by Kristina Wright
My mother and me. She was 29, I was 5.
The phone rang a little before 8 AM. I'm not a morning person (even now, with two babies under 2) and no one who knows me would call me that early. It was too early to be a friend, too early to be a solicitation. I reached for the phone, sleep still clinging to me like cobwebs even as a feeling of impending bad news settled into my bones. Do you know that feeling?
"Hello. It's Chuck," he said. "Your father."
Stepfather, technically. And it was the first time I'd heard his voice in over a decade. Close to fifteen years, in fact. Not that I needed the clarification of our relationship. The name, in his gruff voice, was enough.
I was being rude. Deliberately so. No, "Hello" or "How are you?" or any of the polite things people say when they haven't talked in years. Just, "Yeah?" We had no relationship, no bond. There was only one reason he would be calling me. I knew without being told. I waited for it.
"I was calling to let you know your mother passed this morning."
I hate that word. "Passed." It's the worst euphemism for death, I think.
The details followed in short, choppy sentences punctuated by my equally short and choppy questions. I'd already had an inkling something had happened after a cousin mentioned my mother's heart attack several days earlier in an email. A heart attack I hadn't heard about from my stepfather. This was the only phone call I got. To tell me she was dead. "Passed."
I know I had questions--when, how, what caused it--though I don't really remember much about what I asked or what he told me. I remember long pauses and breathing, in-out, in-out, willing it to be over so I could go back to sleep. I remember him rambling on, telling me the minutia about the hours leading up to her heart attack. What she'd been doing (watching television, first Army Wives and then Bill O'Reilly), where she'd been (on the couch), what she said about not wanting to go to the hospital. I do clearly remember asking if she had been in any pain before she died. He said no. I think I said, "That was days ago. You could have called me before she died." He made some excuse about being busy at the hospital.
He said something about funeral plans. I told him to let me know. He didn't.
Then the conversation was over. He finished with, "Well, give us--I mean me--a call sometime." His voice broke and for a minute I felt sorry for him. Almost 40 years of marriage. Rocky years, mostly, but he probably felt lost without her.
I hung up the phone and looked at the clock. We'd talked for less than ten minutes. There was no closure, no "I love yous" or any other heartfelt sentiments you'd expect between a father and his daughter upon the death of the woman they called wife and mother. It was what it was.
I didn't intend to call him any more than I planned to attend the funeral several states away. The only thing I did was look for her obituary online several days later. Under her surviving relatives, I was referred to by my maiden name. My stepfather's last name. A name I hadn't used in nearly seventeen years. Figures.
I didn't go back to sleep that morning. The tears came about five minutes later while I lay there trying to feel something about her death. I cried for about as long as we'd talked, feeling the permanence of a loss I'd lived with for most of my life. The mother I wanted and never had. The mother I needed who didn't exist. I cried, not for her death, but for the loss of what could never be. The fantasy. The hope that someday we might find a way to be the mother I needed and the daughter she wanted. It never would have happened, of course. Even if she'd lived to be 100 instead of only 64, we never would have had that fantasy relationship. I knew that. Had always known that. But death brings with it a finality that destroys even the most optimistic hope.
I called my husband who was out of the state at the time and I called three friends who knew about my non-relationship with my mother. No one knew what to say to me and I couldn't have told them. There really were no words to make it better or easier. It was what it was.
That afternoon, I went to an amusement park with one of those friends, a date we'd planned weeks before that I refused to cancel. I stubbornly stuck to the plan even though I would have rather crawled into bed and stayed there for the rest of the day. In retrospect, I realize my stubbornness was mostly grief-stricken shock. It was a child-like celebration of life. I rode rollercoaster after rollercoaster until I was dizzy and sick from it and at every flip and turn I screamed.
A rollercoaster is a good place to scream. No one is startled. No one even cares. You could murder someone on a rollercoaster and as long as no one saw you do it, the screams would go unanswered.
I screamed as loud and as long as I could, until my voice was hoarse and raw from strain. I screamed as if my heart were breaking. I screamed as I hurled through the air, head over heels, the ground above me, the sky an upside down blur. I screamed into the wind, my voice lost among other screams and the sounds of machinery and carnival music. I screamed, not caring that it would hurt to talk the next day. I screamed with my hands in the air in defiance of every instinct that said hold on tight and protect myself.
Yes, I cried on the day my mother died. But mostly I screamed.