My mother died in 2012, June 23rd. Throughout my childhood and short adolescence she needed me. And I needed her, although not as much. I hated her quite a bit but I loved her deeply as well. It was a horrible drama, that relationship. It was very hard on the both of us. Codependent. Sad. Self destructive. Always, it seems, that the people you hate the most are the ones who remind you most of yourself. I am lucky and unlucky in that I am very wise to my own faults. I turn them over and over like coins in my pocket… Jangle, jangle, jangle. Money I can’t seem to spend or make go away.
The only inheritance that I got from my mother after she died was a small life insurance policy and her remaining benefits from the Veteran’s Administration. I spent it like water, a compulsion and an illness for people that are Bipolar like I am. My mother was the same way. The first thing I bought was a pillow top bed. I named it Barry White because it’s white and fluffy and ecstasy compared to the tiny, lumpy day bed that I had been sleeping in for years that made me wake up in pain every day. I had needed it for years. But, I traded it harshly. My mother’s cremated remains and the last ditch policy from the VA bought it for me for $700, a selfish, indulgent sum, after she died. So, it really is a thing that I would give back if it would bring back my mother. Just bring back the screwed up, complex, completely un-self aware woman that got a really raw deal like I did (it’s generational and universal unfortunately). The woman that created me; loved me with all the things she really doubted she had and a couple that she completely denied she had.
She was a rapacious alcoholic. She had already started dying of it by the time I was about three or four. I still remember a moment in the hospital, holding my grandmother’s hand in some sort of waiting room, while they pushed her in on a wheelchair, looking corpse-like and ill, green and weak, but with a tremulous smile telling me, lying to me, that it was all going to be okay. I remember it vividly, I think, because even as a toddler, I knew that it was a lie. She was permanently out of orbit emotionally and a serious mistake maker, a trick that she taught me to repeat, sometimes I think intentionally because she also had a knack for spite. And honestly, now, I forgive her everything. Wholly.
I want, just for a day, to go back to that November six months before she died. She bought me a ticket for her birthday and I wish I could go back to that day, November 11th, and get on that plane that I didn’t because of all said above reasons and several more. If only I knew that it was my last chance to see her, fix it for her, say what I needed to say and what she needed me to say. Because one day, for a really short time on the phone, from across the country, she actually stepped up, became a real mother for the first time and apologized to me for every mistake she ever made. Even the ones she forgot and I never knew about. And I intentionally put terseness in my voice and a grudging, “thank you,” and hung up the phone, still bitter. Just give me November 11th and then send her back where she’s whole, warm, safe and completely healed, I can only hope. Where she is maybe now getting a brand new crash course before whatever might possibly happen next, I don’t know, but I’ll figure out soon enough. Whatever place that she hangs out in now. Fuck the bed; I’ll take a concrete floor. I want that November back. It has been a long time wish on a now dead star that I haven’t said to myself or anyone else until right this second now, a couple of weeks after I sent four handfuls of her temporary Goddess vessel to the four directions into the sea. The same sea that she took herself and her two kids to in order to get away from the darkness that was chasing her so that we would maybe have a better shot at what she didn’t.
Right now as I write this, the humiliating and private but spiritual flood gates on this alarming day are wide, wide open, gaping and terrifying. And right now, although everyone is in and out on Facebook, they love me and are subliminally aware of what’s going on with me. They are the only ones witnessing this weird, emotional process. Because my dad wouldn’t understand and my children will never find out. Here I am, on the goddamned internet that my mom tried so hard to get on so she could talk to me every day. She bought her little computer, took lessons, but could never, ever figure it out. Now she has really reliable and affordable access whenever she wants to explore and learn my bizarre, morphing social network life that I have grown to depend on because all of my loved ones, my adopted family, are scattered across the world.
My mother was hospitalized many, many times for her building cirrhosis. Each time, she would stop drinking for a while and she would heal a bit, feel better and start the spiral again. At the end of it all, she said that she had pneumonia. My grandmother had found her in her cottage after two weeks of not hearing a thing. She was prone on the floor, lying in her own body fluids, unable to get up, much less walk, as swollen as her legs and belly were. My grandmother promised herself it was just the pneumonia. That she’d recover again from the alcohol poisoning like she always had. I got about ten seconds with her on the phone before she lost consciousness for the last time. I still keenly remember the plaintive confusion in her voice, I hear it over and over, the exact sound, every tone, her sharp Kentucky accent when she said my name, as if she couldn’t remember she had a daughter, or worse, maybe that she couldn’t believe that I had called. Then, she fell into a coma and over the next week, one by one, all of her organs died except her brave and stubborn heart.
I was not there when they touched the few small buttons that ended her life. I wasn’t there. My sister flew in to Kentucky from North Carolina, as she was closer, to sign the release and let her go. She did it without hesitation, which was kind but only accidentally so. She took care of loose ends, the business of death, and then she went straight back to the airport and back to her more idyllic life. I don’t hold it against her to not have forgiveness towards my mother. My mother had not done right by us at all. We were neglected our whole lives. We were cruelly manipulated because of our own mother’s cowardice and jealousy. My mother confessed to me that I was her favourite once. I don’t know if she had ever said the same to Ann, but the possibility of such a thing is vast, because that was my mother.
When Joy Christine Lamb née Combs took her last agonal breath her hand was empty, without another warm one to hold it, and she died alone. Very much alone, without her daughters. For months after, it ran over and over, these images in my head. The glaring lights over the headboard of the hospital bed that make the shadows of a sick human face look more like a skull. The sound of the heart monitor going flat and sharp and keening like a scream. The slight whine of the respirator deflating for the last time. And I prayed so very, very hard that whoever the nurse was that removed her intubation tube had done it with a solemnity and kindness. And at the very least, with professional regret. It was her job. She probably did it almost every day. But on that particular day, although she did not know the vibrant redhead that had faded, the comatose and sunken woman in that bed; she did it, that final confirmation of death, removing the only thing in her throat that was keeping her alive. She did it in my stead.
Then came the cremation. My mother had no money. No burial. Her memorial was brief and mostly empty. I sent my sister words to say in my stead but she refused. I forgave her that too. I was sent her ashes. I would not be moved. They were mine. I had knots in my guts up till and after I got that deafening knock and that sad, small, heavy white cardboard box with a huge orange sticker that shouted “HUMAN REMAINS.” The postman was quiet and kind. He had done this countless times.
Shortly after, I heard a certain song. A song that took over this entire experience and somehow made it all positive. And right. And sacred. And as eternal as Scotland, which holds most of my heritage and DNA. The song is called “Feather on the Clyde” and it is written and performed by a man who calls himself Passenger these days. He wrote the song about one of his favorite cities, somewhere I’ve never been, although he took me there. Glasgow, Scotland. And as I heard his vulnerable voice telling my tragic family story that he did not know, I soaked in what he sang and the melody that is gentle in its regret, it made so much sense. Life is a river. Ever moving, changing, ebbing, rising, falling, but always tumbling to its end, the sea. A sea so deep and vast that none of us can ever really fully understand. My mother’s pain came at her from all sides and it never ceased. My mother is Glasgow in my aching heart, the river Clyde splits her into many paths and she took all of them, but could never, ever go back. And I could not cross it. For many years I tried, I swam so hard, and for many years I drowned, to the point of moving to the God forsaken desert where there is no water at all and I still drowned. Until now.
I will go there to Glasgow one day, to stand on those banks and visit her. Think of that song, and the unbreakable Scottish ginger thread that I got through my long mother line. I will stand there on a bridge, hopefully on a brisk, lonely day. I’ll leave a token in the River Clyde for her. Drop a solitary feather, whatever gift I happen to find that the ducks may leave behind, and watch it float and flutter, drift and fly, until it finally descends to barely touch on that water to help me remember, let the past go, let it float away.
I was always helpless and hopeless in my efforts to save her. But, she always wanted to go to Scotland. I’m keeping my promise.