Arlette’s Mom has been sick for the last 9 months. And I wanted to spend some time with her. So, after my brother’s wedding, in August, I went to see her. It was a hot car ride from LA to Oakland and a tense wedding. I spent a day crashed out on Arlette’s couch before I started going back and forth between Oakland and Campbell. We spent 3 days together. Well, a few hours a day together for 3 days.
The first day I got to see her, she was stuck in her bed. Arlette had warned me that she was thin, and that she legs were swollen. But she still looked so beautiful. Radiant, even. She spent a little while badgering her husband Roger, before we got to talking. She listened to me talk about the wedding, and my own problems for a little while, and then she launched into the tale of how she came to America, some 50 years ago. Lillian is swiss. And has this muddled French accent that makes everything she says sound glamorous and hilarious all at once.
I knew why she was telling me the story. She’d obviously told it before. With the same flourish as the story about how she didn’t know the English word for joint, so when Sammy Davis Jr. asked her to get him one, she had no idea what he was talking about. Or the 3 day old baby that she’d wanted to keep, out of the 70 some odd foster kids that she and her husband, Roger took in. “But if we kept one, we’d have to keep them all.” she said with a furrowed brow and a wave of her hand. Arlette explained it later “You get the foster kids, you socialize them, you teach them how to behave around other people, and then you send them on their way.” She grew up around these foster kids. And she still tries to socialize strays.
I listened, but I wish I’d listened harder. I think, the whole time, I was thinking “Get better. Get Better. Get better.”
The second day I couldn’t stay long. Roger met me at the door. “She can’t take any excitement.” He warned. I nodded. “I just want to look at her.”
She’d had a heart biopsy, and any excitement could have given her a heart attack. She looked so worn, and much smaller than the day before. And suddenly, so old. “I”m so sorry, you know, I tell you the truth! She declared. “I would ask you to stay, if I could, but I don’t have the energy.” I expected her to scold me for crying, but I couldn’t help it. It was scary to see her so fragile. “I just wanted to see your shining face. I love you very much. I just wanted to look at you.” I reassured her. The tears didn’t make me stutter. And to my surprise, they started her crying too. “I love you too. Is good to see you.” she reached her hand out, and we held hands, nodding and crying at each other for a minute. I said I love you a few more times, and she said it back, and then I promised to come back the next day. I’d expected her to be gruff. I’d expected her to get mad at me for crying. I think her crying too, her letting me cry, scared me more than her not being able to move because of her heart. That’s when I thought “Oh. Oh, shit. She might die. She’s going to die.”
That day was hard. That day I dawdled before the train. Stopping at Recycle Books, where I used to work. Recycle Books was the reason I met Arlette. Recycle was the reason I loved Lillian in the first place.
The Hunger Games consumed me. It was a 3.5 hour commute each way, from Oakland to Campbell. And I spent the time on the train there, and back, living inside of District 12. And the rebels. And Catness’s brain. Catnesses fear of the future; her grief echoed my own feelings.
The third day, she was so bright. And Chipper. She was dressed up in a black and red blouse, with a skirt. She showed off the blanket Arlette had crocheted her “so taleneted!” she cooed. As well as the socks. She flashed me her boobs. Like cows ears! She’d been complaining. I laughed so hard at that, I was sure I’d get in trouble with someone, somewhere.
I tried to get her to eat. That should have been my clue. I mean, I knew. I would cry, in the moments between the bart and Arlette’s apartment, the moments I couldn’t submerge myself into a book, I would cry. I knew she didn’t have a lot of time. But I thought there’d be more.
She called me a few months before all this. “I got your paintings ! They are soooo beautiful! I keep them in my room, so I can see them all the time! I love them! We love you and we are proud of you!” And the first thing she showed me, that first afternoon were the plans for the dream house she and Roger were building. And how from her sick bed, she could see them, and the paintings I’d made her.
After my niece was born, I went to go see my brother, my sister-in-law and The Baby. They were all living at my parents house. In my old room. I did OK, for a little while. I held the baby, and made small talk. And I even stayed through dinner. The thing is, I never wanted to go back to That House. I wasn’t planning on going back until my parents were dead. “You know they’ll be murdered by one of the crazy homeless people they move into their spare rooms.” Joy explained to me once, airily. It’s true. I like to think, that since I stopped speaking to them, they’ve tried to fill the void I left in their lives with a steady supply of schizophrenics and manic-depressives. Moving them into their house, and giving them food and teaching them about the Crazy Jesus that my parents believe in. This is the part that is actually true. I like to think that they always just misunderstood me. That they fill my void with crazy people because they never understood that I am kind and creative and charismatic and awesome. And they missed me. And the closest thing in homeless that they could find to Alisa was Unmedicated Crazy.
But I think it’s just that those are the only kinds of people who will believe in the little cult my parent started. And crazy attracts crazy.
So, I never expected to go back to their house. And there I was, spending time with the baby. And then bonus! Eating dinner with my parents. In the dining room I grew up in. And I was doing OK. Until I put my dishes in the sink. And then I had a flashback, to my Dad, strangling me in that kitchen. And I couldn’t breathe. And I don’t drive, so I ran outside. And I called Arlette. “Go to my Mom’s house!” She scolded. “She’s good at this kind of stuff, and she has a guest bedroom.” My Aunt Judi drove me over to Lillian’s. And Lillian nodded as I haltingly explained why I was there. “You stay here. And you never go to that asshole’s house again.” Her eyes narrowed and she pointed at me like she was annoyed that I had gone back to my parents house in the first place. So, I spent the next 3 days talking to Lillian about all the childhood stuff that started coming back. And she let me cry and watch their tv. And she and Roger told me stories about Arlette when she was a kid. And it was the first time I felt like I had real parents. Who believed me. Who unconditionally loved me.
“You have a fear of abandonment, because of your childhood. And you are insecure because of your childhood. And you have to figure out how to make yourself feel safe.” She explained once, at the end of one of my crying jags. It was really good advice.
This trip, the 3 days of visiting, I realized how much she loved me. “People usually take ten years to get as close as you two got in a year.” Arlette told me, when she called to explain just what had happened.”It’s like, I think about how unconditional her love was. And I… feel more secure. Is that weird?” I asked her. “Nope. You know, I was looking at a picture of me as a baby, and I realized that I’ve never spent a moment of my life unloved?” Arlette sounded a little wonderous. “I had 30 years of that love. It changes you. It steadies you.”
Lillian died 3 days after the last time I saw her. Her heart gave out. The got her test results back the day after she went. She had a genetic blood disorder that attacked her heart. She died in her own bed, tucked in by her husband of 40 years, and her favorite sister.
I think, part of me is just so surprised that I found her. That I got to spend time with someone who so obviously loved me. And that it seems to be knitted together holes that I’ve had inside of me for as long as I remember.
Sometimes when I cry about Lilian, it’s because I can’t believe she’s gone. And I just really, really want to call her, and tell her a joke. Or complain to her. Or brag about the the sex I just had.
And sometimes I’m just overwhelmed at her kindness. Because it still feels like she’s shining a light inside of me, and looking at all of my bad feelings. And all of my scary thoughts, and all of the peices in me that my own family declared unloveable oh-so-long ago, and clapping her hands and luaghing. Just the way she did when I showed her my Snarky Card Speech. Motorboat and all. Actually, I had to explain what a motorboat was to her. Which made her laugh harder. And then make a joke about her own boobs.
I miss her a lot. But her love keeps working inside of me. Cleaning me up. Making me feel strong, and loveable. And good. In a way I’ve never felt like I was good before.
But grief is a part-time job. I’ve had to figure out how to take care of myself, since she died. Which means giving myself an hour a day to cry and miss her if I need it. And if it turns into a whole day of bursting into tears and re-running conversations I had with her in my head, letting myself take the day. And being more careful about what I say to myself, and what I let other people say to me. Letting myself off the hook for things I don’t have the energy to do. And just generally treating my feelings like they were very recently broken. And are still very, very fragile.
So, that’s what’s been going on with me. Next time I’ll tell you a funny story.