It may be too soon to write.
I had been back in Zhengzhou for four days before I got the news. I’ve been living here for about 5 months teaching English literature to high school age children. I’m not a teacher. I think I have the knack. I certainly have the ability to be in front of people and talk, ten years of theatre training makes that a possibility. It isn’t my passion. I’ve avoided my passions because my passions are not “practical”. I came to China because my life in the states was stagnant. If I wasn’t going to throw my life into writing and theatre than I could at least travel while doing a practical job. It seems ridiculous now. Everything does.
I love my mother. I love her very much. It was just her and I. My parents divorced when I was one or two. My dad wasn’t one of those men that bailed and never returned, but he wasn’t always around. As I grew older he would come once or twice a year to pick me up and take me to my grandparents. I loved these trips because I loved my dad, but as I grew older I realized it was my mom who struggled to raise me day in and day out, and dad, well in my youth he was entertainment. Mom raised me. I would say that our relationship was not always healthy. There was often a role reversal where I would play the part of the mother and she was the child. This often caused anger and resentment on my part. I’d constantly rail against her behavior. Wondering when my mother was going to grow up. It wasn’t an easy life. My mom’s life was filled with a painful childhood, the loss of the only person she really loved (aside from me) her sister, and many bad choices in men, and some bad choices in lifestyle. My mom was an addict. She could be addicted to anything. Food, drugs, shopping (but she never had any money), men, anything. She said, about going to the casino, “Oh honey, I have to limit myself.” I had asked her why. “Because, Adrienna, I’m an addict, you know if it makes me feel good you know I’m going to do it till it kills me.” Then she’d laugh. She knew how to laugh at all of her pain. In her fifties she became homeless for three years. She had been homeless, addicted to meth, addicted to heroine, had a stoke, high blood pressure, issues with weight, diabetic, and because of the use of needles she had hep C. Still she was resilient. She’d gotten into a housing program, off the meth and the heroine- unfortunately she had to use methadone, she had to take tons of pills, but she was good with her eating (mostly). After her stoke she taught herself to read and write again, and she was trying to retrain herself to draw. My mother had the natural ability to draw. It was her neglected talent. There were two things she could not kick. Her cigarettes and bad men. She was down to one or two cigarettes a day then maybe one or two a week, but a diabetic person with high blood pressure and a stroke victim should not have one a week. Then there were the men. Those men. I called my mom the bum magnet. If you’re a man looking for a woman on welfare and raising a child on her own my mom’s the one for you. I hated them. Since I can remember there was some man coming into our life sitting on the couch trying to play the overbearing father while my mom worked under the table to support me and the man that was living off of her welfare checks. There wasn’t a being I hated more except perhaps child molesters, and I met some of those too. Even into her later years they’d come sniffing around. “Letafae, darling, won’t you take care of me?” There wasn’t anything she wanted more than the traditional family. The mother, the father, the child, the house, the picket fence; hopeless happiness. Since the moment I left at the age of eighteen and for the following twenty-two years, I agonized over my mother. How do I take care of my mother and also have a life for me?
From the moment I can remember wanting to be something I wanted to be a performer. First it was dance, then singing then finally acting. I wanted to be on stage. Starting at age thirteen until I was twenty-four all I wanted was to be an actress. But, self-esteem, and insecurities and the “impracticality fear” won out in the end and I abandoned my dream. I later moved to writing because it felt safer and hidden. No one tells a writer to straighten their teeth or loose weight or rejects the body as it stands in front of them. It’s just words on paper, but impracticality fear won that one too. I wanted to be an artist, but through strange mental manipulations from who knows where poverty maybe society maybe self-esteem maybe, I believed it wasn’t for me. We believed our dreams were not for us. “I was born poor and I’m going to die poor.” My mom would say in her moments of despair. She’d look at me with love and say, “but not you baby, you’re special. You’re not like me.” But, I was like her. I am a part of her, and I couldn’t shake the thoughts that a life of art was not meant for me. The words impractical, impractical, impractical- you’ll never make money- what will you do when you’re old- and how will you take care of mom, plagued me. So I floated from job to job to job trying to find something that fit something that could make me money something I could stick with till I made enough to go home and take care of mom. Take care of mom.
I told both my parents that going to China would be good for me because I could travel which I loved, and get the chance to see if teaching is right for me. “I already have a degree I could go back to the states and get my teaching certificate”. I could be a teacher a steady breadwinner. I think I was trying to convince myself more than them. I stayed with mom for two weeks before I left. She drove me crazy. At times I felt I wanted to push her away because her love was almost smothering at times. Once she had said to me on a visit. “I wish it could just be you and me forever.” She had been lovingly staring at me. I don’t even know if she was aware that the words came out of her mouth. I looked at her incredulously, “Thanks mom, that’s what every little girl wants to hear from their mother.” Her face changed from her distant revery to surprise, “Oh Adrienna, you know I didn’t mean it like that!” “Oh yes you did.” I said. She started laughing. “You’re one of those crazy ladies like Betty Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” I said. She laughed, “Oh, Adrienna, I am not.” My goal on that visit aside from just visiting her was to get her set up on Skype so that we could talk on a regular basis. I had given her a computer, but by the time I got down to her home one of her male friends had convinced her to take it apart and rig some stuff up so she didn’t have to pay for internet (she was well below poverty level). I suppose it was a helpful thought, but he was a strange guy who had his own time frame and plans and control issues and he used that computer among other things to control my mom. I was angry, and frustrated, and I left without getting her on Skype. She managed to e-mail me in the first few weeks, but then two months went by without a message or response to my messages. Because of the homeless stint ten years prior when I couldn’t find her anywhere, and because of my huge fear of her dying and me not knowing or just her being in the hospital and me not knowing (because that happened once), and because I promised her I would be there for her in her old age and that she would not die alone, I’d be there; going two weeks without hearing from my mom sends me into a state of panic and anxiety. When I lived in Portland, I called her every week. For twelve years every week I’d call and we’d talk. I contacted friend’s and mother’s of friends to ask them to check in on her. She’d always be fine and she’d laugh about my concern. My friend’s mom said, when she checked in on my mom this last time I had asked for help, that she was giving some food to a homeless guy, and she was in super high spirits.
China’s been hard for me. I won’t get into it, but it’s been a tough adjustment. I have six more months on my contract and I’ve decided not to return to Zhengzhou after my contract is up, but I didn’t want to give up on China. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Vacation time came in January and I tried to decide, do I go home to see mom, or do I do some traveling? I weighed the points. My contract ends in August so if I go on a trip now then I definitely will go home in August to see mom then maybe come back to China and work somewhere else for a year. Maybe I should apply for grad school be a certified teacher. I didn’t know. In truth nothing excited me except the idea of traveling so I decided to go to Viet Nam and Australia. I had hoped maybe somewhere in those two countries I’d receive a sign something telling me what to do next. Mom’s internet and computer were working so I told her I was going to Australia. She was excited. She wanted me to tell her all about it. My mom’s birthday was on the 26th of January, but I was in Viet nam without access to a computer so I had to wait a few days to write her. I wrote her from Australia wishing her a happy 64th. She wrote back with glee in a short badly spelled e-mail. Her typing wasn’t very good because her hands would not always work. I wanted to send her a postcard so I asked her if she could get into her mailbox. She had broken the key and then lost the key, and only my mom could not get into a regular mailbox. I know there are still letters and postcards I had sent her from China sitting in that damn mailbox. She wrote to me, “Oh baby doll, that damn mailbox causes me such hassle. I’ll tell you more later I gotta go to Winco and my rides here. I gotta catch that ride.” Then she left me with a Janet Joplin song, “Bye Bye Baby Good-bye.” I wrote her that I would send another e-mail on the 16th when I got back from Australia.
I forgot to write the e-mail. I went right back to work and four days into being back in China, I thought, oh shit, I need to write mom. After class, I walked home and turned on the computer, and that’s when I found out mom was dead. My mom’s dead. She was found on the floor of her bedroom. She had been dead for a day. It was the 20th of February, and I flew to California on the 21st. I’m an only child and there were things to do.
There were friends. Lots of friends. My mom’s friends who I call the ladies, and my friends who came down from Portland and Seattle to support me and help me with all of the details of death. We cleaned her apartment, and got rid of her stuff, gave things away, I took the paperwork and photographs. Talked to police, and funeral parlors, and banks. Mother was cremated, and I got the ashes and my friend drove me and mom’s ashes four hours to Eureka so that I could scatter them in the place that my mom said she had her only happy childhood memories. Then more paperwork. My birthday came and went and my friends had to go back to their lives and mom’s girlfriends’ grieved, and I had to get back on a plane and fly from Chico to San Francisco, to Hong Kong, to Zhengzhou, to a bus to my apartment to my bed, and now I grieve.
My entire adult life I have thought almost daily about how to help my mom. How to help my mom while trying to preserve myself. My goal in the end was to be there for her. “You will not die alone.” I told her. I will be there. I wasn’t. I wasn’t there. I was here. In China. Thousands of miles away. When I climbed into my friend’s car that hot day in early August of 2013 as she was about to drive me to San Francisco for my flight I had no idea it would be the last time I would see my mom or hear her voice. She had health complications and I was prepared to fly home in an instant if she got sick, but it was still a surprise. She had just been to the doctor two days before she died. She knew I worried about her. “Oh, Adrienna, don’t worry, I’ll be around to torture you for years. I’m not going anywhere.”
It has been five months since I’ve seen or spoken with my mom. Five months that have suddenly turned into the rest of my life. Gone, just gone. There was no viewing, no body, only ashes. I had always thought I’d get a message a psychic message of sorts. I thought we had to be connected in the way that I would know. I’d always get these feelings of concern thoughts about how I needed to contact mom, and find her to make sure she was okay. When I was a child I used to be terrified on my visits with my father. I’d lie on the bed in my grandma’s house and listen to the sounds of the city and have bad dreams about coming home and finding my mother dead. I’ve feared this moment for as long as I can remember. I’d get the feeling and contact her and she’d be fine, but this time there was nothing. No psychic message. There never were any messages it was just me like playing Russian roulette with my anxieties. When my mom’s sister died, I was five years old. I still remember the flashing lights, my mom crying, but I don’t remember my aunt. There were years of crying and I remember holding my mom, but not knowing what the crying was about. My mother told me that after my aunt died that she spoke to their mother and my grandmother had said to her, “It should have been you.” There was so much pain in that family. My grandmother said once to my mom, “No one will love you and you will die alone.” I was very protective of my mom. You won’t die alone I promised. I’ll protect you I promised. I was little when I made those promises, but they never left my mind.
I read there are five stages of bereavement. Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and then hopefully finally acceptance. Supposedly, a person feels these in no particular order except number five comes last and not everyone gets to number five. I feel like I’m hitting all five at once. I can’t believe she’s dead, I think if only I had been there, if I wrote that damn e-mail on the 16th, I’m a bad daughter, a failure, I’m angry, all of the stages simultaneously. There are even glimmers of acceptance. It’s still too soon. I’ve been back in Zhengzhou for less than 24 hours, I was in Australia not even a month ago, I cradled my mother’s ashes in my arms as I cried myself to sleep days go. It’s all just happened.
I sit in my empty apartment looking out at grey smoggy skies the color of my mothers ashes, thousands of miles from all that is familiar and comfortable, my sleep is racked with sudden panic attacks, and I think, oh my god what now? My mother’s gone. What now?