My mother’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was 10. Throughout my childhood this woman was a source of light in my life. She took me on trips, bought me pretty dresses, brushed my hair and fed me sugar cereal and Chocolate Snaps (I can still picture the cat’s face on the box). I remember many a sleepover where she and I sat out on the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment talking about mundane things. I never wanted to go home. Though my grandmother was not outwardly affectionate, I could feel her love. I was happy just sitting with her; I felt my world was at peace. When she got sick, I felt like I lost my best friend and one of my only protectors. While she was a quiet woman, she was astute. She knew the hellish conditions I lived in and did her best to help me when we were together.
I remember the day she received her cancer diagnosis. We were sitting in the driveway of my mother’s house in my grandfather’s Cadillac. Everyone was crying. It was St. Patrick’s Day. My grandmother gave me a stuffed bear with a tee shirt that said “God Made the Irish #1.” Her health deteriorated rapidly after that and my mother took me with her to the hospital on a near daily basis–as a child I witnessed my beloved grandmother’s slow, excruciating march to death, learning the fragility of life in the process. On one of my visits to see her in the hospital, I told her that I had been selected to go on a special class trip away as part of the “Gifted and Talented” program. She was so proud of me and said she was determined to live to see me go and to tell her all about it.
The day of the trip arrived and off I went. My grandmother was still ailing in the hospital. I wanted to remember every detail of that trip, probably with the hope that each bit of information I conveyed back to her would buy her another minute of life. But it was too late. While I was away, she passed on. My stepfather—my least favorite person—arrived at the trip location by ferry and collected me and my things. My mother was too busy with her grief to tend to a child.
I dreamt of my grandmother often in the days after her passing. During the days of her wake and funeral service I kept my head under the covers at night, afraid that her spirit would come and take me away. I would shudder, alone, remembering how her body looked in the casket; the smell of the funeral home. I remember thinking that we must have souls because the woman I saw lying there was certainly not my grandmother. I believed that I had at least gained a guardian angel to watch over me in times of danger. But after what happened next I wasn’t so sure.
My grandmother died in April, and Mother’s Day arrived soon after. The exact chronology of that day is hazy to me. What I do remember is my mother, red faced and wailing at the top of her lungs as she picked up my grandmother’s fine china—plate by plate—from the sideboard and threw it across the room. Her grief over the loss of her mother took over in waves and shot out from every ounce of her being, spilling over onto all of us because somehow we had failed to meet whatever her unexpressed needs had been on that day. As each plate fell, and shattered into pieces, so did my sense of safety.
Shortly after that, my mother took off. She did not tell me where she went or when she was coming back. She left me with my stepfather, whom she knew I despised. She was gone for what seemed to me an eternity but was likely only a few days. This was the first literal abandonment I can recollect, though I know now that my mother had emotionally abandoned me long before. My grandmother had left me by dying, and my 11 year-old self then learned that in grief she would always be left alone. My mother literally walked out without a care for my well being.
It turned out that while I was being watched by a creepy man I perceived to be a real-life Freddy Kruger, my mother was trying to get her shit together at a luxury resort about two hours from home. She did not call to let me know until a day or two had passed. While I can sympathize with her grief, her actions that day exemplify who she was to the core–overwrought, raw, volatile, self-absorbed, with no concern for anyone but herself (and even that was questionable). Even though my mother returned, I felt a sense of instability for quite some time after that, never knowing (and always fearing) what her next move would be.