I have not been in her house in over six years. I don’t call it Home because it’s not. Home is the place you go for the holidays. Home is the place You feel nostalgic for. Home is the place where your prom photos are displayed on the walls. My mother’s house is not my home. But here I am in her bedroom-the room that used to be mine when I lived here. I’m in my old room with my face pressed up against the screens on the windows and I’m gasping for air. I’m choking on my feelings, cigarette smoke, and the dog hair. The air outside is cold and it burns my nostrils, but it’s fresh and right now it’s all I have.
I suddenly realize something is missing. The huge lilac bushes outside the windows are gone.
What happened to the lilacs, I yell down the stairs.
Oh, insects were destroying them, so I had them ripped out, she confessed.
Those flowers had an exaggerated value to me-they marked the seasons-the turn from winter to spring. They defined spring. I remember being a child and at some point every March my mother would change my bedding from a winter comforter to a spring quilt and there was that night-that one night- when it was warm enough to sleep with the window open, but it got so cold in my room. I stayed in bed until my mother came upstairs and yelled at me to get out of bed. What she didn’t know is that I planned this-her coming upstairs. I knew eventually she would come upstairs I would get her to close the window. All that would be left when she was gone was the lingering smell of cigarettes and lilacs in my room. All that will be left of her when she is gone is the cigarette-stained wallpaper in the house, the upholstered furniture I will not be able to give away because of the dog hair and the stench of cigarette.
I am suddenly stunned by the vividness of this memory and of the missing lilacs. The insects, I’m sure, will come back. The lilacs, I’m sure, will not.
Every time I smell lilacs, I think of her. Olfactory memories as so powerful. The changes in seasons were so powerful. Her mood swings- so powerful. Her moods would change frequently-sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes abruptly and always without warning, like the time we went to the mall-the same mall we argued about Lauren’s birthday present when I was in eighth grade. We were walking through Macy’s. A family was in front of us and they were laughing, goofing off, and having fun-all the things we were not doing. The teenage son was flailing his arms around. My mother froze. She did not move, but her voice boomed:
You could have killed me!
You could have broken my neck!
Her voice echoed through the store. My neck felt hot, my face flushed. Shame washed over me. I realize now that she was afraid, not afraid. She was frail. She would be unable to steady herself or stop herself from falling if he bumped her the wrong way. She was afraid of being invisible. I remember the time she tripped in the parking lot. We were walking and out of the corner of my eye I saw something rocking back and forth. Then I heard her moan. I looked behind me and my heart stopped, my heart was in my throat. I was paralyzed with fear. My ex-husband quickly rushed over, scooped her up, and brushed her off. She lost her balance walking. This is not the first time it’s happened.
When my mother and I stopped talking in 2001, I started reading her emails. I knew the passwords to everything-I created all her accounts and she didn’t know how to change anything, so I started reading her emails. Not in a cruel way. In a sad way. I read them to make sure she was still alive-that she hadn’t died and no one called me. To this day, I check Google street view to see if her car is in the driveway. I know the information isn’t updated in real-time, but it makes me better when I plug in her address and see her white Volvo station wagon in the driveway. How old are those images? I don’t want to know. Please don’t take away my safety net.
I started reading her emails in 2001 to check up on her and then one day I stopped. I couldn’t keep reading after one email. It was an email to her friend Karen-the friend I am named after. It must have been early spring when she sent the email to her friend. It was a few months after my mother and I stopped talking. It was before our birthdays, so it was somewhere between New Year’s Day 2002 and my birthday-April 5th. I was in college. I was flailing. I was reading her email.
She went outside to walk the dog. It was night. It was dark. She slipped in the backyard and rolled onto the pool cover. Luckily, it was one of those pool covers that looks like a trampoline or she might have drown. But she didn’t drown. She rolled into the center of the pool, cold and wet. It was too dark for her to find her way out. She was disoriented from the fall and she is permanently disabled because of herniated disks in her neck. She did not have the strength to crawl out, so she slept on the pool cover. She emailed this to her friend. I read this email. I think of her falling in the parking lot. I think of her falling into the pool cover. I think of her and tears start falling.
I did not read her emails after that one. I felt the need to run away from my life to save her. I feel it now sometimes, too.
Think about that sentence for a moment. I feel the need to run away from my life-the life I have built. The life I have fought for every single day, because nothing-I mean nothing, has ever come easy to me. I would leave it all to save her. As if I have the magic pill or potion or phrase to save her. I cannot reach her-physically or emotionally. As much as I want to, I can’t. I would want to spoon feed her meals and wash her hair and paint her nails, especially her toes. After she was diagnosed with diabetes, she started having problems with her feet. If she got an infection it could be fatal. The only time she has her toenails cut is at the podiatrist’s office. Imagine not being able to cut your own toenails. She talked so much about wanting a pedicure. When she dies, I will ask the mortician to paint her toenails. It sounds like a morbid thought. It is a morbid thought. But it’s one I have time and time again. She would get such a kick out of it. She used to love painting my toenails when I was a child. We had so many different colors of nail polish in the house-every pink and red you could possibly imagine. I do believe that she loved me back then. It was a long time ago and the period of time was so very brief, but it was there. It was between the ages of four and six. I only know this because most of the things she’s saved from my childhood are from that time. The memento that stands out the most is my baby teeth.
I have not only snooped in her email. I have also gone through her things. Not in a malicious way-there is nothing I want or need. I wasn’t looking for anything; I was just looking. I want to know her. I want to understand her life. You can tell so much about a person from their nightstand drawers-what they keep closest to them while they sleep and wake. I found sugar-free chocolates; the ones she binged on when she found them and then had diarrhea for days. “May have a laxative effect” said the bag. May have a laxative effect if you eat one serving. But she is not the kind of person who eats just one serving. I had to buy Pedialyte so she wouldn’t get dehydrated from the diarrhea that lasted for days. I found cigarettes, lighters, pretzels. I found her first stethoscope-the one she got after graduating from her nursing program. She hasn’t been a nurse for years. I found a plastic jar with a screw-top cap. I shook it and heard things rattling around in there. I opened it up expecting to find pills. Instead I found my baby teeth.
Of all the things to keep, she kept my baby teeth.
She threw away my doll house-the one my father built me for Christmas when I was four; the dollhouse I wanted to keep in storage until I have a daughter of my own, if I ever have a daughter of my own. She threw away the box that had love letters from my first love. She threw away all the photos from my childhood, the memories she never wanted with the child she never wanted to have.
But she held on to my baby teeth. Memories. The things we hold on to. Memories are not so much a thing, but a feeling. What was she holding onto by saving those teeth? Was it my innocence? Did I lose my innocence when I lost those teeth? Did the tooth fairy deliver money in exchange for my childhood? Were my baby teeth a souvenir of a time long gone? A time she wished to cling to?
The memories, I’m sure, will come back. The baby teeth, I’m sure, will not.