May 23, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

My father — your husband — is an addict.  Many people’s stories could start that way.  He is addicted to alcohol and dark places, feeling sorry for himself and conspiracy theories, aliens and the mythology he’s constructed around Egyptian pyramids, free energy, and shadow governments.  At night, he used to go to the levee on the river in New Orleans to film unidentified flying objects, which he called ‘strangeness in the skies’ on his Youtube videos.  A few years ago, he was addicted to opiates too.  He stood in line at methadone clinics in New Orleans with a friend who eventually died of an overdose.

My father hasn’t worked since 2009.  He believes that the world will come to an end (or, in a slightly more encouraging scenario, that humans will achieve transcendental enlightenment) on December 21, 2012.  He depleted his 401K in 2011, at which point he started pawning power tools to pay his bills.  He lost his home in early 2012.

The times when I entered my father’s home, my eyes immediately gravitated towards a few things: a yellow bulb in a modest shade hanging over his circular dining room table; the candle burning in the corner; the fish tank filled with bright blue rocks, illuminated by a florescent light even during the day, and its eel-like king fish slithering around the water (tiny goldfish swam with it, though their days were numbered); the oversized empty clay pots which used to grow gigantic orchids.

I never felt especially comfortable in this house.  It was dark.  I tried to open the blinds to let in the sun once, but he closed them behind me.

My father and I have never been close, but he was in New York City for two months last fall, sleeping on my living room couch for part of the time.  He was flown here after declaring that he needed ‘rehab’.  His aunt and uncle bought his plane ticket – he had no job, no money, and was living in their basement apartment in Georgia after being rescued from New Orleans because he had stopped paying his bills months before.  It was in Georgia that all of us realized how bad things were.  He arrived there, shaking because he was in withdrawal.  Within a couple of weeks, he was lying to everyone and hiding his screwdrivers under the table when his aunt would come to check on him in the morning.  He called me a few times, sobbing because the walls were closing in on him.  His aunt’s heavy footsteps were like a hammer on his brain; the dolls stared.  He had to get away.

My husband and I welcomed him.  I knew that my dad had been a functional alcoholic for decades.  Whenever I saw him, from the time I was a child, he had a drink in his hand.  I was in the backseat when he was stopped on the Causeway as we drove back to New Orleans from a Christmas party in Mandeville.  At the time I was in high school.  Years later, he drove me around New Orleans when I was seven months pregnant with my first child while he was high on methadone.  He kept nodding off during my baby shower that afternoon.  The day before, at his dining room table, I said, “What’s the story, Dad?  Are you on heroin or something?  You keep falling asleep.”  “Naw,” he responded.  “I’m having allergies.  Something’s in my eyes.”

I’ve never felt much of an obligation to my dad.  He had never felt much of an obligation to me.  But when he asked for help I decided to give it to him.  His aunt and uncle were not equipped to deal with him.  He was unstable in their basement apartment.  I was his daughter.  I should fly him to my home and give him the chance he said he wanted.



May 22, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

Sometimes I wonder what you and my father found in each other.  Based on what I know about you — your seriousness, in particular (I’ve heard that you often sat in the top bunk of your bed with a book) — I can’t quite see it.  He was a teenager with long hair and reckless habits and indifference towards his mother and father and the rules.  You were a young woman with longer hair and expectations for yourself and obligations to your family, including your alcoholic mother.  Maybe his recklessness appealed to your desire to escape.

I think that must be it: the fast rides on his motorcycle; the taste of cold beers on the steps of the Lakefront in New Orleans, where the butts of reefers and cigarettes danced in the shallow brown water; the long, late nights.  You wrote him a poem once.  You must have been seventeen.

Life is living

Day by day

Hour by hour

And looking into the future

Since you

Life is more, much more

When you have someone to live for.

When I read the poem you had written to my father for the very first time, I was a teenager myself and it was a Sunday afternoon.  My father’s mother, who raised me after your death, presented it to me quite dramatically, telling me that it had just mysteriously appeared on the floor of the garage.  Now I think that she must have heard me the night before, raising my voice at a black-and-white picture of you on my wall: “Where are you?” I had said over and over.  “Where are you?  Where are you, MOM?”  Perhaps she had found the poem years before, and it had been tucked away in her jewelry box until the moment when she decided that I needed you to speak to me.

I’m cynical about the whole scene now — my grandmother’s dramatic presentation, the poem’s mysterious ‘reveal,’ the reason you wrote the poem in 1974.  My father and I are in a bad place.  You should know that.  I confess to my cynicism.  I own it, and I’m owed it after many years of flirting with my resentments but choosing to do the right thing and give him the break that everyone else has.  I’m done with that for now.


May 20, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

I really want to talk to you.

You are intimately close to me yet so far away.  You are both real and imaginary.  I’m convinced that I know you in the deepest, most secret ways yet I don’t know you at all.  I once read that the way a mother shows her own children affection is directly linked to the experience she had as a child.  What she felt as an infant in her mother’s arms, what rocking, all-consuming cuddles she knew to expect (or not) in the nighttime when she cried out, she gives her own.

I have two daughters.  You have two granddaughters.  Oh how I think of you when I rock them in my arms and wrap them with everything in me.  Sometimes I get angry because you are not here to love them.  For so many years — thirty-one, to be exact — you have not been here to love me either.  I hear stories of your sisters going on vacations with their grown children.  What would we do on vacation together?  What would I do if you sat across from me in my own home and said something to me about who I am, who I aim to be, what I have done, and what I haven’t?  Would we think many of the same things, or would we have trouble understanding each other?  Would you accept my decision to distance myself from my father?

If the theory about a mother’s affection is right, I have all the evidence I need of the realness of the love you once had for me.  It was a physical love.  When my oldest daughter, who is almost eight-years-old, was a newborn and I sat with her alone, I discovered what it must have felt like to be held by you.  She and her sister — in our most intimate moments together — have helped me to find/shape/create (who knows?) a memory of being a daughter, one who was taken care of, caressed, and gazed upon.


[Mom and me, circa 1977]

I am here now and you are not.  Your third granddaughter will be born in a few months.  I really want to talk to you.