Last week a co-worker at my new job and I were talking about the holidays. I was complaining about my dad and how hard he is to shop for. She very innocently asked me, "Why don't you just ask your mom what to get him?"
Losing all pitch control in my voice I managed to sputter out an erratic explanation that left all of my desk mates frowning and silent. My reaction was entirely spastic — not the impression I wanted to make at a new office. I realized it was the first time I had been in a social setting where the people I was with didn't know.
What I wasn't able to adequately explain was that last year, four days before Mother's Day, my dad called me to tell me my mom was found dead in my sister's childhood bedroom. Drug overdose. Opioids, some prescribed, most not.
Ever since, I find myself wasting a lot of time staring out of windows, into the sky, up at the clouds trying to find a "sign." I see stars and look at old photos and listen to her favourite songs, and nothing happens. During the holidays, her absence haunts me.
In my movie magic fantasy, she sees me squinting out into the night sky and screams and waves and tries to get my attention by manipulating the elements, blowing the wind or moving the clouds or brightening up the moon so it flashes yellow-white, like headlights into my eyes.
She collapses every night, exhausted, from spending all day jumping, blowing and waving her arms. Her voice is permanently hoarse from howling down at her family from the sky, trying to get our attention, letting us know she's there and she's sorry.
People don't sympathize with overdose, drug addiction, bipolar disorder, depression.
People understand disease. When she died I received tons of messages from people saying, "I'm so sorry, I had no idea she was sick." Like the unfortunate encounter at work, when the uncomfortable topic of my mom comes up and I have to explain she's dead, most people assume cancer or some other devastating illness. I don't correct them. People don't sympathize with overdose, drug addiction, bipolar disorder, depression.
The hardest truth to swallow for me, someone who was a 24-year bystander to the ebbs and flows of my mother's mental state, is that this is how her storied life comes to an end. I don't tell people about the person she really was deep down, because I'm ashamed and protective of her memory.
She lived more in her 54 years than most people do their entire lives. And yet, all any of you reading this will remember is that she was another claim in the opioid epidemic sweeping the province, and I'm a Scrooge with mommy issues.
Like every person afflicted with grief, I fantasize about the ever-cliche "one last visit." Just one. I can accept she's dead; I understand you don't get to keep people forever. It's hard to watch someone who's supposed to love you more than anything, choose everything over you for years and years. That I never have to call in "sick" to work to drive my mom to the emergency room because she's worked up the courage to tell me she feels like she might kill herself gives me a peace that I feel guilty relishing in. But for those that have walked this life, you know it's also really hard to watch someone you love deteriorate day by day, knowing they're struggling, but be unable to help. That's mental illness. That's drug addiction. That's life.
But one last chance to laugh, to tell her the things I always avoided speaking aloud, to hear her voice? That is the exact closure I yearn for and it magnifies tenfold when glossy holiday photos of seemingly perfect families start to litter my newsfeed.
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I can see us now. I'd sit at the table and I'd start to cry, like I always did when she was around because her presence could make my skin crawl, trigger me even when she was being kind. All the years of anger and emotion and love and guilt and longing bubbling to the surface. It would be sad and scary and magical, the lights from the tree flickering behind her. And then, inevitably, the whole dying part. Surely, I'd cry about that, too.
I hope this speaks to someone out there. To the kid who feels lost or lonely, on Christmas or any other day of the year. I'm listening.
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