Inside: to become real hurts and once you’re real you can’t be ugly. But not everyone understands this yet.
Naked in her room or tub, she’d let us come in. I suppose it was hard to find time alone when mothering so many. I learned what I would look like by watching her but I have no point of reference past 53. I find it curious that she found it easier to bare skin than soul.
The last time we went out together when she was still able – we sat, holding hands, at Tim Horton’s of all places. I stroked her smooth nails, polished to the end. Her tin of colored polishes firmly imprinted in my childhood memory as deeply as fresh homemade buns and blueberry muffins.
I lotioned her legs when her face seeped and one eye no longer tracked and she could no longer pluck her own eyebrows. I wish I had done that for her too but even at the end we left too much unsaid and I offered lotion instead. She never asked me for anything.
She was fiery and fierce and would fight for her babies no matter our age or what we had done. Teen pregnancies, juvie, collect calls in the night – she knew heartache and fear but she had our backs. Watching her, I learned what it meant to leave the porch light on.
She didn’t talk to me about body changes or hot flashes but I saw the fan that helped her sleep. She plucked chin hairs as we watched TV. She loved to write and had a fabulous vocabulary but I don’t think she had yet found words for everything she wanted to say. It took me years to understand the strength in vulnerability.
I watched her pull chocolate bars and coke from the freezer – this is how she kept going mid-afternoon. I remember snippets of conversations and feelings – the women working on weight loss together, and how she rarely rested or asked for help. I learned what it meant to not care much for yourself.
Near the end when she couldn’t open up to eat or chew and she was skinny at last, she declared a fast. She would refuse to let cancer steal anything from her. They poured coke down the feeding tube – coke of all things – and there was an uncomfortable, bittersweet irony in that.
She never quite fit in, I don’t think. Not into her family, church, or the ladies who met for coffee. She’d rather be alone reading, exploring meaty things. I’d sometimes come home and find her on the couch reading and she told me she used to read the dictionary for fun. I discovered over time that we are very much the same.
But you wouldn’t have known that at first glance, babe to breast and laundry piled high. She left her career in the 70’s to come home, a radical feminist act of her own. Money was tight and they both worked hard and I watched what it meant to carve your own path. In sweat equity.
I think she tried to be a good girl and suppress her own rage but it simmered there sometimes and I stayed out of the way. She could throw a shoe at a kid from 20 feet away. One time she tried to break down the door with a hairbrush; I called her a bitch and she was furious. And I learned that I would never disrespect her again.
She’d stay up late Christmas eve filling stockings and working hard to ensure that each one of us knew we were loved. Trinkets and bags were pulled out of her closet, a year’s worth of heartfelt hunting and gathering. When I was older she let me join in and I learned that filling a stocking is much like whispering a prayer.
In the year or so before she died, people crossed the street to avoid her eyes and she felt like she was wearing a mask. It burned and felt foreign and I understood then that she’d spent her whole life fighting to become real. And real hurts and we loved her and once you’re real you can’t be ugly. But not everyone understands this yet.
NOW WHAT? She kept her favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit (referral link), tucked into her top drawer. I didn’t understand fully what it meant to become real until long after she was gone.