I am reading words written by a dead person. Nothing unusual about this; it’s practically the story of my life. In this case, however, the person who was still living when these words were written is my mother. Words not intended for my eyes, I know.
Or are they?
All these words, something to which my mother could devote her attention; all that available time that required killing to make it pass more quickly—to make it pass, period. All those hours to fill, especially in the days when we did not have five hundred channels to choose from or electronic access to a wide, webbed world. All that boredom, all that solitude, alone with her thoughts, alone with herself. All the unappealing emotions we are better equipped to avoid when we have peace, or at least perspective. All the feelings that ultimately find their way out the only way they can: awkwardly, unabashedly, irrevocably. All those sad songs of uncultivated passions, unexplored options, hours and hours of isolation that turn into tiny eternities. All those entreaties to an indifferent world: equal parts confession and accusation, settling old scores and soliciting understanding—or at least empathy—from people that could never be reached, or were no longer around or who never existed in the first place. All the other people who were busy living while she was busy trying not to die. The dread of nothingness and eventually, the suspicion that a thing which could be so awful was still ending too suddenly.
Who will remember us?
This is the question implicit in all these words, addressed to God, or Nobody or anybody who might be willing to listen. This is the question that cannot be answered except by words and deeds and memories that will occur after you are gone. This is the origin of our primordial impulse to connect and believe we stay associated, somehow, some way, after we are no longer able to interact on human terms. This, perhaps, is what ran through her mind once her eyes closed and she stayed asleep, already in another place, still hoping to apprehend some of the miracles she had or had not happened to miss during her life. This is the final question that, scrubbed of its universal and spiritual covering, asks explicitly and directly: Who will remember me?
Starting in the fifth grade, encouraged by a teacher, I began to keep a journal. This practice, initially an assignment, became a compulsion that continued on and off for the next two decades. I seldom feel an urge to revisit these hand-scribbled artifacts, equal parts lack of interest and the likelihood of embarrassment that such necessarily solipsistic exercises would induce. But more importantly, I don’t need to read the words since I remember writing them and can readily recall the circumstances that inspired them.
Journals, as I see them—and utilized them—function as adult versions of diaries, where the purpose is less a regurgitation of events and more a one-way conversation with oneself and, by extension, the world. The act of trying to make sense of life and, by extension, myself, in writing was never intended for other eyes. It served as a self-fulfilling sort of therapy before I even knew what that word meant.
I was not aware, until after she’d died, that my mother kept journals of her own. Knowing her as intimately as I did, I am neither surprised nor am I unable to imagine what themes and concerns inexorably resurface throughout her personal narrative. The catalyst to write, whether it is rooted in an effort to justify or interrogate, is primarily an attempt to get whatever it is on record. Certainly the longing to relate, on a human level, permits us to unburden ourselves, whether this interaction involves friends, spouses or therapists. I know my mother frequently utilized all of these outlets and some of the time it helped. (I’d like to think it was most of the time but I can’t know and I won’t kid myself.) Regardless, she was still compelled to document her hopes, fears and disappointments on paper, and that fact is its own commentary on how reliable she found her various support systems.
I am not especially inclined to read these words. They were not addressed to me, and I am aware that they were intended for an outlet that could not adequately quall her discomfort, then, and no longer exists for her, now. My sister found some of these journals and could not resist the temptation to read them. She was not looking for them; her discovery occurred as part of the aftermath, during the process of going through items my mother left behind. My sister, at that time, wanted a piece of everything my mother had touched, anything she could put her hands on. Predictably, she was unnerved by the experience of reading my mother’s words, an experience that is destined to disappoint because all possibility of responding is eliminated.
I asked my sister the same question I ask myself: Why would you want to read about her fights with us, or our father, her friends, or herself, or the ways she could never quite ameliorate the misgivings she had regarding all those usual suspects: her weight, her career—or lack thereof—the people who disappointed her or the fulfillment that eluded her, or her ongoing, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the early loss of her mother, et cetera?
I don’t need to read about those things in part because I saw so much of them as they unfolded in real time. I remain grateful that I was able, as I slouched toward maturity, to be an open ear and ally. Instead of requiring support the way only a child understands, I had the opportunity to reciprocate; to encourage her and listen as often and best as I could. I told her the hard work had already been done, and her efforts and dedication were beyond reproach. All you need to do now, I’d say, is focus on the rest of your life: be a grandmother, develop some new hobbies, and enjoy the peace you’ve struggled to earn. This was, as is the case with most of us—particularly homemakers whose children have left home—a work in progress. Progress was being made, and then cancer came calling.
*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone