Pat Pilon CC
Where I come from eclipse was a verb. To be eclipsed, to have someone with a dark hand, with menacing intent, cover the light of your sun.
Where I come from to be eclipsed meant a jealous god beyond written time has seen your light and has descended from the vaulted heavens to snuff you out.
Where I come from to be eclipsed meant someone wanted to snuff you out.
It’s her again. I’m writing about my mother because that was how I claimed my life, how I moved from behind her dark shadow to look for the exit, the neon sign pointing the way out from under.
Where I come from it was not safe to shine. Do you understand what that means? I read acknowledgments in books….to my mother who gave me everything, who believed in me, who cheered me on, and truly, just to know such mothers and daughters exist on the same planet as I do is a blessing.
Her shadow crossed over my sun and stayed, defying science, defying astronomy. When it came speeding towards me I knew I had no time to pack, to hitch a ride to another solar system. I played dumb, played dark, lifted two wet fingers to my flame and extinguished it.
Waited beyond any reasonable time, waited until there was no more time, waited until finally with old age the shadow moved, a cremated celestial body falling back into the sea, ash and bone, and it was safe to shine.
I learned that I needed her to try to extinguish me so that I could outsmart her, outwait her, grow so bright I became sun enough for one, for two, for three, for the family I grew in the light of my burning sun.
And more: I came to know that we were two sides of the same coin. Anger and forgiveness. Fear and courage. Grief and emptiness. Everything I know about my strengths and will to survive I learned from her.
The fingerprint of her hand on my face is long gone, but now and then a solar flare, a burning out and up of a spark that says no eclipse will ever swallow the sun because there is only the dance between the two…light and shadow, in breath and out, hold and release.
Where I come from to be eclipsed means to grow easy with the dance, rowing out on a moonless night onto dark waters, stripping down to my skin, phosphorescing under the endless bright stars.
I do not remember this. First my brother told me, then years later my mother repeated the story, but she was drunk and crying in that self-pitying way that made you want to jump out the window.
My brother says: you were eight years old, already getting fat, you used to sweat like a pig.
I roll my eyes.
So one night Uncle Harry and Aunt Rosalyn come over. It’s late. We’re already upstairs in bed. The four of them, Mom, Dad, Uncle Harry, Aunt Rosalyn sit in the living room. Dad’s in the hard back chair. Mom’s on the sofa. Harry and Rosalyn are on the grey nubby armchairs.
Go on, I say.
So we sat on the top step and looked down, he says. Through the banister. Harry is smoking one of his crappy cigars, everyone is jiggling the ice in their highballs. Mom looks like she’s just crawled in from the taxidermist.
I punch him.
So Harry rolls the ash off his cigar into the glass ashtray and says, Ira, this is serious. We wouldn’t come all the way from Great Neck if it wasn’t.
Great Neck’s not that far, I say. Shut up and listen, he says.
Ira, Harry continues, it’s not right what you’re doing with Abbey. Now I’m not saying I know what it is, I’m only saying it looks bad. You’re always touching her, fondling her, cuddling her. It’s not right and it’s got to stop.
I know what comes next.
So, my brother says, Mom stands up and screams, this is what I’ve been telling you Ira. This is what I’ve been saying, but do you listen to me? No.
I fold up inside myself. I’m grown now, but still, something breaks inside, shatters into small pieces that I put in a wooden box and shove to the back of my closet.
Then what? I ask, although by now speaking is hard.
That’s when Mom sees us, he says, and yells that we have to go to bed.
I do not remember this. What I do remember, buried deep inside my skin, is that whatever was happening between my Daddy and me stopped. He placed me on an ice floe and sent me out to sea. He gave me a blanket and some chocolate and a salute as he set me adrift. I didn’t have oars or a compass. No flashlight, no whistle. I froze. Ice formed under my fingernails and between my toes. Ice turned the tears on my eyelashes into tiny wind chimes. Ice was what I sucked on when the water ran out. Ice was what felt like heat if I thought about it hard enough.
I drifted. No way to signal back home. There was no shore, no green, just moonlight and ice and if I cared to, the feel of my heart stuttering underneath my frozen hand. I became the Ice Queen, green eyes like sea glass. I grew a flipper and could navigate the frigid sea. I learned how to breathe underwater, and in time, I learned how to forget.
I was wild as a jungle cat in my own primeval concrete forest. Where else was there to go? Suburban claustrophobia led me out of the classroom to the subway. It did not matter the consequences, the wild was calling.
Nose in the air seeking danger, yearning for sweat, newly minted with teenage bravado, I rode the beast through tunnels and over bridges until I was puked up onto wet hot city streets.
This was my wild. A crazy cacophony of noise. Horns bells shouts screams. Did it matter if someone was dying? Someone was always dying. This was the jungle, the wild where I came to sharpen my claws.
I took what I needed, stuffed it in a hole to retrieve later. Isn’t that the rule of survival? Order food and leave without paying because there was no coin in the realm that birthed me. Need anything? Take it.
Slip between buildings, merge into the steady stream of other wild creatures that walked tame but smelled wild like the forest after a bruising rain that tore through leaf and pitted the dirt. How did I know? I knew because storms brewed where I came from and I recognized the smell.
It was always hot as the fourth level of hell or cold as an enemy’s curse. Dirty snow or the burned smell of autumn. A Santa on every corner ringing bells.
It was always one thing or another but always I could prowl in the wild, young and invisible, hungry or not hungry, hot or cold. I prowled for sensation not happiness, because there is only sensation in the wild. Just the hot prick of being alive, of outwitting danger, of riding the currents from the wind that squeezed itself between those high stone buildings, catching a wave, surfing it from one street corner to another past roasting chestnuts and the homeless sleeping on grates. Past the grifters and liars, the dealers and darlings offering poison in trade for a smile.
This was my wild and I prowled it, gave it my wet and my hunger, my belly yearning for seed.
There were never any storms as violent or unpredictable as my mother’s. Not just fire, but ice that froze me solid to the spot, left me there until I taught myself how to thaw.
Rain storms that drenched me to the bone. Thunder that drove me to seek shelter inside my small room, inside myself inside my very small room.
But oh there never was a pause in any storm like my mother’s pauses.
Double rainbows, roses in bloom. Silly girl talk and manicures. Do you remember the time we watched a beauty pageant together? Laughing, trash talking the outfits, gin and tonics, salted peanuts and flowered paper cocktail napkins. You, already old with a small patch of grey hair, already half blind from macular degeneration, insisting that with the right makeup and costume you could look like that too. Or the time we took the subway into the city, just the two of us, to see Porgy and Bess. How Summertime was the song you sang, low and throaty while you washed the dishes, how I stood by your side, wiping them dry, spellbound by the yearning in your voice.
These were the times I’d be lulled into contentment. I’d forget to check the barometer, and I’d be caught suddenly in the flash flood downpour of your bottomless grief. Your bitter tears wetting the cross stitch tablecloth you had set out for tea.
Sometimes a wind no one could have predicted rose up as you turned from the stove where you were stirring Uncle Ben’s Converted White Rice. Then you would blow the hot fires of rage into the room until you scorched everything you touched.
I grew wise. I learned the number to dial for a weather report, but the satellite only told me you were coming. Then I would wet my finger and stick it up in the air to get the latest download.
“Folks, it’s going to be a glorious morning, but by the afternoon a storm is rolling in, so take shelter.”
And I did. I created a shelter in my very small bedroom with the pink rose wallpaper. Three Musketeer bars and Archie comics hotfingered from the corner candy store stuffed to the back of my sock drawer, my radio and my diary at the ready in case this storm turned out to be the 40 day kind.
Your storms left driftwood, green sea glass, the rotting wing of a bird tangled in seaweed, all washed up, exhausted onto the shore. Treasures to pick through. The sea glass on my windowsill catching the morning light. But it was the driftwood I hunted, brought home and washed off, added to the growing pile of materials I was gathering to build the ark I would need. No compass. Just the stars and the pull of my own true heart to deliver me to a shore where the weather was gentler, more predictable, a climate better suited to my soul.
I’m pretty sure caregiving comes to us through our DNA, like eye color, height, blood type. This is what I remember: I am two years old. My brother is six. He has a bad stomach, can’t digest. He’s thrown up his dinner, and for reasons I will never understand, my mother cooks him the same meal again. He throws up again. In rage, in frustration, she pulls his hair and sticks his tiny bewildered face in his own vomit. I watch. I watch. I think two year old thoughts. My brother. My angry mother. I remember this: I open the kitchen cabinet, grab a handful of tissues and toddle to my beloved older brother. I hand them to him, defying my mother, daring her to stop me.
Caregiving my dad: he has a weak heart, has to rest on weekends when Mom goes out with the girls, high heels and Joy perfume. Take care of your father, she says. We watch TV, primitive back then, Sabu of the Jungle movies. I make us popcorn. I am not yet ten years old. I take his black plastic comb from his back pocket and comb his hair as he reclines on the sofa like a pasha. I bring him his slippers, coo over him like a baby doll. My dad the baby doll.
So ok. They knew I had the caregiving gene. It must have skipped a few generations because no one was caring for me.
I was the kid who always had a wounded bird in a shoe box, the kid who shared her lunch, later cigarettes, pot, the clothes I stole. Shared my money with beggars and panhandlers. I might as well have had a sign on my back.
I’m the one who got a graduate degree in social work, and ministered to the dying and their families for more than a decade.
I’m the one my mother knew to call when she wanted help killing herself.
Nuh uh, not me, I said to my brother. Not me not me.
He and I flew to Florida and gathered the supplies. A helium tank from Party City, a plastic bag and rope from KMart.
I had my alibi worked out. I would be the woman in the bar with the memorable cleavage who spilled her two olive martini down her dress and asked the cute bartender for help cleaning it up. Honestly, that was the plan. Mom and my brother getting ready, me in my push up bra, and then Mama, because at that moment she knew to switch from Mother to Mama, Mama cooed – please don’t go, please stay with me, please Abbeykins, a name she reserved for those times she needed to reel me in like a fish with one breath left.
And of course yes I stayed. Tied the plastic bag around her neck. Snaked the tubing from the tank under the rope, turned on the tank and watched her die. Dodged an autopsy, dodged a jail sentence.
Because she knew. She had watched me toddle across the floor with a fist full of tissues to hand to my brother. She knew she had me by my DNA, by the caregiving gene someone in Russia passed down to me, someone I wish to hell had been there to teach me how to say no.
This is the eulogy I never delivered for my brother, who was the dark of the moon to my sun.
When I was born he was four- years- old. He had nearly killed our mother in childbirth – a rare disease. A close call. He was dark-skinned and sullen. True story: one day she tied his little boy suspenders to the backyard tree so that she could… what? Smoke a filtered Kent in peace? But he slipped out of his clothes, left his little boy suspenders tied to the tree and ran naked away from our home, seeking shelter. Anywhere. A neighbor returned his small bruised body to an impatient mother.
But oh my birth. Under the sign of the Sun in the sultry month of August, I was the girl child my mother’s older sister couldn’t produce. Baby boy after boy after boy. And then me.
The sun kissed me hello, tousled my blonde curls, turned my skin caramel, while my brother glowered in the dark. I came to know myself by the shadows he cast.
Despite his envy, despite his obvious distaste for this round sunny child, I loved him. He was my big brother who had to take me to Saturday matinees with his friends. He was my brainy big brother who helped me with my math homework, who shared the back seat of the car with me when we drove to Florida for two week vacations during winter break.
He hurt. He always hurt. Too tender for her snake tongue, her endless rage. Too tender, he shrank further into the shadows. But I followed, cast my sunny sunshine into the dark corners, shone my cosmic flashlight to find him, drew him out with kindness, later with a joint, or a latte, or pastrami on rye extra mustard if we were visiting her in Florida.
We took turns watching over her after her first unsuccessful suicide attempt. But when she needed us to help her die we showed up together. We did it together. Both of us pulled into a black hole with no sunshine, no light.
And here is what I did not get to say because there was no memorial. He withdrew into himself after she died, so far into the shadows I could not find him. He returned my letters. Let my calls go to voicemail. He went off the rails. Finally, too far out into a black frozen universe where the sun, my sun, my love couldn’t reach him, and he died alone.
This is what I did not get to say because his lonely ashes were scattered by a single friend on a lonely mountain top.
And now? Now I imagine some of his ashes stuck to rock, caught in tree branches, part of coyote scat. I rest easy about him now, knowing he’s being looked after by another sun.
When I came for you it was raining. I had to hack my way through the honeysuckle that had grown over the fence and pick my way over the cracked concrete. But still. I knew where to look.
I entered our childhood home by the front door, the furniture still in place, the oil portrait of you and your big brother still hanging over the sofa, the silver tea set on the coffee table. I went up the stairs to your room because that’s where you always were, listening to the radio.
The Lone Ranger, and later, rock and roll.
When I found you I knelt beside you and called your name but you did not answer. You were curled up under the heavy quilt with the tiny roses, and the wallpaper, dainty, pink and white, the way a girl was supposed to look.
I lifted the blanket and wept. You were weightless, almost transparent. I could see your lungs and heart struggling to pump, the effort it took to breathe.
Come with me I said. I’ll take care of you, but you did not stir. Come honey, please. I reached out my hand but you lay limp, eyes empty and dull. You made a small sound and I bent to hear you. Help you said. Help.
I threw back the covers and raised you up under your arms, lifted you over my back the way firemen carry the rescued. You clung to my neck and we descended the stairs, past the portrait and the silver, out the front door.
We rested on the grass next door. You lay in my lap, watching the wind in the trees, watching the storm that only you could see blow in. The wind howled, smashed the windows of our childhood home, blew down the doors. The wind rampaged through the house, every corner, every closet until nothing remained of the past that had waited for me to come home.
We stood. You led me down the street. What do you want to show me? I asked.
This, you said. The barbershop where our mother chopped your hair off every month lest you outshine her.
This you said. The corner candy store with the soda fountain where you stole candy bars and ate them all at once, three blocks from home in the only safety and solace you knew how to find.
This you said. The piano teacher who loved you, the drama teacher who said you were beautiful. The aunt who saw your suffering. This. The way you caught the subway into the city for freedom.
We belong to each other now, I said. You are mine and I am yours. Tell me what you need.
This you said taking my hand. I need you to comfort me when I hurt. I need you to protect me. I need you to cherish me above all others.
Yes you said. Above all others.
It’s bizarre how my mother shows up all these years after her death. We liked cruising the thrift stores together when I’d come to visit her in Florida. I’d bring my daughter Samantha if she had a week off from school. We’d check into one of those small 1950’s pink stucco motels, a kitchenette with cracked coffee mugs and empty plastic ice cube trays in the tiny freezer. We’d stay up late watching Conan, eating Chinese take-out. We’d pick Mom up from her condo at 8am, hoping her hangover wasn’t too bad, praying her blood sugar was singing in the higher registers, and the caffeine was doing its morning janitorial job in her brain. We’d have breakfast at the local pancake house, cheese blintzes, sour cream and fresh blueberries, the waitress taking our order with pad and pencil poised like she was auditioning for the part of a pancake house waitress. Forget it, I’d think, you’re wasting your charm. Mom always stiffed the wait staff.
We’d drive to the strip mall just outside of Boca…four thrift stores in a row, and head in like it was a roller derby. Mom would rifle through the racks and hold up a blouse, a skirt, items so skanky and juvenile, or so low cut and sequined it was like she was outfitting me for a porno flick….the innocent cheerleader, the slut.
I’d be doing my own hustle, quick through the racks, checking fabric, looking for designer labels. I once scored a mink coat for $20 because who needs a mink in Boca?
But here’s the thing. Mom would stand right behind me and tug at the item I had pulled off the rack. “That’s disgusting, Abbey. Put it back.” She’d say it loud, and the other bargain hunters would turn to see who had spoken with such a tongue. I’d remain silent, come back later when she was napping, buy what I wanted when she wasn’t around.
Now when I’m in a thrift store the first thing I sense is her Joy perfume. I turn to look but no one is there. Aha I think. So just to be sure I pull something trashed from the rack…a pilled sweater, acrylic, coffee stains, a cigarette hole. “That’s disgusting Abbey. Put it back.” It’s her. She’s taken the bait. Very slowly, very very slowly, I say under my breath...”Fuck off. If you can’t hold your acid tongue I’m going to light some sage and smudge you, set off the smoke alarm, and send you back to whatever realm of rehabilitation you’ve been consigned to. Can you shut up? Hmmm?” She sniffles, clears her throat. I think I hear her whisper “But it’s disgusting.” I reach in my purse for the sage but she’s been subdued. “That’s better,” I say. “Now you can stay.”
Mother’s Day was always a challenge. I knew nothing I sent you would be good enough, so eventually I stopped trying, but hey, you’ve been dead 18 years and I think I’m going to give it another shot.
It’s time we put down our swords, took the bullets out of our pearl handled guns, tucked the poison away, called off the firing squad.
Today I’d like to start anew, put to rest the fight between us.
#Death mother vs. Sleeping Beauty.
Maybe time to write a new story. #forgive and forget. What to ask my forgiveness for? I hope by now you have had a chance to complete your life review, that blinding moment when you see it all, the jealousy, the rage, the ways you tried to eclipse me.
#don’t hit me again.
#if you do I’m going to hit you back.
See, we can start fresh.
#put down your gun and I’ll put down mine.
#no you first.
I’ve had 18 years to think it over, to look into your wounds like a surgeon removing a cancer, to understand you better than you ever understood yourself.
#too wounded to love
#but I tried.
I’ve written about you, I’ve prayed to you, I’ve cursed you and I have sometimes forgiven you.
#believe it or not
But this is a new page, a new chapter, and really, all I want to say is I love you. I’ve come to love you in your absence which is the only way to love you.
#she pushed me away
#I tried until I was blue in the face.
But without you here it’s gotten easier. I remember the sound of your husky voice singing Summertime. I remember your Joy perfume, how funny you were, how beautiful. I remember listening to opera with you, both of us swooning when Pavarotti hit a high note. I remember how you scratched my back, called me Abbeykins. I remember how your cheeks stayed firm and rosy as you aged and how that was my favorite spot to kiss.
#thank you Lancomb night cream
I remember how your vision failed at the end of your life and how you couldn’t sign a check in a straight line, how your boyfriend read you the TV guide on the phone every night. How your aging body disgusted you. How you turned away love.
#I tried I tried I tried
# I thought the failure was my own.
So Mama, I am remembering you and some the sweet things about you. The cross stitch tablecloth and twelve napkins that I use for Thanksgiving and Passover. The white baby blanket you knit for me when I was pregnant. I finger the dropped stitch and remember how frustrated you were by your encroaching blindness.
#you broke my heart.
I have your jewelry now, all the fabulous pieces your four husbands gave you. #whoopie
But mostly what I’m here to say is that I forgive you, as I hope you forgive me. We did our best.
#happy mother’s day, Mama
#wish you were here.
Nancy London, MSW is one of the original authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the author of the bestselling guidebook for older mothers: Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over Forty. She is a licensed therapist and for the past decade has worked with hospice patients and their families. This experience has grounded her in the certainty that grief, loss and change all hold the potential to open us to a greater love. www.nancylondonwriter.com
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.