A mother, a death, and a rebirth.
My heart sank as I stepped inside my mother’s apartment. The evidence of her hoarding was everywhere. The carpet was scarcely visible under the never-ending merchandise she bought on impulse. There were half-finished plates of food. The kitchen was so muddled with boxes of opened and unopened food that I couldn’t see the counters. There were papers and miscellaneous garbage as far as the eye could see. I wanted to walk away in that moment and leave the job of cleaning it all up to the apartment manager, but I knew there were things I needed to find in there.
My mom’s death was a shock, but going to her home made it more understandable. There was a blade from a dismantled blender on the living room floor that my mother slashed her foot against. Why wouldn’t there be amid all the other items that her failing eyesight would make it difficult to see? The police told me her foot had nearly been severed. She tried to wrap it with a roll of paper towels, yet she never called an ambulance or even a friend. Before my arrival, the manager removed the carpet and couch on which she’d bled out and had a heart attack. She always fretted about being a burden.
My mother and I lived separate lives. We’d both made mistakes, and they took a substantial toll on our relationship. Both of us had been unkind and stubborn. She and I had hardly spoken in years, each believing it was the other’s fault. None of that mattered now. I was in Missouri, the state I vowed I’d never visit when my mother relocated 20 years ago. She can’t hurt me from far away, I reasoned whenever the agony of her leaving town became too much to bear. Now, I was finally here, but she wasn’t with me.
I was an ungrateful daughter, my extended family said behind my back. How can someone be at odds with their own mother? We both battled mental illness throughout our lives and condemned each other for having it. I never said hello whenever she called to chat with my 11-year-old daughter. In fact, hearing her voice on speaker made me scramble from the room in a panic, afraid she’d try to strike up a conversation.
I was stoic when the police called me and told me my mother died, a combination of shock and the urgency to scribble down the information the officer gave me. I texted my husband, “My mother is dead.” He hurried home from work to console me, but I felt too guilty to let him. There was no more time. We were supposed to have more time.
I gathered up a few papers in her living room and went through them to determine if they were important and needed saving. I would need garbage bags, lots of them, and some cleaning supplies. My plane back to Florida was leaving in 3 days, but this situation would take a week or longer. I couldn’t personalize it though. It hurt too much to imagine my mother living here, so frail and unsteady and isolated. It was as if the workings of her mind spilled out into her apartment.
My mom’s best friend of 20 years, Belinda, called me and asked if she could help. She said my mother had a few friends who would come over and clean up with me. It made me feel grateful but bitter at the same time. My mother’s friends? Why had they let her live in such squalor? Why didn’t they tell anyone who could help her? It was easier to project onto them than admit I had done nothing either. I could have at least checked on her. Maybe it would have made a difference.
Five ladies showed up an hour later with rags, buckets and sponges. Belinda led them inside, and one by one they wept at the sight of my Mom’s place. They composed themselves when they noticed me, enveloping me into a group hug.
“Poor Susie, I had no idea.”
“I feel so heartbroken she lived like this.”
“You look so much like her. I recognized you right away. You were all she ever talked about.”
Shame singed my cheeks. That last comment hurt. Had I ever spoken about my mother other than to criticize? Her love for me was right where I stood, everywhere I looked. My baby pictures had captions she’d written on the back. She had pictures of my children in heart-shaped frames, my wedding announcement, my christening dress. There was so much in my life I didn’t let her take part in. I claimed I felt unsafe around her. I let her cherish my children, but never let her love me.
I wouldn’t forgive myself for never forgiving my mother. It was a wound I constantly picked at and allowed to fester. I forgot that people can change even though I’d changed over the years and so had she. Still, I couldn’t let go of the part in myself that was still indignant and hurt and caused me put up a barrier she’d never be able to break through, no matter how hard she tried. I was an android around her, void of emotion lest I give too much of myself away. She couldn’t be trusted, and yet I didn’t trust myself.
The ladies and I cleaned the apartment in two days. I gave them some of my mother’s things she’d ordered and never opened, wishing I could give them more. I was so thankful to them for helping me. They shared stories about my mother and brought me to her favorite Chinese restaurant for a lunch break on the first day. They adored their “Susie” and it showed. My mom’s generosity, her kindness, her loyalty all reflected in their eyes. I hugged each of her friends tight as they said goodbye one by one.
I discovered what I was searching for in that apartment. My mother’s love for me. The circle of friends who loved her dearly. Her grace and mine. All at once, I understood that things were less complicated than we made them out to be. Love was, after all, a simple matter.
I locked my mother’s door and left her key at the front office. Walking back to my car, the air was crisp and I could see my breath. The sun beamed down on trees getting ready to turn bare for winter. In that moment, I could see why my mother loved Missouri so much. Looking up at her back porch, I imagined her sitting there before it was loaded with junk and taking in all the beauty. I used to say I despised the entire state, but I couldn’t anymore. It was where my mother lived.
Tears flowed as I drove away from my mother’s apartment for the final time, and for a change I didn’t blame myself and let them run down my face. “I love you,” I announced out loud in the silence. I prayed she heard me. It was the truth.