Sometime in April 2010, my father, Victor, a veteran who spent most of his life as an engineer, hanged himself in a garage in Blackwood, New Jersey. He and my mother, Marguerite, had a thing in the late 1970’s. That thing bore me.
I got the call about my father’s suicide on a Saturday morning in April 2010. I was working as a journalist in an empty newsroom. One of my father’s seven sisters told me that he had been dead for weeks in a garage in New Jersey. Though I had not forgiven him for being absent most of my life, I sobbed.
When I told my mother about his death, she responded differently.
"OK," she said. "Wow. OK."
My mother had been undone by my brother Jose's death in 1976, and her manic depression hung a shadow over both of us through a lifetime of stops and starts. When I was a child, my mother and I moved like gypsies through the tri-state area. There were weeks in Harlem at my Aunt Claire and Uncle Bea's apartment in a building that was just for senior citizens; days at the Roberto Clemente Shelter in the South Bronx; months in welfare hotels, halfway houses and other homeless shelters for families with children in New York City.
Those of us adult orphans, with parents who tried their best but failed to nurture, know that we have more to forgive our parents for than reasons to mourn them. My mother and father made me, but for most of my life, they functioned as my toxic, well-intentioned friends. If we’re lucky, we accept the possibility that our parents’ lives were harder and often much more terrible than we ever imagined. We forgive them and refuse to blame ourselves for their failures. Then we do what we can to grow in spite of them. The problem, of course, is that most children are not so lucky.
In August 2011, my mother, a woman who sent emails to me in all caps and once called to tell me that she had found her soul mate in Raja, the Pakistani bodega owner, went missing.
My mother was a heavyset black and Cherokee woman with broad angular cheekbones. She wore a wig that she couldn't bear to take off so she slept in it until the gray cap beneath the wig rubbed off a lot of the hair on the back of her head. My mother believed that she was Tina Turner's doppelganger and that every man who laid eyes on her would eventually fall in love. Among her many suitors were a Russian portrait artist in Central Park who wanted to get married so he could stay in the country, and a Native American flutist who performed with a band inside the Grand Central Station terminal. I remember the latter because he had done a sun dance ceremony and showed us the scars on his back where hooks had held him up from a tree.
When my mother hadn't called me for weeks or left her daily voice mail in one breathless sentence of exclamation points, I started to worry. The rest of my family called my cell phone to ask if I had heard from her.
I was busy, I told them. I had a life and a job as a reporter. Letting them know that I was worried somehow felt weak.
It turns out my mother had locked herself in her Philadelphia Section 8 house. I had forged her signature when I was in fourth grade to get her on the waiting list.
"The doctor said I had cervical cancer," my mother whispered to my sister when they finally got her to open the door. She refused to eat or drink for days in the middle of the summer and was convinced she was dying. I was convinced that memories were eating her up.
In 1995, my father wrote a letter. It was the only letter he ever wrote to me. “Time lost can never be recaptured,” he wrote. I was this elderly little girl, shirts buttoned up to the top of my neck like a choker, though my mother fancied tight-fitting polka dots bodysuits for me. I bought our groceries and stole money from church altars. I went into the pockets of my mother's classmates at Career Blazers, back when she still thought she had a chance to get a college degree and get us off welfare. I was the mother of our family. Marguerite was the child.
In The Orphaned Adult, Rabbi Marc D. Angel writes that adult orphans become the keeper of familial memories. We are the last ones standing. What I remembered most for years about my mother was that she had not been mother at all in any pragmatic way, and all of her support had been emotional. Her talent for hyperbole was the reason that I, even today, have a filter for praise.
"Everything you touch turns to gold!" she often said. "You are beautiful. I love you. I'm so proud you belong to me."
In kindergarten, after she'd followed some man to New Mexico, when I was learning how to write pretty cursive on soft green paper, the teacher told her I was gifted. My mother’s interpretation of that was literally, "Joshunda, you've got the IQ of a college student!"
I was exasperated by her strange energy, by days that began at 4:30 a.m., by her pinning a huge safety pin of Catholic medals to the inside of her bra with a clumsiness that made them rattle like a wind chime. But I also had a child's reason because, well, I was a child. I couldn’t understand how I could be so great if she left me so much.
I learned later that my mother had borderline personality and bipolar disorder, which informed everything she did or didn’t do. She was a tall, thick woman with a beautiful gap between her front teeth. She only ever did what she wanted to do, which — depending on her manic episode — included gambling all her money away in Atlantic City and attending daily Catholic Mass in Manhattan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, even though we mostly lived in the Bronx.
Maybe if she had been medicated, she wouldn’t have hit me like she did. Maybe we would have grown up in one place. Maybe the medicine would have stopped us from being homeless. When pushed, my mother claimed that medication interfered with her relationship with God.
I ran away for about a week when I was 15, after the last time my mother tried to hit me. When I told her I got a scholarship to boarding school, she sobbed and begged me not to go. She came up to Emma Willard, about four hours north of New York City to visit my junior year. My mother was the reckless one, the one we all labeled crazy. She was the one I stayed up nights in boarding school worrying about, the one who would take off missing for weeks at a time, the one I thought for sure would die the way she lived – in some self-imposed suicidal mayhem.
Marguerite was a force of nature, and died as she lived. She did what she wanted to do. Always. When the cervical cancer really took its toll, my mother fought the doctors who tried to perform MRIs or body scans. She tried to run out of the nursing home even though she was too weak to fight.
At her bedside in an assisted living center, I looked and listened to the voice of a big broad woman who had been was shrunken by cancer. I had never seen her so gaunt, and the reality of sickness made me burn with regret. I understood finally that she had loved me with her whole heart, even if that heart was broken, crazy, tired and sick. I remembered the times I tried to pull the keloids from her neck, thinking that little black dots that looked like mini chocolate chips had sprung from her pores. I remembered slicing layers from her calloused feet after smothering them with Vaseline lotion. I also remembered never once embracing her.
But there I was in a sterile room, at 33, silently begging my mother to get better. I wanted her to heal so I could be the kind of daughter that could love her mother back to health.
Please God, I prayed, tears running down my cheeks onto her hands, don't let the days of hunger, or the time she threatened to kill me be the clearest memories I have to keep. Please give us time for a few new memories.
During the chaos of my childhood, I wished often for my mother’s death. But as a grown woman, every time I visited her in that sad place, with mothers and fathers dying all around her, all I could do was put my head on her hand and weep.
I said goodbye to Marguerite on Christmas Day in 2011. I tried to let go of my visions of what could have been while I told her I loved her. She looked at me and she told me not to cry.
“God takes care of us,” she said.
My mother died six days before I turned 34. That day, I was forced to give up hope for a better past.
Every Mother’s Day since my mother died, I have wished my mother would call. I don’t want to change the past; all I want is more time with the weird, reckless woman who brought me into this world. This Mother’s Day, my friends will celebrate their children. They will have their children celebrate them. And I will painfully miss what could have been with my mother. But I know, finally, that the best parts of me — my sense of humor, the love I have for education, my passion for connecting with people, even when I'm really weird about it — come directly from Marguerite, my mother. My childhood was not perfect, and neither was my relationship with my mother. But I am her child. I finally accept everything that means. Marguerite is my mother, and on this Mother’s Day, I only wish we had more time.
Joshunda Sanders is working on a memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. Her work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, The UTNE Reader, Publishers Weekly and the San Francisco Chronicle. She blogs at http://jvictoriasanders.com/ and spends too much time on Twitter, @jvic.