Play your life backwards as you would an old vinyl record & perhaps you’ll hear a hidden meaning. Premonitions. Timelines. Lost opportunities & endless regrets.
I last saw my Mother early November 2009 at my brother-in-law’s engagement party in Chicago. We had breakfast at her favorite diner, one we frequented when she visited during my time living in Chicago, a greasy spoon with mediocre food that must’ve reminded her of home. She looked good for a woman who’d been given a death sentence: breast cancer metastasized to the bones. 5 – 10 years, maybe more. Painful degeneration. There’d be many more such breakfasts, comforting hugs. There was still time.
We didn’t go to Cleveland that Christmas, our first in Colorado. Despite it being my Mom’s favorite day of the year, and my burden to carry, money was tight, travel expensive, and, to be honest, we seldom enjoyed ourselves there during the holiday season: too many visits with disinterested family members, too many diversions, too much goddamn stress. So we skipped out. That was the first, and only, Christmas I didn’t spend with my Mother. While my family was out meeting their obligations, small talking with Aunts & Uncles & Cousins they saw too often, we were out with friends, drinking hard. Sledding down snowy Denver streets. Here’s my Facebook status the day after Christmas, lyrics that don’t sound quite as exciting when played in reverse:
“Michael’s Christmas included mushroom quinoa “meatloaf,” two Chinese Stars, an air-pump BB-gun, three shots of purple vodka, beer, wine, a joint, two lazy dogs, a welder’s mask, and a makeshift sheet-metal sled. Top that.”
Mom started feeling short of breath that day, the 26th, couldn’t climb stairs without having to stop for a break. Though cancer-ridden, she was a healthy woman, thin & active, and despite her mental frailty, she wasn’t one who played up her ailments. She made it through New Year’s before heading to the hospital. Once admitted, her tone changed. I encouraged her via phone, told her it’d be just fine. And though I wasn’t fond of her medical treatment & the pharmaceuticals she was being fed- again, story for another post- I knew she’d be fine. It was a spell, I told her, a curable ailment or a gnarly virus. Anxiety, even, a post-holiday depression, too much time to ponder her fate. As days wore on, her voice became less & less energized, her tone more & more discouraged, and I could hear it when talking to my Dad & Sister, as well.
If you know me by now, you know I’m an eternal skeptic, a disappointed idealist, a faithless soldier battling against a system I don’t trust. And yet, I carried on where my Mom was concerned: I proselytized, I researched, I prognosticated. Me: newfound optimist, the motivator. As the record plays in reverse I see now how goddamn naive I was, how in her tone I should’ve heard the truth: the End was near.
Second week of January & now I’m asking multiple times a day if I should find my way home. I’d ask my Mom, my Sister, my Dad, anyone who knew anything about anything. They said no, no worries, it’d be fine, come home once she was discharged, and, even if they knew better, and in retrospect I believe they all knew where this ended even if they, like me, refused to accept it, they said no. Perhaps requesting me home was the symbolic Last Rites.
My sister was calling multiple times a day. Time had no meaning then. Hospitals, like casinos, never sleep & nor did my Sister & Father then, who’d ring my phone at all hours. Quick updates, vents of frustration, or to just escape the bubble, listen & then reject my optimistic rants. Whatever the reason, they found comfort in my meandering & meaningless words, my hackneyed research, & my half-baked theories.
Truth finds my stomach first, always has, even when news is unexpected. Starts as a tingle & grows & festers & floats up to the throat. I stop eating. Heart rate’s a rapid drumbeat. I drift off, become introspective. Ash asks me questions & it’s as if I’m not there at all.
I anticipated phone calls then. Truth would kick around in my stomach, rapid cymbal-tap, and then vrrrrrriiiiiiing, vrrrrrriiiing. News, no news. No matter. Each ring grew more ominous, vibrato building with each subsequent hello.
On Saturday, January 16th, I started to hear defeat in voices. My Mom couldn’t string more than a sentence or two together without requiring oxygen. I told her that’s it, I’m coming home, but she said no, that she’d rather have me there once she was out of the hospital, which could be any day. I asked my Sister & she said she’d let me know. I asked my Dad & he said maybe.
On Sunday, January 17th, they transferred Mom to the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus. Doctors were more optimistic there & they were even talking timeline for discharge, an odd yet promising shift. Mom sounded the same, though, if not slightly more agitated. I asked her again if I should come home & she said no. All in all, though, she’d be okay. Discharged, even! I grabbed Ash & myself some pillows & we fell asleep on the couch.
The ring that woke me had depth to it, echoed as a train whistle. A football game was on the television: the Jets were beating the Chargers, an upset. The bulldog was snoring. Ash’s face was buried in a pillow. I picked up the phone & heard a calm I didn’t feel in my own voice. “Hello,” I said. He said, “They did what they could. She’s gone, Mike. She was such a wonderful woman. Such a wonderful, wonderful woman.” And he said that, as if on a loop, and I sat there & I altered between ‘whats’ & ‘hows’ & ‘whys.’ Ash woke up at some point, looked at my face, and for some goddamn reason I took my hand & drew it across my throat. She’s dead, it said.
Maybe my Dad offered to buy us plane tickets. Maybe Ash was at the computer searching for flights. I have no idea. Instead, I was grabbing essentials: books purchased & shelved unread in anticipation of this moment, three dusty ties, a suit I hadn’t worn in years, a dress shirt folded neatly, a few button-downs, a pair of khakis, two pairs of jeans, a hat, toenail clippers, hairspray, my iPod, two laptops, the ‘Six Feet Under’ Season 1 DVD set, a few pens, & a handful of Emergen-C packets. I scooped out one & a quarter cups dog food twenty-four times into individually-sealed Ziploc baggies & placed them side-by-side in a cloth Whole Foods bag with three rubber bones, a stuffed Monkey, a Frisbee, food & water dishes, Benadryl for his allergies, and a bandana. I emptied the refrigerator of spoilables, grabbed the cookies from the counter & placed them in the freezer. I took the garbage out, turned the heat down to 60, warm enough to prevent pipes from freezing in that old house yet cold enough to save on utility bills. I closed the fireplace flue, folded blankets, straightened couch cushions, emailed my asshole boss & told him my Mom died and to leave me alone for two weeks, tasted the word “bereavement” and spit it out in the form of a cold out-of-office auto-reply message. I grabbed an old Xanax bottle from the medicine cabinet, added some Vicodin & vitamins.
I went outside with a handful of pillows, put the seats down in the back of the car, and built the bulldog a bedroom. I left a light on in the living room, the “stay away because someone’s home ready to kick your fucking ass” warning. I waited for Ash to finish packing.
I typed in my Mo… Dad’s address and laughed. 1439 miles. 22 hours, 47 minutes.
We were in Eastern Colorado before I called home to tell them I was driving. My Dad’s house was packed with family by then & none were shocked to hear of my plans. They were either too numb or too used to my brand of crazy to argue.
We drove across this endless country, twenty-six sleepless hours, few stops. Stared through shattered eyes out the windshield at the monotonous landscape. No excitement left. Wind farms no longer quixotic fantasies; Iowa’s rolling hills no longer fields of fertile opportunity. Sobs like squalls, blinks as wipers. No amount of begging or violence could’ve ripped that steering wheel out of my tense hands.
The daylong wake an endless parade of empty sentiment, of cheek kisses, back pats, and flailing hugs. Minutes were decades, each silence a century. Every glance at my dead Mom’s plasticized face a lifetime of embalmed memories.
That old house was quiet, unsettling in Mom’s absence & yet comforting in that she was still there somehow. Her scent, her style. Days as long as the road from Denver & nights sleepless, we sat at that kitchen table & listened to my father unravel. He told stories, each one sadder, angrier & more uninhibited than the one before it.
The record started to spin backwards, the lyrics changing, history altering. Once familiar songs sounded different, edgier. Family now had backstory. Well-kept secrets. Unmasked identities. I listened, a motherless boy lost in an unfamiliar world.