Published on October 21st, 2013 | by Frances Badalamenti2
Frances Badalamenti in the Light
She cracks open the bathroom door and finds me sitting on the toilet in a pink waffle robe purchased from the Target sale rack two weeks ago in preparation for a last-minute home birth. Various essential oil bottles and miscellaneous unguents are spilled out onto my lap, my hair is dripping wet, my head is cupped in my hands, and I’m doing my best accept the way it feels to have oversized maxi-pad jammed into the pair of mint green high-rise Hanes underpants (also from Target, not on sale) that I had set out for myself before the contractions got too intense.
I am post-shower, post twenty-four hours of labor, post giving birth on my bed in candlelight, post finding myself lying in a pool of blood and gasping, post getting stitched up just a little down there. From the small space in the door, I hear one of the midwives speaking words.
Are you having a moment in there?
Uncertain that anything resembling a sound will escape my mouth, I attempt a response.
A mere two months prior to this moment in the bathroom, I had buried my mother in a cemetery overlooking the Manhattan skyline in the borough of Queens, the place of my birth and where I spent the first years of my life.
Everything about me has been cracked open and pulled apart like road kill and so I am attempting to put myself back together stitch by stich. My mind is trying to fight the notion that birth is supposed to come before death, not vice versa.
The view from my mother’s gravesite, where she was buried, on top of her own mother, is breathtaking. I remember walking away from the fold of my immediate and extended family, belly swollen, somewhat sullen, but feeling a sense of largess in thinking how lucky my mother was to be left to rest in such prime New York real estate. It was as if she had finally hit some kind of demented jackpot, considering the fact that she was raised by a single mother in a Bronx tenement and then there were her final years of living on the edge of almost-poverty and substandard managed care in a mediocre New Jersey suburb. Finally, her ship had come in. But, she was dead and her youngest of four children, the baby of the family, the child she loved sometimes too much, was finally about to have a child of her own.
Looking towards the skyline that beautiful early Autumn afternoon, I could hear Miles Davis playing New York-inspired jazz music, Woody Allen cracking a New York-humored joke, Paul Auster reading a New York-stylized story. In that moment, with a baby growing inside me, perched under a wise old elm tree with my husband and my family off in the near distance, my adoration for New York City reached another level.
The catharsis I had experienced during an excruciatingly sober labor and home birth, the physical and emotional toll that I had endured not only in the twenty-four hours that it had taken my body and mind to bring my boy into the air, but throughout the year or so of my mother’s terminal illness, was coming together in the bathroom. There was a release and a synergy that was as profound as a mother’s death and a child’s birth.
And so there I was in Portland, with my sweet and mellow husband, a perfectly delicious newborn son and a house full of wholesome and progressive midwives who made it possible for me to stay out of a hospital, a place that I spent way too much time in during the previous year.
I was in my bathroom having a moment because I had for the first time became a mother and yet I no longer had a mother, the two ships (my son and my mother) had just passed in the night.
A few years ago, when my son was around one, I began feeling quite disconnected and unsettled, unable to find the source of my insecurities other than the fact that I never truly felt at home in Portland. I sought answers from an oracle. She told me that the reason I pine for New York City so much is because my ancestors are calling me back home.
There are many ways to define grief.
As different as we are from one another, the same will be true in terms of how we process and experience loss. There are stories in my family around my paternal grandfather’s funeral. An affable and adored man, he died long before I was born. The lore is such that his three sisters were so grief-stricken by the loss of their oldest brother that they put on a madcap display at the funeral home, emoting and falling all over the place in such dramatic ways that the casket toppled over, body and all. If that’s not grief, I don’t know what is.
My favorite definition of grief: an unfortunate outcome.
When the blissed out chemicals of childbirth wore off, when the lack of consistent sleep jacked my biorhythms, when the isolation and desperation of new motherhood set in – I began throwing things, punching things, hating things. When my son woke in the middle of the night, crying out in need for the hundredth night in a row and while my husband remained in bed, sound asleep, unmoved, unaffected, no bio-instincts going off, both of his parents alive and well – the demons inside me slapped him hard across the face. He called me a cunt.
We are not those people.
I have endured a fair share of challenges, mostly revolving around a broken home and parents who loved me dearly but made some poor choices. There was a shitty apartment that reeked of garbage and had nothing in the refrigerator but a decomposing carrot (Mom’s). There was a beautiful four-bedroom house a mile away, filled with step-strangers and a stepmother who could be set off like a bomb at the mere sight of a knife where the forks belong, which happened more often than not (Dad’s).
I was a little kid lost in the chasm of two opposing worlds.
Even though it took me a while (lots of unnecessary sex and broken heartedness, too much wine and weed, one short failed marriage, frivolous spending), I feel like I came out on the other side. I might freak out a little like a war vet when someone speaks with a high-pitched voice or when there’s not a ton of food in my refrigerator, but at least I know why. I have learned to connect the dots: old stimulus elicits irrational fear. I have money to buy my own food now and don’t have to allow people to raise their voices at me anymore, but I still have to put my hand on my heart and tell myself that everything is going to be okay. My slapdash childhood will always be there (you can try to run, you won’t get too far), but I have since adopted something called “the present” and it often guides me through the thicket.
When my son was a baby and then a toddler, he would cry a lot during the night. Maybe he was trying to grieve with me. When I would lay with him in bed, nursing, I would look across and see our reflection in the window. There were times that I had to look away because the reflection wasn’t me.
It was my mother.
The harshest side effect of becoming a mother is called sleep deprivation. It’s a dirty, dirty thing that makes grieving remind you that part of you has also died. I am convinced that losing all of that sleep is what birthed my anger. It made everything seem too real.
A few years before I was born, my mother had a stillborn baby also named Frances. My brother and I often talk about how most of what we remember of our mother other than the fact that she would kill for us, is that she spent an exorbitant amount of time sleeping.
When I was in graduate school studying psychology, we learned about how pregnant women have a hormone that protects the mother and unborn fetus from experiencing too much emotional distress. In class, I raised my hand and shared that I experienced a significant trauma while pregnant and that those hormones were, in fact, real. There was a dead silence in the classroom.
I sat on a bench at my mother’s funeral only wanting to chat idly and giggle with my friends, like a schoolgirl, not like a pregnant woman who just lost her mother. I avoided anyone who looked at me with pity.
We all show up for grief wearing different masks.
My sister was that word inconsolable.
There was a two-year period that I told a lot of people, some light acquaintances, some complete strangers, that my mother died not long before my son was born. I would say it with nonchalance and quietly, calmly, await a response. Out of all the people that I told, about five people grew teary.
When my brother called to tell me that my mother had passed away, it was one of those Autumnal days here in Portland when the quality of the natural light stops you in your tracks. In the months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, when life was just as it is, I was living in Amsterdam. The evening light over there can be from another world. I think it has to do with the fact that the city is bellow sea level. Standing outside of a pub after work at dusk, sharing a joint with a coworker, I looked up to admire this omnipresent sunlight staring down onto the rooftops of the crooked buildings. She noticed my awe and told me it’s what inspired the Dutch Masters. I feel about this kind of light like some people must feel about God.
In raising me on her own, after she left my father, my mother didn’t even do the best that she could with what she had, as they say. When someone is depressed, there isn’t anything called best, there is subpar or barely. Mental illness can be invisible, like a deadly gas.
There was an orange pullout couch with cigarette burns and worn down arm rests and a lumpy mattress with blood stains and mismatched sheets with holes and pillows that were hardly pillows anymore. When I think about depression, the first image in my mind is that pullout couch where, for way too many years, my mother slept away her pain.
There is a perfectly round crack in the plaster behind my bedroom door from the brass doorknob. I slammed the door so hard that the house would have shook if it weren’t so damn forgiving. My anger could be so perfect and clean.
After I left my first husband, I moved myself into this house. A few days later the towers fell and I felt guilty for not being in New York. I was working out at Nike, at a sprawling campus outside of Portland. We all went to a big athletic field and held hands. I couldn’t have been farther from home. When I think of home, I don’t think of this house; I have spent the last twelve years of my life trying to leave it.
At three-o-clock in the afternoon, I pick my son up from his neighborhood school. When I was in kindergarten, my mother picked me up. We lived in an attached Tudor-style house in a tony Queens enclave called Middle Village. My three older siblings went to Catholic school and my dad brought home a good wage from the then blue-collar graphic arts. There was dinner on the table every night and our neighbors were our friends. One could look at this picture and call it simple, possibly boring. I feel bored writing about it. After my first grade year, my father uprooted us to suburban New Jersey to be closer to his relatives who were slowly leaving Brooklyn like migrating birds.
And then things were no longer simple, no longer boring.
I wonder what my life would have been life had we never left New York.
I think about what my life would have been like had I never left New York.
My first marriage was a whole bunch of wrong reasons. After years of clinging onto the guy with the motorcycles and the tattoos and the sweet face, the alcoholic undercover narcotics agent with the gun and the antidepressants, the brown-skinned and dreadlocked bartender with the Meatpacking district loft, the coffee roaster with the deep blue eyes and the kind spirit but distant demeanor – the first one that came along and stayed awhile is the one that I thought could save me. I got saved and then I said fuck you. I left the job in the city, I left the apartment with the brick wall and I left my people.
Me and husband one packed shit up and drove westward to Oregon. I’ll be back in four years. Grad school. Snowboarding. A Portland-style vintage lens.
It’s been thirteen.
I have learned that mental illness is often set off by a big event, trauma or drastic change in one’s life. Before there was Jersey, my mother lived her life in the boroughs of New York City: the Bronx with her mother and younger sister and then Queens with my father and us kids, Sunday suppers in Brooklyn with the in-laws. Never learning to drive, always walking up to the avenue with one of those shopping carts, neighbors that watched over her children like hawks, bingo at the church, poker games in basements, cups of milk and sugar passed over chain-link fences.
A year after we left Queens for New Jersey, my parents were split in half.
I sometimes dream of being in the apartment that I lived in with my mother, through a majority of my childhood, well into adolescence and then back again after college when money would run short or if roommates were dicks. They call it a garden apartment complex and I call it shit city. The dichotomy of that big beautiful house a mile away where my dad remained with my stepfamily was just too much for kid me and so I dream still. They are nightmares really, and my mother is there and she is sort of half dead, still fat and unkempt, still sick with the hacking cancer. I wake up frightened, confused and feel the way that I felt in that apartment when I was a kid armed with a bottle of Windex doing what I could to make the place pretty and clean, something it just never was.
But, I have my own place to live now, and when I feel out of control, I clean like a motherfucker. Sweeping my hardwoods, the piles of dog hair and dead leaves and house detritus in a neat pile takes the edge off in ways that crackheads must feel after their first hit. When my kid is having a hard time and then I start having a hard time too, as we do, or if my husband leaves toast crumbs and coffee grounds on the counter – for a brief moment, I feel like a tiger is lunging at me. And then I wipe the shit down or give my kid a lollypop and remind myself that there is no tiger lunging at me and that even though my mother is gone and dead, life still plods on for the rest of us.
We’re still here and it’s still now and even though the anger could germinate and seed at any time, any moment really – there’s always a way out, even though the path may not seem clear.
When early autumn hits Oregon and that brilliant light shines it’s way back into my world, I think of my mother and my son and even though one is here and one is not, I feel tremendous peace in that warm light. Just like the North Sea light in Amsterdam will always remind me of a time of innocence, before I got the phone call in an off white bedroom that my mother was sick and wasn’t going to get better, when there was the cafes, the hash and my life in advertising. And when I miss my roots, the honesty and brusqueness of New York City, a place that will forever be my true home – I think back to that glorious sad day when I left my mother to rest under a beautifully perfect elm tree, the skyline of Manhattan casting a glow of light like no other.
A light like no other.