Despite my objections, Life goes on. 

A late afternoon thunderstorm darkens the sky and pours tubs of refreshing rain. Now in the cool of evening I sit in my Minneapolis apartment without AC or fan. Days of 95 degrees plus wringing humidity help me appreciate the soothing powers of a summer storm.

Likewise, I cling to this calm spell in my life, a time when my own storms have abated, allowing me to breathe. Comfortable. My sleep, for the most part, is restful. No anxiety-ridden moments before drifting off, none upon waking—at least not since leaving California and New York. I’m not totally without worry. I still glance over my shoulder. I still watch where I place my feet, so wary of hidden potholes with my name on them. Paranoia? No. Experience. History. It’s hard to trust this Life.

The one bedroom, third floor apartment at the northeast end of the hall has not yet become home. My voice echoes in the semi-furnished rooms.  Starting over—again. Alone this time. I’ve never been more…content? No more tiptoeing around others’ idiosyncrasies and hidden agendas. No more night time speeding along Pacific Coast Highway or aimless rides on New York City subways until the tears stopped and I could put the required cheeriness back in my voice. No more painted smiles for the sake of preserving household dynamics and enduring the after-all-we’ve-done-for-her whispers. No more sleeping with strangers just to be touched. No more pretending. My own four walls—bare though they are—my small, coveted space to grieve, rant, celebrate, and heal in my time, my way. In between, silence resonates. In these quiet spaces I am lost in thought. I plan what I need to do, think about words to put on paper, give myself pep talks, chase away ghosts.

I chase away ghosts, but still my mother haunts me. I see her face drawn in pain. I hear her moans and cries. Whiffs of decaying flesh intrude upon my thoughts. I touch my skin and remember hers—the shedding, swelling, tearing. Sometimes I look in the mirror and her face is there. The dying face. The suffering face. I chase her away, not ready yet to grieve as I need to for her suffering. It frightens me to relive it knowing what grief can and has done to me before. But like James, Ma will trouble me until I put her life into words. I may be content but not at peace. So not writing isn’t an option.

Ma haunts me. To ignore that truth, to do nothing, corrupts an integral part of myself. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Of course, my words also test, strain, and in some cases end relationships even as they bridge new bonds. So I wrestle with my need to relive through writing what my brother and sister may need to forget. My mother was a private woman.  I learned more from what she kept within than what she said aloud, for actions give a private woman away. Her distancing mandated I learn her subtle cues. I honed in on the changes in her voice—from low and intense to strident—the pupil dilation, the nervous chewing of the lower lip, or worse the lips pressed tight. The air in our cramped apartment was charged with her energy. To enter a room and sense a good day or one much worse dictated my own days and nights as a child, teenager, and young adult. I shrank inside myself knowing that my existence flustered her.  

I should tell you that she is dead.

What I know of Ma wouldn’t fill a postcard. Her life is gaps, white space and blanks. I must face now what in some ways is easier to let lie. I am left with an empty inheritance. Questions unanswered. I am an orphan who knows less about her birth parents, her history than some adopted children. As such, I flounder about in this life trying to lay roots in soil that won’t hold. I dig deeper and deeper but never reach that solid place. So I float. Unattached. Unanchored. Neither secured nor harnessed to this world. With each breath, letting go, letting go, letting go.

My greatest fear is that I have lived too long.

So know that I cannot give you the assurance that I will be okay, an “AHA” moment ringed with hope, or a warm fuzzy feeling when you reach the last page. I cannot promise that you will like me, or trust me, or empathize with me. I cannot put enough years between my past and present to be appropriately objective and produce the hero’s story.  I simply cannot. Consider the reader; I am reminded again and again even though I am also the reader. Understand that this is first, my truth with some names and places changed for privacy sake. It is what I remember as best and honestly as I can remember it. Second, this is the story that only I can tell, that I need to tell—the one I relive with each rewrite, re-reading, memory. Last, it is a story that I hear daily from friends suffering from chronic pain, intense loneliness, homelessness, or lives unfulfilled. Not word for word but in a hand placed on mine, a voice heavy with emotion, a deep sigh that signals what so many others wish you would hear as we invent then laud our heroes while others fall down.


excerpt from Smiling Is Not Resilience (work in progress)