Southern California lacks for the absence of all but one season. Lives built on comfort, and the feeling that if today is not your day, tomorrow certainly will be. These are American values.
My mother was born in North Dakota. Mile after mile of flat, frozen land. I wrote a poem once about the first traffic light installed in her tiny town. She, as a teenager, pulling out of the driveway, managed to crash the car into the only other driver between Bismarck and Winnipeg.
Only ten miles from the Canadian border, the small town of Bottineau, North Dakota, which is only 1.09 square miles itself, has a population that hovers around two thousand people, these days. My mother was born there, eldest of three, in 1946. The good townspeople of Bottineau erected their mascot, Tommy Turtle, in 1978. During her childhood, my mother would not have seen this thirty-foot high fiberglass turtle mounted on a snowmobile, cautious enough to wear a helmet on his head where, presumably, his shell could not cover. I’ve seen the damn thing. And wondered why? and what the hell?
In the Bottineau of memory, it too had only one season. Winter. The fear of that aching cold drove my mother first to Arizona and finally to California, where I was born in Los Angeles in 1987, the year Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers once again defeated the Boston Celtics for the NBA Championship. Memories like these were crucial to my assumed culture: local, but with the weight of the world supported on these heroes’ shoulders. I saw how gods and men can be confused, and learned that worship is the naïve hope that someday something else will come. My brother wore a bright purple and gold Lakers jacket (more “eighties” it could not have been), emblazoned with our family name in gold on the back. We still have that jacket somewhere, in an out-of-the-way closet rarely rifled through. We all live, in some way now, without weather or winter.
My mother died in Paris, suddenly. She was sixty-seven years old, with a history of heart trouble, and on one mortal evening her heart stopped at a wedding party outside Paris. A glass of champagne still in her hand, she collapsed. Or slumped more like, in the way it was described to me later. She never regained consciousness or speech. For the sake of her story, and ours, she died that day, that minute, outside Paris, with a glass of champagne and music mingling with the sound of foreign ambulance shrieks and whistles. She died that day, if only dying were so simple.
What I’ve left out, so far, is the in-between. Those days between 1987 and today, in Dublin, where the story comes strangely into focus. When memory, played back like a quick shuffle of cue cards, skips over times both sweet and wrenching, accumulating into fractured film stills, constituting a life.
In those stills, I find both beauty and brokenness. Often in the same form, shapes made from the unending push and pull of ego, insecurity and silence. I had not spoken to my mother for several weeks when the phone rang. I was in Grogan’s. Warm weather in June, and the next day we planned to make the trip to Paris, where a French cousin of mine was being married. I took the call. At the other end, quiet for a moment. Then crying. Confusion. I knew then. I knew…
But in the years past, which telling constantly revise and undermine, there were days when I wished for something like this to happen. If only to be set apart, to be the one who has lost. To be, finally, lost. Who has not imagined his own death, or the death of someone close, and imagined it so that the crowds of mourners mourned for you, you alone and specifically? Only then did they recognise certain things in you, a beauty, a hearty recklessness, that set you apart and made the loss that much more profound and devastating. In these imagined scenarios, you either watched as a ghost over your own funeral, looking down, feeling pity, pain and pleasure all at once in the reactions of people gathered there. Or you imagined standing beside the grave as one was lowered down, your grief a singularizing enclosure out of which you may look at the world in detached, knowing silence.
But life and death are not so.
For ten days she hung on in intensive care. A brain detached from a body detached from a soul detached from the world.
By some accident, we were given a house to stay in near the hospital. A grand, airy country house in white, with windows looking out over a sloping valley. In certain moments, we forgot our purpose. My father, my brother, cousins, aunts and friends, gathered, ate, drank, and told stories both sweet and sombre.
Sometimes, in that moment of grey light just before sun sets, with French wines softening the edges of our tired minds, we were simply happy. A weight, for a moment, lifted.
There are places I go in memory, where my childhood home divides into rooms, the rooms into individual corners and wooden boards, and those boards into minute, imagined worlds of longing and escape. I was afraid of her. I tried to burrow out of one life into another. Her abuse was not meted out in beatings. Just a quick flash of a hand, silver of a wedding ring, and the hollow thud and sinking stomach of a windy blow. Words followed. Of hate. Of leaving. Of not coming back. Of determination toward a new way of living. Not always, but often, these thoughts pierce whatever else those years held, between 1987 and now, between the Showtime Lakers and the faintly heard cries at the end of a telephone.
Her mind died at a wedding party outside Paris, and for ten days we watched her body follow. When normal brain activity ceases, doctors in white hospitals quite literally starve the body to death.
But like any story, there are chapters to this one. Not all so bleak and unforgiving.
Several months after her death in Paris I returned to Los Angeles for the memorial service, attended by nearly a thousand people. In her retirement from a legendary teaching career, my mother became involved in dog rescue. She would often have two or three dogs, usually the most desperate cases (geriatrics with three legs, half-wits and lovable rogues). The dog I had always felt closest to was a one-eyed Pomeranian called Jack. When we visited Los Angeles for the memorial, we found that Jack had been returned to the rescue agency. In my mother’s absence, he simply had nowhere else to go. Only half-considering the consequences, I made it my mission to rescue him all over again.
Years earlier, Jack had been found wandering the streets of South Central Los Angeles. When my mother adopted him, a legend grew around his rags-to-riches tale. (Think: the Fresh Prince of Bel Air at 5.6 kilos.) I tracked him down and endeavoured to bring him back with me to Dublin. A happy strand from one lost life tying neatly into the next.
Since then the myth has only grown. On one characteristic occasion, walking down South William Street to Jack’s favourite pub (Grogan’s, of course), a woman in her thirties abruptly yanked her husband to a stop. ‘That’s the dog!’ she yelled, pointing at Jack. Clearly, this little dog – more cloud than canine – had made an impression on her, his story apparently extrapolated and discussed over the dinner tables of complete strangers.
Jack embodies a beauty in brokenness that has brought me closer to my mother than I ever was during her lifetime. His outsized single eye, his jaunty, arthritic walk and his general good nature all point to the purity of imperfection.
Memory of the fraught relationship I had with my mother for nearly twenty years has not – and will not – vanish because of this little dog. Yet, on more occasions than not, I am reminded of my mother’s fierce love, her powerful authority and her inspiring teaching. Jack looked up to her with one, big, round eye, and he loved her. Despite everything, he reminds me to do the same.
In the seasons that pass, or do not pass, over continents and seas that separate our lives from others, stories emerge out of memory and construct the tales we determine to be the truth. If we are lucky, in the end, there will be some flash of recognition at the mention of our names. We can hope for little more when it is all over. In a small white dog, or a country house outside Paris, in the drive toward that elusive championship, or the absurd figure of a thirty-foot tall fiberglass turtle, are the images we select and call our personal histories.
A few brief moments alone will last, and make some small measure of a life.