My mother had only one tattoo: a flower with me and my brother's names below it located on her right calf. I remember the day she got it, she complained of the pain. But hey, she loved us. She also loved the singer Mariah Carey and Mariah Carey loves butteflies. My mom would always point out some way in which Mariah incorporated butterflies, either as the diamond butterfly ring or the amazing song on her album. So I thought it was only fitting that my first tattoo would be on my mother's birthday - in the same spot as my mother's tattoo- of a butterfly with "Mommy" underneath.
My mom's birthday was February 27. She would have been 46. Everyone in our family handles her birthday differently. My 11 year old brother would not remember her as he only knows our grandmother as 'mom'. My aunt would be overcome with grief and then guilt as she would remember the pact that they made, a pact she failed to keep: "if anything happens to either of us, we take care of the others children". My grandmother would stay busy so that she doesn't have to recall that she outlived her own child. My uncle would go out and drink and cry.
And I'd ask a new question. This year, I wondered what her hair would look like. Would she have grays peaking out causing her to have a 'where did my youth go' moment? Would she have dyed it her natural rusty brown? Would she have joined me on my natural hair journey and cut it all off? Would she have been nervous to chop it? Would I be snapping photos of her in a salon, would she have cut it herself or would she trust me with her hair even after the hair rollers and spritz incident?
It's been 8 years without having someone to call mom and the whole 'time heals all wounds' shit is a lie. I listen to my friends go on about their parents feeling slightly bitter that they have some. I see little girls on the train with their mothers wondering why it was decided that I could no longer have that. To be honest, it doesn't hurt as it used to. It doesn't strangle my heart and leave me gasping for air as it did in the beginning. In that case, I suppose it has healed. But there are these moments when the longing overtakes me. It's the broken bone that has mended but is so easy to re-injure.
We weren't really speaking before she died. My mother was this brilliant, beautiful, witty woman, innovative and open-minded, and she was unhappy. Her boyfriend (my brother's father) of ten years was a selfish, cheating user and she struggled to be accepted by him and a good mother to me. And as it's no picnic being a single, struggling mom in a fucked up relationship, she needed relief. So she drank. She drank and at the time, I loved it because she became mellow. We'd play Scrabble, cards, dominoes and I'd get to stay up a little later on school nights to read for fun. But she also liked having me watching my younger brother (13 year age difference) while she went to the bar.
In my neighborhood, a 15 year old with a 2 year old child wasn't strange and I'd get comments from guys I had never seen before, as I passed with a stroller to pick up my brother from daycare, that the child wasn't theirs. Well of course it isn't. When your '21 years older than you' mom drops out of high school and gets a GED, even if she was able to land a job in the Financial District, she expected you to not have to travel along her footpath. She would stay up with you until your diorama earned you an A. She would punish you for not getting higher than an 80 on a Math test. And when she pawned her chain with Christ on the cross to buy you a graphing calculator, you'd vow to yourself to never, ever, not excel in Math. In fact, you'd vow to be perfect entirely.
She was right by the way. I got a 97 in AP Calculus but that was senior year of HS. She wasn't around for that. She didn't see me graduate high school either, making me the first in the family. And she wasn't around to see me graduate from college with a BS in Biology. She doesn't even know I stopped exploring the colors of the rainbow with my hair dyes after she died. Instead, I settled on purple, like a widower dons black, as it was a color with which she literally plumed her wardrobe and bedroom. She wasn't there as I got my first credit card in the mail, when I went to the hospital after a breakdown nor to help me heal after my first broken heart.
But we weren't speaking when she died. It was Friday night, it was warm, I wanted to ride my bike and she wanted to go to the bar around the corner. Which means I'd have to watch my brother and could no longer be outside. And you know what? I didn't feel like being perfect. I told her I wasn't going to watch her son so she could go drink. I was 15, I knew what happened soon after. She'd come home late in the morning and I'd hear her throwing up in the bathroom, a sound that kept me from alcohol until 2 years ago. She was livid. I was trying to explain to her that it wasn't my duty to watch her son; she was trying to make me understand that I was her child and I'd do as she said. It ended with her throwing a bike at me and us not engaging in real conversation for months.
Last year, I asked would we have been best friends again. I never answered it because to say yes would mean reliving loss all over again. But as so much has happened, just these past few years since I've returned to the rest of my family after college, I remember how great it felt to have someone in your corner. I learned that I tried so hard with my ex because I wanted to fit with him, so I could have the family I'd been deprived. The family he had been given.
She died the first week of 2004. Sometimes, I consider myself old because according to my mom's life, mine would end in 13 years. I know, that's crazy, but it was a Friday morning, we were finally warming up to each other and she gave me the last bit of money in her purse for lunch. We lived paycheck to paycheck, that day was payday and she only had 90 cents. I told her not worry, I'd scrape up a dime and buy my trusty Mountain Dew. That afternoon I was listening to my grandmother frantically telling me in the waiting room "ella se cao". My mother always fell. She could trip laying down. But she didn't trip this time. She just fell out in the street. And they failed to tell me that she never got back up. So I don't buy into the, I'll die when I'm 'old' adage.
And I don't let my guard down very often. When I wanted to be perfect, I had to build walls so that imperfection couldn't seep out or creep in. Now, I don't let my guard down because I truly don't know how much more I can take. Because I know that no matter how many times you say you'll be together forever, you cannot guarantee it. I don't know how much more loss and disappointment I can withstand. Whitney Houston belted out that she didn't know her own strength. Neither do I but I have no interest in learning it. I may not have "been built to break" but the Titanic wasn't suppose to sink and we know how that ended.
I'm the 'perfect' one in my family. I am the high school graduate, the college graduate, the smart one, the 'good' one, the budgeter, the homework helper, computer repairman, IT associate. I am the artist, the scientist, resume builder, business partner, interest free bank loaner, issue resolver. If I don't know the answer to their questions, I usually know how to find the answers. And they've decided that I know everything, that I really am the perfect person I always wanted to be. And I am not. I'm so, so fucking far from perfect.
In those moments, I desperately wish I had my mother. I'd finally be able to empathize with her. I could finally tell her I understand. That taking responsibility of your whole family is spine crushing, the pedestal they placed us upon is too high. That I get why it was so hard to leave her boyfriend. That you placed how you felt about you ("it's called self-esteem" *Katt Williams*) in their hands and it's easier to try to reclaim it from them than to reestablish it within you. That bills can be a blow. That an hourly wage is a fucking lie when you don't deduct taxes. That when things I need go on sale, I have an economic orgasm. That people can grow older without maturing. That liquor really does quiet all those negative thoughts. And that liquor isn't the only way...
One Christmas, my mom bought my grandmother a gold ring with a row of white amethyst stones. Amethyst is my mother's birthstone, not my grandmother's, but she bought it for her mom nonetheless. When I went off to college, my grandmother put the ring on my finger. "Now you have both of us," she told me. A stone has since fallen out of the ring but I refuse to take it off to get it replaced. It's not easy to risk losing another piece of me.
I don't know what I'll ask next year. I know I'll take to her grave her favorite gum, Big Red, and her favorite soft drink, Dr. Pepper. Maybe I'll be a medical school matriculant by then and can begin a career of ensuring other girls get to keep their mothers for just a little longer. But I don't know what to ask. I do, however, know what to tell her: I still shouldn't have to watch your son but I'm glad you blessed me with him. He has your laugh, your wit and your drive, even if he never knew you.
You did a good job Mom. You were not perfect, but you didn't have to be. Your kids aren't perfect either but there was nothing to fear, we turned out quite all right.