By Lisa Fogarty
Before you watched her unravel, bit by bit for all 17 years you’ve been on Earth; before she pulled the plugs on people and places until there was just an empty room and her in it; and long before she died from the complications of a debilitating drug addiction, your mother was a little girl with skinny legs and a laugh like a solar eclipse.
We were friends, but more like cousins. She’d sit on her twin bed cross-legged and stare into my eyes with feline expectation. She wasn’t another aloof victim of my generation’s casual contempt for everything. She was a mental vagabond who once got homesick after a weekend away, which should have been our first clue that this world would never give her what she needed. She was too thirsty to be happy, but had a fat laugh that stayed nourished throughout her life-long drought, a laugh independent of joy and one that made the entire room quake with the force of her freedom.
Before she saw too much, your mother was almost infuriatingly naive at times, hiding cigarette butts and cheap trinkets from boys in an Aldo’s shoebox beneath her bed. She stashed dollar bills in there, too, and no matter how desperate she was to split a $4 calzone from the pizzeria on Lefferts Boulevard, she’d let us both starve before touching the money she was saving to buy a Ferrari. On the weekends I slept over we watched Friday Night Videos and I made fun of her for shushing me when sappy songs came on. One Saturday afternoon in October we got caught in a rainstorm. She was 14 and failing math class. “Let’s stay out!” she shouted with a laugh that had grown threatening enough to challenge the sky. We roamed through the neighborhood like stray cats, sticking our heads under drainpipes. She had a way of making you feel like there was no better way to spend your last day on Earth than washing your hair in cold rain.
I realize though that the mother you had wasn’t the one I knew. You got the mother whose jackknife insults plunged into your perfect young skin over and over again. We don’t discuss it, but I know we’re all silently marveling about how you managed to come out of it looking like a painting. Those of us who don’t believe in god stare at you and wonder if we’re wrong. You had the mother whose flippant responses to your childhood tragedies perforated your psyche, inflicting wounds that won’t start to heal until you finally understand it’s not you. It’s not you. Blaming yourself is the easy way out; don’t accept Band-Aids. It was never you. It will never be you.
We sat on the same chair in the hospital MICU waiting room while a doctor removed your mother’s tubes and sealed her lips. I congratulated you on your perfect eyeliner. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t look at you. I knew you weren’t crying because you have the wounds, while I got to cry because I have the girl who led me through storms and wept over banal love songs.
Your mother found out she was pregnant while I was studying in London. When I returned home that May she was waiting on my living room couch, a chubby cherub with red cheeks. My family had surprised me with a 21st birthday party that made me so miserable and longing to be away and alone again that I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. She knocked once and I let her in.
“It can get better,” she told me. “Look at me! I was all fucked up and now, look!” She didn’t take her hands off of her belly, off of you, that entire night. You were months away from being born but you were already behind her eyes. She believed something as beautiful as you could change the world.
But there’s nothing, not even a mother’s love, that is strong enough if there is no love for self. You were your mother’s savior, but she didn’t know how to love you because she couldn’t love herself. The drugs took over and fooled her into thinking she was someone else. And then, finally, like they always do, they left her with nothing at all.
Growing up, your mother and I had our perfectly imperfect mothers of our own, but we also had a banquet of surrogate mothers who often kept us in line. Our mothers formed lasting friendships with women I’ll forever refer to as our “aunts.” We told them secrets. When we were 15 and hated our mothers they reminded us that they were once 15-year-old’s who cried over boys and worried they’d never be good enough.
I urge you to keep your heart open to the surrogate moms who will be present in your journey — women who are older, but who can dart back and forth from youth to wisdom because they understand there is knowledge in all directions. Women who are transparent when they make mistakes. Women who will tell you to get off your phone and study, to wear a longer skirt to your job interview. You may be tempted to seek out cardboard humanity to shield yourself from your mother’s flaws — you deserve better than that. The greats who will change your life come bearing lessons, often tragic ones, sometimes ones you’ll spend decades trying to escape.
I hope you can now put yourself first. I hope you go away to college and spend an entire night walking by the river with a good friend (preferably before an exam-less morning). Get lost driving up and down streets with foreign names. Apply for your passport. Listen to the voice in your head when it tells you you’re scared and take time to cradle it, soothe it, put it to bed. Then gently pull the lamp chain, leave it to rest, and step back into the light. More than anything, I hope one day you find your own laugh and that it’s so big it can rebuild bridges.
Lisa Fogarty is a New York-based lifestyle and parenting writer whose work has appeared in Redbook, SheKnows, Racked, StyleCaster, and other publications. Essays will always be her first true love because they allow her to explore and understand her own flaws and strengths and they help her bridge gaps between people and discover the human elements that link us.