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Three Days In May
Sunday, May 10
My mother died today. On Mother’s Day, which would be vaguely funny/ironic if I didn’t think she did it on purpose as one last, giant “fuck you” to me. We were not very close.
I remember a time, what seems like a lifetime ago, that we were inseparable. She loved to braid my hair and dress me up in cute little dresses and walk me to school holding my hand. Back then, when I reached no higher than one of her bony hips, she was proud to be my mother; I always knew she loved me. I can’t say I felt that way any time recently.
Anyway, she’s dead, and I have to deal with the aftermath of that. I have an older brother, the child who became her favorite after she relegated me to some dark corner of her heart. Yes, my mother had favorites. Clear favorites. She never had any reservations about letting us know which of her three kids was at the top of her list. Once upon a time she used to cycle through us depending on our school performance, our general attitude, and her hormones.
Bradley, the golden son, is proving to be absolutely no help in doing what needs doing right now. He was with her when she passed, sitting at her bedside, watching her taking her last breath. I didn’t even know she was sick. The phone rang this morning and it was Brad, hysterical and practically incoherent. Somehow I managed to catch the words “mom” and “died.” After he hung up I stood in the middle of my living room wondering how I was going to make myself either go out the door and see to Mom or run into my bedroom and put the covers over my head for a few days. My feet were stuck in place. And yet the first thing I did was laugh. I laughed because I remembered that it was Mother’s Day, and I knew immediately that she had waited for today to take her leave. I laughed so hard I nearly peed my pants. That’s what got my feet to move, right into the bathroom. I made it just in time.
One of my earliest memories of my mother was the time she peed in her pants at a party. My parents were constantly throwing parties back then, and Hazel was always Queen Bee, holding court in her favorite chair, telling stories about her days working in the garment industry, or, as she called it, the rag trade. This particular night she was wearing a white halter pantsuit with wide legs that showed off her perfect shoulders and tiny waist. Her blonde hair was tied back in a sedate knot at the back of her neck, which made her look classy and vaguely like Grace Kelly. She wore a stack of gold bangles on her right arm and giant gold hoops in her ears. As always, she was barefoot, her toes painted a bright red. She was magnificent. She was also drunk, although I hadn’t realized it at the time. There she was talking with her best friend’s husband when he said something that made her laugh like crazy. She threw her head back and laughed to the ceiling, then bent over and laughed at the floor between her legs. Then she put up her hand and said, “Stop! Stop!” as she tried to get up from the chair and run to the bathroom. She made it as far as the bathroom door, then she dropped to the ground, the heel of her foot planted firmly between her legs in a vain attempt to keep the contents of her bladder in. She put her hand over her mouth, clearly humiliated. No one saw her. No one but me. She looked up and there I was, in my bedroom doorway, wearing my white cotton nightgown with the little pink flowers on it. I couldn’t have been more than two. She put her finger to her lips, silently urging me to keep that little secret between us. The change of clothes was officially due to her spilling her vodka tonic on herself as she ran to the bathroom. As I sat on the toilet this morning I remembered that night. Where had that Hazel gone?
Brad is two years older than I am, but he’s a good ten years behind me in common sense and emotionally maturity. When I arrived at my mother’s condo within an hour of the hysterical phone call, I found Brad sitting on the couch, watching Netflix and wading his way though a bag of barbecue potato chips and a six pack of beer. It was hard to get angry with him when this is almost exactly what I expected to find, although I’d envisioned Sciracha chips. I asked where our mother was and he handed me a sheet of paper that the paramedics had apparently given him.
And now I’m here, waiting on a call back from the funeral home (thank you Hazel for taking care of the arrangements years ago—probably so that Brad couldn’t screw it up) and wondering whether to wash the sheets she died on or to burn them. Seriously. They are Porthault sheets from Paris, embroidered with a subtle white on white pattern that currently sell for just under $2,000. Throwing them out would be crazy. Unless I can’t get the stains out.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and fuck you, too.
Monday, May 11
They’ve lost my mother. Can you fucking believe that? They lost her. The hospital, says the funeral home. The funeral home, says the hospital. I lost my mother, then they lost my mother, so she’s not only dead, she’s missing. I have no idea what to do, file a missing persons report? Brad, who passed out on the couch last night and woke up this morning and picked up right where he left off, is no help. At all. I’m on my own here.
The funeral home just called. They found Hazel. She was put in the wrong cooler. Mis-filed as it were. I really could have lived without knowing that. I have mixed feelings about her being found. As freaked out as I was, the idea that I would have no body to deal with was something of a relief. I am so not good at this. Death. It’s really kind of a screwed up system, isn’t it? We’d be better off if we simply vanished. I’ve heard that dogs will go off by themselves to die so that they won’t be a burden on their pack. Maybe we should take a cue from them.
Brad is asleep on the couch and I am still sitting at the kitchen table. Crying like an idiot. Not because Mom died, necessarily, but because I never had a chance to find out what went wrong with us. I’ve always wanted to ask her, but I was never ready for the answer, whatever that might be.
My life is divided into before and after. Before is far shorter than after. Before is when I adored my mother and knew she loved me. Before is when the five of us were a family and did family things, Mom and Dad in the front seat of the station wagon while my little sister, Paige, and I sat in back. Brad would usually be in the far back, sprawled out and watching the trees go by out the window. We’d sing and play I Spy and end up at the beach or an amusement park or some town we’d never been to. My dad loved to think up adventures for us and Mom was always game. I had a perfectly wonderful childhood.
And then I turned thirteen.
To say I was excited about being a teenager was an understatement. It made me feel grown up. I was the last of my friends to get her period, but I was sure it was coming any day now. My Aunt Gloria always said I walked around with my head between my legs for six months waiting for it. My mother never laughed at this story, even though everyone, including me, thought it was hysterical.
It was a tradition in our family to make a big deal out of everyone’s birthday. Everyone always had two parties: One with the family, and one with their friends. It meant lots of presents and two cakes. I thought my parents were brilliant. The year I’d turned thirteen I’d had my family party the weekend before my actual birthday, and my friends-only party was scheduled for the following Saturday afternoon. My mother had ordered a special cake for me, white cake with fresh strawberries and strawberry icing, because I didn’t like regular yellow or chocolate cake like my siblings and every other kid in the neighborhood. She had to get it from a bakery in the next town over, a 20-minute drive each way from our house, but it was important to her, and to my father, that we each get spoiled on our big days. Dad always said if you can’t be treated special on your birthday, what was the point of it?
I’m procrastinating. It’s time to make some phone calls. Nobody else knows she’s gone yet.
I’m exhausted. And dehydrated. Hazel had a lot of friends and every single one of them had some story to tell. I’ve been laughing and crying (usually at the same time) for hours.
Tuesday, May 12
Brad says we need to get everything in Hazel’s house divided, packed up, and given away. He’s already been on the phone with a Realtor about selling the condo. I’ve never seen him so motivated. He’s always been what Mom called “low energy,” but I’d just decided was “lazy.” He was always trying to get money without actually earning it. Getting our mother’s place on the market immediately is suddenly a priority; he wants his share.
People are beginning to trickle in, bringing plates of food and pictures they have of Mom that we might not have seen. She’s impossibly young in some, and impossibly old in others. For me, she’d stopped aging in her late 50’s, around the time I stopped trying to have a relationship with her. She’d been just past her 78th birthday when she died. I didn’t recognize the elderly lady in the photos who wore my mother’s jewelry and threw her head back when she laughed like my mom had. This was a Hazel I’d never met before.
My brother made himself in charge of the food, of course, and shunted the hand-holding and reminiscing to me even though he’d spent the last 28 years with her while I hadn’t. I wanted to be angry with him, as angry as I was with her for dying on me, but I knew this was just how he was coping. I could see the pain and grief tug at the corners of his mouth and eyes when he stared at the TV screen or when he thought no one was looking. He’d no only lost his mother, he’d lost his best friend. They became very close once I’d left for college and he stayed home and got a job. It took him four more years to move out and get a place of his own. There have been moments in the past couple of days when I ached for him, followed by moments when I wanted to punch him square in the mouth. But that’s family, right?
My throat is raw from crying. And screaming. I am gutted. All the old hens who were hovering around, fussing over us, left a couple of hours ago. The funeral home called with details on the funeral, and Brad and I sat down to put the eulogy together. He’s going to give it. No surprise there.
I helped him sort out stories from our childhood. Something about Paige, something about him, and something about me. And, of course, something about Dad. And then he moved on to later memories, things that did not include me, things I have no memory of even though I was still living in our house. He seemed oblivious to this and got annoyed that I had no details to offer and failed to share in his laughter about what she said and did. It occurred to me that I had lived almost an entire lifetime without my mother. Not only did this make me sad, it made me angry. With him. With her. With myself. We went along like this for a while, hostility simmering just below the surface. But then things boiled over.
I don’t know exactly what started it. I don’t really care. What I do know is that, with just a few words, my world caved in around me.
I never remembered exactly when things changed between Hazel and me, not the precise moment. I never thought there was a precise moment. But I was wrong.
It happened on July 28, 1984. My thirteenth birthday. It was early afternoon. My party was supposed to start at six, and my mom was busy getting things ready, fussing over every detail, as she always did. She called out to Dad and asked him to please pick up my cake at the bakery; she was afraid that with all that she had to do she wouldn’t make it before they closed. Paige, who was ten at the time, was bored and cranky because she wasn’t the center of attention, so she asked if she could come along. Never one to refuse his youngest daughter much, Dad happily agreed.
They never made it home.
I don’t remember much about what happened after the police knocked on our door that afternoon. I remember my mother falling to the floor. I remember crying. And I remember hearing the words “accident” and “head on” and “drunk driver.”
That is when my mother changed. The moment she knew that her husband and youngest child were dead, she stopped being my Mom and started simply being my mother. After a long period of grief and depression, she began to put together a new life, but she wasn’t the same person she had been. She was colder, more distant. I had simply assumed she was that way with everyone and that Brad eventually broke through because he was so much like our father.
It was the stupid strawberry cake. If I’d liked chocolate like a normal kid, she could have picked it up the cake at the grocery store and they never would have been in the car at the same time as the kid who’d downed one six-pack of beer and was halfway into another, joyriding in his parent’s Buick, when he lost control of the car.
It was my fault and she never forgave me for it.