Lately, I’ve been missing my mom a lot more than usual, and not just because her birthday passed a little over a week ago. Life is challenging, always but especially right now, and sometimes you just need a mom. The “missing” is always there, this string tied around a corner of my heart that gets tugged and squeezes when I hear a song she loved, or cook a meal she taught me how to make, or run my finger along the spine of a book I’m sure she’d enjoy. We went through a period, too long a period, where life was just busy and crowded and life and we didn’t talk as much. And later in life, she couldn’t travel and it was harder to get to her. One of the regrets I’ll always carry with me is that she never got to meet my son in person in the brief period their lives overlapped. I can’t call her anymore to tell her about the absurd thing I saw while driving down the street, or cry to her a little when I have one of my particularly vivid bad dreams, or just get some no-nonsense advice from one of the smartest people I will ever meet. Tug. Squeeze.
My parents divorced when I was five. My dad was a serial philanderer and abusive to boot, in ways that involved lots of me hitting things with a foam bat in therapy after our case worked its way through the Texas legal system. I don’t remember him as being a fixture in my childhood much beyond canceled weekend visits and trips to the bank to deposit a long-overdue child-support check (his responsibility for my care was determined to be a criminally paltry $35 a week, and when I aged out of the system he was still thousands of dollars in arrears). Instead, my mother pulled double duty as both parents, and also did some pinch hitting as a best friend for her shy, bookish child. She often said I was too easy - I never rebelled, I never got into trouble, I was quick to chip in and help, and I never complained. As she announced at a potluck lunch for new members at our church one Sunday, I was her “most expensive hobby.” I was in dance classes, I was in art classes, I was in music classes. There was always an expense for me that she was willing to forgo her own needs to pay.
The early years were actually the most “well off” we were in my life - she only had to work one job, and we had a nice house on a quiet L-shaped street with a steep front lawn that was perfect for Slip N Slide in Texas’ three seasons of summer. My elementary school was close enough to walk to. The biggest tragedies of the Quail Court house involved multiple cats getting hit by cars (more than zero is too many; I’ve had indoor cats ever since). We knew all of our neighbors. My older half-brother, nearly out of high school and the house by the time I started preschool, would visit his best friend across the street; I remember tagging along because they had the largest Spirograph set I’d ever seen. My friends lived two doors down; my first tooth made its appearance when I toddled into their coffee table and hit it squarely with my mouth. They also had an Atari system, so I assumed they were rich. The elderly woman next door was a spooky “witch” when we were very small; she ended up being my babysitter when I was older, keeping me stocked in Lite Bright supplies and teaching me to crochet. I had posters of Sean and Mackenzie Astin on my walls and listened to Disney records on my record player and felt oh so very mature because I was allowed to watch Saturday Night Live. I stayed home sick from school and watched ‘Star Wars’ while my mom brought me chicken soup.
But by the time I hit third grade, things were much leaner. The rent was too much for my mom on her own, so my half-sister, old enough that I don’t remember her as anything other than an adult with children almost my age, moved away from the latest in a string of boyfriends in California and into our house with the two children she had at the time. I had live-in playmates, much more adventurous than me, and we roamed the neighborhood like feral cats, getting into marginal bits of trouble. We built a ramshackle treehouse in the backyard from scavenged wood planks and an old interior door. And then my nephew found a gas can and started a fire in the tree and that was the end of the treehouse. Not long after, that was the end of our time on Quail Court. My sister had been taking the rent money from Mom and using it to buy weed, among other things, and we were evicted. We moved, away from the only house I’d ever known, away from the neighborhood dance studio I took classes at every week, away from the elementary school that let me ride my Strawberry Shortcake Big Wheel through the halls on the last day before summer.
My sister stayed with us for a while, and another boyfriend joined her, along with a third child. When I started middle school, it was with the “permanent” address of a motel on the side of I-35. Mom and I shared a room at the very end of the second floor, next to the staircase, and my sister and her family were in the room adjacent. The motel carpets were so grimy that I always wore flip flops inside, and the box of discarded Playboy magazines my nephew and I found behind the motel one day were highly educational (he pilfered them, I covered my eyes). I spent as much time as possible hiding from everyone in the courtyard pool, staring at the freeway and making myself long and lean, straining my toes to try and touch the bottom of the deep end with my mouth just above the water’s surface. Mom was working two jobs, rising at 2 am to deliver newspapers and then spending her days as an administrative assistant in a doctor’s office, so she was always exhausted. Which made it easy to sneak out of our room at night. There was a pawn shop next door to the motel, and in front of it a giant trampoline was propped on one side. The springs around its edge formed a convenient ladder, and I’d climb up to the top in the dark and precariously balance on the peak. The view of the freeway was much better from up there than in the pool.
Eventually we found a house we could afford, out of the city and in the northern suburbs of Austin. Being alone now, with many more resources than she had, I think about the struggling my mom did for all those years. The bone-tired exhaustion she felt making sure everyone was taken care of. I was content to ride my bike up and down the street listening to the same Oingo Boingo cassette over and over, but I know she wished I had more. We still kept having to move, chasing affordability and a landlord that wouldn’t raise our rent. And finally my sister moved out and Mom and I were on our own again, a tag team taking on the world. We had a little two-bedroom duplex just on the edge of the city enough to have an Austin address but be in an entirely different school district. We started going to a local Lutheran church, which was shockingly progressive for both Texas and church at the time (our music minister was openly gay and our assistant pastor was a woman). Looking back, I don’t think my mom had any particular affinity for religion beyond growing up Catholic in suburban Chicago. But she loved to sing in the choir, and play the piano, and I joined the handbell choir with her. My mother devoured books and was always lost inside one or another - I could stand next to her and yell her name and it would take several tries to pull her out when she was engrossed - and we took weekly trips to Half-Price Books, trading one used stack for another. Her book habit was definitely something she passed on to me. Those years of just the two of us, late middle school and early high school until my brother and his daughter moved in with us, were the best of my childhood. Which says a lot considering how awful being a teenager is generally.
I went off to college, to a small town a four-hour bus ride away. I got very familiar with that bus ride, because it was the only way to get back to Mom. Only seeing her every few months, I started to notice how life was taking its toll. When I was home for the holidays, I’d rise with her at 2 am to deliver the newspapers, bundling and bagging them until my hands were black from ink, and napping on the large particleboard worktables in the newspaper warehouse while she split her delivery in two because the thicker holiday papers with all their extra advertisements didn’t fit in her car all at once. It didn’t take long after I’d left for school, though, for her to give up the newspaper business; her body just couldn’t do it anymore. She started walking with a cane, and she needed a hip replacement she would never get. She was diagnosed with diabetes, and controlling her diet became a focus. She lived with my brother and his daughter and then my sister (with a fourth child by now), being the live-in grandma who could babysit and cook as needed. We talked on the phone almost daily, falling into that routine where you don’t even have a proper greeting when you answer the phone - you just pick up in the middle of a sentence or thought as if you were never disconnected. I briefly came back to Austin after college when I struggled to find a job, and I got to spend time with her as a fully fledged adult and peer. She was truly my best friend.
Once I moved away to start my own family, we started to talk less. I was working, I was building a home, and I was several states away. Her diabetes worsened; her kidneys failed and she began dialysis. The cane became a walker, a purple one she’d haul in and out of her trunk, with a basket on the front for her purse and neon green tennis balls on the legs to help it slide a bit. We still had the same rhythm to our conversations, but they were fewer and far between. Traveling for both of us was a challenge and seeing her in person once or twice a year was normal. Our phone calls would be separated by days or weeks. We were the same, but life was different.
When she died, my brother called me at work. I remember being surprised to see his name on my phone because my brother never called me; we barely spoke. He told me she was gone, and I crawled under the agency’s giant conference table made from an old bowling alley lane and rocked back and forth and sobbed. I had talked to her a week before; she had fallen down in a parking lot and was sore and badly bruised, and she sounded tired and sad. I discovered, after, she had stopped going to dialysis. She was tired, of the pain and exhaustion, of the hours-long dialysis sessions three times a week, of bargaining with the state for her care because she was poor and uninsured, of having a mind that was still so sharp in a body that had betrayed her. And so, she decided to stop. With no functioning kidneys to remove toxins from her blood, her body got weaker and weaker. And she fell again, in her home, where she was found when no one could get in touch with her.
I don’t remember getting home from work that day. I don’t remember booking the plane tickets to Austin. I just remember arguing with my brother over Facebook Messenger about how much we could afford for her burial. We bought a plot of land outside of Austin, in a park that allowed us to bury her ourselves. We had a stone engraved. We dug the hole. We gathered around it, my brother and sister and I and our families, and placed the package with her ashes inside before filling the dirt back in and placing the engraved stone on top along with flowers we’d bought that morning. And then we went out for Chinese food and talked and argued and cracked jokes at each others’ expense like we would have if she were there.
Mom, happy birthday. I wish you were here. I have so much to tell you. So much I wish you could see. So much I wish we could share. I miss your hugs, and your laugh, and your bright red hair, and your willingness to tell me when I was being ridiculous. I have a stack of sci-fi books for you to read and movies you need to catch up on so we can discuss their practicality and continuity errors. There are so many questionable people we need to talk shit about in the world now; I think you’d finally figure out you were a Democrat. There are piano recitals you need to attend alongside me. I’ve finally mastered cooking chicken and dumplings without the recipe, just like you taught me. There are so many people I wish you could meet meet, people who are important to me that would have become important to you. We definitely could have gotten high together on your birthday; being born on April 20th is a gift you keep on giving.
Mother’s Day is coming, and it reminds me as I’m reminded every day - you were one of the best.