London. The story would end here, but with every end, there’s a beginning, with any luck at all. This city is a blank sheet of white unlined paper waiting to be filled with the lines of my life. I have always loved a good “do-over” story—one where at the end of chaos a new life begins. The stories begin with heartache and uncertainty, and then, rising from the ashes like the great Phoenix, the main character starts to find a way. The fog begins to clear. She makes sense of all the pain that brought her here. She has fleeting moments of success, a few steps forward, then an inevitable step back. Fits. Starts. But in the end, a new life begins.
This is what London was for me. A break in the ordinary, and a respite from the loss. There are times in life when all there is to do is to take a pause. That’s what London was for me. Despite all my protests about leaving the comfort of my cottage in Berkeley, when I landed a new piece of consulting work that would represent three months away from my life, I took a chance. I had just come off a nine month project in San Francisco that had allowed me to ride Bart into the City and come home to the remains of what was left of my life. At the time the London contract signed, work was the only place where I could forget about my personal life. It was the only place where I resembled some semblance of me. I smiled when I worked, standing in front of a classroom of business people who had paid to learn from me. I was funny, charming, knowledgeable, and underneath it all, I felt nothing.
Then London became an option, a place with no memories, good or bad. My experience of England at that time was little more than a trip just after college where I’d spent only a few days as a London tourist and taken a drive to Oxford, then a visit to the Highgate Cemetery to the grave of Karl Marx, just to say I had. Thirty years later, once I agreed to go, there was something refreshing in knowing that I was heading to a place where I had yet to make a single mistake.. No one-night stands, no break ups, no drunken parties I wished I’d never attended. London knew me unblemished. I was perfection for London. At the same time, London knew nothing of the losses. I never traveled to London with all those I had lost, and for this, I was most grateful.
I left California with all the best of intentions. I would walk. I would write. I’d make friends. Who knows, maybe I’d even meet a man. I’d clean up my diet and quit smoking for quite possibly the hundredth time, but this time for good. All of this, was my hope for London. I left a house that had become my cave, and a personal life that had taken so many hits in the last twenty-six months that I felt emotionally battered and bruised. Home no longer was a place of comfort. It was where I went deep within with a bottle of red wine every night and the better part of a pack of cigarettes while sitting on my tiny back patio with dead potted plants from summers before, summers with hope and energy that I barely remembered.
So, on a warm day in June, I took a taxi to the Oakland airport, laptop in tow and work clothes in my roller bag. I had a last smoke outside before throwing half a pack of cigarettes in the trash and walking to the ticketing counter to check my bag. In my head I heard her voice, “That a girl! You’re going to be okay.” It was her sweet southern twang that always got me. The voice of my mother. By then she had been gone for more than two years, yet still I heard her voice at the moments in my life when I most needed her. Sometimes it was that scolding way she had of letting me know what I was doing was getting me nowhere. Like the time the summer before when I scored coke from the gay neighbor three doors down, just to see if something, anything, could break the chains of the oppressive sadness. “Jan, honestly?” My mother said as I felt the gentle burn in my nose and closed my eyes. I know, mom, I thought.
The truth about my relationship to my mother is that it was not perfect. What I know of mothers and daughters is that it’s often complicated. When I was young, I adored my mother. I can remember as a small child the sound of her voice as she read to me before bed. There was a gentle quality to her voice that was like a warm cup of milk with honey and nutmeg. She read books with happy endings. Kittens that came home. Children who learned lessons. Little trains that could.
The youngest of four daughters, I was the last of my mother’s children at home when the first tragedy of my life hit with the death of the second to the oldest of my sisters. My mother and I went through that together, and all these years later I have no idea how my mother survived that loss. I was thirteen, and my sister was twenty-seven. My poor mother would call me into her room late at night, my father downstairs in his den, drinking and smoking and listening to Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash as he drowned his sorrows.
Sitting on the side of her bed, my sister’s jewelry spread out all over she would ask which pieces I wanted. Every time, I’d say, “Mom, I can’t choose. It’s too soon.” To this she would nod and one by one put them all back into the velvet Crown Royal bags she had gathered all over my sister Carly’s apartment. I would stand at the foot of my mother’s bed, watching her place those bags of my sister’s jewelry in the cedar chest, one by one, like precious remnants of my sister’s short life. I wondered back then why she took each piece out. Why she called me once they were all displayed on the crushed velvet duvet cover on my parents’ king-sized bed. That she never called me before she took the jewelry out never made sense to me.
Then one night I was passing by her room and I heard her on the phone, her voice cracking as she said, “I can’t talk to you anymore.” She saw me out of the corner of her eye, and motioned for me to come in, handing me the receiver of the phone. “Hello?” I said in my thirteen-year-old voice, with fear and uncertainty, yet courage to help my broken mother to never again speak with whomever was on that line. What I heard in response was the voice of my sister’s lover, sobbing, begging for forgiveness. I didn’t know for what then. I only knew that Carly was dead, and so I yelled, “Don’t you call here again!” and slammed down the phone. My mother fell into my arms at that moment, and it was that night in 1976 when I knew my childhood had ended as I held my mother, her sobs muffled into my long brown hair as her shoulders shook and I felt the moisture of her tears on my thirteen-year-old neck.
As I got older, as happens in most relationships between mothers and daughters, ours became one of dishonestly and deceit. I couldn’t wait to get as far as I could from her. She controlled me, and I rebelled. I had sex before I should have, drank too early, and drove across the border to Mexico anytime I got half a chance. I was seventeen and the beat of discotheques and light shows in the Tijuana of the 1980s beckoned me every Friday night. My mother knew, even though I lied to her about where I was going. Then one night she asked to go with me to Tijuana. I remember walking into Marco Disco on a Saturday night, my mother by my side. I half hated her for the inevitable damper she likely would put on that night, but half respected her moxie for insisting on going. She bought drinks, and we sat together listening to the music. She didn’t belong in this place, yet she was there to see what her daughter saw. Later that night Luis came. He walked up to our table and without saying a word took my mother’s hand and led her to the dance floor. I watched as his young body moved like a ballet dancer dancing disco and my sweet mother did her best to fit in, and in her own way did. At that moment my mother and my best friend, the coming together of my home life and my social life aligned to perfection.
The years passed, and somewhere between my twentieth birthday and the day my own daughter was born that same year, my mother became the smartest woman on Earth. I called to her every morning when I woke up from the guest room I moved into after Jess was born. I was a single mom, and my parents welcomed me home from college with their youngest grandchild. I had to know that my mother was there. She became everything that made sense. On the weekends we made breakfast together and sat for hours after we ate, long after my father left the table and Jess had fallen asleep nursing and I’d put her down on my mother’s white couch. We would talk about everything. What I should do with my life. What we had endured. Sometimes we relived every moment of Carly’s death, and sometimes I felt we were the only two who could talk about it, and we never tired of every detail. My two other siblings had lived through Carly’s passing, but they had gone on with their lives. For me and my mother, it never really left us, and so we relived it over and over and drank coffee and cried until Jess woke up.
For my marriage and my divorce, my daughter starting school, me going back to college, and my father’s health beginning to fail, my mother never left my side. We co-parented Jess. My mother loved her, and was shocked by her. Sometimes she thought I was too strict. Sometimes she thought I needed to pay better attention.
But all this was how life was. It was the fabric of my life. My life with my mom and dad, my sisters, all that made me, me. This was the life I relied upon. Jess became an addition to that life as did the children of my sisters, but at the core, was the nuclear family: me, my mom and dad, and my two remaining older sisters, Abby and Martyne. Even after my father passed in 1997, the family remained intact. He was our patriarch, but my mother was the real leader of our family. We got married. We gave birth to children. We started careers. We lost jobs. We made money. We lost money. But through it all we were a family.
As my mother started to age we were all in denial, I think. I threw her 80th birthday party at my home and she was every bit the mother and grandmother she always was. That year I put together a scrapbook of her life. She loved that book and for the last seven years of her life she pulled it out to show people who came to visit at every opportunity. Over time, her memory faded. My oldest sister, Abby, was the first of us to admit the possibility that my mother had Alzheimer’s. I preferred to think of is as a kind of senility. Maybe it was just old age, or maybe it was that she had just decided to go inward.
Over time she started asking the same questions more than once. She liked to leave the house less and less, and the mother we had known our entire lives began to fade.
And then, on a Thursday in 2013 my sweet mother died in a tiny spare bedroom in my sister’s home. My mother died with all the love anyone could ask for all around her. She was beautiful in death, just as she was in life. If I were to assign a color to the last days of my mother’s life, it would be pink. The color filled the air in that little room in those last few days. I still have the satin pillow my mother’s head rested upon as she passed from this world, me sitting by her side. I don’t know if she would have liked that I kept it. She might think it a morbid thing to hold on to, but it gives me comfort to know that it’s in a box of her things in the hallway closet in the cottage in Berkeley.
I smiled when she left, at that very moment, because she did it so gracefully. She hadn’t communicated in three days, and I believed I would never see her lovely blue eyes again. But she rallied in that last second, in her last breaths, and opened her blue eyes to look at her youngest daughter one last time before leaving. I was proud of how my mother died. She went without fear or hesitation. She was resigned. I kissed her forehead which was still warm, and said, “You did it, Little Mary. You did it.”
The months that followed that should have been spent mourning and healing, proved to present even more challenge. My mother’s passing was only the beginning, and so, in some small way, losing her had to go on hold as I navigated the waters of more hospice care and funerals. My mother was the first in a line of five loved ones I would lose in the next two years.
So, when London called, I answered.