I Am Trying To Say A Few Things
We haven’t spoke in forever. I think of you often, wanting to push words, sweet as flowers, towards you in offering. But truth told my heart aches. My words gets stuck, behind my sternum, wanting to emerge. But they flap noisily in vain.
I’m alright. I’m fine. I want to say something. But what? How about: Edgewise. That’s something!
What I really want to say is I sat at dinner with my brother. This was maybe two weeks after my mother died, again.
When my mother first died, I was home alone, of course. The phone woke me and the house was darker than it had ever been. The rain seemed to come down heavy and black as flies. Her doctor told me the news, the sweetest message I’ve ever received from someone who never wanted to see or speak to me again. I remember making calls to my mother’s friends. The first wailed so hard over the phone, I didn’t know what to do. I held the phone and waited as if she might just stop and say thank you then quietly hang up. Maybe we hung up together. Perhaps I waited for her to hang up first. I sat there. Things happened but I don’t remember them.
The second time my mother died, I felt over it. Unimpressed with their diligence (Is death’s personal pronoun ‘they’?) Death had harvested everyone I’d loved by then, even the first person I called the morning my mother died. This time there wasn’t a phone call from a doctor. It was an email from my brother. I knew this news was coming, but yesterday I didn’t know it would be today. I felt cynical. Mean. It was the first death I shrugged off (I’m sorry.) I wrote a poem about it. But in the days/weeks/years before, I thought: I can’t and won’t bury two mothers. I refuse. She had other children besides just me. Children she kept and raised, children she preferred. I was the only unique one, farmed out. The one she had no bowls or beds for.
And she was a Jehovah’s Witness. Here I will not use the word Cult. I’ll say: I had no idea how a JW funeral worked. I googled and what I read was more horrifying than how my first mother’s funeral ended. The remaining family had no money. There was no insurance. Right at the moment when the service concluded, when the Preacher asked the congregation to stand and allow the coffin to be walked out to a waiting car, a man appeared at the dias with his hands raised, like an assistant director calling Cut, and said, everybody stop! We’re not performing a burial. The cemetery, (I’m thinking Dollar Store as I type that word) is too far out, too long a journey from the church. Trust us, the man said. And he was black, so I guess we did. And that was the end of the funeral and a major chapter in my life. I never learned exactly where that cemetery was, only she’s buried with our great aunt Mary. The one aunt few in the family liked, including me.
This time, I agreed to meet with my brother at a Chinese Restaurant. When we sit, the restaurant will be boiling over with people; wait-staff will be zipping across the room a squadron of hornets. My brother will look at me and ask how I am. By then I will have rehearsed this conversation several times. My line is: Fuck me, your mother just died. I remember this feeling. How are you? Is there anything you need to talk about.
But the line catches in my throat, a fish bone: Is it, “Your mother just died?” as in, I don’t claim her as she didn’t claim or raise me.
Is it: “Our mother just died,” though she never mothered me and wasn’t anyone I felt deserved that word.
Is it: “(Name Redacted) just died,” which sounds dismissive and distant—as if I’m not one of her children.
Am I one of her sons or not? Am I someone she once knew?
“So what’s been up with you,” My brother asks.
“Its all the same,” I say. I mention work. I mention poetry. I mention giving a reading at Cal State East Bay. I mention Godzilla movies.
We do not speak of the dead. We do not mention names of anyone not seated at the table.
He mentions work, He mentions his Union. He mentions his retirement next year.
We talk of art. We talk of drawing. He’s planning to draw an owl. He’s good. I mention being able to draw trees when I was young. He tells me where there is a grove of Oak trees he admires. I do not mention the drawing I once saw of his with an image of his/our/his mother fishing a pencil sketched stream, hooking names of her children out of it. That drawing hangs before my eyes like the steam emerging from these hand-pulled noodles. But I do not mention the drawing. I say Uh huh. And wow. And when we leave, he will give me all the leftovers, the lamb, the noodles, the children.
Chicken. I meant to write: Chicken.
And he’ll drop me off at home and I will thank him. And I will climb the stairs to my building in awe. Not once. Not even a syllable on death, on her, on funerals.
its been 20 years. And I’m still writing about and thinking about my mother. Even her ashes have become ashes.
If you are adopted, perhaps you will understand.
Last week I left work and walked down to the SF Main Library for a reading I was part of.
Walked in lieu of jumping on a crowded BART train a few stops / Walked in lieu of jumping an equally crowded 5 o’clock bus uptown.
I crossed Union Square over to Geary. No ice rink yet, but a wheelchair user in a Aladdin-blue hoodie made laps around and through the tourists, daters and was dabbing and dancing with his shoulders and having the best time of any of us.
My walk up Geary was my favorite walk for a number of years–particularly when it rained. Past Leavenworth, my friend, John, once had an apartment where I’d go hang out and buy weed. Laugh at that sentence now; but realize how important to me his presence was and how much love flourished in his living room and how full I would feel when I left. A room too tiny and unreasonable to host such a huge round robin of artists and workers and Friends and Family on a weekly, daily basis. But there you have it. A living room with a bed where his wife lay as on a stage, reading the paper or sleeping or whatever else. A ring of men, women sat here smoking and drinking between his lounge chair and the television, usually livid with the news.
He lived in my heart as family, even if we weren’t family and I’m not good at being close to anybody. But I loved him and his wife and that apartment and walked past wanting to touch the address plate as if it were a holy site.
Of course as I walked by, a mail-person exited the building and tossed the gate open and held it for me. Oh, but just to smell the lobby. Not for weed, but familiarity. I didn’t walk in. Even his cat is now an ancestor. And in his final week at the apartment, after everything was packed, his grandson tagged the living room with a extraordinary graffiti mural. A wall yellowed with smoke was left ribboned in huge glowing letters melting towards the floor. The furniture, computers, tables, all gone. You cannot go home again. I could not go home again. Even as this was never my home and he was never my family. He was family.
If you are adopted, perhaps you will understand.
** Last week, I ghosted a reading before it happened.
Its not my proudest moment. Its nothing to brag about or confess. Its not professional, polite, or nice. But I did it. Again.
The last therapist I sat with a few years ago pointed out I have social anxiety. This was news to me since I’m so comfortable on stage, so comfortable with public speaking. How could I be socially anxious?
Turns out I’m more comfortable speaking to a room full of strangers, than walking into a room full of strangers and choosing one to speak with.
I was invited to an art gallery closing reception by an artist whom I knew and worked with years before. I consider our time working together to be another life.
I walked through a city that was strange to me now. Construction having given it a different face, rhythm, feel. Restaurants spilled their tables out onto the sidewalk. Places I once knew and visited are hollowed shells marked for destruction.
The gallery was tiny. I walked in and sat at the only open chair. I immediately regretted coming here alone. The person who invited me was nowhere to be seen at first. A band of teenagers rehearsed. Motown. Easy pop songs. I waited. I stared into my phone. Finally she appeared in my eyeline. Not speaking my name, but bending down next to me. I hugged her. She’d been smoking. I forgot that! She looked good—great, in fact. Took me to the back room. Did I want a drink? I wouldn’t touch alcohol. I wanted water then asked for a soda since they kept pushing me to take something. I met her partner as I exited the bathroom. He shook my hand then continued tearing slices of cheese into squares and arranging them on a platter. He poured me soda. I hadn’t drank a straight soda in years.
Back in the gallery’s lobby, I lost my chair. Another teen had taken it, and dropped their backpack atop mine as if it were just part of the floor. I asked for the bag, put it on and she pointed to her artwork on the wall. I wanted to be chatty and couldn’t follow thru. I could think of nothing. Do you work in black and white? Stupid. She turned and greeted more people crowding the space. I looked around and there was no place, no corner, no chair where I felt safe or could just be and wait. I turned and looked out the front door.
A man sat at a small wooden table at the entrance. The table stacked with flyers, a sign-up sheet for the open mic. He saw me when I entered, but we didn’t speak. Next to him across the doorway was a second table and set of chairs. I went out there and sat down with the soda. We still didn’t speak.
The sun had set and it was dark. People walked past. I was beginning to feel antsy for anything to start.
Then a teen, the only female teen in the room and, turns out, the alpha, came and sat next to me. She introduced herself earlier, but other than that we didn’t speak. She came out with a teen boy and they talked and she sat down hard. He stood close to her then sat on the awning of the neighboring business. More teens came out and created a human fence around her, with me sitting next to her, a tiny table between us. I was there and not there. But fenced in just the same. A boy placed his drink on the table next to mine, then slammed into the table with his thigh. Nothing spilled. With them crowded around me, I began feeling anxious and out of breath. She talked and held space. The four or five boys stood obediently and listened. I kept my head down and tried to disappear into my phone.
People strolled past on the sidewalk. A woman stopped before the man across from us and asked him about the event. They talked. The fence of boys seemed to turn slightly towards the girl, who was mid-story.
I stood and fell into the darkness of the sidewalk. From the corner of my eye, the man at the table kept chatting with the woman. No voices called after me, nothing raised or rattled behind me. No one shouted towards me about my full cup of soda. I kept going. I hit the corner and saw that the next block of residences was dark and foreboding. That was where I wanted to be. The tightness in my chest eased. I was hungry and walked five blocks back for a sandwich. I felt the need to be moving. I felt a need to be home and be quiet. I called for a car and a young brother in an SUV picked me up. He remained shadowed in the front seat. He asked about my evening. He was all I wanted to talk to. He was who I wanted to be with, even as he was born well after I’d graduated high school. We talked about Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco. We talked traffic, the Blue Angels. The conversation easy. I learned the only food he doesn’t like is Indian. After three times, the yogurt based curries kill it for him. I share with him a memory from India I’ve barely shared with anyone. He missed a turn and I directed him to an alternative route for the freeway, then watched as nearly missed merging. We were just talking. I wished I had brothers, sons, nephews. Easy friends. But no. When he let me out and the interior light of the SUV clicked on, only then did I glimpse his face—realizing I’d created a face I was talking to. I didn’t know him but wished I did. I tipped $2 over my usual amount and was relieved to be home. I was sorry and not sorry. I understood and didn’t understand.
If you are adopted, perhaps you understand.