I couldn’t have known it that night I found myself laying on the carpeted floor of the basement in our old house on Catherine Street – with the land line pressed hard against my ear – that you and I were having our coming out at the same time.
It was the dead of summer. The earth was as scorched and dry as wherever that permeable place is behind my eyes where the tears had been flowing from that whole month of July.
The world as we knew it was ending. And without knowing it, you were packing me a bag to carry long after it did.
Through the phone line that night, we compared the early and tragic death of my brother on a desolate country road, 16 Octobers before, to what amounted to my desperate need to come up for air. I actually brought up the comparison — thinking you couldn’t deny that you’d faced worse with your kids. But you said it was like I had died too.
I remember the roughness of the carpet against the side of my face as I laid there, protesting. Curled up on the floor, hugging my knees. I wouldn’t notice the imprints of the crescents of my fingernails, on the top of one thigh, and in the soft flesh of the underside of my forearm, until the next day. As if by squeezing my own skin, I could stave off the pain of your words as they landed like stones, catapulted out of a sling shot at close range. Pelting me. Stinging as they hit. Breaking my heart. But not my spirit.
I was still the same mother, daughter, sister, and friend as I’ve always been, I said – only now you know all of me. You disagreed. And wondered out loud how it would have been if my recent serious illness had taken my life. It may have been easier, in some ways, than going through this.
And right then, I think I did die. Your love had been the central driving force for me all of my life. And then, it was not. It was a grief I was unprepared for. Those razor-sharp words haunt me to this day. Few cuts in my life have run deeper. Only the ones I’ve given to myself. I don’t know if you ever realized that. Because I let you pour them into the suitcase of sorrows that night. And I slung it over my shoulder and trudged silently on. When things really hurt you, they make you quiet.
How can you hurt everyone you love?
Think of your kids.
What kind of mother will you be remembered as?
Your life is so good.
You have everything.
I remember my hand aching from the white-knuckle grip I had on that old green wall phone, the cord stretched to its limit. And how your words hung in the air like a heavy fog. Floating. Imprinted on the inside of my eyelids so that even squeezing my eyes shut brought no reprieve.
I thought that surely this conversation was happening in some alternate universe. The world was hollow. Your words were coming from far away. Underwater. My mind wandered. Is this what shock feels like? Is this what it feels like to just give up?
I was on autopilot by then, your words were disappearing into the air, like soap bubbles in the sun. I didn’t know, “how I could do this” or what kind of mother it would make me. I just knew that I might die if I didn’t do it. I had already come close once, earlier that summer. Because you don’t bury secrets. They bury you.
I came out of the closet in August.
A month or so later, you came out of remission.
I unwittingly entered life’s emotional baggage claim – saddled with the blame of it all. And you entered the hospital for treatment again. Ironically, we were both dying to live.
The truth is though, that you handed me a kind of cancer, too. Packaged in the luggage of your choosing. Every inch of it tightly packed with the cold fiction of unearned guilt. And it was unearned. But I carried it.
Guilt is a thief, mom. A cancer. Guilt is to the spirit what pain is to the body. It’s a black wall. And an unnecessary war. A source of sorrow, that strangles you from the inside. It’s also the ultimate protection from changelessness. The kind of comfort zone no one should get too comfortable in. But I did. I didn’t change it. Because I eventually found some comfort there — like a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for emotions. I could love my captor if it meant I didn’t have to touch my pain.
Last week, it was nine years since we had that conversation. And I’m still fighting daily to drop the baggage you sent me off with that night. Wouldn’t it be great if emotional baggage could be lost as easily as airplane luggage? Even when you know that all of the guilt in the world can’t change a past — or build a future — it’s still hard to let go of.
Even when you know that guilt is just that strange thing that all fiction is. You know, the unlivable life. Or the strange room tacked on to the back of the house. An extra moon that is circling the earth, unbeknownst to science. The luggage of your soul, a weight on your heart. Worn across your back like a heavy coat. And it either drowns you until you’re useless. Or it fires your purpose.
I think that all people, even our own children, come with some baggage. When they’re little, you have to help them carry it. When they’re older, you have to do that hard thing of setting their baggage down and taking up, and unpacking, your own.
You are gone from this earth but I understand better now the baggage that you arrived with and carried all of your life. How you couldn’t unpack it for many of the same reasons I struggled with it. How you could only ever meet me as deeply as you had met yourself. How fear and sadness drove you to those words that night. And how grace and forgiveness for you – and mercy for me — drives me on now.
In spite of everything, we had a lot of love. And not enough time. My inability to set that suitcase of guilt down, powered an unwillingness to say what I truly needed to. It would have felt like a betrayal then, as it does even now. You were dying and guilt said I couldn’t risk you leaving hurt or angry. So I held on to the luggage for you. And for that, I have paid dearly. And others have paid for me bearing that weight, too. You don’t realize who you’re hurting while you’re holding on to pain.
It’s ironic that the strength that you always loved and feared in me — the strength to be who I needed to be in the end — came from you. I drew on that same strength to forgive you. And to be able to hold the tension of the opposites — deep love and respect for your journey, as a woman and as my mom, and the deep hurt and guilt that I’ve long found easier to forgive than to forget.
I’m going to finally set that baggage down now though. Whatever that looks like. It doesn’t support this life I’m creating. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be the right kind of hard. I know now that though guilt has been a teacher for me it has also been a cage. And a closet. I’m not sure if others build cages and closets for you, like a tailor makes clothes fitted for you, or if you actually make them on your own. But their insides are wallpapered in guilt.
What I also know now is that our actions burn much longer than the moments in which they occur. And some of us just spend too long hiding from the glow of the embers, fueling other fires and hiding in the flames. I can’t afford to respond that way anymore. The longer I entertain what’s not for me, the longer I postpone what is.
We get one life, you used to say. And I could never spend it trying to live two lives – the one the world wanted for me and the one I needed for me. Because of that, this one life has been both hard and beautiful. And I wouldn’t wish it to be different.
What we remember always remains. I’m carrying the best of you with me. And setting the rest down.
More than anything, I remember the love.