I’m waiting for the pirate to do her work.
Tori Amos came to Pittsburgh on November 6, 1998, on her “Plugged ’98” tour. I had been living and breathing her music for two years at that point. She had gotten me through the worst of middle school, she had been the reason I started reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and she was going to be only four hours away from my hometown in Athens, Ohio.
My mom let me skip a day of school and drove us to Pittsburgh, a city we both loved anyway, and we went to that concert together. I made a huge glittery sign that the guards made me throw away before we entered. I was 14, and most of the audience was older than me and younger than my mom. When Tori came onstage, I screamed and screamed and screamed. The show was incredible, even if my mom did get disgusted and bored by Tori’s ten-minute version of “The Waitress,” with its world-filling refrain “I believe in peace, bitch.” I bought merch (my mom paid for it). I was giddy for hours after. My mom and I had a great weekend together. As far as first concerts go, it set a high bar.
A post came up on Tumblr a few weeks ago, promising bootleg downloads for the whole tour. My heart stopped. I clicked the link, but it was dead. I wrote the owner of the blog, asking whether there was a new source for that particular date. I told her why it was important to me, but when she wrote back, she only said that she’d be out of the country for the next few weeks and that she’d get to it in March.
My mother and I are in that crowd somewhere. I’m waiting for the pirate to do her work.
I was going to say something about it last week, but I couldn’t formulate it. Last weekend marked the six-month anniversary of the day my mother died. She died on a Friday, but the date was August 24, and February 24 was a Sunday, and I wasn’t quite sure which day to commemorate. I know I stood in my kitchen, in the morning sunlight, thinking about the ride to the airport, thinking, “Huh, so this is how it feels to be a person whose mother has been dead for six months.”
The only way I can face it is to be incredibly blunt about it, and I don’t know if that makes people uncomfortable or not. This is a fact about me that’s never going to change: my mother died of brain cancer shortly after I turned 28. No one who ever meets me in the future will get to meet her. (When my grad school cohort was just starting to get to know each other, I wasn’t sure how to bring it up. I tried to talk about it in passing, as context, but there were moments where it stopped all conversation, and I didn’t want to be that person who wants everyone looking at her. “Hey, I’m reminding you that my mother’s dead! By the way, did I tell you my mother died of brain cancer? Let me tell you about how my mother died!”)
I still don’t know how to talk about it with people who haven’t been there. There are things I can say with other people whose parents have died that I can’t entirely share with those who haven’t lost like this. The one that means the most to me is something my dad said, shortly after it happened: “If this ruins your life, then we haven’t raised you right.” I knew instantly what he meant by that, but I’ve told it to others and seen them gasp.
A few months ago, I was talking with my therapist about an unbearable guilt for not being more destroyed, and worrying about correlations. My life got so much better in the months after she died; I finally applied and got into my top choice grad school, I found a career that fulfills me and makes me wildly happy, I fell in with a group of people who are — to a one — a joy to spend time with. She never got to see that, though, and I couldn’t move forward while she was still alive, I was so consumed with grieving. She often asked me, sometimes visibly upset, when I would find a boyfriend, when I would quit my job and do what I wanted, when I would stop stalling and move into the next phase of my life. When she would see my happy and taken care of.
I am, Mom. I wish you could see it. I hate this. I love you. I am.
My grief hits me when I’m alone. Right before I fall asleep, I’ll think about her in her plot, about the dirt I shoveled on top of her. I’ll think about her shroud, and the plain pine box I carried while wearing red high heels. I can’t view images of dead bodies anymore; when Sibyl Crawley died on Downton Abbey, grey and struggling for breath in her bed, I was too stricken to stop the episode. Lucky for me my friend Jess was there to step in. I’m not interested in a lot of the things my friends are — The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones. Too sad. Too much loss. Too much pain wrapped up in storytelling.
A few weeks ago I was getting ready to do an assignment at a brewery, my first piece of reporting where I didn’t know the people I’d be talking to. I assembled a cute, comfortable outfit and put on my face — a rarity, since I don’t ever wear makeup. Concealer for the circles under my eyes, powder to even out my skin, mascara to define my lashes. I had some time before I had to leave, and iTunes was on shuffle. A Kate Bush track, a favorite one, came up: it’s the culmination of a song cycle about a woman setting out to drown herself. Her future self, the old woman promised by the life line in her hand, appears to her. Come on, let me live, girl.
I ruined my makeup. I couldn’t stop crying. It hit me out of nowhere. I had to go, and be sociable, and report, and record. I couldn’t let this get in the way of my work. But she had wanted to live so much.
Living with grief is stunting. My life stopped for the five years in the middle of my twenties, and there was nothing I could do about it and still stay true to myself. I didn’t date, I didn’t travel, I didn’t explore, I didn’t experiment. Even when things were good, when Mom was in great shape after the first surgery and treatment worked, it took me years to stop answering the phone with fear in my voice; I couldn’t make myself believe my parents weren’t calling with bad news.
I’ve been wildly angry about this, in private, and there’s no one I can blame for this — and there’s also no reason why I can’t have those adventures and experiences now. I have to fight every day to remind myself of this. You are always your own worst enemy, even if all the rest of the world forgives you.
Does anyone talk about this? I haven’t looked for a community of people in their twenties who have lost people they love. I don’t know how much other people know about the kinds of things people lose in trench warfare grieving. I don’t even know if it’s wise to say this much, where my friends and family and potential employers can see. What do we say? How much do we share, and with whom?
There’s this wonderful miniseries from about 2000 called The Tenth Kingdom. It’s a mish-mash of fantastic characters and fractured fairy tales, but one emotional center of the story is the heroine’s quest to understand and confront the mother who abandoned her as a girl. This two-minute scene is true, more than I ever could have understood when I first saw this show, and that’s where I’ll leave this for now.
I never know how much to tell. I experienced so much, those last few months, and my father, who was her caretaker, went through even more. Much more. Miles and miles more. I don’t feel I have a right to say what I saw and felt. No way would Mom want that, or allow it. I don’t know what’s more private than dying, and my mother was proud of who she was and what she made of herself and of the people she loved. I could never betray that, or broadcast that betrayal — and that’s how I think of it, as a betrayal, no matter what journalism says about commitment to portraying the truth.
Since she died, I’ve been able to think of her more and more as she was before the cancer. When I dream about her, it’s ordinary: we’re in the car or in the kitchen or on vacation, just talking. When I wake up from those dreams, it takes a minute to reorient myself. Oh. Right. I am awake and my mother is gone and I can’t tell her about that thing that would make her happy.
For a long time I was scared I would only be able to remember the bad times, that the seven months after she was declared terminal would cancel out the 27 good years I had with her. One fact that I’ve thought on many times in the past has been that the body cannot remember pain, only that it occurred, and that seems to be true in this instance too.
That’s bittersweet, of course. A cousin recently presented me with a framed photograph, of me, my mom and one of my sisters, at his sister’s wedding. That wedding was the last good night: Mom had been fine for two or three years, but she had to skip the ceremony and most of the reception dinner because of a terrible headache. When my parents got back to Columbus, they discovered her tumor had returned. Things were never that good again after.
As soon as I’d thanked my cousin for the photo, I had to hide it. It’s a beautiful picture. I’m glad he gave it to me. We’re all so happy. When I saw it, all I could say was oh.
My mom doesn’t have a headstone yet. Jews wait for about a year to erect it. My dad has asked me and my siblings to start thinking about a ceremony for the stone setting, about what we’d want to do and say. When I think about what I’d want to leave at her grave (Jews will put small stones on a headstone, as a mark that they were there and remembered), my list is simple: Hershey’s Kisses, M&Ms and glitter. She loved to laugh, my mom. She was so much fun. When I was younger, we used to have “Mom and Kid Days,” often involving a car trip — to Marietta and Parkersburg, to Columbus, to Pittsburgh. Those were the times it was okay that Athens was two hours from anywhere: I loved to just be with her, and tell stories, and talk.
I don’t have a lot of recordings of my mom. We never had a video camera while I was growing up, and Mom famously closed her eyes in almost every picture taken of her. I can think, offhand, of only two places where we still have her voice: a short video I made about three years ago of our dog, Gus, whom she laughs about in the background and calls “loooove bucket”; and the voice mail message on her cell phone, which sounds strangely formal and not entirely like her.
Before she died, even before she got sick again, I kept urging her to record all her family stories and Nora stories and favorite sayings. She kept insisting that she couldn’t figure out the computer, or she didn’t have time, or that her language wasn’t so good, so she’d wait until she was speaking better. I’m sorry she did, and I’m sorry I didn’t push harder, or sit with her and show her how easy it was.
These are nice stories, but all this healing that I’ve done, all the ways in which I’ve been able to cope with losing my mother — it doesn’t make up for the fact that she’s gone. That also needs to be stated. I worry, in talking about my own grief, that I appear insensitive or selfish, or maybe that I am insensitive and selfish.
More grist for the therapist. I’m scared to tell you all this, reader; maybe I should have said it earlier, or maybe I shouldn’t be saying this at all, but please take it accordingly. I’ve never done this before.
I interviewed a doula yesterday. I sat in on the last hour of a class she was teaching to expecting parents, knowing very little about what a doula actually did. By the end of the hour, I’d already come to the conclusion that she was, perhaps, the coolest woman in Chicago (and that was before I found out she’d just retired from roller derby), but then she glanced at her watch and back at her clients. “Do you mind if we go ten minutes over?” she said. “I want to tell you a story.”
“This story is the oldest written story in the world,” she said, and I sat up straighter, because I knew at once where she was going with this.
The doula told and acted out the Descent of Inanna, the Sumerian story of the goddess of heaven and earth who answers a call to go to the underworld, who gives up all her splendor and all her armor and all that defines her at each successive gate, and who dies and is reborn, but first spends three days hanging from a hook until her friend Ninshabur and the god Enki help her return.
Watching it was like seeing a panel from a Sandman comic brought to life, a woman telling a woman’s story about a hero’s journey about birth. The telling was at once sacred, irreverent, modern and comforting. (“I am Inanna, queen of heaven and earth, ruler of seven temples. I am a poetess, I am a warrior, I am wife to Dumuzi and mother to two sons. Here is my crown of wisdom, here is my measuring stick, here is my breastplate that says ‘Come at me, men.’ My cervix is four centimeters, I won’t have an epidural and you’ve already read my three-page birth plan.”) The doula told them that they wouldn’t fully understand it until they’d given birth, and that she hoped they could write to the group after and say what it was that meant the most to them, and what they understood now that they hadn’t before becoming mothers.
I was observing at the back of the room, grinning and enthralled. Later I said to a friend that this doula made me want to have a baby (I don’t want a baby now), which my friend said was probably the highest compliment you could give to her. But at one point in the telling my throat closed over and I had to fight back tears, sitting there alone with no one holding my hand.
It came when Inanna was dead and hanging from a hook in the underworld. She’s lost everything, she has nothing to ground her, she’s crawled through mud and dust and darkness and come through to this new place with nothing left for herself. She doesn’t know who she is anymore. Her friends come for her, and tell her it’s time to return aboveground. “No,” she says, “I’m fine, I can do it myself. I just need a little more time.”
Ninshabur and Enki take her off the hook, and they lead her into the sun, and they tell her that they love her, that they’re so proud of her for doing this hard thing, and that now she needs to come back, changed as she is.
After I interviewed the doula, I told her about my reaction to her story, and what it meant to me as someone who has experienced not birth but death close at hand. She asked (and I’m paraphrasing; she was straightforward and compassionate, not full of “hippie bullshit,” in her words) if I had had any sacred moments with my mom when things were at their worst.
I said yes, and told her a story I’ve never told anyone else, and left.
Now that it’s March, I check back on that bootleg page every so often. Somewhere in that crowd, I’m screaming and my mom, who has turned off her hearing aid, is probably checking her watch. She might not be, though. She might be clapping. Or talking to me about the songs. Maybe there was one she really liked. I wish I could remember; I wish I’d had time to ask.
There’s a quote in the songbook for Tori’s second album, Under the Pink, and it’s about a stream in the Rockies, and it ends with a sentiment something like “maybe you don’t have to make it to the ocean to be whole again.”
I’m waiting for the pirate to do her work, but I’m doing some work too. There’s something narratively pleasing about hearing the doula’s story now. Inanna comes back; that’s what she does, and that’s why we tell these stories and why we need to hear them.
I love you, Mom. I hate this, and I miss you. I love you, and I’m going to be okay.