A Letter To My Estranged Mother

A letter to you, mom, wherever you are.

I wonder what you know about me.

Dear Mom,

The last time I saw you, there was an empty handle of vodka at your feet. Your house was in shambles — the aftermath of another fight. Your husband was arrested. You were begging me for help.

There was an urgency in the phone call, one I hoped was authentic. And I came because I thought you needed me; I hoped you needed me.

It was hot, and I was nauseated from the hormones of pregnancy, my hand over my mouth, the taste of ineffective ginger lozenges lingering. I wish I hadn’t been surprised to find you, as you were, disheveled, splayed out on your sofa, asleep — that’s what they call it when they don’t want to say passed out.

But that is how you were.

That is how I see you now; even as more than five years have passed.

I don’t know where you are — if you are ok, if you have food, shelter, love. I don’t know what you look like now. Is your hair still short? Are your dentures still ill-fitting? Can you chew red meat yet? Do you still wear sweatpants every day? Has the mania robbed your body of its mass? Has the alcohol caused your liver to fail? Are you sallow? Are your cheeks sunken? Your face sullen?  

I wonder what you know about me.

I have babies, five. The three you knew are grown, teenagers, out of high school, preparing for college, planning their futures. The two you don’t know are still in awe of the world. They don’t know yet how lonely and cruel it can be. They don’t know loss. They don’t know they lost you before they even knew you.  

I know you know about them, someone on Facebook told me. Do you know what they look like? Do you know that Ella has my hair — brown and wavy — and Max has Matt’s eyes — blue as the bluest water?

You’ve missed 33 birthday celebrations. High school graduation. Jazz festivals. Parades. Marching band. You’ve missed first teeth and first steps and first days of school. You missed that time I fell down the stairs and couldn’t walk for months. You missed when I totaled my car. You’ve missed every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every 4th of July — the turkeys, the gifts, the fireworks, the vanilla ice cream — the laughs, the tears.

You missed when I wrote an article and then went on television, but I bet you didn't miss it, because you watch The Today Show; you just didn’t call to tell me you’d seen me there. You've missed the articles I’ve written through the pain of not knowing you, not remembering you.

You’ve missed their lives, my life. All of it.

I’m angry at you because I don’t matter enough for you to get sober, to stay sober

For 20 years I avoided the inevitable: Would I be like you? Would my children grow to loathe me, to blame me for the inadequacies in their lives? Would my marriages fail? Would my career falter? I avoided discussion. I avoided the psychiatrist. I avoided meds. I avoided people. I called myself energetic, a go-getter, motivated. I called myself sad, blue, tired. I called myself everything but the thing I was.

You.

Not you on the outside, though I see you in the jowls of my cheeks, the texture of my skin, my prominent veins, my ears, my hair. But no, you on the inside — the hills, the valleys, the sickness lying in wait. The Bipolar disorder that plagues you — the one you deny. I can’t stare in the mirror because I see you there. And in seeing you, I see me.

And it’s frightening.

I’m angry at you; for giving me this, for not giving me tools to handle it, for pretending you were ok. I’m angry at you, because in my desperate attempts to avoid being you, I was becoming you without seeing.

I’m angry at you because you won’t be helped. Because sobriety never sticks. Because medications are never adhered to.

I’m angry at you because I don’t matter enough for you to get sober, to stay sober.

A hundred times I’ve looked at the phone thinking, I should call. A hundred times I haven’t, and now I’ve forgotten your number. Your address. How tall you are. What you smell like.

You used to smell like Marlboro Light 100s and Joy — the perfume, not the emotion.

Do you still smoke? Will cancer take you before your alcoholism does? Will I even know if that happens?

I watched TV tonight, a documentary about coercive sterilization in Los Angeles in the 60s. I finished knitting a pair of socks. Now it’s 1:05 a.m. — the house is cold and dark. Bach is playing, Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major. The dog is snoring at the foot of my bed. The children are sleeping — the four that still live here. There is a siren one street over, a train passing by — freight I’m sure, taking something to somewhere.

Ella is having a nightmare I guess, or a dream; she called out, “Mommy.” But when I went to her bed, the bottom bunk with the pink sheet and the flowered quilt, she was sound asleep, blanket pulled to her chin, framing her little round face. She looks like me, and like you, too — I think.

It’s winter and my feet are numb because I forgot I wasn’t wearing socks and I was too busy crying. I take my pills every day. I hate them, but I take them anyway. Because they are better than being you. I think they aren’t working because I want to die a lot. I don’t remember what it was like to feel like I didn’t want to die.

I don’t remember the feel of your embrace — or if I ever felt your embrace at all. I don’t remember you holding my hand or comforting me in pain, though I imagine you did, it’s all erased now by the years between us.

I don’t remember what it’s like to have a mother. Did I ever know what it was like at all?

I wish I could call you, but I don’t remember your number, I don’t remember you at all.

— joni

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