Mama and Me: Our Journey Together Her Last Three Years and Beyond
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An incredible journey, both inward and outward. It is voice—billowing with energy, precise—that carries Wild. Strayed has the ineffable gift every writer longs for, of saying exactly what she means in lines that are both succinct and poetic. Strayed is a courageous, gritty, and deceptively elegant writer. She walked the Pacific Crest Trail to find forgiveness, came back with generosity—and now she shares her reward with us. I snorted with laughter, I wept uncontrollably. A beautifully made, utterly realized book. So many heal-myself memoirs are available that initially I hesitated about [Wild].
Wish I had her guts! Wild is one of the most unflinching and emotionally honest books I've read in a long time. It is about forgiveness and grief and bravery and hope. It is unforgettable. In Wild, she describes her journey from despair to transcendence with honesty, humor, and heart-cracking poignancy. This is a great book. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it.
There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and, a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the PCT crossed a highway. At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.
And then there was the real live truly doing it. The staying and doing it, in spite of everything. In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations. The exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hikedbeleven hundred miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself.
I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. Some of them were just what I dreamed of having, others less so. All that day of the green pantsuit, as I accompanied my mother and stepfather, Eddie, from floor to floor of the Mayo Clinic while my mother went from one test to another, a prayer marched through my head, though prayer is not the right word to describe that march. My prayer was not: Please, God, take mercy on us. I was not going to ask for mercy. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine. My siblings and I had been made to swallow raw cloves of garlic when we had colds.
People like my mother did not get cancer. The tests at the Mayo Clinic would prove that, refut- ing what the doctors in Duluth had said. I was certain of this. Who were those doctors in Duluth anyway? What was Duluth? Fuck them. That was my prayer: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem. And yet, here was my mother at the Mayo Clinic getting worn out if she had to be on her feet for more than three minutes. I followed behind, not allowing myself to think a thing. We were finally on our way up to see the last doctor. The real doctor, we kept call- ing him. The one who would gather everything that had been gathered about my mom and tell us what was true.
As the elevator car lifted, my mother reached out to tug at my pants, rubbing the green cotton between her fingers proprietarily. She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought. For some reason that sentence came fully formed into my head just then, temporarily blotting out the Fuck them prayer.
I almost howled in agony. I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother. I pushed the fact of it away with everything in me. This was not so. We were led into an examining room, where a nurse instructed my mother to remove her shirt and put on a cotton smock with strings that dangled at her sides. When my mother had done so, she climbed onto a padded table with white paper stretched over it. Each time she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her.
I could see her naked back, the small curve of flesh beneath her waist. She was not going to die. Her naked back seemed proof of that. I was staring at it when the real doctor came into the room and said my mother would be lucky if she lived a year. He explained that they would not attempt to cure her, that she was incurable. There was nothing that could have been done, he told us. Finding it so late was common, when it came to lung cancer. He had a job to do. They could try to ease the pain in her back with radiation, he offered.
Radiation might reduce the size of the tumors that were growing along the entire length of her spine. I did not cry.
I only breathed. And then for- got to breathe. What did you do?
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She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself. In reply, he took a pencil, stood it upright on the edge of the sink, and tapped it hard on the surface. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, watching each other in the bright mirror.
We were sent to the pharmacy to wait. I sat between my mother and Eddie in my green pantsuit, the green bow miraculously still in my hair. There was a woman who had an arm that swung wildly from the elbow. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She waited. We waited. There was a beautiful dark-haired woman who sat in a wheelchair. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings.
We could not take our eyes off her. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband. Eddie sat on my other side, but I could not look at him. If I looked at him we would both crumble like dry crackers. I thought about my older sister, Karen, and my younger brother, Leif. What they would say when they knew.
How they would cry. My prayer was different now: A year, a year, a year. Those two words beat like a heart in my chest. There was a song coming over the waiting room speakers. A song without words, but my mother knew the words anyway and instead of answering my question she sang them softly to me. To think about listening to the same song now. I was Karen, Cheryl, Leif. Karen Cheryl Leif. She whispered it and hollered it, hissed it and crooned it. We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning.
We took turns riding shotgun with her in the car. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Every day she blew through her entire reserve.
She grew up an army brat and Catholic.
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She lived in five different states and two countries before she was fifteen. She loved horses and Hank Williams and had a best friend named Babs. Nineteen and preg- nant, she married my father. Three days later, he knocked her around the room. She left and came back. Left and came back. She would not put up with it, but she did. He broke her nose. He broke her dishes.
He skinned her knees dragging her down a sidewalk in broad daylight by her hair. By twenty-eight she managed to leave him for the last time. She was alone, with KarenCherylLeif riding shotgun in her car. By then we lived in a small town an hour outside of Minneapolis in a series of apartment complexes with deceptively upscale names: Mill Pond and Barbary Knoll, Tree Loft and Lake Grace Manor.
She had one job, then another. She waited tables at a place called the Norseman and then a place called Infinity, where her uniform was a black T-shirt that said go for it in rainbow glitter across her chest. She worked the day shift at a factory that manufactured plastic containers capable of holding highly corrosive chemicals and brought the rejects home. Trays and boxes that had been cracked or clipped or misaligned in the machine. We made them into toys—beds for our dolls, ramps for our cars.
She worked and worked and worked, and still we were poor. We received government cheese and powdered milk, food stamps and medical assistance cards, and free presents from do-gooders at Christmastime. We played tag and red light green light and charades by the apartment mail- boxes that you could open only with a key, waiting for checks to arrive. Sarsaparilla or Orange Crush or lemonade. She would spread her arms wide and ask us how much and there would never be an end to the game.
She loved us more than all the named things in the world. She was optimistic and serene, except a few times when she lost her temper and spanked us with a wooden spoon. She dated men with names like Killer and Doobie and Motorcycle Dan and one guy named Victor who liked to downhill ski. They would give us five-dollar bills to buy candy from the store so they could be alone in the apartment with our mom. Karen and Leif and I fell in love with him too.
He was twenty-five when we met him and twenty-seven when he married our mother and promised to be our father; a carpenter who could make and fix anything. We left the apartment complexes with fancy names and moved with him into a rented ramshackle farmhouse that had a dirt floor in the basement and four different colors of paint on the outside.
The winter after my mother married him, Eddie fell off a roof on the job and broke his back. A year later, he and my mom took the twelve-thousand-dollar settlement he received and with it bought forty acres of land in Aitkin County, an hour and a half west of Duluth, paying for it outright in cash. There was no house. No one had ever had a house on that land. Our forty acres were a perfect square of trees and bushes and weedy grasses, swampy ponds and bogs clotted with cattails.
There was nothing to dif- ferentiate it from the trees and bushes and grasses and ponds and bogs that surrounded it in every direction for miles. And, slowly, it did. Trees that had once looked like any other to me became as recognizable as the faces of old friends in a crowd, their branches gesturing with sudden meaning, their leaves beckoning like identifiable hands.
Clumps of grass and the edges of the now-familiar bog became landmarks, guides, indecipherable to everyone but us. For six months, we went up north only on weekends, working furiously to tame a patch of the land and build a one-room tarpaper shack where the five of us could sleep. In early June, when I was thirteen, we moved up north for good. Or rather, my mother, Leif, Karen, and I did, along with our two horses, our cats and our dogs, and a box of ten baby chicks my mom got for free at the feed store for buying twenty-five pounds of chicken feed.
Eddie would continue driving up on weekends throughout the summer and then stay come fall. We were twenty miles away from two small towns in opposite directions: Moose Lake to the east; McGregor to the northwest. We fought and talked and made up jokes and diversions in order to pass the time.
Heart to Heart: Two Families Journey Together to Transplant
Who am I? Are you American? Are you dead? Are you Charles Manson? We were swarmed by mosqui- toes as we worked, but my mother forbade us to use DEET or any other such brain-destroying, earth-polluting, future-progeny-harming chemical. Instead, she instructed us to slather our bodies with pennyroyal or peppermint oil.
In the evenings, we would make a game of counting the bites on our bodies by candlelight. The numbers would be seventy-nine, eighty-six, one hundred and three. There had always been a television in our house, not to mention a flushable toilet and a tap where you could get yourself a glass of water. In our new life as pioneers, even meeting the simplest needs often involved a grueling litany of tasks, rig- orous and full of boondoggle. Our kitchen was a Coleman camp stove, a fire ring, an old-fashioned icebox Eddie built that depended on actual ice to keep things even mildly cool, a detached sink propped against an outside wall of the shack, and a bucket of water with a lid on it.
Each component demanded just slightly less than it gave, needing to be tended and maintained, filled and unfilled, hauled and dumped, pumped and primed and stoked and monitored. Karen and I shared a bed on a lofted platform built so close to the ceiling we could just barely sit up. Leif slept a few feet away on his own smaller platform, and our mother was in a bed on the floor below, joined by Eddie on the weekends. Every night we talked one another to sleep, slumber-party style. There was a skylight window in the ceiling that ran the length of the platform bed I shared with Karen, its transparent pane only a few feet from our faces.
That someday I would be grateful and that in fact I was grateful now, that I felt something growing in me that was strong and real. The thing that would make me believe that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was my way back to the person I used to be. All through my teen years, Eddie and my mom kept building it, adding on, making it better. My mother planted a garden and canned and pickled and froze vegetables in the fall.
She tapped the trees and made maple syrup, baked bread and carded wool, and made her own fabric dyes out of dandelions and broccoli leaves. I grew up and left home for college in the Twin Cities at a school called St. Thomas, but not without my mom. My acceptance letter men- tioned that parents of students could take classes at St. Margaret Willits, 70, and Judi Flamenbaum, 72, who are sisters, left full-time professional jobs to care for their mother, Frances Silverstein, a year-old widow. The three live in a two-bedroom apartment in Brookline, Mass. Three years ago, when she was 97, Mrs.
Silverstein was living alone in Brookline, and Ms. Willits was working full time as a nurse in charge of assessments at a nearby nursing home.
Willits said. Willits decided to move her mother into the nursing home, where she could keep an eye on her. Four months later, the nursing home closed. The sisters decided their mother would not fare well in another facility, so Ms. Willits found a place large enough for three people. Both sisters are divorced. Willits had found another full-time job, and Ms. Flamenbaum planned to care for their mother while her sister worked. Flamenbaum said. We were going to travel. But the demands of caregiving forced Ms. Willits to cut to part-time administrative work she could do from home — a loss of earnings she said put a dent in her retirement savings.
She had planned to work for two more years. Medicaid pays for an aide six hours a day for six days a week. When the aide is in the apartment, the sisters visit restaurants and museums, meet friends and go to the movies. Even with a knee replacement, Ms. Willits can move her mother from a chair to her walker. If their mother eventually needs additional care, the sisters said, she will probably move into a nursing home.
When telling the story of my illness, I try not to speak about depression. A depression is a furrow, a valley, a sloping downward, and a return. Suicide, in my experience, is not that. I believe that suicide is a natural history, a disease process, not an act or a choice, a decision or a wish. I do not understand suicide as a response to pain, or as a message to the living. I do not think of suicide as the act, the death, the fall from a height or the trigger pulled. I see it as a long illness, an illness with origins in trauma and isolation, in deprivation of touch, in violence and neglect, in the loss of home and belonging.
It is a disease of the body and the brain, if you make that distinction, a disease that kills over time. My dying, my suicide, lasted years, through hospitalizations, through more than fifty rounds of electroconvulsive therapy—once known as shock therapy—through recovery, relapse, and recovery. It can seem recent in memory, though at times it feels ancient, far removed, another lifetime, another life and my life.
I was hanging from the fire escape. I kept a slight toehold. The sun was low; the air was cold. I was wearing socks but no shoes, and my palms were scraped and beginning to blister from letting go a little, one hand at a time, falling out at an angle, sideways or backward, then grabbing fast for the rail and clutching tight. I gazed down at the concrete patio and the chain-link fence surrounding the back yard.
The yard was inaccessible, small, and neglected. Below me was the small patio area littered with trash, and a stairwell leading to the locked basement and the boiler. The rest was hard ground. Recess was over; school was out; night was falling. I had no children. I held on to the railing. It was less dizzying to look down than up. Clouds crossed the sky. Here and there, I could see people having after-work cocktails on private decks on neighboring roofs—it was the beginning of a spring weekend.
Now, remembering that day, I wonder what those people might have thought of the man scrambling from fire escape to rooftop and back, letting go with one hand, flopping down on his belly to crane over the edge. Or would they have imagined that he was trying to live? It was getting darker, and I could hear traffic on the street below, people driving home through Brooklyn after work. It could have been any amount of time. I had on pants, a shirt, and socks.
My hands and clothes were dirty from the rooftop. Where was my belt? I shoved my hands into my pockets and squeezed my arms against my sides, holding up my pants, trying to get warm. I began writing the year after she died, too soon for writing to be safe. It is an accounting of the death of my family. Writing the book had been an excitement, but publishing it was an ordeal.
It was a movement from exposition to scene, defense to acceptance, mortification to love. But my old worlds—Florida, Virginia, the places of my childhood—were costly to rebuild. I was engaged in betrayal: mine of my mother, hers of me, mine of myself. When I was in my early twenties, out of college and living in New York, on East Eighty-fifth Street, I returned again and again to Miami to rescue my mother. My father had left her and precipitously remarried, and she was drinking herself to death. I was drinking a Manhattan.
There was a pay phone at the back of the bar; I left my drink on the table, went to the phone, picked it up, called my mother, and listened to fifteen rings, twenty rings, twenty-five. There was a sound, someone picked up, but there was no voice. He worried over his daughter all the time. I told him that she was in trouble. I told him that I had to go to Florida. I stopped at the table and told my friends that I had to go, and then walked uptown to my apartment, where I packed, checked the stove, turned off the lights, locked the door behind me, and hurried down the stairs, onto the street and into a cab that just about ran over my foot when I opened the door before the driver had stopped; from there, east on Eighty-sixth Street, left on the F.
Drive, and across the bridge. My grandfather had a ticket waiting, and I took the last flight of the night from LaGuardia to Miami. My mother lived in a new two-story duplex, cheap construction on a canal. The yard was bare, the front door was open, and light shone out. I describe my mother standing on the stairs. In my memory, she wears a long nightgown. Her ankles and feet are blue, and blue-veined.
The doctors had told her that she would die if she drank. I suspect that that night, after a long binge, she came close. She was forty-five, fifteen years younger than I am as I write this. I sat with her through her delirium tremens, and held her hand, or kept my hand on her arm, while she shook.
My grandfather and I had taken turns watching over her, going to her, through that time. He and I were in contact. He wanted to know if I thought that she would be all right. And, once again, she embarked on sobriety, which lasted, this time, for the rest of her life. I was born in Sarasota, Florida, on a September night in In the story that my mother tells of my birth, I was taken from her by force. My mother was not allowed to hold me. My father, who had graduated from college the summer before on an R.
My mother told me that she and I were distraught; I cried and cried, but her mother would not give me back. There was panic, she told me, and more fighting and crying, and it took my father a day and a night to get there. Where was my grandfather? I remember that house. My sister and I lived with our grandparents when our parents were divorcing for the first time. They would remarry a few years later, when Terry was seven and I was eight, and then divorce again when we were in our early twenties.
But, at the time that I am writing about, Terry was five and I was six. I remember lying awake in the heat. Fans blew. Downstairs, a sunporch with orchids and potted shrubs faced a little square yard planted with orange and tangerine trees. There was wisteria and hibiscus. The air was wet and sticky. Down a little walkway out back was the two-story garage where my grandfather spent part of each day, where he had tools hung on a pegboard, stacked paint cans, a worktable with a vise, and beer in an old refrigerator. The garage smelled of paint thinner, insecticide, and lawnmower fuel.
My grandfather sat at a bench and mended kitchen-cabinet drawers, or rewired appliances, or sanded wood, while sipping from a can. He chewed cinnamon gum and toothpicks. My mother recounted a succession of operations, demanded by her mother and performed by compliant doctors. In one story she told, she was a teen-ager, at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Under anesthesia on the operating table, her chest cut open, she heard the doctors pronounce her dead. She could not move or speak, but she could see them peering down at her.
She told me that they fought and were violent, and that her mother had tried to drown her in a well when she was tiny. I was in my socks on the fire escape. I imagined my body on the ground. It was something that I could picture. But the fall, how long would that last?
My motor control was failing. I clutched the railing, then let go a little, then grabbed hold, then let go again, but caught myself. It was a relinquishing, though at the time I would not have been able to articulate it. I did not want to die, only felt that I would, or should, or must, and I had my pain and my reasons. Whatever terms we use, whatever the specific nature of their origins and progress, our so-called mental illnesses are themselves traumatic and stigmatizing. They isolate us from others.
I was thin and cold. I held my arms to my sides. I peered up at the clouds and the jet planes and the sunset. It was hard to look at the sky. I was taking Klonopin for anxiety and insomnia. My mother was dead, and my socks had holes. The light hurt my eyes, and sounds felt like sharp little jabs at my head; when the helicopter came, that afternoon on the roof, I hunched over, protectively. Was the helicopter coming for me? Regan had raised her voice with me. It was happening more and more.
She and I were in the living room. It was a bright April Friday. For months, Regan had been with me, sleep-deprived, anxious, angry, afraid, untouched, breathing my cigarette smoke, not eating, not laughing, morose—the winter. Then, in early spring, I had staggered into Manhattan and spent the night with a former girlfriend. I remember Regan screaming at me that I would go to Hell, and that she hoped I would die.
I wrote so many letters. I wrote them all winter long, on a notepad, while sitting on a tarp on the living-room floor. Writing, moving my arm, my wrist, my hand, was effortful. My grip on the pen was rigid, and my hands ached, and were always cold. I wrote an opening, ripped the page from the pad, and began another note. The notes were apologies. Sometimes I called friends and held them on the phone. I was fine, I told them. When I lay down, I crossed my arms over my chest, in the position of a corpse. But then I was up, startled, pacing, shaking, scared, awake without having slept, worrying about my heart, spreading out the tarp, not wanting to leave a mess, and then sitting with pills, pad, pen, and a knife, an old Sabatier that had been in our kitchen when I was a boy.
The blade was rusty. None of the letters got finished. At the end of the day, at around five or five-thirty, before Regan came over after work—she was a poet but worked then as an administrator at a hedge fund—I stored the tarp, replaced the knife in the kitchen drawer, cleaned the ashtrays, put away the pills, and buried the suicide notes deep in the garbage. On the roof, late that day in April, after running from the apartment and up the stairs, after a session of hanging from the fire escape and letting go in stages, I climbed the ladder to the roof and huddled against the stairwell bulkhead, next to the door to the stairs.
I was breathing fast, and my body hurt. Beyond the Brooklyn rooftops was Manhattan. Lights were on in the skyscrapers.
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The pain seemed to come from my skin and my muscles and my joints and my bones. I felt as if I hurt everywhere, but also nowhere. My chest was constricted, as if a weight were pressing in—but from where? There was no weight, no feeling of a source or origin or cause, nothing to palpate. Have you? Have you felt as if your body were collapsing from the inside, collapsing and hardening? Where was Regan?
Where were my friends? I wanted a bullet. I remember lying in bed, imagining the bullet easing in. Was Jesus waiting, or a trip into brightness, some stellar afterlife, like the one my mother had imagined on her deathbed? Was death knowledge, or nothing, or might I wake up, a baby again, born into some new violence? What were the chances? Might I, after falling, be maimed and alive?
If I was gone, would Regan live?
Mama and Me: Our Journey Together Her Last Three Years and Beyond (published by Outskirts Press)
I grew up sleep-deprived. I was sickly. I had anxiety, allergies, and asthma, and irritable-bowel syndrome, and headaches, and, starting in fifth grade, when I was ten, awful and incapacitating back spasms. They began early one morning before school, in the upstairs bathroom in our house on Lewis Mountain Road, in Charlottesville, while I was bending over the toilet, throwing up after a night of staring around my dark bedroom, struggling to breathe, listening to the fighting.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, my sister and I crept out of our rooms and sat in our pajamas on the landing, behind the bannister, afraid to look. You could say of our childhood that she played in her room, while I went out to the yard. Or you could say that she fled into her room, and that I fled outside.