I had the most surreal phone conversation of my life last Sunday. My mother called. She's in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer's, the diagnosis of which she has no idea, but she's surprisingly lucid on this new medication. When she first went in, she was so far gone, she'd forgotten how to eat and even breathe properly. We thought she had only a few weeks left. That was a year ago. As I've said before, we're impossible to kill. Non-violently, anyway.
My mom isn't a kind person. She has kindness in her and struggles to bring it out, but perhaps her shattered past caused too many splinters. She's never been able to glue herself back together. This phone call was unlike any other we've ever had, the conversations far more open than Mom is used to being. She talks a lot but says very little. I thought it important to write down one part of her two-hour long ramble. When FREAK comes out, a lot of people will view her unfavorably and in many ways, rightly so. But it was my mom's ability to simply stop boozing, cold turkey, and never go back to it that gave me hope when my own son was in rehab. She had been a foul and vicious drunk and she simply...stopped. I clung to that in the dark days of Leland's rehabilitation.
Mom is almost eighty years old. The Alzheimer's has progressed extremely rapidly because of all the mini strokes and brain damage from decades of alcohol and drug abuse. The specialist said it this way: "It's like black mold in a house. If the wall is freshly painted and dry, the mold travels very slowly. If the walls are damp and covered in soggy old wallpaper, it spreads like wildfire. Your mother's brain is the latter description." She feels herself slipping away, knows something is wrong, but can't quite face the truth. Mom's never been able to face the truth. Her number one fear was always being crippled like her sisters. A close second was madness and dementia. We decided to not tell her about the diagnosis for that reason.
She knows who I am, although she has a hard time with what year it is and my age. Sometimes her memory seems clear as a bell, other times she'll repeat the same story over and over and over, having no short term memory at all.
Sunday was not like that. Sunday, she was traveling through time. She didn't simply reminisce with me on the other end of the line; she was actually there, hopping through the past, skipping decades and arriving in her teens, pre-teens, twenties, forties, and back to pre-school age. I knew the story of her dropping her little brother Sonny on his head and his dying soon after. I didn't know the details. She told them to me that day, on a blustery winter afternoon, relating everything as it happened. She was there again, a toddler in high heels, holding a baby almost as big as she was.
Sonny was two-years-old. Mom was always tiny. She never grew over five feet two inches. She was six-years-old when he died. She was playing dress up in her mother's bedroom, wearing Grandma's high heels. I'll try to write verbatim, exactly how she described the events that led to his death, and what happened after. Her voice lost the gravely husk of old age, becoming infantile again as she talked, and the hairs on the back of my neck grew stiff.
"Mother called me and told me to play with Sonny. I always called her Mother, she didn't let us call her "mom" or "mommy," oh, no. She never let us do that. It was always Mother. "Play with Sonny while I make dinner. Don't pick him up when you've got those shoes on, though. You'll drop him. Take them off before you pick him up." Well, as soon as she left the room, I picked him up in those shoes. I ignored what she said. I wanted to be the mommy, I wanted to play mommy the right way and mommies wear high heels. Sonny was long, he was almost as long as me and he started to kick. He kicked me in the stomach and he just flew out of my hands. I couldn't hold him. He fell on his head. He fell really hard right on his head and he started screaming really loud. I kicked those shoes off right away because I didn't want Mother to see that I'd disobeyed her. She came running because Sonny was screaming so loud. He was still on the floor and Mother kept saying, "What happened? What happened?" so I lied and told her he just kicked out of my hands. I didn't tell her I had the shoes on and everything she'd prophesied would happen happened just like she prophesied and I didn't want her to beat me. Sonny stopped crying and Mother just rocked him. The next day I came home and Mother was sitting on the floor next to Sonny. He was lying on the floor with a cover on him and she said, "He's dead. Sonny's dead. Go get your sister at the Cartwrights. Go get her. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead." I knew I'd killed him but I didn't tell her because she would beat me and then the police would come and put me in jail as a murderer and I didn't want to go to jail so I didn't say anything. The floor under the desk was dusty. I looked and saw the floor was dusty around the table legs. "Go get your sister. Sonny's dead. Go get your sister." So I ran to the Cartwrights and I told them Sonny was dead and Missy had to come home with me and they said, "Look at that poor little girl. Look at her, she's trembling all over. Look at that poor little girl" and I was scared they could see how guilty I was. I was scared they would put me in jail because I was a murderer. That's what they did with murderers, Mother had told me that. And she would have beat me. She beat me anyway but she would have beat me really bad so I stayed quiet but I couldn't stop shaking and the Cartwrights saw it and I was afraid. The next day they got a little white coffin, a baby's coffin. It was very shiny. Uncle Tickle held it in his lap as we drove to the cemetery. The gravediggers had dug a hole, a deep little hole and in those days they let us stay and watch the casket being lowered into the ground. Everybody turned away to go but I stayed and looked at that hole in the ground and the coffin and I thought, "I killed him. I killed my brother" and I tried to jump in the hole. The digger man stopped me and held my arm because I kept trying to jump in the hole because I killed him. I killed him. I wore high heels and I killed him. He died the next day. He died the next day. I killed him. Everybody came back and took me away but that night it was raining and I snuck out of the house and ran to the cemetery and laid on the grave so he wouldn't get wet. I couldn't let him be cold and wet. There wasn't a marker because we were poor but I knew where he was. Every time it rained for months after that, I laid on the grave so he wouldn't get wet. When Mother died and I got her that big tombstone...everybody thought that was so pretentious to have such a big tombstone but she always wanted a big tombstone and she was my mother and I was going to get her that tombstone, by dang! I was visiting her at the hospital and she said how she wanted to have a big beautiful tombstone and on the way home that very day I stopped at the stone cutters and I ordered that big tombstone. Then I ordered one for Sonny too. I went to the cemetery and the director went with me and he said he didn't know for sure where Sonny was but I knew! I remembered just where he was. The director took this long skinny metal pole and he poked it down and told me he didn't feel anything but that was because Sonny's coffin was wooden in those days and it would have disintegrated and only his little bones would be left in the dirt but I didn't care I knew he was down there and he was my brother and he was going to have a tombstone. Oh yes, he was. He was going to have a tombstone and I was going to get it for him. And they put it up and he had a tombstone and it was a little one but it was very nice and it was next to Mother's. Nearby. Nearby Mother's. When I was married to your dad and Ian was born and just a little baby, Mother was visiting and I finally asked, "Mother, what did Sonny really die of?" She said, "He had double pneumonia." I just looked at her and I said, "You mean he didn't die from falling on his head?" and she said, "Oh, my no. What made you ever think that?" I went all catatonic and your dad had to carry me all stiff into the bedroom and I became hysterical and I started screaming because all those years I thought I'd killed my brother and he had double pneumonia. All those years I was scared I was going to go to jail for murder and I never killed him. I carried that guilt all those years and I never killed him...you know, my old boyfriend wants me to buried near Mother so he can come visit me. He lives down there. Isn't that sweet? But I told him oh, no, I'm going to be buried by my son. I bought the plot and I'm going to be buried in Briggsville next to Ian. I bought a spot for you too. When I die, you make sure I'm buried next to Ian. You make sure. I wrote it all down. It's in the file next to my desk in your old bedroom. You have a spot there too. You can be buried there if you want. That would be nice, us all together like that."
I laid there in bed, eyes just pouring as she rambled these razor cut words, trying hard as hell to not gasp or weep aloud because she would have clammed up. That was only one of the terrible stories she told me that Sunday afternoon, and that's the only one I'm going to share with you all. My mother has done many terrible things in her tragic and absurd little life, but I am glad that I can't hate her for any length of time. Her strength has always been a fragile house of cards. This terrible little story helps explain her actions. Nothing excuses them, but education is the key to everything, even the education of a person's history. Mom gave me a glimpse into her blackened past and I'm grateful for it. I hope, as she slides further away, that she finds a safe haven in her checkered and awful past to reside in for the rest of her days. I hope she spends the remainder of her life in the one summer she remembers with joy, the halcyon days when she was fourteen and in love for the first time. I don't want her going back to the black memories anymore, the Sonnys and the double barrel shotgun murders and the sight of her father beating her mother unconscious. And I don't want her to ever go back to Ian's gory corpse and the age of booze. Let her stay young and pretty, fey and coy forever. She's been a selfish bitch from hell but she's suffered greatly too. I just want her to live out the rest of her days somewhere without blood and violence and misery. With the life she's led, those happy moments are slim pickings.
Take care of yourselves and be well, my friends. Don't let memories eat you alive. Don't jump into any holes in the ground. Choose to live and live well. You can do it. I want you to be happy and fulfilled and find a way to heal yourselves. If I've learned anything, it's that anything is possible, even happiness. I believe in you. I even believe in me, and that's something more precious than rubies.