I’m wide awake. It’s 5:30am, and sunlight is streaming through my heavy bedroom curtains. The light turns the edges of everything in my bedroom into soft wavy lines; I get up and make my bed, moving zombie-like through dancing shafts of early morning sunlight like liquid butter.
My mother is dead.
There, I said it. Well, wrote it. And seeing the words so starkly written like that has given me a severe stomach cramp.
My mother has been dead for 47 days.
Not that I’m counting. It’s like I’m helpless to not count – my brain makes an automatic tally each day I awaken. Like the way I can tell people when they ask exactly how long I’ve lived in Dundee…my memory has always been good with dates like that.
Right now, I’m being tyrannized by memory and experience. I made spaghetti for tea this past Monday. I love spaghetti. That question if you were on a desert island and could only take one book, one friend and eat one thing? I’d eat spaghetti – my spaghetti, it’s one of the few things I make amazingly well.
So I’m making the spaghetti: chopping the green peppers, the onions, the courgettes, the mushrooms. Preparing the sauce. And suddenly I’m in my Mom’s kitchen, a few days after her 80th birthday. She’s making me fried chicken and teasing me: “You’ll be cooking for me tomorrow night – I want some spaghetti.” And suddenly I was crying, my tears falling into the spaghetti sauce. Hey, tears are salty – added flavour, right?
I ate it. “Don’t you waste that food,” I hear Mommy saying. “Plenty of people don’t have enough to eat, so don’t waste food.” I ate my spaghetti – it tasted like dirt. An hour later I threw it back up. Wasteful.
Yesterday morning I was walking to work. As I passed the High School of Dundee, a white van with a plumber’s logo parked alongside the curb. A beautiful girl in a hijab climbed out one side, and a woman who was obviously her mother climbed out the other side. The mother adjusted her daughter’s uniform, smoothed her daughter’s hijab, planted a kiss on her child’s cheek, then drove away. The daughter stood there until the van was out of sight, then she pulled the hijab off her head, stuffing it into her backpack and shaking her long hair out before disappearing through the doors of the school.
And I remembered my mother: “You’re 14 – you are not wearing make-up. You can wear make-up when you’re 16, not before. And don’t even think about wearing that halter top to school!” And I grumbled and muttered under my breath as I kissed her goodbye. Arriving at school, I headed straight to the bathroom, where I removed the halter top and the make-up from my book bag and put them on, along with other girls lined up in front of the sink who were doing the same thing. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
My grief is a live thing; anaconda-like, it constantly strangles me. It affects me in myriad physical ways. I’ll remove an item from my purse, a dresser drawer, a kitchen cabinet, only to stand there for 10 minutes holding the item in my hand: why did I remove it – what did I want this for? In conversation with someone, I’ll suddenly stop speaking, having totally forgotten what it was I was saying. My sleep patterns are all askew: sometimes I’ll sleep through the night (usually with the aid of the sleeping pills my GP has given me), sometimes I’ll sleep 1-2 hours only to awaken, bolt upright in bed, unable to get back to sleep. Box sets come in handy at those times.
People don’t want to talk to you when you’re grieving. They avoid you, as if grief is a communicable disease. My friend Roz (now sadly deceased) once described me in a letter of recommendation she wrote on my behalf as “brutally honest”. This could be a factor in why some people avoid me now, as when they ask the question, “How are you doing?” I tell them the truth: “I am all fucked-up…I can’t get my head around this and I have no clue what I’m doing…I barely know what day it is.”
My partner of eight years recently told me that grief affects other people. And I realize he’s right. But how am I supposed to stop grieving? And why should I stop – her loss is still so new – she was my mother, surely I have a right to grieve?
Grief is not contagious. Sometimes, for people who are grieving, talking helps them. When you can’t talk about the person, when you can’t feel that person’s loss, then you are prevented from moving through the pain. And if you can’t move through it, you can’t begin to heal.
In an odd way, I thought I would find comfort in Dundee. I thought, when I returned to Dundee following Mommy’s funeral, that I would feel a little better. America has become a foreign landscape to me, especially now that 45 is in power (blog for another day). I was sure that when I returned to Scotland – the hills, the River Tay, the quality of the light in the early morning, my wee flat and my garden – would all act as a balm on my shattered soul.
Instead, the memory box opened. I walk past the McManus Galleries, and remember taking Mom on a tour when she visited. I take a shortcut through the Overgate on a rainy day, and remember the day we went on a shopping spree. I see a box of Weetabix on a shelf in Tesco’s, and remember Mom eating that for her breakfast: “This tastes just like Shredded Wheat!” she marvelled.
“Give time, time,” people tell me. “Time heals all wounds,” they say. Clichés that may be true. Right now, time is torturing me.
One of my friends – I can’t remember who – sent me a sympathy card not long after Mommy died. In the card was a slip of paper, with typed words which read:
“The angels are always near to those that are grieving, to whisper to them that their loved ones are safe in the hand of God.”
I like that. I want to believe that. Sadly, I find I am unable to believe in anything right now…not even myself.
copyright (c) 2017 KPM