My friend is in the living room, crying. The more she cries, the worse I feel about almost not letting her in. If the baby wasn’t crying, screaming, really, I could have hid, pretended we weren’t home, attempted to hold onto my own space and sanity, such as they were. As it is, I open the door. The look on her face lets me know she will be coming in. So I let her, although inside I am cringing at the dirty diaper lying on the stairs, which I only just remembered, the clatter-clutter of toys and books and boots. I must have dropped the diaper in my rush to prevent the toddler from suffocating the newborn. “Look Mama, I gave her her bear,” she’d said, proudly, holding the bear tight over her sister’s tiny scrunch face. At the moment, the state of my house was nothing more than a little worry, but now I am embarrassed. My friend, childless, is a neat freak and if she weren’t so distraught, I’m sure she’d be horrified.
Sara’s mom is in the hospital, and they don’t know why. Cancer, maybe, probably. Her mom lives far from us, in Georgia; she will go tomorrow. She is telling me because she thinks I will understand. “I just know that you understand, Kari,” she says. “After all you went through with your mom.” And I want to understand, I will try, even if it feels like pretend. I can’t talk to anybody, even my husband, about the way it really was with my mom. Sara is still crying. “I’m so afraid she will die,” she sobs, and I nod, one eye on the toddler trying to duct-tape her big-girl underwear to the wall. I was afraid of my mom dying, too. But death wasn’t the scariest thing about my mom being sick. What was scary was how honest it made her.
I went to see her every day while she was in the hospital, 32 days in a row, no small job with a two-year-old who wasn’t allowed in and a belly that just kept getting bigger and bigger. At first, she didn’t speak to me, barely acknowledged me, couldn’t really — that’s how sick she was. She really almost could have died — from pancreatitis. People usually get pancreatitis from being raging alcoholics. Leave it to my mother, who never so much as sipped an ounce of alcohol in her life, to take on the sins of practically everyone else in the family and almost die from their disease. In fact, she managed to scare quite a few people sober; at least for a while, although some of them started drinking again even before she was home.
When she was finally conscious enough to be aware that she had almost died, that’s when she became honest. At first, she was too weak to be too honest, but soon enough I became her confessor. A situation complicated by the fact that I was also the one she had sinned against. I wouldn’t have done well with this under any circumstances but resented it even more pregnant, trying to live in happy-peaceful-welcome-baby world. I had made my peace with my mother years ago. There were things we pretended to so well; it would have been almost impossible, even for us, to believe that they were not real.
“I was a terrible mother,” she said, that first day, and the simple shock of that bold statement made my own baby, deep in my womb, jump. Jump so hard I almost cried out, only crying out was not something you did in front of my mother. Even at Death’s door, she suffered in silence. If she can be honest, I can too, I thought, so I didn’t exactly deny it. “Ma, please,” I said. “You’re overtired.” I glanced at the door, hoping for a doctor, a nurse, an orderly to change the garbage, but the hallway stayed quiet. “No, really,” she said. “When you married Keith . . .” she trailed off. “I was a total bitch.”
I don’t know if I was more shocked by this admission or by the drama of hearing her say “bitch” for the first time. Part of me wanted to say, “Yes, you were a total bitch, and thank God you finally admit it.” But the other part saw how weak she was, and scared, so vulnerable, translucent in the thin gown, part of one breast, from which I never nursed, exposed and pale. “Ma, please,” I said again. “Why are you saying these things?”
“I didn’t care about him being black,” she said. “It was your father. And Grandma. The neighbors . . . and oh, thank God, Grandpa was already dead!”
Always somebody else, I thought, always always about somebody else. I began to get mad at myself for allowing these feelings, for allowing her to say these things now. I had been proud, cocky even, about how well I’d risen to this occasion, coming every day, every day, I emphasized to my brother in Texas, to see her. My brother was as good at un-hearing as I was at un-speaking and we both knew what I was saying. I am a saint.
Things were smooth, perfect. I was the dutiful daughter, she the grateful and not-too-demanding mother. I brought her small treats — magazines, a fingerpaint picture from my daughter, a basket of fall leaves. No food — she couldn’t eat. I washed her hair every other day. I called my father, who would have been drunk off his ass if my mother wasn’t dying from a drunk’s disease, every evening, made him soup, casseroles. And him, I prefer drunk. But that is a whole ‘nother story.
After that, that first shocking evening, she began to start every conversation with that same sentence. My coat would barely be off, I wouldn’t have even sat yet, when she’d start in. “I was a terrible mother,” she’d say, and sigh. And me, always: “Ma. Please.” She worked backwards, from recent memories of every thing she’d done in my adult life, going agonizingly slow through the teen years. I began to pray that she would either die or be discharged before she counted back to 11, 11, 11 was the year that we both should have talked about, 11 when she opened my bedroom door on her own brother, her brother holding my hand, holding my girl-hand over his penis. How did we get there? I don’t remember. I saw her face, then I looked down, saw his penis, his man penis pink and red and hard, and then I saw my hand on it although I didn’t feel anything. I remember thinking that my hand looked small. My mom saw it too, she had to, small girl-hand on man penis. She slammed the door and went downstairs. My uncle zipped up his pants, and we joined her. My uncle didn’t say anything and neither did she. She served my uncle coffee and cheesecake, cheesecake, my favorite, but I didn’t eat it that day.
I was 11 when I felt man-hands on mine, saw a man-penis. I was 11 when she waited til he’d left, waited to slap at me and call me a whore. I was 11 when I came face to face with Death, the death of something I couldn’t name then and maybe couldn’t even name now, though he wore a different mask than the one recently presented to my mother. But I’d dealt with all there was to deal with about 11 at 21, when I finally saw a therapist. The death of whatever it was that was in me was complete, buried, with its own chipped headstone and a wreath of wilting flowers. And that’s where it would remain. She didn’t know that, of course, but as the days wore on and the terrible-mother clock ticked backwards I began to panic. She can’t, I thought, feeling suffocated both by the new life pushing my lungs up and away from my womb and the old life which was crashing in on me backwards. She cannot fucking dare to go there, because I haven’t been there in a really long time and I am not going back.
The funny thing is, I do love my mother. Maybe it’s just biological; you love your mother no matter what. She was terrible in her own way, but aren’t we all? “No,” says a little voice inside my head, “we aren’t all terrible in those ways.” But I am cut in half, torn, complex emotions like heavy silt, silt being swirled and swirled into a maelstrom by her recent admissions. You can’t really understand mothers until you are one, and whatever hatred and anger I had carried were softened by the arrival of my own children. “You can redeem yourself,” I should have said. “You can redeem yourself with your grandchildren, and you carried them in your womb, too.” And she is a good Gramsie, although I don’t say it. I sit speechless through her confessions, thinking about 11, and how that will never happen to my daughters. Sometimes I imagine worse. What if my mother hadn’t come in? What else would he have done? And though I don’t want to I feel afraid for my girls, see them as vulnerable, weak, I say fierce words of power and protection, imagine their vaginas as locked gates; only they hold the keys. I will teach them, I think, I will teach them about their bodies, and how to be safe, and I will keep bad men away from them. I will pulverize anyone who would dare to touch them in that way, and I don’t care who it is. I imagine yogis with such strong vaginal muscles they can keep them locked through an entire workout. Nothing and no one will penetrate. I will teach them to do Kegels when they turn 13, I think, or when they get their period, although a little voice is doing the math and reminding me that 11 is less than 13. Still. In the end she hurt me worse than he did, and we both know it, and this is what I am trying to avoid. Things have been peaceful with us for years, now how can we go there, how can we survive this confessional torture, how can we survive talking about 11?
In the end I am saved, not by death or discharge, but by the helicopters. After her surgery, they moved her to a room right outside the helicopter pads. How a sick person is supposed to recover there is beyond me because there is nothing louder than a helicopter landing outside your window, and someone in Philly seems to need one every ten minutes. It might not have done much for her recovery, but I didn’t mind; those choppers saved me from my own personal trauma. “I was a terrible mother,” she’d say, but the chopper would be landing. “What, Ma?” I’d say, and she’d shout it, yelling now, “I WAS A TERRIBLE MOTHER.” I’d shake my head and point to my ear, and we’d hear nothing but chopper blades. So we’d sit, in loud silence, watching the clock, watching it tick, and tick, and tick, into a future that was determined to leave 11 behind.