She comes to me in dreams more than she did in real life. I ask for her and there she is. The moment the dream starts I'm aware that it's a dream and treat it as my last chance to piece it all together. Each time I know she's dead, dying or going to die. I share my knowledge with others in the dream and she never seems to notice that I'm grasping for more of her time. But part of me thinks she knows she's dead, dying or going to die, too. She remains unaffected but still completely herself: sliced in various parts, shining in many colors.
Last night was different. Different than the one with the pizza party museum and different than the one with her Barbie hair and the 1960's halfway house on the California coast. This version of her was both non-fictional and hypothetical. She brought with her, this time, more answers for my relentless, aimless questions though indirectly. It was a hotel room with several rooms. We had littered the multiple beds (4 king sized to be exact) with snacks. Pringles cans, Girl Scout Cookie boxes, gummy worms, bears and octopi were opened and spilling across down comforters and the Fluer-de-lis carpeting. Everything was pretty rundown but not from neglect, rather from graceful aging. It's as if the owner gave into time, maintaining only a comforting disheveled elegance similarly to how she appeared before me. Unlike the other dreams where she appeared in some form that I had known personally or met through someone else's photographs this version was crafted especially for me, by me and the memories I now scramble to collect. Her haircut was a hybrid of Tank girl and a page boy while her dark roots bled into an electric amber tone, the longest piece hitting just above her cheekbones. Her dress was something she likely owned the last time I saw her ten years ago; an antiqued floral baby doll dress from the 90's with pearl buttons and a wrinkled and flared skirt. But it was her choice of footwear that interrupted the fantasy. Her beloved suede moccasins with fringe around the ankle. When she was a dancer she chose these above lucite platforms or marabou feathered stilettos. She hated shoes. But she loved those moccasins. I can't remember if she had all the tattoos she left with but she had some. Her first tattoo, a black dot below the corner of her right eye, was there as I remembered it. When I was a little girl I would trace it with my finger and ask her why she did that. "It just made sense." She would say, knowing very well that she had provided an unsatisfactory answer for a curious little girl. In the dream I touched the dot but refrained from asking about it. I ran my finger down her arm as she applied navy eyeliner in the vanity mirror, tracing her constellation of scars her tanned skin failed to conceal. I can't remember specifics of what was said or why we were there but I remember feeling that our closeness could not be disturbed or broken. She was preparing to go to a Nina Hagen concert with friends. Although the destination was different, the objective followed suit with my previous encounters. She was always getting ready to go and she always had somewhere she had to be. Even in my imaginary second chance fantasy world, she leaves me. We laughed about things that we must have found funny and I ran my fingers through her hair to fix her part. She was running late and I was running out of time. Normally I would start to panic and find distractions and try and squeeze her dry of everything I needed to feel or know, understanding once again that she was dead, dying or going to die. This time was different. As she talked (she loved talking) I floated behind her, taking note of her every movement, studying her voice and words as if I could bring what I've learned back to the waking world and categorize them as "things I remember about her." More than observed, I listened and I responded and I loved. There was nothing to force here. It was just us. "Do I look okay?" She asked as she curtsied and twirled. I nodded. I soaked her in. This is how she maybe would have looked if things would have been different. This is how we would have treated each other and this is how we would have felt. Our candied tornado fallout at my feet while I fell back in love with the way she moved across a room and the truth-telling galaxies underneath her skin...this was as real as it would ever get. She told me she would see me when she got back. I was so excited that she was excited to be going out and I agreed that I would see her later. She took the fire escape down even though the elevators where functioning and the indoor staircases were open. It was raining. I stuck my head out the window and watched her spark colored hair spiral down until it became a reflection of streetlight in a puddle. I was alone. The hotel room was still. I sat on the bed, wrappers crinkling underneath my weight. I knew I would see her later. All I had to do was ask.
My mother died on March 1, 2016. It was a Tuesday. Although I had been expecting this call every day since the age of sixteen I was not expecting this call on this particular day and it felt nothing like I had prepared myself to feel. It was a phone call. Then a voicemail. A returned phone call followed by police banging on my apartment door handing me a crudely written phone number on a piece of torn notebook paper. I cried a cry that was more animal than human and I granted myself silent permission to fall to the floor and howl into my hands. This only happens once and it was happening now. There was no room for gravity here. What followed was a blur of phone calls and breakdowns. Telling my grandmother that her daughter had died and explaining to her why I didn’t have the strength to tell my sister. Various calls to various departments of the Florida police and medical examiners and funeral homes. I was next of kin, or as my mom likely painted it, only kin. In some ways this was accurate. There was no funeral. There would be no gathering of people who loved her, no flowers or last wishes granted. Instead, a state funded cremation contingent on my competency and diligence in filling out the appropriate forms and talking to the appropriate people at the appropriate times about the things and the stuff and my head was swampy mess of emotions, facts, tasks and visions of her dying.
I later found out that she had died alone. The details are not important here other than she died alone. The medical examiner was upfront with me in confessing that it was unclear if her death was caused by a recent overdose or decades of abuse. I later found out that she had fallen ill a week earlier. Chest pains and incessant vomiting for five days straight. She was supposed to go to the hospital the morning of her death. She died alone. I say this silently and out loud to myself multiple times a day. It haunts me before I go to sleep and distracts me while I’m awake. She had to know that I loved her. This is something I’ve actively had to convince myself of every day since she died and every day before then when she was alive.
It would take an exhausting effort to explain or condense the complex history of our relationship and even if I were to it would likely translate into backwards, filed down braille. Present tense has been reverted to past tense. Each time I encounter this new adjustment in speech I am forced to pause, the weight of contrast between what is and what was holds my tongue in contempt until I am able to accept the truth again. She was a poet and a dancer. She loved punk music and Ginsburg as much as she loved The Brady Bunch and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. She preferred chocolate milk over water and dysfunction over boredom. She was always naked and when she wasn’t she was a barely clothed compromise. She was also an addict. Part of me think she loved that about herself. I didn't love that about her. But I understood it somehow. Some days she was my friend, others a tireless thorn in my side. She fought for and against both sides every day and believed in a version of God she crafted from philosophy books and Jim Morrison records. I could go on and on and never would I be able to truly define her and in truth I think I was the only one who could ever come close. This comes as both a burden and an honor as baring the sole weight of understanding someone as intricately woven as Valerie is a huge responsibility; an eternal study in compassion. Tense correctness aside, I have found what perhaps I had been looking for my whole life with her. I have found strength and gratitude in knowing she is my mother and that I am forever her daughter and that somewhere within that equation is a love that can never be taken from either one of us; above ground or below it.