t interested in a repeat performance and had stayed out of arms’ reach since.
My refusal to be near him was the first real boundary I’d set for myself as an adult.
Turns out, I was about to set another.
By the time my mom brought her things out to the car, she was pissed that I hadn’t come in and had helped her carry it out.
A bit spitefully, I told her that if she was well enough to sneak out of her rehab hospital, she was well enough to carry her own clothes.
When we stopped at the gas station to refill my tank, she asked for money to buy cigarettes. I handed it over without complaint.
Only she didn’t come out with cigarettes.
She came out with a case of beer.
What followed was one of the few times I’d ever really screamed at my mother.
But there she was in my passenger seat with a six-pack of Budweiser in her lap, that she’d bought with my money, and all those staples in the side of her head staring at me.
It was made worse by the fact that she seemed completely unable to understand why I was so upset to see her twisting the cap off a beer.
“I can’t do this with you!” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“Don’t be melodramatic. It’s just a beer.”
“It’s not just a beer. Look at your head. Look at your f-ing head.”
And of course, now I hated myself for yelling at her. For losing my temper while she sat there, looking so fragile and broken.
In that moment, it was clear to me that she would never change. It seemed only one of us had had enough.
That nothing I did or offered would pull her out of this world, and I had a choice. I could either stay in this life with her, give up on all my dreams and go all in with my crusade to save her.
Or I could leave. Put my energy into building the life I’d dreamed of, prayed for since I was a kid.
But I couldn’t do both. My terrible grades and poor mental health told me as much.
This is the moment, perhaps the first in my life, that I put myself first.
I chose me.
I chose to believe that I could have better. Do better. Convinced myself that I’d tried everything I could for this woman, and it wasn’t enough.
It would never be enough.
So I drove my mom back to my grandmother’s and dropped her off at the end of the driveway.
I told her to get out.
And now, fifteen years later, I have that life I fought for. My home is quiet, peaceful home. No one puts their hands on anyone else.
I have a loving, affectionate partner who doesn’t smoke and hardly drinks so much as a glass of wine at New Years’.
I completed graduate school twice. Taught writing to thousands of students how to write. Had launched my own independent publishing company and had published sixteen novels and two books of poetry.
I was a full-time author like I’d always wanted.
I chose me.
And my mother… is dead.
At three a.m. I wake, fitful, feeling sick. The guilt hasn’t abated. Cold sweat coats the back of my neck. I try to shake this fugue of nightmares, wishing they would dissolve like mist in the morning sunlight.
I have that dropkicked feeling one gets when they wake to a terrible reality slowly remembered.
I run a hand down my face, trying to decide if I want to fight for another hour of sleep or if I’ll surrender to the insomnia.
The bedroom curtain sits twisted on its rod, revealing part of the dark window normally hidden from view. Through it, the full moon watches my silent debate.
My mom is never going to look at this moon again.
Has she ever?
Surely. In the course of her 56 years on this planet, she’s stared up at the night sky, likely with a cigarette burning down between her fingers, contemplating this bright, mysterious face.
Maybe on a night when she was pregnant, me sleeping inside her, she stared at this same moon and wondered where we’d be in twenty, thirty years.
Could she have imagined an ending like this for herself?
There’s no way I can sleep with thoughts like these.
I untangle my legs from the pug snoring on them and slip from bed, trying not to wake Kim.
Downstairs in my office, I turn on the floor lamp. Soft light filters through the paper lantern shade.
I pull my thesis off the shelf and reread the story I wrote about the ashtray accident.
I shuffle through the poems I wrote about her just two days before. One ominously titled:
after everything, I’ll miss her
A strange premonition.
As the poem says, if I dial her number, no one will be waiting.
My mother is gone.
What is left of her but our memories, our stories, those twisted threads that bind us. Bound her to past she couldn’t escape.
In contrast I feel cut through. The severance so clean I can still feel my phantom limb.
It’s taken only one day for me to discover a terrible, overlooked truth.
When someone you love dies—especially if your relationship wasn’t ideal—there is a second death you must accept.
The death of the person.
And the death of all the hopes you had for them.
I thought I’d made peace with my mother years ago, accepted our flawed relationship, her limitations for what they were.
I can see now, an invisible fist inside opens and closes, grasping, I lied to myself.
I was still holding on to us, to the dream that one day we could make it all better.
It seems that when I think nothing else can be taken from me—there’s one thing more.
How will I ever accept this? How will I make my peace with this sudden, final request to let go?
The same way I make peace with everything, I think, and pull a yellow legal pad from my desk drawer and a fish a black ink pen from its case.
For a long time I only look at the empty lines, the pen twisting between my fingers.
I catch sight of the moon again, watching through a softly lit window.
A mother like mine isn’t born. Nor does she wash onto the shore like some golden-haired Aphrodite from the sea foam. A woman like her is crafted slowly, by cruel, unloving hands. To understand my mother, you have to understand the ones who made her.
My hand hovers above the paper. It trembles.
These short lines are enough to stir memories long abandoned. Twisted, misshapen things rolling beneath the surface.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I tell the moon.
This is what I’ve always done. Written my way through. I know no other way.
But it’s one thing to show my pain in fiction, to trace old scars as if they belong to another body, another mind. On such a stage, it’s all magic tricks and good fun.
On such a stage, we both know that at the end, everything will be all right. We’ll both go home, and sleep soundly believing there is beauty, reason, and goodness in the world.
But to tell this story will be different. It will be like undressing in front of a stranger.
“Can I do it?” I ask the empty office.
The ghosts of my past, of her past, crowd my table. Waiting for an answer.