Mom died in time for me to go to church. The congregation wasn’t used to her absence, but she’d been too ashamed to attend, fearing the sight of her in a wheelchair would highlight her failure, her lack of faith and understanding of the Truth. I don’t remember the service, but I do remember people approached and lovingly asked about her. I said that Mom was fine, that she was dead. I meant it at the time; I wasn’t being a smartass; nobody needed to make me run shame laps. Their eyes widened, their mouths gasped, and their chins pulled back as if I’d spit in their faces. Then I weaved through the congregation toward the big double doors as murmurs spread behind me; I’d tossed them chum. I didn’t know how to make it easier on them; I knew there would be a frenzy after I left. It seems odd to me today that I even went to church just hours after Mom died. Why wouldn’t I stay home with Dad and Kat and be together? But I just did what I always did and went to church on Sunday morning. The words, “She’s dead,” hadn’t broken through my denial yet. They only had as much power as if I’d said, “She’s sleeping.” The thing was, I had approached my family but was rebuffed. I hung around a lot of people back then who simply didn’t know how—or didn’t wish—to grieve with me. What was wrong with me that I just wanted to sob into the crook of the shoulder and neck of someone who also loved Mom and was just as devastated? I didn’t know that I intuitively got grieving right; at the time, I thought that I was the weakest of my clan. It’d be another fifteen years before I learned that grieving together is the healthiest way to work through grief, and in graduate school, I’d volunteer with an organization that facilitates children grieving the loss of a parent.
So, I tried not to sob at the memorial service. Instead, I waited for long runs, when my streaming tears were disguised as sweat. Usually I hid behind doors and howled into pillows.
There was no obituary in the local newspaper. Very few friends, relatives, neighbors, or congregation members called, wrote, or sent food or flowers. I suppose they knew better or were screened out by Dad. Regardless, the three of us grieved alone in the same house, in separate rooms, behind closed doors (my brother had returned to Oklahoma). Although it was unusual for us to lose a family member, it was usual for us to isolate in our own bedrooms—four bedrooms and four closed doors on Apache Street and three bedrooms and three closed doors on Antelope Avenue—more like housemates than a family.
We did not take possession of Mom’s cremains. Who doesn’t take possession of their loved one’s ashes? Who doesn’t honor them on the mantel or ritualistically inter or scatter them? Apparently, we don’t. As a twenty-year-old Christian Scientist, it made sense to me then to have the mortuary dispose of Mom’s ashes; it was efficient and practical for Dad, and I didn’t want to look at Error, not even ashes. I don’t blame myself for not squawking then, because I merely thought and behaved the way I’d been raised. What was left of Mom was pragmatically carried out of our house and disposed of the way my “black mama,” Tenner, the dog, had also disappeared.
Supposedly, someone from the funeral home spread Mom’s cremains on top of the Sandia Mountains, the same mountain range I used to fantasize running away to, the range with the La Luz Trail, which I used to run up as I yearned for greatness. Perhaps you can imagine Mom’s corporeal remains if you look out the picture window of my father’s home. Is it a black-and-gray ghost disguised as ashes blowing off the ragged mountain face? She was simply disposed of the way an unidentified homeless person discovered in an alleyway might be disposed of. When we awaken from a delusion many years later, is it appropriate to feel guilt that we carried out our loved one’s wishes or anger that we indeed carried them out? Me? I just feel like mist escaped between my fingers because at the time, I was unable to rise above my heritage. Mom simply disappeared, vanishing as if she’d tumbled off a cruise ship in the middle of the night.
Do you suppose this has anything to do with my lack of closure? Of course, there is no headstone to sob over, no weeds to pull, and no flowers to wither. There is no urn to polish, and no pile of ashes to search for tiny bone fragments. I should just get over her, they say. But something in me doesn’t want to get over her, doesn’t want closure. If I got over her, then I’d lose her altogether. My emotions connected to her would fade with my memories of her. I try to imagine her at eighty-one; but no, she’s still forty-one. We hadn’t yet finished our relationship. There was supposed to be more time for her to make amends for her harsh parenting, which I interpreted as rejection, but in retrospect was loving but frustrated guidance. It was the best she knew to do, considering where she came from, considering how she was, herself, parented. There was supposed to be more time for me to grow up enough to realize that aside from her religious zealotry and our strained relationship, she was right about almost everything and that at least she was committed to me, and commitment is true love.
Instead, she vanished like an apparition.
I grieved hard for ten years and wondered if something was wrong with me. Who did that, especially as I was still upset at her for leaving me and imploding my world view? I also felt a bit guilty that I couldn’t save her. Instead, I’d been away at college doing things the righteous didn’t do. Of course, today, I know that I own no more responsibility for my mother’s death than for her lack of resurrection. But when you’re a late adolescent and your whole life’s magical thinking was given the respectability of Truth and prayer was given credit more rightly owed to natural healing, then you might conclude that you failed to heal your mother and even failed to respect her cremains.
So I grieved for a second decade. When I turned forty, I marveled that the years had barely dulled the pain, which I liked, because the more intense the grief, the closer to her life I felt. So, even after twenty years, every June 1, it was guaranteed that I’d again break out in sobs. At forty-one, I imagined losing my life and never seeing my wife grow old or my son grow up. When I turned forty-two, I’d lived longer than Mom had, and although there was something unfair about it, eventually I accepted it and moved ahead. So, when I finally awoke on a June 2 and realized, Hmm, I forgot Mom’s death anniversary for the first time, I concluded that I must’ve gotten over her just a bit more. At least today, my survivor’s guilt has resolved, now that I’m nearly three times as old as I was on the day she died.
Mom’s been dead almost forty years now, and everything should be better, but it’s not, at least not in the way I’d imagined. When half of me died, sure I survived it. But it left me with another emotional limp. It took a long time to learn to compensate. You see, being the son of a martyr wasn’t as awesome as it sounded when telling the story; in reality, everyone just went on with their lives, spoke about her less, and didn’t wallow in the grief as I did. I got a ghost and a haunting. So, although I was the one who almost didn’t make it into this world, Mom was the one to leave prematurely.
I apologize that this wasn’t as good a ghost story as you’d get from Hollywood. Chairs weren’t stacked onto tables, and ectoplasm didn’t drip down walls. I guess in real life, death, public speaking, and revealing our true selves are indeed the scariest things of all.