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The leader of the Heartbreakers was an anchor in my fraught maternal relationship.
Tom Petty’s Wildflowers played through the speakers in my mother’s Pontiac, the same one that would end up my own first car about twenty years later. It was my favorite song at the age of six.
Throughout the years, it remained on the soundtrack of my life, and like some kind of witchcraft, I did run away somewhere bright and new — California — and found a lover who would become my spouse. I was close to a thousand miles from my Oregon hometown and, at age 25, I hadn’t spoken to my mother in a year.
I finally felt like I belonged, and, despite feeling wickedly guilty for being an estranged adult child, I felt free.
After weeks of eating only a bowl of cold cereal and one Hershey’s Chocolate Nugget per day, my mother had shrunk down to a point where she could wear my child-size clothing. She talked about it with pride and sported my spaghetti strap tops whenever the drizzly Portland weather obliged. Into the Great Wide Open floated in the secondhand smoke while she sucked on a Virginia Slim menthol and told me that Tom Petty was “sexy.” I wrung my face into a frown. She’d said the same thing about Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, even Jerry Garcia — all men I found to be exceptionally old (never mind two thirds of them being dead) and therefor completely disgusting.
We pulled up to the parking lot beside the beach and got out — this was before her corneas were irreparably damaged. Before her spinal injuries became so bad she didn’t move for days, before the metal rods were inserted and the discs dissolved. Before her depression kept her locked away. It was also before she stopped doing cocaine (among other things) with her boyfriend, before we moved out of his enormous QVC-decorated rental home, before his abuse of me truly began — it was before we’d moved into that house in the first place. She and my father had just entered the separation that would ultimately be their divorce.
It was my eleventh birthday.
Clutching my hand, she ran to the edge of the frigid Pacific and swung our arms together. She sang Learning to Fly.
I felt so bad for her. Not about the divorce — I was eleven; I felt bad that she was making such a fool of herself.
Insert a duet that never happened. My mother and me, singing You Don’t Know How It Feels.
Today, I imagine, is a particularly exciting day in my mother’s preferred afterlife. Her favorite rockstar’s finally shown up to roll joints and drive Pontiacs and do whatever it is people do after they die. My mother’s been dead for nearly two years now. She’s shown up in my writing and my dreams, and I’ve joked that we have a much better relationship now that she’s no longer alive. Here’s the thing: I mean it. I feel like — as I think anyone who’s lost a close family member might be inclined to — some kind of afterlife exists. I don’t know what it might look like, but I think that anyone free of their body, their pain, their own trauma, would be returned to some kind of better state. If my mother made it out of her body and into whatever higher plane, I think that she understands my love for her in all its complicated nature.
No mother wants to be the kind of person to be the cause of their children’s trauma. Despite this never being okay, sometimes it just can’t be helped.
And no one wants to leave their mother. No one. Not even those of us who really, really want it.
Sometimes, it just can’t be helped.