I remember thinking once, as a child, that every star in the sky belonged to someone who had lived and died—on the earth that unfolded like a worn-out map, below the endless charade of night.
Those distant lights signified lives like mine—full of pain, and joy, and risk, and missed chances. Lives full of hunger—the collective hunger for freedom and thirst for knowledge, that sullies the overall human experience with the seasick of desire.
And I loved it. I remember longing to be a part of it; just another insignificant, untouched gleam, in the velvet backdrop of what the un-woken human mind called “Heaven.”
I didn’t believe in God. I never believed that my soul would find a resting place in the clouds or on the ground. It made so much more sense, to be comprised of gas and ice. In my mind, I was always more element and less skeleton.
Years down the road, we would stumble across one another on a starless night, by chance or by accident or by something heavier that neither one of us would ever understand. And you would know a hunger for me, the way I knew a hunger for words within sadness…the way my mother knew a hunger for the color blue.
I would find you, drunk and alone on the roof of your apartment complex, staring up at the sky, trying to understand. Life needed to be saturated with logic, for you to comprehend. You could never wrap your mind around my affinity for those dead lights above us—their hole-punch dominion inside a graveyard of darkness that stretched farther than you or I could ever fathom.
You existed, in a stark and simple manner that could not be questioned. You fell within a spectrum so far removed from the person I was that even then, I yearned to bring a sense of clarity to your troubled mind.
I told you to close your eyes—pretend that you could turn back time, and you just listened to your first Counting Crows record on vinyl; or just took your first shot of whiskey, straight from the bottle. It hit you like a rock in a soft spot. It struck you right where it hurt…made you feel so fucking much. You thought you might cry. Or even throw up. But you didn’t. You swallowed, and lifted your lids, and the world swayed around you like a sapling in a windstorm. And that prison of night, armed with its convict punctures of jailbroken light, was the first thing you saw when you opened your eyes.
This world might have dropped you altogether, might have let you spin out into the nothing-space, had that star-struck chasm not embraced you, at the exact right moment.
It’s true that I loved you. Though I was a self-destructive and unwittingly toxic dervish of disorder. I loved you. But before I loved you, and after I loved you…I loved this. I loved the night sky, the way a sailor loves the sea—knowing all along that it will be the death of him.
There was a clawing frenzy, in the empty belly of my yearning, and it frightened you—like seeing a creature you loved once fall rabid. I told you I was pulled from the womb of a starving woman, and that genesis is a history that both follows and worships you—all at once, like a dog.
And it was only then, years after my childhood had long since been rendered dust on the threshold of time, that you learned why I loved that isolating curtain of night, the way only a blind man can love the light.
In times of war, when fire envelops the hiding places and crumbles the safe spaces, the streets will fall silent. It remains to be said that only two things are ever born from the flames: the ashes or the phoenix. Yet a person never knows which shape their own body will choose to take.
My mother must have been a phoenix—a phoenix that stood too long, in the belly of soot left behind by the fire from which it came. Perhaps that is why she could never quite withstand the chill of this world.
Years later, I can still look back, beyond the imposing darkness that rented out the small space of my youth, and say, “My mother was a beautiful artist.”
And it was true.
She was an artist, before she was anything else—be it human or divine. She was a stark and ruined creature, clinging valiantly to the last remaining shreds of a dying light. But as long as she could still capture tendrils of it, sparkling effervescent in the dark, she was alive.
She did not carry her own vision of “life,” the way so many others do—as meaningless baggage, sent to weigh her down. She possessed a specific, vibrating energy that I never witnessed duplicated in another human being. She suffered through so much darkness, with only the merest glimmer of rhyme or reason.
Even when those quicksilver strands were naught but fishing line, braided between her fingers, my mother was beautiful and safe—at least as I recall her. She loved Bob Dylan and watercolors, and the way grass faded to dry gold in late August. The tips of her fingers were always gray, from charcoal soot and poor blood circulation. Her eyes were the color of mercury—seeping from the safety of a glass thermometer. They could never pick my face from a line-up. But she could sort through a thousand different shades of the color blue.
My earliest memories are at age three or four, watching my mother paint on canvas. These recollections remain, the illustrated storybook of my childhood—something deep and unnerving I couldn’t quite grasp just yet. But I longed to, even then.
I would sit, cross-legged on the floor, after she was done, and watch paint dry. It was a lengthy, silent process. But to me, it never felt boring—to observe something so shimmering and new, set to finality with the touch of time.
Those paintings, with their inscrutable meanings and hidden symbolism, came fewer and farther between, as the years filled up like spaces in a cemetery. I came to study the artist, the way I once studied the art. Wondering just how long she would take to dry down.
Not every day was a bad one. But perhaps that is only because I never experienced the good to recognize the difference. My mother undulated like kelp under murky waters—one day coiled around herself, another stretched out like a river dragon preening its scales. When an artist is starving, they seek to distance themselves from the prison of the physical world. They are hungry for something food could never offer.
It is true: I suffered the sort of childhood that crawls underneath your skin like a parasite. The kind that falls into step behind you like a stranger with ill intent, in the dark of the night. The kind you can never shake, like raindrops from your hair, after walking down the sidewalk in a storm.
My mother’s life was empty like an untouched canvas. She was a quivering beam of light too fragile to withstand the pull of the elements. She was never designed to persist. Perhaps I knew that much, all along.
Her figure was shaped from a statue of alabaster. Her eyes were carved from obsidian moons. I still remember how she moved through rooms—blind and tragically fragile—trapped inside a body formed by storm-struck glass. The wallpaper in the hallway hung in strips like a shedding serpent, but she was oblivious to the very framework that held up the structure around her. She could never be bothered by her own home, in its state of derelict and disrepair.
She never held back my creative id, despite how destructive it was, in the beginning. For this much, I am grateful. She never minded if I colored on the walls. If I burned holes in the carpet with un-snuffed cigarette butts. Once, I spilled juice from a cheap sippy cup, and it dried into abstract splashes on the living room rug. She never batted an eye. When she wasn’t driving scars into the wounded flesh of my adolescence, my mother was nothing more than a sandpaper ghost, gone blind with time.
My mother was never like me. She never shared my sharp edges or flat planes—the corners and points and rough edges, riddled with splinters and threats—that you grew so familiar with, in the course of loving me and my rampant disease. No, she was rounded like Virginia foothills. She was slopes and curves and river-bends, like the one I watch Pocahontas hug in a canoe on an endless loop in the living room, when the cable was off and all we had was that one Disney movie we found at a yard sale, one Sunday—back before the darkness and the chill settled in like a rampant stepfather.
Perhaps I envied her. Or perhaps, less shamefully, I simply admired her—for all the wrong reasons. She was beautiful. Her name meant exquisite in my mind—that simple language of a clueless child. Her eyelids were softer than the insides of my throat. Her voice was an overflowing basin, buried in the sand of an unforgiving desert. Her hair was an embroidered throw rug, hand-spun from corn-silk and satin and gold-trim velvet—like the ones that the Hindu women sold, behind their smoke-screen booths, at the flea market off 2nd Avenue. The kind you were too afraid to touch. It was so expensive, it might unravel in your hands, at the abrasive onslaught of your fingertips. My mother’s hair may have been a royal banner, fit for the gods. But her mouth…her mouth was a maraschino cherry, with a pearl nestled inside like a mistake.
I loved her. Oh, of course I loved her. And yet…my mother was a nightmare. The recurring kind that just won’t go away when you open your eyes. She was a crawlspace closet with a door that didn’t quite latch and inside—a demon—breathing just loudly enough for you to heart, from your vantage point on the bed.
She was a summer-ripe peach, with skin contused by all the needles. She was bruises. I remember how they looked, even now. Confusing. Like watercolors that bled together unintentionally and ruined the entire concept. Brown and green and purple-in-the-center bruises, like a mushroom cloud blossoming and growing farther and wider.
She was broken blood vessels and heroin tar stains and yellow teeth—from Virginia Slims. Her hands were unsteady like a chair with a broken leg. Like your grandfather with Parkinson’s. You had to be extra brave, to sit in her lap. If you didn’t hold your weight just right, she would tip forward like an overfilled tea kettle. She would spill you right out onto the floor, if you weren’t careful.
I learned to be very careful.
My mother killed herself on a Tuesday. The weather was breezy and mellow—out of character, for early April. A robin on the clothesline outside was chirping about birth and carnations. I was fourteen years old, and she hadn’t painted since I was seven. It was something she had set aside for absence of initiative or lack of time—a distraction for a rainy day.
But when I got home from school that Tuesday, she was in the kitchen with the curtains flung open, and her easel was a chaotic flurry of colors before her, like a peacock fanning for a potential mate.
It didn’t make any sense but I stared. The canvas was a clash of colors too discordant to look upon—like peering into the face of the sun. It was far too violent to be abstract. It was a feeling. A concept—slashed to life exactly as she felt it, bubbling like a deep fryer beneath her skin.
“It’s beautiful Mama.” I repeated, again and again. I coo’d like a mourning dove, at the masterpiece she’d slaughtered into being. I could taste the blood in my mouth from biting my tongue so hard but she…she only smiled, like an empty casket at my words that never meant what she needed to hear…never cemented the void she suffered to fill.
My mother killed herself on a Tuesday, when the light filtered in through the windows in the sun room, and everything in the house smelled like fresh coffee grounds. The dappled shadows cast by the maple trees in the front yard rendered her limbs to flickering gray and that day, I don’t recall flinching, at the sight of those grooves like rusty railroad tracks, clamped to the ruddy earth of her forearms.
She took her life with that old family heirloom—the antique handgun she inherited from my grandfather. It was—inadvertently etched, with our family’s crest—a lamb, lying at the base of a weeping willow.
My mother walked into the kitchen like a second thought and lifted that revolver to her temple like a boxing referee, cranking up the arm of a champion. And perhaps for her, it was always a victory.
I was fourteen years old. A child, seated at the kitchen table with a smoking ashtray, and the steaming butt of an L&M menthol my bus driver slipped into my pocket as I descended the stairs of the school-bus for the pockmarked face of our driveway. There was still fog, trapped in my lungs, and I couldn’t quite find a scream. I couldn’t move or intervene or even vocalize a protest. And she never looked, to see if I would. To see if I could. She never hesitated. I wish I could remember the very last moment…whether it was an inhale or an exhale. But I can’t recall if she even breathed.
My mother ended her own life with two feet of time and the dirty granite barricade of a kitchen counter between us. Forgive me for faltering, in my poetic pentameter for a moment. I digress. I watched the spatter of blood and brain on the glass front of our oven, and it reminded me too painfully of the scene she had foreshadowed with her paintbrushes. It would be a lie to say I did not slash that easel with a carving knife, later, in the gruesomely motionless aftermath.
I cannot feign beautiful imagery, here. Not here. I smelled the earthy stench of death and decay, before I ever smelled the funeral flowers that would adorn the redwood casket with the sealed lid, inside which her memory hid like an autoimmune disease.
And I wonder now…even now…if it made me the monster, to feel a lingering sense of relief that from that moment on, I would only ever look up and see a patchwork quilt of strange stars—and know that there were infinite chances she might be one of them…or none of them. Perhaps it was wrong, to breathe easier, when they lowered that casket into the dirt. But finally…finally…my closet door had a latch.
Ask me for the truth. In the shuddering aftermath of our own fissured love, demand the truth, if it might set you free. I know what it means to love a junkie . It was never pretty for you. Never pretty for me. But you wrote about it too, and you called it art.
So if I fashion my mother’s suicide into a bloody rendition of a morbid Greek muse, let me sleep without guilt. For my mother was a cat, with nine fucking lives. And I know…I know…suicide is only pretty for the shock factor. But believe me when I say, the way she died that day was not even the worst way she left me.
The first life lost was at sixteen. My mother was young and brazen and more alive than she had ever been—more alive than she would ever be again. It was a simpler time, in a simpler year. Love and drugs and festivals were free, and she took after those three and blossomed into the effervescent creature she so longed to be.
This was the same year she met a boy who called himself a poet. And my mother had never met anyone who could write words and call it art. But she read what the poet wrote and she knew that art was exactly what it was. Because only an artist could make a person feel colors they couldn’t see. And when she was with the poet, everything was blue…and blue and blue, like the sky in the spring.
But the purest pleasures never keep. When my mother visited the fortune teller, in her yellow tent on the outskirts of the carnival that passed through town, each July—and the old sage brought out the tarot deck, my mother knew…that the cards don’t lie.
And when the dark-eyed Romanov fanned the Celtic cross out on the table between them, my mother learned that the boy who called himself a poet was her other half—and that the future of their love was tarnished like bad metal, with disease and addiction, and the inevitable spiral that is the wheel of fortune—upon which every human being is harnessed, like an unforgiven carthorse, by the merciless world.
But it was the eve of my mother’s first fall from grace. At sixteen, she was wild-eyed and warm and hopeful. She was impulsive and oblivious and very much in-love, and every time she turned on the radio they were playing Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” And every time she heard that song, my mother felt every chord, vibrate up the traumatized guitar string of her body. And she knew…she knew she was dying.
But for the sake of knowing a person who could translate her art into words, and for the sake of freedom and youth and music that sounded like the existence of God himself, she thought to herself as she took that inevitable leap of blind and foolish faith: This death is bigger than this life.
The second time my mother died was at seventeen, barefoot and afraid and pregnant, at the health department. And food cost money, and abortions cost money, but death was easy. And death was free. Like being sixteen all over again.
And when her other half took his art made of words and walked away, never to look back, my mother learned—the way you learned—what it means to love a poet. And she took her own life, then, because that life wasn’t hers…together, she and the poet had painted that entire life blue. And ever since she met him, it had become the only color she knew. And she understood, then, that to love a poet means to let something take from you, and take from you, and take from you…and make it their own. To love a poet means committing suicide, one fragile line at a time.
My mother killed herself again, at eighteen and four months. This was the first time she ever saw me. And she knew—that I was a diluted version of herself. I was four pounds and eleven ounces of art, and I shared the divot of her Cupid’s bow, and the arch of her brow bone, the salt-shaker sprinkle of freckles that inhabited the same indeterminate ribbon from cheek-to-cheek. I mimicked everything she had, down to the heart-monitor green flash of her eyes.
She studied the quicksand trap of my gaze, memorized the curl of my fingers and the quiver of my jaw. And she knew…that I would never paint or sketch a masterpiece. My art would never exist in a world of charcoals or clay. It would never be born from colors or shapes. For I was my father’s poet. And though I would never know his words, I would find my own.
And in all her life, and all her paintings, my mother had never created something so alive, and so vibrantly her. She killed herself then, because she knew she never would again.
Four was the worst. Number four wasn’t one of the suicides I watched my mother commit. But my mother killed herself again, the first time she tried heroin. She wasn’t expecting much, and she didn’t feel much. It wasn’t like dropping acid, as a teen—rolling in the grass with bare feet and flowers in your hair, clinging for dear life to a half-strung guitar—and a trip was all colors and emotions and music that only played in Heaven, but the angels let you sneak inside for one fleeting show, before the big one at the end.
No. Heroin was like being nineteen and working 12 hours a day in a factory, sweating bullets, and the soles of your feet splitting open and bleeding through your white socks…but at the end of the day, your entire paycheck went to daycare. And the mechanic—because your only vehicle had 250,000 miles on the odometer. And no A/C. And a black trash-bag, in place of the right-rear window. But someone kept slashing through the plastic at night and stealing all the change out of your cup-holder.
Heroin felt numb, a painkiller turned tranquilizer for the body and mind. Heroin felt like…not knowing what love was anymore, not recognizing touch when someone touched you—because touch just reminded you of a mattress on the floor—without a fitted sheet, but with the landlord, so he wouldn’t kick you out next time you couldn’t make rent.
Heroin felt like being a mother, single and struggling with a jar full of pennies on the bedside table, but you felt guilty for buying a pack of cigarettes or a fifth of Senator’s Club, when the baby was out of formula and your car was out of gas. But your friend had a buddy who lived in a basement who could loan you a pick-me-up for dirt-cheap, or maybe even free.
Heroin felt like poverty; being so poor you didn’t eat for days, but that dirty hypodermic would make you forget the ache in your stomach and the throb in your job—because your wisdom teeth were coming in, but you couldn’t miss work for the dentist, and goddammit—the daycare doesn’t take partial payments, and you can’t possibly sleep with the entire power company just to keep the lights on. No.
Heroin was the worst death my mother ever died. And I’ll tell you why. Because the first time my mother tried heroin, she thought to herself: That wasn’t so wonderful.
And then she tried heroin again, the next day. And she thought: Nothing will ever feel as wonderful as yesterday.
And then she tried it again, a dozen more times. And she thought to herself: There is no such thing as an “other half,” because everyone is born whole.
Heroin is a silent suicide. Perhaps the poet was the first, but heroin was the darkest. Heroin was the one suicide that led subsequently to every suicide after its own. You see, LSD can make rolling in the grass at a festival feel beautiful. But heroin is the only substance I know that can make poverty feel like art. It is the only drug in existence capable of turning squalor and suffering into a home. And my mother would spend the rest of her life searching for the peace she felt, the first time she slid a needle under her skin, and into a vein.
Yet…that was not the last suicide. No. My mother died five more times, after she fell in love with milk-blood and sorrow. My mother still had so many lives left to lose.
Number five was when Bob Dylan recorded “Tangled Up in Blue.” Every time it played, my mother colored herself a fool for nostalgia. She let the crystal needle wear a scar into the surface of that vinyl, and still…she could not set it aside. She could taste the melancholy of that track, and it meant so much to her, that his blues and her blues bled from the tip of every paintbrush she picked up, for the rest of that life.
Every line of that song reminded her of her other half, and the flashback-blue memory of being sixteen again. And she would lie in a corner of the darkest room she could find, high, and cry. And Bob Dylan understood every teardrop that etched a way through the dirt on her face.
And she ended it all. Because in the end, she was so tangled up in blue, there was nothing else left to do.
Number six was the first time my mother realized what she was.
She was twenty-one. Old enough to drink and too messed up to think. Her skin was falling loose on her bones, clammy and sallow like bad milk—the kind she didn’t throw out, but instead hid in the very back of the fridge, so we didn’t look quite as poor, when men stayed the night and rummaged through the kitchen for food.
Number six was when my mother carelessly traded the fleeting intimacy of baby fingers and newly crawling knees for yet another high, complete with a dizzying peak and a euphoric plateau. Six was a comedown so hard she forgot that her excruciating mind inhabited a suffering body. She forgot that her suffering body owed tribute to a suffering infant.
Six was slow and tiring. Six was all about struggle, when my mother saw herself cycle through every stage of an abusive relationship, and then again through every stage of grief—all for a drug she hadn’t believed she even loved.
Six was years of being too young to comprehend, but witnessing a woman’s chemical writhe, in all its endless agony. Six was a hollow tribute to welfare and sex-work, shoplifting and hollow-can begging, on the sidewalk in the city. Six was about guilt, and my mother’s apology, that she could never frame on the wall in our house—because we both knew the angry ghost called Heroin would tear it down while we slept.
Six reared its ugly head, from the moment I said my first word, and my mother was too enthralled by the needle to catch whether it was “hello,” or “bye-bye.” So she lied, and told everyone my first word was Mama.
Six lasted for years. Death by substance abuse can be so quick. It can happen in a heartbeat…or the lack thereof. But sometimes, it lasts forever. Slow and heavy, like passing through quicksand. Or walking uphill through the snow. Six was slow suicide. But six was still suicide.
Oh, and seven. Let me tell you about seven. The seventh time my mother killed herself was all because of me. Seven was cruel. Seven was that one child in pre-school who only had one outfit, and she wore it until her ankles were showing and her belly was out and there were holes in her shirt and bleach stains in her jeans. And all the other kids in her pre-school class called her “Stretch Armstrong,” because that’s what their mommies and daddies called her—because she kept getting taller and longer, but her outfit stayed the same.
Seven was Katie Woodrow’s mommy telling everyone at church that Stretch Armstrong’s mommy was a drug addict, who lived in a shack and didn’t work or take care of her own child. Seven was not knowing what a “drug addict” was, but trying and failing to convince a room full of pre-schoolers that her mommy was, in fact, a beautiful artist. And sometimes they didn’t have lights in the house because part of being an artist was being able to pretend…and sometimes she liked to pretend that they were camping from home for a few days. And you didn’t have electricity when you went camping, anyways.
Seven was not understanding why everyone at church prayed that Tommy Dillard’s daddy got a promotion. Or that Sally Berkeley’s mommy got over the flu. But nobody there ever seemed to pray that Stretch Armstrong’s mommy would get over her sickness. Or that she might be able to afford a new outfit for Stretch, sometime soon.
Seven was wondering why it was so easy for the other kids to take for granted things like electricity, or at least one meal a day, or a safe place to sleep at night. Seven was barricading your bedroom door with your toy box, because Mommy had scary friends who might try and come in while you were asleep. Seven was realizing your toy box only had three toys in it, and you couldn’t keep the monsters at bay, when those three had to be in bed with you, in order for you to fall asleep.
Seven was never getting invited to birthday parties, or after-school ice cream functions. Four was the worst, yes. But seven came so close. Because seven was about realization. Seven was finally being old enough to understand that your mother was a drug addict, that your mother was a whore. Seven was shoplifting cans of Chef Boyardee from the grocery store. Seven was stealing Barbie dolls from the rich little girls at the park. It was smoking cigarettes with homeless men on the street corners, and passerby stopping to stare.
Seven was thinking your mother had died, because she was passed out on the bathroom floor, and her tongue couldn’t stay in her mouth. Seven was packing a bag and running away, at thirteen, getting raped by a bum when you tried to hop a train to the next city over. Going home drenched in blood and shame and heavy, hollow defeat.
My mother killed herself a seventh time. But seven wasn’t for her. Seven was for my broken childhood. My empty toy box. My childhood, that was long and hard and friendless and motherless and impressionable. Seven was for me.
Eight was Tuesday. Nothing more needs to be said of Tuesday, and just like Lynyrd Skynyrd said, Tuesday’s Gone.
But know this: my mother did not choose her life. She did not choose to struggle and suffer and lose. She was a product of her environment, the chemical reaction of someone who wants so much and is only ever allotted so little. My mother killed herself because she was a slave to addiction. And poverty. And misfortune. And mental illness.
But my mother still had one life left to live, after she left hers on the floor of our kitchen. My mother still had her ninth life, and it was taken, years later—after her memory was faded but not lost, designated to that empty box in the ground at the cemetery.
Number nine, too, belonged to me. Number nine was your hand in mine. It was the city, sprawled out below the roof of your apartment, drenched in enviable velvet night delight. Number nine was the first time I slid a sharp into my skin and exhaled. Number night was your mouth, closing around that liberated breath like a suffocated flame. I could almost say that number nine was ours. But that would be a lie.
Number nine was when I became the poet. When I became the addict. Number nine was after I ran away, and I finally decided to come back. It was barging through the back door on a Tuesday, dusting off repressed memories I had shoved to the very back of that ever-latched closet crawlspace.
Nine was me, an adult, with bruised arms and lackluster eyes and skin that wasn’t quite as firm around my bones anymore. And when I looked into that mirror on the bathroom door, I couldn’t decide if I was looking at myself or my mother’s ghost—come back to haunt the shell of a daughter she had abandoned, years before she took that one life in the kitchen, before my very eyes.
Number nine was crossing the threshold, in the afterglow of all that addiction and despair. It was the echo of my own footfalls throughout the house as I moved from room to room, flinging open doors and shoving aside curtains while you stood in the violence of my dust-shorn ambience. Nine was that house. That youth. That life, left behind.
Nine was my own voice, in the empty chamber of that hollow adolescent recollection. Murmuring to myself with an echo like a gunshot: “I’m back. I’m finally here. Mama…I’m home.”
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