An open letter to my mom

beach-releaseDear Mom,

This is a weird letter.

It’s to “you,” but I’m writing it out loud on the Internet so that other people can read it.

I guess I just feel more comfortable talking to you directly.

Today you called me and asked, “Emily, do you think it’s okay if I eat something?”

So I asked you what you meant, and you said you weren’t sure.

I guess we resolved it and you did end up getting a few bites.

Then I told you about my day and my life and the girls and my thoughts.

I rambled on a lot, as I do.

I described the ocean to you, and how wonderful it was to watch my girls come alive in the saltwater and dash along the shoreline. I explained the game Maddie played with the surf, running in and out with the waves, racing and pacing herself just right to miss the water’s edge. I talked about the old people who sit all day on the benches and watch the streams of people going up and down. “Oh, I love to people watch,” you said.

I tried to paint a visual picture of my hand aching with cold in the ice chest, fishing for a cold drink in the bottom of the cooler and how it hurt, but felt good all mixed in with the sweat and dried salt on my shoulders and the tightness of my skin after too much sun.

You got it all. I know you did.

We talked about the joy of summer and lazy days.

There are things I did not say, though.

I did not say “Thank you for letting me be your daughter right now, and letting me brag to you about how beautiful my life is.”

I did not say “Thank you for being so happy for me – truly, legitimately happy for my happiness and good fortune and my beach and health and all of it.”

You never say, “I wish I had your life.”

You aren’t sarcastic and would never say, “Must be nice.”

You never complain or say, “Why can’t I have that?”

Instead you always say, “I’m proud of you,” and mean it.

I paused after the beach story and said “I really hope we can get you here one day, mom. I want you to be on this beach with me, too.”

The last time we tried this idea was a few years ago and you could not make the trip. You were worried about your colostomy bag leaking on an airplane. You got stressed out thinking about the airport and traveling and it overloaded your mind and so you never made it.

Mom, there have been SO many nights when I lay in my comfortable bed and thought of you in your terrible, filthy, falling-down home, wishing I could do more for you. I’ll feel my tears start to slide out and I will feel guilty for all that I have and all that you don’t have.

You love me unconditionally and never really ask for anything.

When I called tonight to say good night, you said “Just hearing your voice is making my face smile non-stop.”

I gave the phone to Zoey and you guys talked awhile. Not sure Zoey understood everything you were trying to say to her. When I got the phone back you said “We were talking in tongues to each other.”

“Okay, mom,” I laughed at your joke.

Mom, you have so much love in your heart. Even with a mixed up brain, it shines through.

Zoey, who is only 10, can see it, too. It’s contagious.

Do you know that Zoey asked me after the conversation if she could write you a letter and send you some of her birthday money?

It’s not because she feels sorry for you. It’s because she loves you.

I told her you would probably want to take the money and buy a gift for her and send it right back.

“That’s okay,” Zoey said.

She’s wise like that. She understands there is more joy in giving.

Thank you, mom, for that lesson. I’m passing it along now, the best I can, to my girls.

I love you.

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Just keep swimming

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My mom was a champion swimmer in high school.

Just look at her. I took that photo of this photo in 2012. At the time, I wrote this about it:

“Hi, mom.
There you are, probably about 18 years old.
You have a kick ass body and a nice tan. Five foot nine inches, skinny but not bony. Gorgeous.
A sweet smile and those pig tails are too young for you, but you are such a sincere person that there is no irony or coyness to them.

We all yearn for the past sometimes. The sunshine there and that subtle aqua of that water behind you. The promise ahead of you.

It would be a cheapshot to do a side by side comparison of you then and now. It doesn’t work exactly like that. You are still that person in the swimsuit, just like I’m still the person in my graduation gown. Things have changed and circumstances are different, but we are still the same humans we were before.

Sure, looking at this image is like a punch in my gut. Those silk flower stems and the dust and debris and water damaged and mildewed paper frame. But fuck that.
I found this image in a box. Not in some shrine in your living room.

You could go rooting around in the boxes and find this stuff if you wanted to. But you don’t.
Sure, sometimes you feel sorry for yourself. Sometimes you cry. And you call me, and we make comparisons about how much worse it COULD be. How terrible others have it. Then we clean up the pity party and move on. Most often, I think you have these sad moments to yourself and don’t even bother me with it.

This disease has messed with you in the most terrible ways imaginable for all these years.
But you are still strong. You still laugh. ”

*** Four years later, a lot of this still is accurate. She does still laugh.

She laughed heartily, tonight, when we spoke from the public phone in the psychiatric hospital where she’s been for a couple weeks now.

But in January this year, when I went back to help clean out her home, I took these images:

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It seems she had begun rooting around in boxes, after all. Her old trophy up on the mantel. Her first-place ribbon tacked to the front door. It’s not really like her to go reaching too far back into her past.

I sensed a shift.

She can’t breathe as well these days. Her years long chain-smoking is finally catching up with her in the beginning stage of emphysema.

My brother and I have joked she is invincible. Even she has said she cannot die.

She once drank bleach in a psychotic episode and came out mostly unscathed.

Eight years ago, she went to the very brink of death with a colon surgery that we were certain would kill her. Three months worth of a hospital and rehab stay and she arrived back home, with permanent colostomy bag and a strong will to live.

Her home is filthy and even an infection might have taken her out by now.

Her diet is basically coffee, cigarettes, protein shakes and sandwiches.

Now, when she leaves me voicemails, I can hear her gasping between her “I love you,” and “sweet dreams,” and “I’m proud of you.”

Thinking about this puts me into a pure panic. I have not been able to do what I want for her. I haven’t been able to save her. I haven’t been able to give her the softest bed and a room with a view of the ocean, like she deserves.

I’ve taken for granted her physical strength, and have been blinded by her mental strength.

And yet, she laughs.

And keeps treading water.

She’s still a swimmer.