January 20, 1982
[In memory of Elizabeth “Lizzie”Anna Rieb, nee Teseny – September 22, 1943 – January 20, 1982]
I think we know that nothing lasts forever. That every day something in our relationships, our social strata, our bodies, is ending. Let’s say your taxi-mom job is ending when your son drives himself to a movie in your car with his new driver’s license tucked in his wallet. Or a spouse leaves a marriage for someone he left for you, more than a decade after you stood on a wedding-moon beach sliding a ring on his finger. A beloved pet dies. A pregnancy ends. We move to another neighborhood, state, or country. You twist an ankle while attempting to balance the same bag of groceries in your left hand, and a coffee tumbler in the other, while climbing the three steps you scale so often that you really ought to have the spatial memory imprinted in your brain. Once, a cousin blocked me on Facebook, and her life because I cited political-fueled 9/11 misinformation she shared on a news feed, which was not only personally offensive, but a proven slant of falsehoods by Snopes. Things just change.
Maybe it’s annoying and inconvenient but we cry and we limp and we eventually acclimate to the changes and move on through our days, living our lives. Or we try to. It doesn’t make us a bad person or a hero. We’re neither weaker nor stronger than others. We never fully get over the losses, sudden or gradual, large or small, we scrape up what remains, and carry it in our bodies and our hearts believing that each ending is clearing a space for something new. What choice do we have? Without endings there’s no change, and without change there are no lessons, no openings for new versions of ourself.
But some endings have bigger impacts, even consequences. Even though, most times they just happen. Sometimes they happen quickly—a deer leaps into the road and totals your car, family memories are destroyed in a flood, someone close dies in their sleep, a speeding car side-swipes your sister’s minivan, rendering a life-altering brain injury, a pandemic ends your job, forcing a career change. Other times, endings come with a droning swell to the verge—a marriage dissolves, depression abbreviates, and after a five-year battle with cancer, a mother dies.
Becoming a young adult on a college campus, no matter the distance from home, is a huge transition. On the day you walk onto that quadrangle and plink your toothbrush into a Solo cup on your dorm room desk, there’s a whole new set of relationships, tasks and choices in your world that only you are responsible for. You’re suddenly faced with keeping yourself alive or slipping back into the of net of your parents’ safety. But what if there were no safety net. What if the day you carried your baggage out of the door of your home, was the last day you’d sit at the kitchen table eating the apple pancakes your mother sizzled in butter, or the last day you’d hear the sound of her voice humming The Way We Were?
The little five-room red brick house I grew up in (albeit often disquieting) containing a mother, a father and three girls, was so snug that by the time I had crossed over the George Washington Bridge, my sister Wendy, had already slid her Cabbage Patch doll and red Keds (the ones with the white rubber toe) under my bed. A fortuitous opportunity for a nine-year-old to claim her own space after sharing a room only large enough to fit a trundle bed, with our contentious thirteen-year-old sister, Lori. My grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins lived within walking distance. I had never traveled beyond the northeast stretch between Philadelphia, PA and Springfield, MA. My world was small.
What if at the same moment you’re expanding, though you don’t yet know it, the life you left is a memory shrinking into the distance of the rearview mirror. What if the transition you’re racing toward, an emancipation you’ve anticipated since you aged double digits, is actually a shift that would have you yearning for connection throughout the entirety of your life? Even though you had been expecting an ending for several years, you were never really convinced that it would happen.
Sometimes when we’re young, and busy, and racing towards our own futures, the only thing we can see is our own experience. Despite my mom barely making it through my high school graduation, I was head-strong to eat my cake and continue moving toward the next chapter of my life. However, when I hugged my mother goodbye that warm, late-August morning, I saw a tinge of something, an undersong, yielding to a fated postlude, both of us clinging to the hope that her essence resonates in me, far beyond the measure of her own vanishing.
When transitioning from your childhood home into adulthood, there’s a whole new world you’ve never experienced before and you have to figure out. You’re learning how to manage your own life and it feels potentially huge. Do I stay in the basement and wait for my laundry to finish or do I go to supper? Do I go downtown Friday night with the new people I’ve met or do I buy the anatomy and physiology textbook that I can’t afford? Have I eaten too much? Have I not eaten enough? Do I sleep too much or do I not sleep enough? How do I return home for the holidays? Spend a week’s work-study earnings on a Greyhound or hitch a ride from some upperclassman I don’t know posting on the student union board? My parents aren’t driving the 300 miles to get me, and my mom, well, she’s sick.
Every transition from childhood to adulthood includes the unexpected. But for me and my two sisters, the list of unexpected things is long. When my mother dies, my life begins to weep in ways that are still surprising me. At eighteen, I’m a motherless daughter. My mother never picks up the phone and asks how my classes are going nor answers when I’m doubled-over in pain from food poisoning, nor stood beside me and the love of my life in a photo.
As a matter of fact, she’ll be filtered out of every Kodak moment for the four decades it’s taken to get to this page. My mother, Lizzie, never serves apple pancakes to the love of my life. She doesn’t throw me an engagement party or say yes to the dress. After calling on several people who were busy in their own lives, I culled the simplest and cheapest dress off the J.C Penny rack by myself. The bulleted list of motherless moments is long and tidal, an infinite series of waves curling through the shadowy highs and lows of my adult life. My mom would never fuss over wedding arrangements or plan a baby shower. She won’t rush to the hospital when I’m caught off guard in a premature birth, then supply the nursery with diapers and a bassinet. And no one will stop by with a casserole to sing Beetles love songs to my baby when I’m pinned to the couch with a hot, infected duct in my chest. This is what my friend’s and cousin’s parents do, what they’ve always done, what I’ve done for my own children, they show up. And even though I’ve soldiered through setbacks and triumphs countless times before, I truly never cease dreaming-up alternate scenarios with my mother in the world. Sometimes the pancakes are burning because I’m lost in the imaginary space where there’s a second plate on the table. Other times, I’m thanking her for guiding me toward a parking space in Bushwick and cradling my breath during a mammography.
In this story, there are no Mother’s Day brunches at the Vineyards, no recipe shares, or heart emojis. My mother doesn’t hear me screaming into the wildness of the most devastating moments of my life or see me bursting into the sunny hallelujah’s. Yet, in each instance when I’ve shaken off the salt and risen from the wake of the receding raging tides, I ache to hear the lilt of my mother’s sweet song.
At eighteen-years of age, I had no idea how to help a mother die. It was an adult space that I clearly was not a part of. When I walked down the corridor past visiting hours, two days before boarding a Greyhound Bus to return to my college life, I knew I couldn’t compose her ending, so I was writing my own. “I don’t think mommy’s going to make it,” were my father’s parting words to me. With the Royal manual typewriter she gave me for Christmas set by the door, (a clunky-keyed apparatus with a black and red-inked strip,) that she spent her unused chemo-prescription dollars for, I kissed her forehead and exited through the folds of the pale green curtain to continue the promise of the college education and liberation she surrendered to my birth eighteen-years before, when she was my age. The last gift unwrapped.
Dave and I had only had one date a few days before winter break. We shared our first kiss two days before I left for Christmas break, in the back stairwell of the student union building after a night of studying for final exams. The December afternoon of my leaving, I returned from my final exam to find a Boynton greeting card that Dave had slid under my door. “This was a beat week to get to know each other… I hope we get to see a little more of each other next semester…” Mid-January, during the break, he penned me a nine-page letter (4×6 note pad) in which he rambled on about the highlights of his life, essentially introducing me to friends, favorite hiking spots, his Hudson Valley landscape, his passion for bass guitarists, his tape deck, dirt bike, and a mention of the logistical challenges his legal blindness presents on the final page. In the early 1980’s, letter writing was all many new lovers could afford to do. I wasn’t able to make long-distance calls from my parent’s home phone. These were the days of placing the occasional collect call, where the receiver accepts the charge to receive a call from others outside of their region who can’t afford to pay for long-distance service. An embarrassing condition of which I had been forced to surrender on several occasions in the afterward.
I returned to SUNY Cortland on a Tuesday afternoon to commence my second semester.
On Wednesday, January 20, 1982, I walked up campus hill in the sunshine, passing the rolling hills of the cemetery directly across from my dorm, and attended the first classes of the second semester of my Freshman year, from 8:00 AM to noon. After grabbing a sandwich from the student union and returning to my room to finish unpacking, Dave knocked on my dorm door. Seeing his grinning face in the opening whirled me into the moment, like a vignette, blurring the edges of all the defined space that came before me and what was looming ahead. Softening into his firm embrace diffused the anguish that was expanding like a balloon in my chest, exhaling in a long, impassioned kiss
Dave was bubbling with reportage of his intersession life. His Christmas was quiet and pleasant with his parents and his brother and sister-in-law. He hung out with friends and smoked some good weed, hiked mountains, raced along the Hudson River on his dirt bike, and saw some great blues and jazz concerts. Mine was also quiet, not pleasant. I decorated and cleaned house, spent my work-study savings on items from my sister’s wish lists that my father wasn’t going to spring for… a pair of Jordache Jeans and a Simon Electronic game for Lori, a denim jacket and Mousetrap game for Wendy. I sprinkled red and green crystals on sugar cookies with my little sisters, the way mom and I had done through seventeen Christmases past, while she diminished in morphine dreams, her substance melting into the colonial couch hollows of the broken revolution. I hadn’t filled Dave in on much of the details of my life, especially my mother’s doomed cancer diagnosis. No pity-dates for this Lon-Gisland girl. I had broken away from the inescapable truth of small-village life and was going to give my Scorpio charm a chance to shine.
At around 1:00 PM, there was another knock at my door. Excited that it was a girlfriend, I bounced up from my seat and opened the door to find my Aunt Trudy and Uncle Bob (my mother’s brother) from Connecticut. The shock of their presence informed me that this news had to do with my mom, and it was bad. After a brief and awkward introduction, they solemnly announced “Debbie, your mother has passed early this morning. We made the trip because we didn’t want you to be alone when you got the news. We’re taking you home.” I allowed Dave to hug me in the doorway on his way out.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t fall to pieces. I quietly slid my faux leather suitcase from under my bed and re-packed. I didn’t want sympathy from my potential boyfriend. I actually felt a little embarrassed to be the foci of attention. Yet, I also felt guilty for not collapsing into a heaving ball of despair. Perhaps it was because I had been anticipating this every day for months. Perhaps the lingering had gone on for all of my teen years, that I had relaxed into the leaving. Maybe I had already said goodbye enough times that I was in a good place with the death. At that very moment, on January 20, 1982, I had become a motherless daughter.
Well, actually my mother had passed at 12:30 AM. I just hadn’t been informed.
Motoring south on I-81, I knew that the road would never lead me home again. I don’t remember anything about the five-hour car ride. When I got home there were a flurry of aunts and neighbors, and our parish minister’s wife coming by with condolences and casseroles. I recall walking up Munsell Road and tearing-up with my girlhood friend, “my mother’s dead. I don’t have a mother. It will always be this way. That’s it. Now what?” My head was swirling with conflicting questions; do I stay and take care of my sisters, or do I return to ceramics class? Do I wash and fold the laundry? Take my sister’s shopping for funeral dresses? Do I tell my girlfriend I’ve met someone? How long am I supposed to cry and stare at the floor? Is it inappropriate to smile and say my truth, when extended family and funereal guests greet me—I’m doing well and looking forward to returning to school, or do I say maybe when they suggest that it’s my place now to honor my mother and take care of my little sisters?
I felt the same conflicting emotions the sunny August day I first left for Cortland. It felt as though I were in a movie all along, where I was watching actors move through a transposed, adolescent-version of Terms of Endearment, where following a contentious relationship, a daughter steps up for her terminally ill mother, anticipating the ending while assuming remission. Although I was reasonably aware that my mother wouldn’t survive to see another spring, at seventeen, I couldn’t have anticipated the permeating stress cracks that the void would render throughout mine and my sister’s lives. Although the thoughts of a teenage daydreamer may have saved me during the pernicious five-year stretch of my mother’s ravage, I would occasionally, imagine what it might be like to be motherless.
On January 19, 1981, while I was travelling North on I-81, my dad was in the hospital, sitting by mom’s side all day. Her mother, sister and sister in-laws shifted about, doing whatever they could to bring her comfort. Slipping in and out of lucid pockets of consciousness, she said to dad, “look at that beautiful crucifix on the wall. It’s glowing bright in warm gold light.” Dad turned to see only a plain, white wall. Feeling a chill he thought, this isn’t good. He left at midnight to return to my ten and thirteen-year-old sisters who were home with a family member, tucked in their beds. Fifteen-minutes after entering the house, the avocado rotary phone sounded from the kitchen counter. Lizzie was gone. She slipped away in a moment of her own, the morphine dripping into collapsed veins that could no longer sustain her.
I wonder what were the last sounds she heard—The beeping of the oximeter taped to her index finger? The faint padding of white oxfords on linoleum? Had she drifted off to sleep with the resonance of her own voice echoing in the dimming corners of her mind? Was the last glint of light in the world an opening scored on a wall, glowing, brilliant, gold?
© Deborah Garcia 2022, All rights reserved
Images by Deborah Garcia