At the time of her death, Debbie was sharing an apartment with her boyfriend, Matthew. Both were relapsed addicts—meth, heroin, crack—but I don’t know which particular drugs were clouding their judgment the day of their final fight.
My mother died alone in a low-income apartment. I don’t know whether she bled to death in her living room or her kitchen, whether her body lay pressed against carpet or linoleum or a hardwood floor. I imagine her last word wasn’t a word at all but a startled shout cut short. I imagine there wasn’t time for any last thoughts, that her lurching body was too preoccupied for anything other than surprise.
Debbie was going to die anyway. She’d been diagnosed with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver the previous autumn; she was alive due to experimental medication and—according to my adopted mom, Shari—the grace of God. She had a year to live, maybe longer. Maybe a year in which there was still time for me to respond to the apology hanging in the air between us, in the thousands of miles between us, since our last visit.
It went something like this: me sitting, lanky and awkward, in the corner of her sagging brown couch, hands tucked into the pocket of my hoodie. Debbie sat on the opposite end, her belly swollen from the medication, her skin liver-spotted, her beautiful changeable eyes dulled by the dim lighting of the apartment. Everything saturated by the stale smell of cigarettes. Shari was down the hall, showering. I'd been dreading this moment the entire trip—we were alone together for the first time in several years.
She said the words I'd imagined her saying a thousand times before: I'm sorry...I love you...I think of you every day. I did not look at her while she spoke. Tears fell and I did not bother to brush them away. She was still recovering from her relapse a few days earlier (brought on by the pressure of seeing me again), and her sentences were broken, garbled. She got lost in the simplest of expressions. I understood she wanted us to have a relationship, but that she didn't want to pressure me. The unspoken part was that we both knew she was dying.
Still, I thought there was time. To go home, gather my thoughts, be alone with them. I was going to write her a letter. I have always felt more comfortable writing letters when what I have to say is difficult or complicated or confused. I thought I had time. That's how young I was.
And he took that from me. A man I’ve never met, a man I didn't even know existed until years after her death. After he pushed her, she landed hard enough to scare him. I don’t know if he took her pulse, if he shook her gently or otherwise, if he said her name over and over with increasing urgency, if he cried into her hair, if he covered his mouth with his hands, if he was silent, if he held her, if he brushed hair from her forehead, if he said God forgive me, if he hissed fuck fuck fuck, if he was too inebriated to think of her at all. I know that she didn’t die upon impact, that it took some time for her to bleed to death, that the bleeding was internal, that she would have been unconscious during the last few hours of her life. I will never know if she felt pain.
As for him, all I know, all I’ll ever know, is that he did not call 911. Later he would regret leaving. He would turn himself in. He would spend five years in prison and Shari would send him a letter saying five years was not enough, she hoped he understood—he had robbed a mother of her daughter, a sister of her sister, a daughter of her mother. My adopted mom and my birth mother were sisters. Are they still? My grandparents lost a daughter that day. Is a parent still a parent after their child dies? Is a daughter still a daughter?
At the time of her death, Shari told me Deb died alone in her apartment (true). She told me that Debbie had relapsed (true), and while high had tripped and fallen (sort of true), and that she'd died painlessly (hopefully true). It wasn't until a trip home from out-of-state some seven or eight years later that Shari told me the truth about my mother's death: there'd been an argument, she'd been pushed, she'd died alone but she shouldn't have. And it wasn't until twelve years after Debbie’s death that I discovered, via an internet search, Matthew's full name. And with that name came the smallest human details: He has been arrested on various, small charges, including loitering. He is African American. He is roughly the same age she would have been if she had lived. He is still living.
A man split in similar places as her: he has a B&E for every one of her prostitution charges. Aggravated assault for her DUI. The things an addict will do for a fix. Their broken places overlapping. But it’s not enough to overlap.
I remember a summer afternoon in my adopted mom's blue minivan. Just us girls, she'd said to my sisters and me, so it felt conspiratorial. We were running errands, and stopped for Taco Bell. In the parking lot with the windows down, we ate bean burritos while my oldest sister, Gilly, talked about the crush she had on a waiter at our favorite restaurant, La Hacienda. His name was Hector. My mom thought he was cute, and gentlemanly. She encouraged the flirtation, even inviting him over to our house for supper, until Gilly decided she really did want to date him, and then my mom changed gears, saying it was inappropriate, Gilly was too young. That day in the parking lot, nothing had happened yet, and my sister laughed and joked about their so-far brief encounters at La Hacienda. I don't remember the details of the conversation, other than this one: my mom warning us never to date a black man. She quoted some statistic about domestic violence. I remember feeling ashamed of her, and also wondering if it was true.
Was this before or after what happened to Debbie?
I'm not interested in excusing my mom's warning; I understand where such thinking comes from, and it's dangerous and stupid to say, She was hurting, or even She doesn't believe that anymore. I don't seek to excuse her words on that day or the fact that they rankled inside of me for so long, but I do seek to understand what she was experiencing at that point in her life. She was alone in a toxic marriage (my father was soon to be diagnosed as bi-polar), and slowly being abandoned by her church and friends, who prized the preservation of marriage over anything else, including my mom's well-being. She was dealing with not one, but two adopted daughters (brought to live with her family within the span of six months) who each came from negligent/abusive backgrounds, and one of whom hated her. When Debbie died, she had no one to talk to; my dad didn't want to hear about it when he came home from his grueling warehouse job each night; her other siblings had long since given up any emotional investment in Debbie's fate; and my grandparents were in ill health and had quite frankly washed their hands of Debbie at that point. My mom told them Debbie had died, but spared them the details (as she spared me at the time).
I also seek to understand Matthew; or rather, the systems of oppression he, my dead mother, and my living mom were victim to and/or perpetuated. I'm not sure where to begin, other than to acknowledge art as the space we enter to confront that which confounds us. I am confounded by the relationship between love and hatred. By the way care and violence co-exist. Oscar Wilde wrote that each man kills the thing he loves. Why? Debbie's death was not pre-meditated; Matthew was not found insane or cold-blooded; I do not know if he had a previous history of violence. Neither was it a crime of passion; from what I understand, the dispute that ended in Debbie's death started out as play. She had something of his—keys? a remote control? what, exactly?—and he wanted it back. She danced away from him, a child's game, easy to imagine—who hasn't played it? It escalated; he angered; the anger turned into a push.
This push is not unfamiliar to me. As children, my little brother (whose name is also Matthew) and I were close; I showed him secret worlds in the woods, in our backyard, in my notebooks—he would follow, sometimes eagerly, other times led only by blind trust. Mostly we were tender with each other. But sometimes we grew frustrated, and our fights would turn physical. I remember chasing him around the yard with a sharpened stick; him hitting me over the head with his cast when his arm was broken. These small acts of violence were mindless—afterwards we could not recall what made us do it. He was the first person I ever felt protective of, he was the first person I ever felt violent towards—
I remember us standing in my mom's living room at Thanksgiving, a few years after I left home, our voices raised, our attempts at communication blockaded by self-defensive posturing: I was telling him that what he had said in the grocery store was racist (what I wasn't willing to admit to myself at the time was that I was responding less from moral outrage—after all, my brother's racism was nothing new to me—but from embarrassment—he had used a racial slur in front of my boyfriend, who was half-Mexican). He was telling me I had no right to expect otherwise, that just because I was in college now didn't give me any right to judge him. We argued; it escalated; he yelled and aggressively occupied every inch of his six-foot-four body; I realized I was shaking before I realized I was scared. After he left I sat at the table and cried. The shaking wouldn't stop. My body was pushing something out of me. We didn't talk again for a year.
This was not the first or the last time it would happen: when someone yells, I splinter. My body makes a home for anger. Theirs, but also mine—
I have lashed out, I have hit, I have swung a door into a face, I have committed small atrocities against myself and others. When someone yells, I splinter: my left hand knows not what my right hand attempts. I am shaking and then I am face to face with the stranger who is myself when my self is not looking. Will I recognize her? Will I recognize her as myself, before it's too late, before I step away from me?
I THOUGHT I SAW MOTHER tearing at her eyeballs in morning light. I’m finding a way to keep my eyes from swinging shut—The window did not frame her, & she was not wearing a Mickey Mouse sweater, & her hair was not divided into two crimped pom-poms like that time we went to Disneyland. There was not a wolf stretched between her & the doorway in which I stank. There was not a [ ] waiting to swallow her whole. And when the window did not break, I did not hear Mother screaming [stomp it stomp it] [let her eat cake—noodles there are noodles in the kitchen a cake half-eaten—cockroaches in the sink—stomp it—there are cock—where are my fucking socks]. To look for what you’re looking for is to cover your seeing with scales until the only thing seeable is the negative of what you thought you saw. At night I enter the [ ] willingly, it enters me. When I hear the women say of themselves imposter syndrome, knowingly & with a little bit of pride, I wonder if they have ever [been a cockroach] [eaten stale cake with bloody fingers—nails bitten to the—cake & ramen for days while Mother disappears into a wolf’s mouth]. I am [looking] [not looking] at myself the imposter & thinking run run away from into the dark.
MORNING COMES. Morning & I am not standing at the window. Is it still morning if you can sense but cannot see the lightening world. What about when even sense has paled. What about the pattering of footsteps. What when the footsteps turn out to be rain, only rain killing itself on the pavement. It is morning & I am not a glinting sheet of steel in the wind. I do not defy gravity. Still there is something unhinged in me, something that rears up—do I believe sound over sense. Do I believe I am not making sense, or I do not make sense the way rain doesn't. Rain is rhythm, rain says beautiful things no one understands. I am hard trying to make sense. Am I rainwater. Am I for the gutter. What can I carry. Say I can carry a question worth attempting.
THERE'S A KIND OF PRAXIS, let’s call it hoop earrings. In the sunlight the tarnished metal gleams. What do you mean he can’t remember. Several times a day I wash my feet, no matter, the grime’s too deep. What do you know about the way it surfaces like sidewinder in sand, gold eyes invisible until the instant of contact. Once I was fifteen, then eight, & even for a little while twenty-two, & then a man [ ] & then a man [ ] & then a man [ ]. I fear not the unleashing
of the flood but the fluent way we speak of it. All
day lily leaned into the mirror & never did she make
passage through glass. Look: I’ve got a problem
about men. Fifteen times I counted the change on
the counter. How tall are you, they ask, by which they
mean, who gave you the right. All day hoops & several
kinds of vanishings. Licorice where tooth should be,
except of course tooth is still there, rotting. Every
murder starts the same: _________ wants
something _________ doesn’t want to give. In
Mother’s case it was the remote control.
DARLA MOTTRAM lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a cashier and aspiring florist at New Seasons Market. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University, and is the creator of Gaze, an online literary journal interested in the intersection between seeing and being seen. Her work has been featured online and in print, most recently at Hobart and Muse/A Journal, and is forthcoming at Cosmonauts Avenue. You can find more of her work, including the occasional book review, online at darlamottram.net.