She looked like me, only more beautiful. She was slender and diminutive, but not frail. She had mocha-colored eyes and that lovely, warm olive skin that never burns in the sun. She always looked ten or more years younger than she was, so fresh and feminine were her features. She had the cheekbones of a goddess and auburn hair that looked silky even after months of chemotherapy.
Aside from her beauty, I don’t know very much about my mother. Her name was Carol Anne Daigle and her birthday was sometime in September. She was born in Schenectady, New York, to a woman named Doris, and her birth father, still nameless to me, was half Native American. My knowledge falters deeply after that. Because even though my mother may have possessed the sweet-tooth charm of a child, she lived her life like a feral cat. Cousins her age tell me that she was wild and unpredictable as a teenager. She had a careless, distracted way about her, like Courtney Love giving an interview on the Howard Stern show. Free-spirited, fun and lasciviously dangerous. In all the time I spent with her as an adult, I never got the full story about anything. I don’t know what high school was like for her. I’m still not sure how she met my father, I don’t know what her first home smelled like to her, or if she wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up. I never heard my birth story. And I will never really know why she gave up being my mother when I was four years old.
Of course I have a few things I can blame for her absence: her addictions, some unrealized mental illness, the fact that my Grandfather did his darndest to protect me and my brother from seeing her when we were young. But I don’t know the truth. Through my entire childhood, all I knew about her was the dismissive attitude my family had toward her; the letters from her that would sneak through ever so often, the arrest reports with her name printed in the Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper; and the lonely, unyielding feeling of having been abandoned. There was a mother-shaped hole in my life, and its emptiness has rendered parts of me in ways that have made me both stronger and weaker as an adult. But nothing can change the fact that she is the one who chose not to be my mommy.
When I was in high school and college, Carol reached out to me a few times. Once a teary and frightening alcohol-fueled ride around town with a bottle of Jack in the center console; another time a visit to see me cheer for my school’s basketball team. After one of the many long stints of not hearing from her, she showed up uninvited to see me on a warm afternoon in May. She stood at the bottom of my Aunt Pauline’s driveway, wearing a flowered sundress, and she looked like an angel. That pretty sundress, and her prettier smile, concealer for a person who had lived so hard, had been in prison. She was a broken bird, someone who would never see the world right-side-up. She upheld a secretive, dark lifestyle that involved some creepy-looking male “friends” and some crappy apartments in notoriously bad neighborhoods. She was a genuinely screwed up person. And as I learned after college, the closer I got to her the more vulnerable I would become to her tricks and manipulation. But I knew in her own way, she just wanted to have a daughter. She wanted me to forgive her for leaving me, but my resentment would never compare to the burden of guilt and regret that she carried around with her like a plague, a black bile. Like a cancer. She was so angry at me – no, she was so angry at herself for abandoning me that she would never let me forgive her. Just looking into my face, a mirror reflection by genetics, must have killed her. Looking back, maybe it did.
My mother had cervical cancer. A type that is normally quite curable, but she waited so long to treat the problem that it had metastasized before she had a chance. I think perhaps it was her way of punishing herself. They did chemo and radiation, but it only held off the disease long enough for it to come back with full valor. I heard the news late of course, being that I’d lost track of her once again. And when I did finally get word about it from my brother, a lot of feelings went through my mind at once. Pity, obligation, resentment, and fear. The most surprising feeling was relief. All my life I had a deadbeat mother; maybe it would be better to have a dead one.
She didn’t want to see me so I had to barge into her one-room apartment. I’d read descriptions of cancer patients suffering through chemo, even took a course on cancer in college, but there’s nothing more startling than looking at a skeleton person, muscles deflated, teeth and brow bones protruding to form a cadaverous sort of grin. The Grim Reaper’s grin. She weighed 73 pounds, had nothing in the place for food except pudding cups and pop-tarts, and there were tubes emptying fluids from her bladder. She was living alone, but I didn’t pity her enough to take on the responsibility of caring for her. I chatted for awhile, brought her a few shopping bags of food and went home.
It was my grandmother Doris who finally wheeled Carol out of that dingy apartment, installed a hospital-style bed in the living room of her double-wide trailer, and proceeded to watch her own daughter die. At the prompting of my Aunt Pauline, I visited twice. Both times I tried to connect with her, but was disappointed. There was no one there, nobody but the very same selfish woman who put the emptiness in my childhood. I quietly resented her being watched over by her own mother; she never took care of me, and she will never have the chance to again. It wasn’t fair. And she was dying. So what was the point in trying to work things out?
My mother died on May 21st of 2010, at the age of 49, while I was out for a run on some trails in my neighborhood. I looked out onto a clearing, the sun warmed my face and glistened off a wide pond of cattail and waterlilies, and I collided into a butterfly. It was black and yellow and huge, and afterward it floated away as quickly as it came. I heard the news later that afternoon. There was no funeral for her. My grandmother did not want to pay for one. Instead she was cremated and a few days later the home health care company held a memorial for all its deceased patients. They freed one butterfly for each patient who had died that year. I didn’t miss the irony.
When my mother was alive it was impossible to see the person that she was. It was much too hard to get past my own emotional confusion. I was too angry, and she was too burdened with regret. Now that she is gone I can see her more clearly. Without the possibility of learning more about her, I am better able to paint the picture of what I do know. I can use what’s left of her – photos, notes and letters – and gradually piece her together in my mind. And the most comforting thing for me to realize is that it doesn’t even matter if some of it is wrong.