A Month, or 29 Days

January 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

In April, a little over a month after my mother’s funeral, a student comes to my office. She is wearing a colorful long skirt and a peach hijab, and she is smiling, though sadness seeps through. “I wanted to come see how you’re doing,” she says, “but I wanted to give you some time.” Tears start rolling down my cheeks. There’s no way I can stop them. Then, she starts to well up. I give us each a tissue. “Are you ok?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “This is the month.”

Many people have attempted to comfort me by this point, which often leads to talk of “better places” and “time healing all wounds,” most of which I do not believe. My mom and dad are not in a better place. They are dead. A better place would be alive, with me. I let these well-meaning people hug me, I force a smile. I tell them I hope they are right. I do hope they are right.

This student (I’ll call her Susana) is the first person to make sense. She is the one who emails me out of nowhere the day my mother is found dead in her apartment. I am worried that something really bad has happened, she writes. It is not like you to miss class. I decide at that point she is psychic, or at least extremely sensitive to changes in the atmosphere. We become friends.

Susana carries her school books in a Land’s End backpack, embroidered with someone else’s initials. It belonged to her son, and she can’t give it up. He died in a car wreck four years ago, at sixteen, driving to work at a pizza restaurant.

“People keep telling me it will get easier,” I tell her. “They say I’ll move on.”

“It never gets easier,” she says. “It’s just not so present every single moment. You learn how to get through the days. And some you don’t.” She doesn’t look away from me, even though my face is a mess of emotion. I know she is telling the truth. “When people say stupid things like that,” she says, “I smile at them. At first I laugh at them inside for being  ignorant, but by the time they’re done talking, I can usually forgive them.” This is brilliant. I decide to try it.

Susana is very religious, a Muslim, but she doesn’t tell me God will get me through. Her faith helps her, but doesn’t wipe anything away. She knows that some losses leave huge gaping holes that nothing but more nothingness can fill. I can’t help but keep the hole, even marvel at it sometimes. She knows that there is no going back to who I was, that it isn’t even something I could desire now.

“I always feel April coming,” she says. “It’s the month Mac died.” By now we are both fitting words through tears when there’s an opening, a breath. “That’s when I remember exactly.” I know a little about this already. My mother’s birthday is April 3, and it hits me like a truck.

Susana checks on me periodically through the semester, never offering the idea that I should get over anything, or that I should try to work through my sadness. She just comes to sit, to make sense. Neither of us even attempts to stop the other from crying. We are comfortable with each other’s grief. She even emails me when I am in Italy. I was just wondering if you got through Mother’s Day and Father’s Day ok, she writes. I did not and I tell her the truth. I tell her I hope those days weren’t too hard for her.

Susana is not in my class this semester. We have different schedules, but I keep expecting her to show up at my door any day now. February is my month, and I have been feeling it coming.


Dreams of Teeth

January 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have to get a tooth filled and I am terrified. I might as well be eight years old. It’ll be okay, the dentist says, his hands deep in my mouth. It is an upper tooth and I hear the drill amplified through my skull. I take deep yoga breaths the best I can with my mouth propped open. I clench the armrests. “Relax,” the dentist says. “It’s just a tiny cavity.” Later, I brag to Jeff that the dentist finds my teeth beautiful. The hygienist agrees, I tell him. I unload the loot of miniature toothpaste, floss, and an embossed toothbrush from my purse with a little flourish. “They say that to everybody, “ Jeff says. My half numb smile droops.

I have a little bit of an obsession with teeth, but I know I’m not the only one. Your teeth represent how you take care of yourself, my sister says. Losing teeth, according to the dream interpretation web sites I check, is the most common anxiety dream. Apparently, these dreams mean you fear getting old or being embarrassed. Probably both. And then, the part I can’t get over: teeth identify you after death, long after fingerprints have turned to dust.

I have a Ziploc baggie full of human teeth on my dresser. They are various sizes, mixed together, from each of my boys at different ages. I don’t know what to do with them; I just know I can’t throw them away. How could I get rid of baby teeth, even though they’re supposed to be disposable? There are more teeth on the way, too. My youngest has only lost eight teeth, while his friends have lost all twenty. He worries.

“Your teeth like your mouth, “ I say.

“But I’ll have these teeth when I’m fifty!” he says.

“Good,” I say. “You have nice large teeth.” I learned this careful wording from a friend years ago. It makes my son and me smile, for different reasons. His nice large teeth have a gap—who doesn’t love a gap?—in the middle. Once, when he ran into a metal pole at recess, he said, “I feel my heart in my teeth.” This was so true, a poet friend wanted to steal it. I decide to keep the teeth in a nicer bag.

This is not a Country Song

January 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was born the day George Jones married Tammy Wynette. It was the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, February 16, 1969. It was years before the D-I-V-O-R-C-E. It was long before He Stopped Loving Her. I imagine that as my parents brought me home from the hospital, nestled only in my mother’s arms in the front seat, my three older sisters squirming in the back seat, some dj sent one out to the Possum and his newest bride.

My parents were not hippies. If they recognized anyone as a hippy in 1969, my mother probably said, “He looks like he needs to take a bath.” She said this about people on several occasions during my childhood. Bathing, hairspray, makeup, and bras were the touchstones of her world. She had gone to beauty school for six weeks in New York, after all. Tammy Wynette, a licensed cosmetologist, blonde by choice, was someone my mother could relate to. George was a star, handsome and dangerous. He was her kind of man.

My dad spent too much of the sixties studying or working in hospitals to get involved in any counter culture. He wanted to bring his new and growing family up and out of the mountains he and my mom came from. They wanted what the hippies were leaving behind. Maybe “I’ll Share My World with You” came on the radio as they drove their fourth baby girl home. Maybe my dad put his long arm around my mother’s small shoulders, careful not to muss her bouffant. She was definitely Standing by Her Man.

In November last year, my sisters and I went through my Mom and Dad’s things, even the notorious White Suitcase: a sixties era vinyl suitcase that held all of their important papers and photos. It has survived many tragedies, including a house fire. In it, my sister discovered both my mother’s and my hospital bracelets and a hospital portrait of me on the day George and Tammy wed. I had never seen it before. I wasn’t a beautiful infant, apparently. I was what my husband calls a “squash-faced baby.” He tells the truth about such things. Another thing my sister found was a card that referred to me, newly born, as “Tuffy.” I earned this name because my Mom was in a car accident and had an appendectomy while pregnant with me. My birth was the stuff of country songs. I was determined to get here and jump into the chaos of a family George and Tammy could relate to on their wedding day: hopeful, but certain to find trouble, always cruising down the highway toward some bigger dream, knowing it was going to get better down the pike.

Where Am I?

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