Time Lapse of Grief
Three and a half months before
I’m in Maryland, visiting from my graduate program in South Carolina during Christmas break. My mom and I are sitting in the living room of my great-grandmother’s house, the only light in the room being the glow of our phones on our faces, the only sound being the hum of the air conditioner in the next room. We operate the silence by scrolling through social media. We’re close in the oil and water, wet cement and paw prints type of way. According to his daughter on a Facebook post, my mom's ex-boyfriend is dying in the hospital with a staph infection from shared needles. While he’s blocked on all her social media, we’re still close to his daughter. My mom turns her phone to show me the recent picture the daughter posted of them in the hospital. She turns her head so fast that her long, blonde hair tickles my face. I watch my mom’s face harden, the first of her wrinkles that appeared only this year at 37 years old, succumbing to the push of her brows together into a firm line, boring her green eyes into my blue.
“You’ll never have to grieve me like that,” she promises. “You know that, right?”
We have had this conversation multiple times during the last two weeks of December that our newsfeed had been flooded with posts of him: how grateful she’d been for her almost decade of sobriety, how disgusted she felt that he had turned to drugs, and how devastated she was for his daughter. “How could he do that to her?” she asks each time we bring the situation up. At 22, I hadn’t had the fear of her overdosing since she put the needles down when I was 13. Still, my stomach curls and knots at the thought, at the remembrance of growing up with that dread.
She turns her attention back to her phone and the silence takes over the room again. I comment on the post that we’re here if we’re needed.
Three months before
She FaceTimes me while I sit in my posted, but rarely used, office hours for my students. It’s one of our rituals—we call during the most mundane parts of our day, rarely talking about anything important or pressing. We haven’t talked much in the last two weeks, spending our days mostly avoiding each other except for small comments on social media, allowing her unspoken apologies and my disappointment in her recent actions to grow distance between us.
“So, I got a call back from a server’s position,” she says, her perfect-denture-filled smile making my heart warm. She hadn’t been smiling much in the last month, spending more days with tear-soaked eyes than not.
I congratulate her and listen to the details of the position. She’s been looking for a job for the last two weeks after being fired from the one she had and loved for two years. “Irreparable differences,” she told me two weeks ago, when much to my surprise, she came to our grandmother’s house earlier than her shift was meant to end. I let the lie slip off her tongue, but we both knew what really happened: she was fired for being intoxicated at work. Earlier that evening, it became clear to me that while I watched her get ready for her shift that night, my mother, a prone alcoholic and Valium enthusiast, was back on the cycle of mixing a glass of wine or three with her favorite pill. She did this for a few months every year, only getting sober to repeat the process. It was exhausting.
A student comes in then. I tell her I love her and that I will call her back later, ending the call by asking my student what brought him in.
“I want to write our upcoming nonfiction essay about my dead mom, but I don’t know how. Can you help me?”
Seven weeks before
I’m on my living room sofa when my mother calls me while sitting in a Walmart parking lot in hysterics, her hiccups from trying to catch her breath through the tears interrupt her speech.
“I could die right now and feel better,” she sobs into the phone.
She tells me about a fight she had with my aunt, about how our family is mad at her for drinking again. I can tell by the slur in her voice she’s been drinking this evening. I ask her to stay put while I check her location and tell her that I’m ordering her an Uber. I tell her that we’re not mad but worried. That we love her. I tell her to go home, to go lay in bed and she might feel better. She tells me then that she won’t make it home—that she swallowed a bottle of Valium, and washed it down with a pint of vodka.
“Just let me die,” she tells me when I ask her to hold on while I cancel the Uber and call the ambulance.
She spends two weeks on a psychiatric hold with no phone privileges. I don’t go to Maryland to visit, too wrapped up in classes and my own hurt. But I text her dead phone each night and tell her I miss her.
Five weeks before
She attends her first AA meeting. On FaceTime after the meeting, she’s laughing while telling me she made a new friend.
“I think I’m going to like it,” she says.
“I’m so proud of you,” I tell her.
The next day, she goes back to a meeting, stumbling into the room with empty mini-bottles filling her purse.
Four days before
I’m back in Maryland during my extended spring break because of Covid. My aunt, four out of five of my sisters, and I are standing in the parking lot waiting for my mom to join us on a hike. She was supposed to be here an hour ago. And an hour before that. And an hour before that. By the time she swerves her Ford Explorer into the parking space, I can tell by the crookedness of her parking, her slow pace in grabbing her purse from the front seat, that she’s dazed. Maybe she’s flustered from being late. She stumbles out of the car, gripping the door handle to gain her balance. The truck is high off the ground; it’s easy to trip. She sways back and forth as she walks over to us. She told me this morning she didn’t sleep much last night. Standing in front of me, her eyes are red, and her breath stinks of cheap beer.
Her one-month chip holds no meaning now.
Three days before
I stop by my grandmother’s house to visit my mom, only to arrive to find her asleep in her room. I kiss her head, move the blanket up her shoulder, and walk out of the room. I tell my grandmother to have her call me when she wakes up.
The next day, I spend the majority of my eight-hour drive home thinking of how I should have woken her up before I left so that I could have gotten a proper goodbye. I replay over and over the conversation we had the day before when she eventually woke up: They announced travel restrictions. I have to drive home tomorrow. I love you.
I’m binge-watching the Tiger King on Netflix while sprawled out on the couch. My boyfriend comes into the living room with a worried look on his face. It’s not a usual look—he’s the poster child for emotional maturity.
“Uh, where is your phone?”
I haven’t checked my phone since Carole Baskin killed her first husband hours ago.
“In the room, I think.” I’m sure I left it charging. “Why?” “Everyone has been calling me looking for you.”
“Like my mom? What’s wrong?” I don’t hear a response because I’m walking into the bedroom to check my phone.
33 missed calls, 18 texts, and 6 direct messages on Instagram from my aunt, sisters, and grandmother.
I return the call. I’m standing on my balcony, looking at the river that is my backyard, my own feet swaying back and forth matching the river’s current. There’s a knot in my stomach, my heart pounds loudly in my ears from my heavy breaths, and my sweaty palms struggle to hold my phone as I ask, “Is everything okay?”
Three hours after
I’m walking into my local gas station with tear-stained cheeks. The cashier eyes me curiously as I walk through the wine section and choose a random red, then walk to the cooler of beer and stare at the glass. I stand there long enough for my boyfriend to fill his gas tank, sweep behind me, and ask if I’ve decided on a drink. I grab what was my mom’s favorite cheap but strong drink: Steel Black Cherry.
At the register, the cashier doesn’t make eye contact as I grab my wallet as he bags my drinks.
“It’ll get better,” the cashier says with a small smile.
My mom died, I want to say.
But there are no words. Just a locked jaw and tight lips. A pit in my stomach. A pinch in my freshly bruised knees from falling when my aunt told me the words I can’t stop repeating in my head: the police found her body. She killed herself.
I walk out without grabbing my card or the bags of alcohol. I bump into someone as I push open the door. I don’t stop to say sorry or to look at them. I climb into my boyfriend’s jeep and wait for his return.
Four days after
It’s the day after my mother’s funeral. My students turned in their rough drafts days ago, and I saved for last the essay from the student who also has a dead mother. I’m sitting in the quiet space of my aunt’s kitchen in the early hours of the morning before my sisters wake.
Just get it over with, I say as I open the document. Maybe he wrote about something else.
His first words: “My mother died on a Thursday.”
I skim the document and grade it on completion more than the effort I usually put in by adding in long comments and praise. I haven’t shared with my students about my mother’s death because the emails of support would be too much to handle. I can hardly keep track of the messages of condolence on social media, the dozens of missed calls and texts I had from friends and family already make me tired. I only write a few comments on his draft, the only one of substance saying, “I am sorry for your loss.”
I close my laptop and weep into the cold cup of coffee I poured hours ago. My youngest sister, Samara, only fourteen but appearing so much older in the last few days, comes into the kitchen and hugs me.
She cries, too.
Two weeks after
It’s the night before I leave to go back home to South Carolina. Two of my five sisters and I are in the living room, sitting in silence, sprawled out on opposite sofas.
“Where do we go from here?” Trinity asks, breaking the silence. Harmonie looks over at me, waiting for me to answer.
“You two will focus on school, I’ll finish up the semester. We go back to doing what we need to do.”
“No, I mean, where do we go from here?”
I don’t want to tell them that I don’t know. That even at 22, six years and a day older than their 16, I don’t have all the answers. I think of all the places we do go from here: graduations, relationships, births, and deaths. I take a long time to respond. So much so that Harmonie asks if I heard what Trinity said.
“I think we just try to breathe.”
We go back to the silence.