It's not April 2nd yet, but I'm thinking about April 2nd, which is my mother's birthday. She would be 80 years old. My mother died twenty years ago in a car accident.
Although it was an accident, I knew something terrible was going to happen. I knew it three weeks before it happened.
And this is how:
Christmas, 1988. My mother refused her gift from my two sisters and me. The gift: a weekend at a lovely hotel in San Francisco and two tickets for a play. She said there was no reason to go. My father was an alcoholic, their relationship was not good, to put it mildly. My sisters and I knew this, obviously; I guess we'd hoped such an adventure might help. But it was way too far gone, my parents' lives together.
That Christmas, I noticed how tired my mother was, how she lay down in the afternoons for a nap. She had never done this before. She was an energetic person, always doing something, sewing, playing tennis, gardening, helping others out with this or that. But now she was flat. That's how I described her to myself. Flat.
I was very worried about her. I'd been worried about my mother most of my life, but this was different. Something terrible was going to happen. I felt desperate, so before I left my parents' house after the Christmas holiday was over, I decided to tell my mother what I really thought.
"You have to change your life," I told her. I wanted her to get away from my father, get a divorce. She could live with me or with my older sister until she figured things out. My father was either drunk or if sober, hungover, sullen, and mean. The atmosphere in the house was awful. Misery, unconscious denial. It was terrible, had been terrible for over twenty years. Something terrible is going to happen. My parents came from the generation that just buried the problems deeper and deeper. Buried is the right word for it. It can bury you, and in my mother's case, literally.
We had an argument. My mother said I didn't understand. She walked out of the kitchen and down the hall and shut her bedroom door. That was the last time we would ever talk to each other.
I sat in the kitchen chair, crying. I was terrified. I drove to my older sister's house and told her how scared I was for our mother. My sister said it would be all right, that "Mom and Dad are like that, you know how they are, things will get better."
I drove from Roseville to Berkeley, where I lived at the time. I had a headache on the left side of my head. It would not go away. I went to the doctor. "Sinus," he said.
It was winter break. I didn't have to teach for the first two weeks of January. One foggy afternoon, I walked up and down Solano Street. My head hurt so badly, and I was sick in my soul. I went into a pub and sat down. I didn't order anything, just stared at the wooden table, stared at the carved hearts and initials slashed into the wood.
I went home to my apartment and wrote my mother a letter. I apologized for our argument and thanked her for my Christmas presents, all the things she had made: a blue silk fan hanging above the bookcase, a crochet blanket draped over the back of the couch, towels in the bathroom with my name stitched on them. I told her how much I loved her.
My mother didn't respond to my letter. I'd left a book at her house, and she sent it back to me through the mail. No note.
I was afraid to call her. I knew she was angry with me. She didn't call me. Thank God, I wrote her that letter.
The next week, I started teaching classes again, spring semester. I still had a headache. I still felt awful. A week passed. I came home on a Monday evening after work. It was dark out, around 6pm. When I walked into my apartment, I saw the red flashing light of the answering machine.
I didn't take off my coat. I didn't press the button on the answering machine to find out who had called me. I don't know why. I think I knew what was going to happen had happened.
Recently, I wrote a poem about this night. It took me twenty years to be able to write it:
I saw the blinking red light
And kept my coat on.
I walked by the phone
On the little antique table in the hallway.
My mother had given me that table.
In the kitchen, I stared at the cupboards,
What was I doing, why wasn't I listening
To the message. I took out a glass,
Poured the wine, kept my coat on.
Food was a thought although I wasn't hungry.
It could be a long evening was another
Although time would stop.
I went to the store, don't remember what I bought.
I cooked, ate, washed the dishes, what was I doing,
Ignoring the blink blink blink.
There had never been anything I could do.
I pushed the re-play button,
Heard my brother-in-law's voice, accident.
My mother was in surgery, I should call this number.
I looked out the window. There was nothing to see,
Except a dark wind, it was the end
Of January. There was nothing to do,
It was done.
Don't think that, and I thought about knowing
All those years something terrible would happen,
Now it was here.
On the way to the hospital,
I passed the mangled median divider,
The crushed chrysanthemum bushes
Where the police would find my mother's purse.
I drove toward my mother's dying.
The moon shone cold and clear on the concrete.
That night, my mother was in surgery for eleven hours. The surgeon removed one quarter of her brain to save her life. Then my mother was in a coma for a week and died. The trauma was to the left side of her head. During the week my mother was in a coma, my headache went away, but I didn't notice until...I don't know when I realized it. There was too much other pain.
A tire on my mother's car was faulty. It imploded, and she lost control of the car. As she tried to get off the freeway, a logging truck came up in the slow lane and hit her car. It flipped over completely and slid across three lanes of traffic, to smash into the median guardrail. My mother had gone shopping with my younger sister to the Vacaville Factory Outlets. She'd bought some towels on sale. My younger sister was thrown into the back seat of the car. She had to be taken out of the car by the Jaws of Life. She had a scratch on her leg, and that's it. My younger sister wasn't wearing her seatbelt; my mother was wearing her seatbelt. A flat tire killed her, among other things. Flat. Flat. Flatline.
My mother was very depressed that day and had called my sister to see if she could go shopping with her, and to a movie. My sister was in college but didn't attend class so she could go to lunch and out with my mother.
In my poems, I've written about my family's difficulty and its love and beauty, and about my mother's death. My first novel is based on some of this material, some of the events (although fictionalized) leading up to the accident, exploring how much of it is a mystery.
What's not a mystery:
the sadness of our lives when we are stuck in our negativity and can't seem to alter it. The psychologist Carl Jung said: "What you do not bring to consciousness appears in your life as fate." This is one of the most shocking statements I have ever read. I read it a few months after my mother's death. I don't know how true it is. How can we bring everything to consciousness? I guess we can, but in some ways this only makes me sadder. My mother did not have the tools to do this. Because of her life and her death, I have been able to grow in consciousness, I have been given the tools to work on my life psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I wish I could have shared more of my life with my mother. I wonder all the time what it would be like now if she were alive. My father quit drinking when he was 75 years old. We've had a good relationship for the past eight years. I feel so fortunate we could come to peace with each other, to get beyond blaming, and that he could have a life beyond the strife and darkness of alcoholism.
"No blame," said Buddha. It has been very hard to live those words. Everything is intricately connected, and you can never get to the end or the beginning of cause and effect. I know all this, I know it in my deepest core.
But I still miss my mother.
I want to talk to her so much although our conversation has been ongoing in my head and my heart for the past twenty years.
My mother's last words to me were, "You don't understand."
In my novel, I wrote about what I didn't understand.
More than anything else, it's a love story.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society