My mother passed away exactly one year ago, exactly three days before my Goddard thesis was due. Completely rewritten, retitled: A final draft.
Those two things don’t go together, #amiright? The hospice nurse at midnight said “Read her face, make sure she’s not in pain.” But also, “There’s only so much morphine, haloperidol, so don’t give her more than prescribed.”
A splitting takes place here, the brain compartmentalizes the tasks that need to be seen to.
I held my mother’s hand for hours until she filled up with water and blood and drowned. I put a bedpan under her mouth (think what is being released) I left the room and watched an episode of E.R. on my phone in the kitchen –coincidentally the one where Doug Ross’s father dies– until her body had been removed. I read Theodore Roethke’s “The Far Field” at her funeral without crying, dressed perfectly. I even wore Spanx and someone still had the nerve to ask if I was pregnant (emphatically, no) and when I said “Thanks for coming,” he said “Nothing better to do,” and I let it go. I dressed up as a pink flamingo for Halloween and stood beside my two-year-old daughter (Minion: King Bob) and smiled. I have the picture; there’s proof.
But also, but also in those three days, I sat in a bar and drank. I finished my thesis and turned it in. I should finish that thought. I turned it into: with very few edits, a book. A finalist for the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. A memoir called Knickpoint coming out with Whiskey Tit Press in the Spring.
A college professor of mine, the indomitable Beth McCoy at Geneseo, liked to use the word “unpack.”
“Unpack that statement for us,” she’d say in class, meaning, Give us the meat. Tell us how you got there, what it means.
I’ve shoved my life into metaphor suitcases. Bees know better which hive is theirs if the boxes are painted bright. The man can remember anything forever in his mind-castle decorated precisely, an unending number of rooms and drawers with themes.
My mother read passages from C.S. Lewis before she died.
But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.
Beth McCoy spent a semester demanding her students link their lives with the African American Migration Narrative. Panic attacks ensued. My link, it turned out? The value my family places on art above wealth and class. My grandparents were acrobats, dancers, Vaudevillians: the way we use art to face trauma. The story I still have to tell. The way art makes us rich, and poor. The way art falls short. You know the way: Say Their Names.
Mark Doty, National Book Award winner, came to Goddard and read his poem “In Two Seconds” for Tamir Rice. Beth would say, “We are meaning-making beings.” Go read that poem now. Unpack it. Compartmentalize, stand in the hall and examine. Be mindful. Get the work done.
Margaret Wedge is a graduate of Goddard College’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program, and holds an M.A. in Literature from the State University of New York at Cortland. Her collage memoir, Knickpoint, will be released with Whisk(e)y Tit Press in March, 2018.