iii. When we arrived, my mother was already dead. The smell was antiseptic and my senses were overwhelmed by the acrid and the fluorescent, the sound of sneaker friction against worn floors, the collaborative din of life-supporting machines. I carried a box of new ballet slippers, tokens to carry me into summer camp. She was covered by a thin white sheet, face turned toward us, hollow human shell without the mother force thrumming things along.
iii./v. The look of death is shared. Our unique DNA loses shape in those final moments, muscles slipping into a collective mask. At nearly fifty years of age, my mother returned to school for a mortuary license and worked part time at a funeral home. She loved being amongst the dead. I drifted through the home after hours and tried not to look into the rooms with dead bodies lying supine and ready for transformation. They look at peace, they look natural, they lived a good life. Everything lovely said about death is a lie.
Some years after my mother died, my roommate’s Pogona vitticeps turned pallid, its tongue extended like a cartoon, and the memory of it and my mother are one and the same.
v. My roommate cried. She splashed water on the lizard, compressed its tiny heart, and gave it her own breath. Miraculously, it jolted back to life. Scales regained color and normal activity resumed, its mouth stretched into a sly bearded dragon smile that seemed to acknowledge the mini crisis it provoked. It shed many more skins before its true demise.
iii. There was no resuscitation dance at the hospital. Time of death was called well before we entered. The green curtain was slowly pulled back, metal rings chiming out as a chasm opened, delineating the before and after. The chasm was filled with functional flesh and bone reeking of neglected bodily fluids. The chasm was filled with echoes: bodies thudding against tile, against drywall; pill bottles shuffled around like shamanic rainsticks; the quiet gasp of a failed suicide attempt. These were the handful of memories I was left with in her wake after a childhood of disassociation. The loudest memories.
My father threw himself into the nurse’s arms. She shushed me.
This mother, the dead mother, was my third.
ii./iii. I arrived in the Midwest via air, packaged neatly into an escort’s arms. Umma became Mama and my reeducation began, facilitated by the new people. Skin pale and vowels wide. Love me, their eyes said. You are now mine.
i. On the surface, the transfer of care amounts to little more than paperwork. Date of birth, gender, reason for intake. There is no clarification regarding the possibility of violence leading to conception, the flavors suspended in my birth mother’s amniotic fluid, the rumblings of an outside world preparing me for the shock of living. Of this there is certainty: I do not want this, please find someone who does.
ii. My umma gave nearly a year of care. Early wakings, formula-thick stool, learning, holding. My nascent body rhythms synced with my foster family’s cadence and the time march of my birth country. How do you explain the ephemeral nature of relationships to an infant whose survival depends on attachment?
– Strangers are familiar. The absence of recognition provides comfort. The time comes to shed my skin. Ecdysis does not sound beautiful; the hard consonants stutter and collapse into the sibilant ending. It sounds like the ugly cousin of exodus, which sprang from the Greek word, exodos, meaning “the road out.” The road out is beautiful. The view is grand. Sometimes there are tears but mostly there’s relief, the sense of uncorking and an expansion of self.
iii. My third mother and I looked like strangers. The nurse shushed me so my father’s anguish could remain sacred and singular.
n. I imagine a singular mother. Skin sticky with sweat and blood, the smell of afterbirth punctuating the air. Dysfunction understood via the phenomenon of shared genes.
Barefoot in the kitchen, she lays open a pomegranate and claws out the seeds, juices beading on the formica counter. She recites her fairytale origin:
lightning struck sand and formation of glass // kinetic shape lacking any trace of softness
Through transliteration, her alphabet of sighs and silences becomes poetry—our shared language. She cleaves the roots, brushes granules of dirt from hen of the woods, ties the sodden laces of my worn brown hiking boots.
We are two forces resting on a park bench, one borne of the other, luxuriating in the quiet eve of our sustained bond. We are. I am—
iv. My fourth mother overlapped with my fifth until the fifth overtook. A brief encounter when measured against my lifespan, she filled the hollow in my father’s life and the message was clear: This is no longer your home.
v. The fifth became my mother by process of imprinting. A wayward teen, I followed her through nights and years thick with substance and heavy with bodies. Once, we wandered through a fractured, black and white panoramic, and emerged technicolor and whole. We danced and we tasted each other, as the line between mother-child and something else blurred. She nurtured me at every stage in the way she tended to her menagerie of animals. She breathed life into a lizard and she led me into young adulthood, that brittle layer of sedimentary rock readily mined when unearthing the how and why of your being.
– The deeper layers are less accessible. The way you were held or not held before you could articulate your needs. The color palettes that introduced you to intention. The metal scent of panic and the decibels of confusion. The way love can taste like summer peaches or tonic-bitter syrup or the ocean after three days of rain.
i. “Mother said that she didn’t give you name but she named you to herself as ‘happiness’ and prayed for you with this name every time,” wrote the translator, history blooming in a series of emails like pulverized spices in oil, fragrant and gaining complexity until “…she is not ready to get in touch with you now, to our regret…”
ii. Her face still floats, somewhere, in the banks of my memory. When properly vetted, a foster home provides a necessary bridge between abandonment and belonging. Without the intensive connection—a connection that an orphanage cannot provide—an infant is denied a secure attachment and the psychological ramifications resonate onward. For my ability to trust: gamsahamnida, umma.
iii. Gray skin. You are mine. The nurse held my father like a mother would, eyes meeting mine, asking the foreigner for space to grieve. Thus began my freefall into motherless territory—stark, aching terrain that stretched into the horizon and tested the efficacy of self-soothing.
v. We text from time to time. Her maternal warmth burns on with another baby, shelter dogs, plant propagation, cultivated mushrooms. She lives in the desert and blesses the arid terrain with her fertile nature, tends to her complicated life. Sometimes we can give. Sometimes we don’t.
etc. There were others, unwitting men and women clustered and in seemingly endless supply like garments circling around the dry cleaners. I plucked them from the fray and tried each on carefully, delicately, before they were lost or given away. Mother loses meaning when they come and go, ad infinitum, and there is no anchoring concept to clutch, unmoored from familial bonds, cord severed and cauterized to prevent the infection of loss.
n. My core is molten, neatly contained energy made spherical by the gravity at my center. I meet you on the street. Our deficits are brandished in the light despite the ever reinforcing veneers. Our eyes hold. Who are you and what piece are you missing?
The sidewalk trembles with infinitesimal shock waves under my stride. At the outdoor market, I taste a strawberry, consider stalks of rhubarb, orbit the hunting crowds. There are so many voids to fill; our lives an unending exercise in losing and gaining. Do we enter the world fully formed or are we pockmarked with holes from the start? Can we all claim Sisyphus as our alter ego?
At night, the losses become larger than life until they provoke a kind of death. I find comfort in mythology—Isis, Demeter, Parvati, Atira. The cultural shroud matters little; there is only hunger for a strong feminine presence. Mother Earth. Gaia. Stand-ins for caretakers who may or may not have had the capacity to play the role society expected of them. Buckling under the weight of unsupportive or absent partners, critical community, childhood wounds, those ebbing mother forces are prescribed medications to numb and assist their quotidian duties, and they buckle, break down, or lash out against the fray. Who are these women? Who were they? Who nurtures them in order to provide a circle of support rather than a linear chain of fire that burns us all in the end?
1. Boston was soft with blizzard snow in 2003. I lived in the North End and left the warmth of my exposed brick, fourth floor walkup to combat isolation in a neighborhood bar. At the end of the evening, I found a middle aged woman chortling in the snow. Nondescript in appearance and properly dressed for the weather, she made slow snow angels and laughed in a way that made me stop. She was alone. When I asked if she was okay, she proclaimed that it was her birthday. Over and over. The statement became senseless with repetition.
I don’t recall asking her name. She shared her address and I hoisted her up, her legs weak with inebriation, and walked her the few blocks to her apartment. She stopped announcing her birthday in that drunk-silly way and took to gazing at me in wonderment. “You’re an angel,” became her mantra. Perhaps she thought she’d conjured me from the snow impressions made with her loose, languid limbs. Inside the dark hallway common in cheap walkups, she handed me her keys and I opened her door to a cosmo of trash. I’d never seen a floor so completely obliterated by multilayered refuse and belongings. It reminded me of Scrooge McDuck’s vast waves of money, and I wondered whether she swam through the wrappers and boxes on nights like that night, when she lacked the will to wade. I left her collapsed atop the rubble, and I compressed the experience into a tiny sliver of sadness for permanent encoding, to be accessed when ruminating over melancholy, self-defeating habits, and the long, lonely journey we all lead once the umbilical cord is cut.
2. In my mid-twenties, I spent time with a woman who shifted between three names. She seemed split amongst distinct periods in her life, and she deftly transitioned between the personas attached to each unique appellation. This chaos was unsurprising considering her estranged father was a psychiatrist and an abuser. She was sent to boarding school as a teen, had a formerly wealthy and distant mother who loved to cook, but regularly degraded her daughter for being overweight, and my friend claimed that the best three days of her life were spent at a luxury mental health facility in England. The insular world she described did sound like bliss. For the right price, you can always find someone to mother you.
Her encounters with men were often violent, and I occupied her life while she on and off dated a drug user. One weekend, he holed up in her apartment and fucked her past the point of bleeding. This was shared with pride and probably, in retrospect, shame. She called me late one night after a business associate, strung out on drugs, visited her tiny studio and forced her hand into a pot of boiling water. After her refusals to call the police, I listened to her drunken ramblings into the light of dawn. Not surprisingly, she distrusted therapists and self-medicated with alcohol.
Victims of abuse become beacons for abusers because the victims grow addicted to cycles of crisis, often during childhood, and dependent on the arbiters of chaos—adrenaline and cortisol. Like moths to a flame, a symbiotic relationship of destructive means develops, and both get what they subconsciously crave.
It prevents growth.
I held her hand until it became clear that she found comfort in her patterns. She was constantly reaching out for a lifeline, indiscriminately grasping at the bodies around her, and I knew that I happened to be there and receptive; there was nothing more—no grand connection or meaning behind our actions. To preserve myself, I left.
3. The ones who drift through are the easiest to receive. All they want is someone to listen, someone to see them in that moment, no strings attached. I remember the woman who wove an s-pattern between the street and sidewalk in the Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago. I remember the weight of her body when I tried to hold her afloat and the slurred words: back pain and daughter and medication and thank you. There was the security guard in Michigan who’d just separated from their wife and needed to process the loss aloud, and the countless drivers who allowed me to hitch rides across the hills and winding roads of Saint John. I recall their stories of distance and obstacles, what led them from point A to point B, and how they needed to steep in their memories to find themselves. In those moments, through stillness and compassion, I tried to be their catalyst for progress. I know what it’s like to lose, and I know what spaces await fulfillment.
n. To some, the weight of grief is measured in ounces. Like a growing fetus compared to poppyseeds, blueberries, grapefruits, we can think of grief in edible benchmarks. The loss of a mother equals one pumpkin, two nectarines, three kiwis, four olives, and five lentils. Imagine the Very Hungry Caterpillars of the world, chewing through the soured nutriments and emerging from a collective cocoon, ready for flight and perhaps a little wiser. Imagine if grief was so easily digestible.
I meet you on the street. Who are you and what piece are you missing?
We do the best we can. Our mothers—whether real or imagined, blood-bonded or acquired—are ultimately a concept we create. Ambling through the city, I make space for strangers and hope the intention, however imperceptible, feeds their drive to keep going, and at night, under woven sheets, I curl a fetal position and breathe myself back to life.
Lynn Fuller is a writer and photographer. Previously published in Plainsongs, and currently at work on a speculative fiction novel, she uses writing to explore themes of loss and trauma. lynnfullerphotography.com.
This is a Life, This
Edward Lee is an artist and writer from Ireland. His paintings and photography have been exhibited widely, while his poetry, short stories, non-fiction have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. His poetry collections are Playing Poohsticks On Ha’Penny Bridge, The Madness Of Qwerty, A Foetal Heart and Bones Speaking With Hard Tongues. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His website can be found at edwardmlee.wordpress.com.