Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone home?
It’s 5:26 am, Sept 1st. My wife isn’t woken by the horror movie ringtone. My sister, her cracked voice sounding a world away, is telling me our mother passed away in the night. She calls twice before I slide a finger across the phone and numbly put it to my ear. Only one reason for her to call. Mom had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, and subsequent bizarre doctor-befuddling complications, for the better part of the last ten years. This syndrome or that. Let’s run this test, that test, there’s no test for that. Wait, do you have insurance? She didn’t. She and her wife, Brenda, my mother from another mother, had managed along the decade to navigate just enough money out of paycheck-to-paycheck shit jobs to pay for enough tests to never have any proper answers. In the I.C.U. So many times, at death’s door, it’d begun to seem normal. Holding on with the hope mom’s health would peter out on a long enough timeline, enabling her to stick around for hinted at miracle cures or damn these feeble bodies, just another year. Another month. Another day.
I don’t have a firm recent memory of her being well. She was in constant pain, for so long. I’m half relieved before I pick up the phone. Mom is gone and her suffering has ceased. I’m half stunned at the inevitable finally coming to pass. She fought like a goddamned champion for so long, the word ‘terminal’ had somehow seemed to no longer apply to her, despite none of us entertaining any delusions to the contrary. Yesterday, I stood beside her hospice bed and listened to her morphine-haze murmurs that she wanted to go home. That she wanted to hold her sister’s hand. That she needed her wife. That she loved her grandchildren. That oh god help me. My mother was already gone, her mind and body taken over by the throes of pharmaceutical confusion and the inability to take a full breath. She woke only for seconds at a time. Even then, rarely, if at all, to coherence.
There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship, smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying.
I’m 3, I’m told later. Maine. Mom, and myself and sister along with her, suffer abuse at the hands and sociopathic mind of my biological father during this period. They are both teenagers. You marry the guy who got you pregnant. It’s the 1970s. That’s what you do. When your family kicks you out for being a harlot. Your father, especially, after he realizes you’ve fucked some other man that wasn’t him. Hush hush, dirty family secrets. Mom never tells this part of the story, but we 3 make it back to North Carolina. My grandmother, now wed to a different pedophile, on a rare occasion is privy to the guilt of knowingly living alongside a child rapist who preys on her children (Thrice now, actually…oh, who’s counting?), offers enough help to keep us off the street.
I’m 6. Mom is laughing at my sister and I, bellies sloshingly full of rainbow snow cones and candy corn. I’m so happy I can barely keep see straight. We’re milling about the projects (Common parlance for ghetto apartments), trick or treating. The rubber band on my mask has popped, and I’m pondering aloud that it doesn’t matter because mom says I’m a smelly monster anyway. I’ve perfected my Thriller dance moves and hate bathing. But I’m not so far gone that I don’t feel bad about taking some of my sister’s candy while she’s not looking. I LOVE Halloween. Mom likes the celebration of diversity. Peeking out from behind cheap vacu-formed plastic masks and grease paint are faces varying so in color and shape, the whole of the worlds populace may well have been represented here in this tightly packed collection of cramped concrete homes. I hardly get her meaning. She smiles. Mom raises us to be respectful of differences. To never think of ourselves as better than others. To never think of others as better than ourselves. My stomach is threatening revolt. Mom takes us home to potentially puke my candy-bloated guts out. I’m still happy.
I’m 8. We live with mom’s boyfriend, Arthur. I see him beat the ever-loving shit out of Chuck Norris at the Battle of Atlanta. Mom really loves Arthur. Arthur is an asshole. He says I’m, “girly”. He prefers my sister. She’s always been the scrapper. I never think of Arthur as a father, but he is around, introduces me to Fangoria magazine and a great many comic books. So, points for more or less being cool enough to not dismiss me completely. Arthur is black. Holy shit, my mom’s family hates this. A family reunion introduces me to the word, “Nigger”. A religious uncle also puts his hands down my pants. I think all families work this way. I’m learning all sorts of things about what I will later learn is called a, “botched moral barometer”. Adults are weird. Mom and Arthur fight one night. Arthur goes to hit her. Mom packs us up and we leave. That always stands out to me. We have no money and sometimes no outside familial support, but somehow, if things go south, we get out. We get out often. Mom reads a lot of Maya Angelou to us. Sometimes in battered womens shelters.
Well I can ease your pain
Get you on your feet again.
I’ll need some information first.
Just the basic facts.
Can you show me where it hurts?
I’m 10. We 3 now reside with my great grandmother. A kind woman, but devoutly cast-iron pan swinging Presbyterian if you don’t get out of bed in time for church. Mom picks us up from school after work and she notes some Atlantic Star song on the radio makes her think of her love for us. This makes us happy, if we also kind of roll our eyes at her sappiness. Her day at work was hell. She works constantly. Factories, restaurants, gas stations, nursing homes, etc. Half our time together these days is spent in the car. We don’t mind. Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ comes on and she tells us this is the song she wants played at her funeral. We go home to watch the film version of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ for the 100th time. ‘Dead Poets Society’, if the tape is busted.
I’m 11. Mom is having trouble making ends meet. She’s persona non grata with some of the family, since she’s back with Arthur. We don’t mind at all. We get to eat more often this way. Mom is hopeful for a fresh start. At all of it. This time, things’ll work out, she says. This time will be different. It isn’t. We bounce from one unaffordable shithole to another between fights, for a couple of years, before landing back with my grandmother.
I’m 14. My circle of friends are my mom’s fellow pothead-employees from the restaurant she’s currently managing. We’re in the driveway of my grandmother’s double-wide and they tell me mom’s inside with a gun talking about ending it all. We’ve left belongings behind in so many houses because we couldn’t pay rent and had no money for moving and been through so many schools my sister and I are perpetually washed out to sea and her fucking teen friends and burnt out degenerate fellow drunks are our only friends and fuck her if she’s going to do it, let her stop talking about it and pull the trigger. And why can’t mom figure out how not to be poor? I’m 13. I know everything. I’ve forgotten what compassion was. I am callous and self-righteous and the asshole I’d always heard my father was. Mom cries for days and apologizes. She swears off alcohol. I don’t know if anyone told her what I said.
Now I’ve got that feeling once again.
I can’t explain, you would not understand
This is not how I am.
I’m 15. Mom starts dating an older girl I know through school. I think they work together. She helps me get a job. We move out into our own house. She chooses a pagan-styled life. She seems happy for the first time in ages.
I’m 16. Different house. Different woman in mom’s life. Mom begins drinking again. Our house is party central. We know very few of the partiers. I drop out of school with mom’s could-care-less blessing. I graduate from a technical school in 3 months. I come home. Different woman with mom. My sister leaves for the same technical school to escape mom. I get a job at a factory by lying about my age so we can handle bills and mom’s love of pot. The next two years will be a mix of the last few.
I’m 18. Different county. Different job. Different shithole house, with strangers mom’s moved us in with. Different meets a new lady. Mom notifies me she’s moving hours away with her and that I should figure out what I’m doing in 2 days. I’m ill-equipped to deal with the world in an adult fashion. I don’t even know how to write a check. I’m a boy in a young man’s body without clue 1 as to how to survive alone. I’m broke, from covering bills that weren’t ours in our new place. Mom spent the years she could have spent teaching us such things, partying it up with gonzo-inspired glee. That said, I never looked to her for advice or wisdom. That just isn’t her role. I vaguely feel a sense of this having not always been the case.
Just a little pinprick.
There’ll be no more aaaaaaaaah!
But you may feel a little sick.
I’m 20, 24, 29, 35 and I go off to live my arrogant little life and my mom does the same and we talk occasionally and it’s sometimes good, but almost always distant. I go on to make some of the same mistakes she made (Those financial, she more than a few times came to my aid), and she notes cheerfully, I bypass some of those she feels worst about. Mom begins seeing Brenda in 1996 or so. This alone impacts mom’s life in such a positive way, I’m glossing over well more than a decade to keep from boring you to Disney musical number tears. I love Brenda. Through her, I reconnect with mom. Through her, mom found her children again. If I’d had a parent to join my mother in my formative years, I’d have wanted them to be like her. Mom and Brenda marry in a small ceremony in their living room, as gay marriage is illegal in North Carolina. They go on to prove to me that companionship and love aren’t just found in books and movies. I never again meet a couple so perfectly matched for one another. Except for maybe my wife, Leigh, and myself, mom says. And that would never have occurred without my mothers showing me the way of compassion, humility and compromise.
When I was a child,
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown,
The dream is gone.
The last time we and every doctor they could barely afford thought mom was a goner, it was Easter. She was up for a surgery that would either kill her or give her more time. No one expected it to work. She’d already lived 5 years past expectancy. I joked, as she looked on us, unable to speak or even move, that of course this is the day she decided to die. Of course, for shits and giggles, she’d go out marking Jesus’ day as her own and fuck him anyway, the show boater. She shook a little, a pained smile in her eyes. Her chapped, blue lips, numb to words. I left her that day, just before the surgery, with a hug. And sobbed words I hadn’t spoken since I was a small boy. “I love you, Momma.” Her time after was spent between a variety of hospitals and institutes we only learned were abhorrent once we couldn’t remove her from them. I loathed myself for every moment I hadn’t spent visiting with her over the years. And now too. But I knew she understood.
It’s 5:26 am, Sept 1st. My sister is calling to tell me our mother has passed away. The only thing I hear as my phone rings is goddamned Pink Floyd. A week ago mom came home to Brenda. To be comparatively comfortable for her final days, where she belonged. Yesterday, at Hospice, after seeing mom for the last time, Brenda hugged me and we exchanged takes cares and we looked at one another and we knew we were helpless against the end. Brenda spent every day of her life with mom, tending to her wants and needs and fueling her dreams, however far-fetched. And mom loved Brenda so much it blotted out the sun. Nothing changed when mom became ill and spent each subsequent year becoming more so. Mom and Brenda fought, together, as hard for life and verboten love as mom ever had fought to survive as a single teenage parent in a society designed to neatly savage anyone not a Rich Hetero Christian White Male.
Today, she fights no more. Kimberly Evelyn Leeman Gaines is gone. Our world has lost no small measure of wonder at her passing. I am indelibly fortunate, having been her son. Through all the chaos, debauchery and moments of joy. And amidst the heartache and loss, I find solace in knowing her pain is at an end. From star dust to ashe.
I love you, Momma.