A Few Things That Remind Me My Mom Is Dead

  • A pair of gray leg warmers. I have romanticized these the way you sometimes do with dead people’s things, assigning meaning completely disproportionate to what the things actually are. I imagine they are artifacts of the 1980s and I invent a world around this. She’s freshly out of law school, a rare accomplishment in her family. She’s a living embodiment of working-women feminism, wearing shoulder pads and listening to Cyndi Lauper or something. Probably, these are just from Target.
  • Every single gin and tonic I have ever had. She drank gin and tonics in the mornings and I would hear the ice clinking in the glass as she walked down the hallway to see if I was awake. Drawn to the weird, dark routine of this memory, I sometimes make the mistake of sharing it with other people while, for example, having drinks outside on the first warm day of the year.
  • Three yearbooks from Fernandina Beach High School, years 1971, 1972, and 1973. In some of these photos, she looks exactly like me.
  • Coffee grounds. Once, I requested her autopsy report. “The stomach contains a measured 320 milliliters of brown liquid,” it said, “having flocculations (‘coffee grounds’), without food, pill fragments, or unusual odors.”
  • Those tiny greeting cards they sell at the florist. When I was around 8, she moved away to go to rehab, where she started mailing me tiny cards like this every few weeks. They came in yellow envelopes and would only ever say one thing — “Love you,” “Happy Easter” — but they would almost always have money inside. Sometimes, when your kid is too young to feel anything but anger and they stop answering your phone calls, you send money instead.
  • A date who took me to a concert and then afterward drove us back to his place even though he was a little drunk. I sat in the passenger seat, watching the lights of the city glitter past, and he told me he actually kind of liked driving drunk, which I think he thought was edgy. I told him about how my mom would drive drunk all the time, how once she picked me up from school and was swerving all over the place, how we almost hit a cement truck head-on but then she saved it at the last second. “It worked out fine for her,” I said, laughing. He didn’t say anything. The biggest difference between those of us with a dead parent and everyone else is that we know how to laugh at a dead parent joke.
  • Lawyers, who, as a child, I thought were all alcoholics. At the time, with a sample size of one, my data suggested this was true.
  • The program from her funeral, which has a lighthouse on the front and sits at the bottom of a clear plastic bin in my closet. I refused to attend. I was 14 and I did not understand why I was expected to have sympathy for someone who drank herself to death.
  • A cheap, bronze costume jewelry ring with most of the white stones missing. This is one of the few items of hers I ended up with. I was wearing this ring on the night I realized I had gotten very bad at pretending I didn’t care she was dead. After one too many whiskeys in a grimy sports bar, I walked outside, sat down on the sidewalk, and cried. Aside from the day she died, I had never cried about this before. Instead, I prided myself on being very nonchalant and rational about the whole thing. Sure, she was dead. So what? And so this outburst was embarrassing. And the more embarrassed I got about crying in public, the more I cried. Nobody knew what they were supposed to do with me, and I didn’t know either. Eventually, I stood up, went to a late-night diner, and ordered a grilled cheese.
  • A wrinkled photo of her in a bikini that hangs in a frame on the wall of my studio apartment. She looks thin and beautiful and a little confused, squinting into the sun.
  • A table upstairs in a Seattle pinball bar, where, while my best friend and I were first getting to know each other, we spent hours one night comparing the particular contours of our fucked up relationships with our mothers. Each of us downplayed our own experience. Sure, it was hard or whatever, we told each other, but it wasn’t that bad. Yours seems worse.
  • Every missive written by a young woman about how her mom is her best friend. For me, the defining factor of having a dead parent isn’t sadness so much as curiosity. What if I could call her about a stubborn UTI or problems at work or the presidential election? What if I could tell her that I’m sorry, that now I understand what I didn’t understand then, that addiction is a disease? Would we even be friends?
  • The corner of Evanston Avenue and 34th Street in Seattle, where I was standing on a sunny August day last year when I got a phone call from the man who found her dead. A few years earlier, I had written an essay about trying to learn more about the particulars of her death. I treated it like a reporting project: requested the death certificate, called people who’d known her, etc. I wrote that I hadn’t known she was living with a man when she died until I read her obituary. Then, last year I got an email from a stranger telling me the man was trying to reach me. When I got his call, I sat down on a set of concrete stairs at this corner and took notes on my phone. “You sound just like your mother,” he told me, which I couldn’t really understand because he was nearly deaf and had trouble hearing anything I said. He told me about how the two of them would go to the beach in the mornings to watch the sunrise and how, just before she died, she was feeling sick but refused to go to the emergency room and then he found her dead on the floor. The reason he called, though, was to tell me I was wrong about her. Sure she drank, he said, but everybody does. He himself had just been in the hospital and had to stop drinking because “my organs were going to do the same thing hers did.” And so what I had written about her in that essay was wrong and mean-spirited, he said. I didn’t really know her, he told me, and he was right.
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