I saw this photo today, and it reminded me. One year ago.
You can look into the eyes of an old photo and almost not recognize the person staring back at you. Is it because that person was preoccupied, you weren’t yourself? Or time has a strange hypnotic way of distancing yourself from memories that may even be recent.
In my case a year ago I went abroad for the first time since I’d become sick. It was a test of sorts. I figured, if I could survive the travel, and the reminder that I had become first sick whilst traveling in 2017, I could become stronger, and endure more things, prove to myself I was on the road to recovery.
The other reason I went abroad was I was running away from the memories. Everywhere I looked, memories like unwanted confetti seemed to harness me to the horror of being sick, of all that it entailed. I often asked friends who were sick, did you suffer from PTSD or some type of horror post-illness? Did you keep returning to the memories without wanting to, as if they would not let you go? Des souvenirs fantômes.
When I was sick I recall being in hospital when SA had very bad weather, and a hurricane was predicted. I was alone in my room, the glass windows were shaking violently, and I was throwing up almost in time to the shuddering. I recall hoping the hurricane would hit my room and spirit me into the ether, it wasn’t an idle wish either, sometimes when things are very bad you really do wish for it to just stop.
Since those days, I have been reminded of health again. There are entire weeks I feel well and I never thought that would happen again. I was told by over 4 doctors I would be permanently sick, never recover, have to go on disability, never work again, and probably need a pace maker in my stomach. I would also never eat solids again and may need feeding by tube. Everywhere I looked, the prognosis was the same, dire, hopeless, terrifying.
If it wasn’t for a handful of my closest friends, I honestly know I would not be here today. I’m not strong enough. I can’t do it alone. Some can, and to them I say, you are incredible. But I am not that strong. I need people to justify carrying on. I need to know I matter. I need to have something aside myself to fight for. Without children, or family here in America it was hard. My family back home were pretty hands-off and my mom eventually decided it was a good time to call it quits altogether and leave my life. I’ve always been told, you are tested the most when you’re at your weakest and this is true, I would not have expected my mom to walk out of my life when I needed her the most, but that’s what she did and I had to learn to accept it.
The other day I had this horrible feeling something had happened to her, but I have no way to contact her or find out if she is okay. Many times I find myself breaking down and crying because I miss her, although I have to remind myself, why would I miss someone who could kick me when I was already down? The reason I believe is due to the abuse from my grandfather. When he abused first my mom and then myself, and my cousins, he ruined or tried to ruin all of us.
The saddest part is he did succeed in ruining my mom and I, because she grew to resent me because of the trauma she’d experienced and when I worked on We Will Not Be Silenced, I wrote a poem about the legacy of trauma and how it is generational and affects so much more than just one person. Unfortunately that poem was my mom’s reason for deciding to cut me out of her life. She had not been in my life very much since she left when I was six but I truly thought we would get closer as we got older and I did not anticipate her quitting talking to me.
If you have ever been sick you will know, you don’t have the energies to fight someone when you’re sick and so I didn’t really fight to keep her, I only told her, I don’t want this, I want you to stay, I love you, I didn’t mean anything bad by writing that poem, surely you know that. Surely you can forgive me. She did not forgive me. And now I know, she never will, because prior to that she had quit talking to me for seven years and she mentioned this time around, she’d never really forgiven me for that either, so it’s clear she will never speak to me again.
Sometimes I try really hard to think of what it was I ‘did’ seven years ago. I know she has a long list, some of the things are justified in terms of existing, I am not perfect, I probably am a disappointment, I am not always congruent or do my best, but … je ne suis pas une personne maléfique, an awful child to have had? No, and no matter what my ‘crimes,’ they are minor in comparison to so many people I know, and yet their parents would never think of walking out of their lives. I never did Heroin, I never stole, I never asked for money, I didn’t sleep with her husband, I did not skin and gut the cat or do Meth in her greenhouse.
It is quite something when a parent leaves you willingly and wants nothing to do with you. It is perhaps the most invalidating feeling I have ever had. On top of the illness it nearly destroyed me. I thought about dying for days. Je voulais mourir. I wanted to have never been born. I couldn’t write, and since she left, I have been fairly unable to write consistently because it took something from me and I suppose I let it.
But as you know, if you have experienced great pain or sickness, you have to live through it or die – those are your only two choices. I chose to survive this time. I didn’t feel I had much to live for, I felt terribly lonely. Terribly afraid. But I also didn’t want something I thought was grossly unfair, to be the reason for my demise. I had fought too hard and for too long for that.
Fortunately I had finally found a doctor who correctly diagnosed me and it turned out all the other doctors were wrong, and what I had, was potentially curable. So now, a year later, or more, I am doing better. I have awful days when I feel like I am ridiculously sick and I cannot function, and that frightens me because I have only myself to depend on, but other times I feel relatively normal. I have yet to feel exactly as well as I did before all of this began, and I also know some of it is psychosomatic by this point, you throw up every day for a year, it’s hard to completely get rid of nausea or a hatred of eating. It’s a bit like having an eating disorder without the reason.
What all of this has taught me is; True friends are rare but they exist if you are lucky. Love is the only reason to carry on. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is probably the truest thing ever said. Avoir pitié! Have mercy. Because those who don’t, well they may succeed in hurting others, really hurting them, but is that something to ever be proud of?
I lost a lot. Financially. Physically. Emotionally. But I gained a knowledge that if you can get through the worst of it, and see the other side, you can look back at yourself and realize, you made it. So I look at this photo. I realize when it was taken I did not feel well. I was sitting on a corner café wishing I could have an appetite and wishing I would want to eat a tarte and drink a coffee, but instead feeling that horrible pit of stomach sickness that seems to permeate some days. I remember it was a cold day and I thought that day of all the days I’d sat at that exact coffee shop in Europe in that exact street and watched people walk around, and how so much had changed and yet, how so much never changes.
It is weird to sit in the exact place you know you sat twenty years previously. To imagine what you felt and thought twenty years before. To see yourself now, older, wiser (?), to watch the world change, to see all the differences and all the similarities all at once. I remember a certain theatre around the corner was playing something I had wanted to see and I hadn’t had the money to be able to go. I remember my mom coming into town and taking me to a restaurant préféré and our eating until we were stuffed and me drinking wine even though I was underage. I remember feeling sad when I left that we always went our separate ways, and how I had learned at an early age to say goodbye, many, many times and to accept somehow, that division of parents, of homes, of countries, of identities.
I remember my mother was so beautiful, she always had so much grace, so slim and petite and always immaculately dressed and I would try so hard when I met her not to look like a farmers daughter with my messy hair and my one good shirt and one pair of jeans and usually some old scuffed boots. In myself now, I carry around the pictures of her, this unassailable, untouchable, much loved woman, whom I have always on one form or another, chased, wished for, sought. And my father, cycling city streets, messy like me, si beau despite it, able to turn on the charm in a way few could, and how he would zip in and out of slow taxis and cars and I would see him streaking down the road and I would walk for the metro and all the while, feel this divide, two pieces of the puzzle in opposite directions, myself in the middle.
People say, you never get over things, you should get over things, the way to get over things is to get on with things. But as busy as I can be, I never forget. I am always still that girl sitting on the corner, her coffee now cold, her fingers blue with Winter chill, wishing someone would be running towards me rather than going away from me. What we are is who we become, our identities formed by the varied experiences we have or do not have. What if my mother had really cherished me? Wanted me? Needed me? How different I would be now, there is no denying it. There is no whitewashing the shifts and influences that swirl about us, at any given moment, causing us to act out and act upon those influences, comme des cordes de marionnettes.
It is not to say we are not self-determining. I am after all, here and I am not there, I am after all alive despite it all and I am after all not destroyed by her loss. Sometimes you can think you will be and when you find yourself alive despite everything it reminds you, very little truly destroys us, it just shakes us to the core and we change, in myriad ways, taking our baggage and our hurt lockers with us, into new things, with new people, who may never understand why we are who we are, what we are.
I always wore hats. It wasn’t because I hate my forehead although I do. It was because my grandmother said; “chapeaux donnent de la couleur à votre visage.” And I have a very wan, pale, longish face. So hats helped to give me a pinch to the cheeks I badly needed. My mom with her dark eyes and her dark hair never needed such accoutrements she was a natural beauty, with a finer brain than I will ever possess. When I told her I wanted to start writing she told me I was making a mistake because I didn’t have what it took and she was right about that and so many others things but maybe for the wrong reasons. And even so, we do what we do because we have to do it, and it is sometimes better to have done than to have only thought about and never stepped out and said; I’m going to do this anyway.
Since and still – I do it anyway. I feel the fear and do it anyway. Sometimes I fail. Often I do not succeed. I wonder sometimes if I am still at that corner, watching the varied timelines of myself, my mother, my father, my entire famille d’origine, walking these streets, living then, and now, up and down, sideways and inside, climbing the stairs of history, where once a good French restaurant existed and the young and beautiful went, and my mother told me stories of whom she saw there and what they did and we would all belly laugh and those days were good, because we were not apart.
One day I will receive a phone call from someone and they will tell me I will never see my mother rounding the corner again. She is limber still and walks like a teenager, light bodied, with hips that are not stiff. I wonder if I will walk like her at her age. I wonder if I will have anyone left who shares my blood or cares what happens to me when I am her age. I find myself obsessing over those moments, lost and gained, the blouse she wore with green and red, the puff sleeves and how I try to imitate and never quite … succeed. I have run after my mother since I was a little girl, calling her home just as I wished her well in her flight. I both wanted her happiness even if it meant not with me, and I longed for her to need me, to love me, to want me, this thirst that caused me to chase and feel shame for so many years, anyone who might replace or repeat, the pattern.
I don’t chase anyone anymore. I still wear hats. I still think of the dance classes and leaving them all sweaty and hot, how the city could be empty in those days, and you could walk into a little magasin de pain and stuff your face with hot dough. How I didn’t care about anything then, except this pretty belief all would work out and life would be beautiful. How naïve perhaps, but what happy memories, how lightweight they were compared to the darkness. I remember really believing I could dance for a living, I remember really believing I would find someone who would love me forever. I remember joking that I was not very good at doing things half-way and I was far too intense for just a short affaire d’été.
My love for my mother will always be with me. I am still somewhere in time sitting at the café, proving to myself I can recover from an illness, meet the love of my life, eat bread without a care in the world, return to a time when everything was unspoiled. I am still there watching the theatre close down and become a block of flats. I am still sitting there watching my old school friends walk their kids down the cobbled roads, telling them stories of when mommy and daddy were young. I am still a 16 year old running down the street in the night, the sound of music in my ears, trailing feather scarves between my best friend and I. All the time in the world ahead.
When do you say you are ‘better?’ or you are ‘recovered?’ when there are still days of lurching at sea? When do you stop giving thanks? How did you walk away when I was drowning and think I was deserving of that kind of betrayal? When does healing and recovery mean you have to get on with the rest of your life? Which means, getting up from the table, dusting off your coat, applying lip balm, pulling your hat to the side, shaking off your weariness and setting off into the distance.
Neither of us live in that city any longer, we are both tourists to the past. When you visit, you stay in the best hotels and shield yourself from the arms of the past in keeping preoccupied. When I come home, I walk with my arms open, down all the roads that carried all our blood and all our tears. I want to remember. I want never to forget, it’s my history, it’s who I am even as I wish I were not. There is beauty even in pain. Even in the remembering of you loving me briefly, of pleasing you once, of your deep laugh and the way we’d grin in collusion. Don’t you know those are the greatest moments I have? Why would I give them up? For an abatement of pain? I’d rather feel pain than be staring into nothing. il me détruit. C’est moi.
Mama. What are you doing today? Do you remember us laughing as we walked arm in arm back from the restaurant, high on life? And nothing between us? Do you remember when I brought you flowers every time I would visit, even as a little girl? Irises were your favorite. We liked to watch them come through at first thaw. Do you ever wonder what I’m doing? Where I am? Do you ever think you see out of the corner of your eye, a girl sitting alone at a café table, drinking chocolat chaud, dunking pain de massepain? I feel she would still, despite herself, get up and go to you if you ever called, if you ever waved your hand in her direction?
I was once told I love too much. I thought it was the nicest thing I’d ever been told.
Todays hat is burgundy. I gave up cigarettes and red wine many years ago. Sometimes I can taste her perfume, the one she wore when I was a child, as if it had briefly inhabited a moment, and then, just as quickly, retreated.