Tag: mother

Que Todo Lo Invade

We have spent fourteen days in the new apartment.

During the evenings, my mother stands at the kitchen counter and cuts packing tape with safety scissors. She empties boxes and begins cataloging her belongings according to their worth. She re-opens envelopes holding birthday cards, wedding invitations, notes of congratulation and bereavement, handwritten letters. Sometimes she’ll call me over and read select bits of them out loud. That’s from Pamela, you know, from the company. This is from my old psychiatrist. Billy Kelly from Birmingham. Granduncle in the Canary Islands. Look at how this starts: Dear Carmen, your little girl is beautiful… The names and words bring me the nostalgia of familiar dog days, of lawns and tiles, drives and forests behind apartment complexes. Often they come with soft images and smells rather than concrete memory. Tina’s protruding blue eyes, the carpet around a fireplace, quiet. Sometimes, if the memory is a good one, if the sender is a good one, my mother smiles. She will even tip her head back for a moment, eyes closed, losing the sick tension, for once. Then my mother puts both hands on the paper and tears it in halves, and then in fourths. She offers no explanation, tossing the pieces in the trash as she does the empty cardboard boxes and the sweaters shrunk in our new washing machine. It was hard not to flinch, at first, but I have learned.

We have driven to IKEA twice. The first time I was struck not by the amount of stock or customers, but by the number of babies. Infants held against the breast, the back, in arms, sleeping in strollers as a mother and father debated over sofa cushions. They looked up at the paneled, light-filled ceiling with steady and unthinking devotion. Did they mistake it for the backdrop of the hospital where they were born? Did they return to that sudden and pivotal time of blood, humidity and love? Did they start anew?

On the way back, my mother drove fours hours in the dark. Mi cerebro no reconoce el cansancio de mi cuerpo, she said. My brain doesn’t recognize the tiredness of my body. I craned my neck, looking for her expression in the light of passing automobiles, but that curve of cheek and steady hand could belong to anyone. I stared at her as a young child would, searching for a mark to know her by. Where are you, mother?

The second time, my mother tried to make the same return trip on one fill of gas. As the needle dipped close to empty, my mother called to me. Her voice can give the space around me form and structure wherever I am – even when I am curled up in a car, caught between a dying radio, black mountains and the poisonous nighttime. I took off my safety belt, something I once nearly slapped my brother for doing, and wrapped my arms around the seat immediately in front of me, the seat my father once occupied. Should I stop? she asked me. We are close to empty. I knew that if I told her to stop, she would. Instead, against all proper judgement and reason, I said: go. You can make it. 

My brother has cried once. Don’t believe it, I whispered to him. You know the truth. He allowed himself to be held, but only for a few minutes. When he lifted his head he was calm, but not expressionless. In his face, in that small face, I found the still and unassuming bravery I have needed for so long. I have taught my brother the alphabet, the difference between a diphthong and a hiatus, multiplication of fractions. Now, I try to teach him to survive, I try to teach him the truth, only to find that I am the one who still needs teaching.

We fight, my mother and I. At first it was often, but now it is only occasionally. We argue with one another as angrily as ever, but we do it while sitting at the table, drinking breakfast tea, or while washing the dishes. These healthy, domestic scenes give us a sense of order and responsibility. Sometimes we forget we don’t want to hurt each other, and we fall into the old roles. I am the lithe and disdainful villain, and she the towering specter, baring her teeth. But mostly we are good. As simply as children, we have made peace with one another. Even the bad guys have something to protect.

I think of what I want for us often. I picture us taking the subway to the movie theater, the three of us standing in a circle, shoulders touching, packed in close together by the weight and substance of strangers. We buy stale popcorn and orange soft drinks, we rush up stairways, we arrive a little late but nab perfect seats. Quirky, heroic characters, rolling streets where teenagers meet to construct secret bases, soundtrack that lilts and booms at all the right places, killer lines spoken by poor delivery men and gunslingers against bucolic scenery, deaths in the arms of the schoolboy who swears revenge, absolutely no romance – we see the film that my mother will remember as being “beautiful”. We take a taxi cab home, and my mother is talking and smiling, she is laughing at the bits from the movie my brother reenacts. Every once in a while, she turns to look at us in the backseat, and I can see her clearly, even in the dimness. I recognize my mother, my true mother, half a century old, hands touching her knee, her face, smiling and shaking her head: the best of the scores of women she has been before and will be. When I recognize my mother, my lofty skepticism and system of cruelty leave me, if only for a short while. When I recognize my mother, I am reminded of the worth of this day, of all days. No, I do not live for her. But I do live because of her, in more ways than one.

The moving men and my mother position a bookshelf slightly to the right. Why don’t you put it in the center? I ask, standing in the doorway in my pajamas. I want that space for flowers, she says. I think of the flowers in our old apartment. They died from neglect in no time at all, the wooden flower boxes rotting in the rain. My mother makes a sweeping motion with one hand, gesturing towards the entirety of her home, all the walls and children who have made her their caretaker. I’m going to fill this entire place with flowers.


I am slitting city guides with a kitchen knife. I am cutting out pictures of my hometown, Valencia (Latin valentia, meaning strength, courage). The photographs of my selection depict a reality of beauty: beach side restaurants, the inside of a gentleman’s hat store, town square in the summer. They lie in piles on the counter top, bizarrely lifeless beside the rectangular boxes of children’s cereal and bowls of plums. The margins and letterheads of the guide entries (“quaint hole-in-the-wall bookstore”, “Baroque style tapestry”, “portrait of Charles IV of Spain in hotel lobby”) fall away with the flick of the blade, the peelings and pith of a life so beautifully constructed thousands of tourists arrive yearly just to admire it.

Later on, I will fix these photographs to my bedroom wall with adhesive tape. They are not the first to colonize that surface: they will join cut-outs of physics articles (“The Geometric Theory of Everything”), pencil drawings gifted to me by my classmates,  a two-page spread of a cheetah mid-run, the surface of Mars, a sketch of a cell from a mammal’s stomach wall, maps of every continent in the world, the molecular model of a protein, two poems by Pablo Neruda and one by Amichai, snapshots of an ultrasound, the aurora, storybook art from a retelling of “David and Goliath”, the broken stem of a glass flower.

To be honest, there is not much space left. I compulsively cover up all the wall that remains with no real objective in mind – my mother hates it (“this is like the room of a serial killer”), so it is not in the subconscious name of maternal approbation that I do this. If I do this, I do it for myself, for my well-being. It feels nice to enter a room and see all these things, all these things that I love, up on a wall, only for my careful examination. I feel as though I am a naturalist cataloging poisonous insect species in the heart of the jungle. I feel like I have left the fearful explorer’s silver plane behind.

In the middle of the collage is a photograph I adore above all other things. I can describe it perfectly from memory. It was taken before my birth, in Kent in the springtime. In the foreground my parents are sitting in lawn chairs, heads together. They are young and dressed in thick linen, arms pressed to their chests. My mother’s expression is vague but happy, and my father is smiling. Behind them wet green grass extends for miles.

This photograph is the only possession on my wall that serves to remind me. It has never caused me pain, as I imagine it might have caused other children in my same situation. Even before my mother’s relapse in 2009, I had lived with the knowledge that our family had, if not an expiration date, a sort of fade-out quietly date. I hear that divorce sometimes warps offspring, leaving them dazed and psychotic. I too feel as they do. I am no hero. I bitterly survive, but always accompanied with the knowledge that I couldn’t run as fast as our house could fall.

I may seem a little morose but I’m not sad, honest. My beautiful mother’s manic depressive episodes and my father’s miserable degeneration – I’m not a stranger to that feeling of hopelessness that now has become characteristic of their lives. I want to free them from the horror of these days, as quickly and cleanly as I can. I don’t feel the need to be cruel, though I know I could be. Am I growing stronger, more courageous? No, it’s not that. It’s enough: this, what I have had. Even in the dead of night, when I am awake and lost, I can honestly say: I will give it up. I fully accept that I will cry, this day and during the many days that come. But despite what has happened, or perhaps because of it, I have found joy. In philosophy classes, in the northern lights, in novels and poems of great bravery and kindness and in the pit of my own gut (finally, oh finally) I have discovered it – joy.

I own dozens of family albums. A hand in my heart is cutting through the plastic binding now, slicing the protective coverings on the negatives, around pictures of childhood birthday parties, movie outings, afternoons on the lawn. But I will keep these photographs, proof of a life I knew and had, for however short a while, and I will carry them with me forever. When you ask me where I have been, I will take one out and show you, pressing it flat against a table, and, pointing at first the morning greenery, then the faces of these people, these people that I cherish deeply, I will say: I am so proud to have been here.

Bipolar Part 4 of ∞

Dirección General de Tráfico suggests adding “Aa” in front of the name of one of your contacts in your phone address book. In case of an accident, whether its cause is recklessness or force majeure, use of this safety measure can quicken identification and treatment. “Aa” is an abbreviation of “Avisar a.” In English, “avisar” means “inform” or, alternatively, “warn”.

AVISAR A: Next of kin, a living blood relative, lady or gent in seashell sleeves and moccasins, sharing pulpy warmth and the orange glow of intimate space. Warn, inform, a somebody who’ll sit in the spring green waiting room with collar unbuttoned and shoulders like crumbled cliffs. AVISAR A: Somehow who, without you, hovers nervously, cut off from the rest of the meandering river, an oxbow lake in a secluded glade, swollen and stagnant.

It is Christmas Eve, and it has been six hours since my mother left, four since her last call. Her “hello?” had plucked at me, plunging into the ridges of my bodily tissues and fluids.

“I’m at the sea.” she’d said. I’d recalled our summer house, the Isabelline white hut with rooms like smoking dens, shrouded by the crystalline ocean. Did she stand beside the waves and think them beautiful? Oh, but, the water is very cold this time of year! I am the aging owner of a shore side souvenir shop, crouched underneath the windowpane as my mother, hair aflame, hurls stones at my glossy postcards and carefully glued together baubles.

Phone conversations with my mother tend to end with my delivery of a monologue, freshly cooked on a gas stove, my fingertips dripping faucet water onto sauce pans, enticing the maternal blue flame. “Please come home when you’re ready”, I’d said, keeping it as brief as possible, “You are not alone!” But despite my precautions, the speech was long and wordy enough to give her time and reason enough to cry. Her “okay” hung in the vacuum of the telephone line, in between twin sobs, hurricanes in which her sentiments solidify like eyes.

If one day I am hit by a force greater than one I am able to assimilate, if an act of God leaves me split open by a country road, perhaps some insightful paramedic storing my belongings in plastic bags will encounter my mobile phone. If he does, and if he thinks to go through my address book and begin dialing numbers, this is the first thing he’ll find:

AVISAR A, followed by a discrete colon, and then –


The moral sense in mortals is the duty / We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty

At eleven thirty my mother calls my name from the living room. The rise and dip of the E resting into the guttural peace of the A, this Emma, Eeeeeeeemmaaaaaaa, Eeeehmuhhh, if anything, this name means home to me, but only ever when taken from her mouth.

I go and find a room lit by a television screen, and my mother sitting on the blue couch in her nightgown, knees close to her chest in the manner of children. Her back, she says, hurts, and so I take a tube of Bengay and circle the offending area with my hands, very carefully at first, then progressively harder. She does not swear at me for being too rough, a bad sign. She must be in quite some pain, perhaps more than she has been in for a long time.

It occurs to me that often I treat my mother like a baby, but she is not so very young, not anymore. She mentions that it might be the weight of her purse that’s causing her the pain, and I agree, a little too profusely perhaps, to avoid her coming to more dangerous explanations. That afternoon I’d had to spend a while convincing her that she didn’t have cancer, though there was no way I could be sure myself. But I can talk big if she is comforted, it is never a one-way cycle, after all. The oxygen I dedicate to her is always returned to me, when I am scared and require all the usual consolations: that I am strong enough, kind enough, smart enough, capable enough.

One of the loveliest things I’ve seen in my life was a photograph of my sixteen-year-old mother. I saw it once in a moment of idleness and have not seen it since. My mother is in profile, sitting on a bed with her back against the wall, and her long hair is unbearably exotic to me, I, who have only ever seen it cropped close to her jaw. Perhaps I find this photograph so striking because it depicts a time when my mother was close to me in age, something I have difficulty imagining. Will I feel the same way at fifty, looking at pictures of her taken now, and will she seem so wonderful to me as her teenage counterpart does today?

When someone mentions an attractive woman, or I am inspired to think of beauty in its female form, I think of a small kitchen with the doors wide open, and a little balcony where wet blouses hang, and a girl peeling fruit in a plaid dress, standing by a cheap counter made to resemble marble. This girl does not have a face, but her hair is always long.

A tangent that is related, but not by very much:

School starts in five days, and I am frightened, but for one of those reasons difficult to explain to anyone but your mother. We have spoken, and I have partaken of the normal solace, but now that this continues to worry at me I think: maybe I need to carry my own weight sometimes? Maybe it is time the daughter learn to take leave of her mother.

(title from Lolita by Nabokov)

Where have the people gone? There is one light on the mountain.

I spent yesterday afternoon eating udon in my mother’s office. Afterwards my brother and I lie on the floor, surrounded by mannequins and furniture catalogs. Though my mother works in the design department, she is not involved in design; she does the innovative business shebang. Still, whatever an innovative business room looks like, it can’t be as nice as working under the observation of articulated statues and books in pastel shades and canvases covered in curly lettering.

When my mother finishes, she goes to the window, pulling open the curtain as though ripping open a candy bar. We’d had overcast weather that morning, and so I see it fit to ask “is it raining?” to which my mother answers “more than that, it’s hailing”. Her tone is so high and so sharp she might as well have been swearing. My mother is terrified of storms.

We go down and find the doorman behind the glass door, keeping an eye on the silvery plaza. My mother says she’s never seen a storm this bad, though I can clearly recall us driving through a much worse one not a full year beforehand. She leaves for a moment, and reappears with a white umbrella. She says she’s been lent it, although there is no one left in the building who could have lent her such a thing.

The sidewalk is empty. Once in a while a couple will emerge, wet arms swinging. At one point we see an entire family, dressed in bright soaked shorts and carrying tote bags made of dark straw. The daughter, walking down the asphalt with the air of a martyr, is barefoot.

Everyone seems to have crowded into the phone store across the road. They’re all the English tourists, riding out the rain. It doesn’t take long, and soon enough I have convinced my mother to brave the trip to the metro stop.

“Afraid of a little thunder and lightning?” I say, or something to that effect. “What the heck?”

But as we wade through the dips and tucks in the street I see a girl on a street corner who is clearly terrified of that little thunder, little lightning. She’s of at least partial Oriental descent, though now, in retrospect, I cannot pluck out her features from the muck of memory. All I can remember is her black hair, and her arms, which were wrapped around a boy, who should be more properly termed a young man, though I think of him only as a boy. He had a buzz cut and broad shoulders, and one of his hands was patting her head while the other held firm to the puzzle piece of the small of her back.

We soon leave them be, and as we are making through the narrow streets so isolated one could be the paradise of monsoon and another a stark churning desert, the water slows and the clouds clear, as we are passing paralyzed stray dogs and marble store fronts, I think, in passing, a thought that is perhaps number 450 of the 700 I think per minute, stuck between one triviality and the next: THAT WAS BEAUTIFUL.

(title is never mine, but only Theodore Roethke’s, a line from his “The Storm”)