Dear Mama, when I look at this photo, I recognize your face, but my last memory of you is as a blond. And, you can't tell from this picture that your eyes were blue, blue as robin's eggs, and sometimes gray, like a stormy sky.
I was six years old when you died, when I went off to school alone. Wayne stayed home sick (to this day I believe he was faking it because it was report card day). It was late November, a few days before Thanksgiving and your 41st birthday. Daddy and I had already bought your present from me, a new pair of stockings. At school, I bit into a hamburger at lunch and lost the loose tooth that I'd been compulsively wiggling for a week. Mrs. Tolliver, my kindergarten teacher, wrapped it up in a tissue for me to bring home to hide under my pillow for the tooth fairy.
I burst through the door when I got home, excited about my good marks and my tooth. Wayne greeted me from the living room sofa.
"Where's Mama?" I asked.
"Hart's Market. She ran out of bread," Wayne said and returned to watching our old black and white TV with tinfoil on the rabbit ears.
I waited and waited, but Mama never came home. And I never saw you, Mama, ever again.
Much later, I found out what happened. The store had been a lie. You caught the bus and transferred several times to get way down Jeff Davis Highway to Moore's Lake Cottages. There you checked in under a false name, Barbara Mooney (I used to love watching The Lucy Show with you), and said you'd been sick recently. You wanted to take a sleeping pill and sleep for a while, so please, you told them, don't disturb you. The next morning, after checkout time, the maid pounded on your door. Getting no answer, she fetched the manager, who unlocked the door and found you unconscious. You'd overdosed on barbituates.
You were rushed to the hospital, but remained in a coma until you died later that night. Your death was ruled a suicide.
It's been a long road, Mama, coming to understand your schizophrenia and the despair you felt. Shock treatments, hospitalization, drugs, talk therapy ... none of it worked. Inevitably the voices in your head came back, the ideas that made utter sense to you but were received by everyone else as nonsense. The little old lady next door wasn't really an FBI agent, but you were convinced she was, going around the house and drawing the curtains. No, you didn't really have a hernia that could only be cured by eating buttered pasta. But yes, you know what, Mama? You weren't always paranoid. You were absolutely correct that Daddy was having an affair, cheating behind your back with "that redhead."
Lois was living in our house by Christmas, and in February Daddy made an honest woman of her by marrying her. For a long time, I was angry with Dad. But age has given me perspective. A psychic once told me that he's not with Lois right now; he's with you. For you are the one he always loved, and you were the mother of his children. He just was an alcoholic and had no clue, in the 1960s, how to cope with a wife who experienced psychotic breaks. He didn't know how to deal with his two oldest boys when they developed schizophrenia. He feared for the youngest, Wayne and me.
We're okay, Mama. We have our own issues with substance abuse, but at least our minds haven't turned on us.
I do think of you, often. I wonder if you were alive now, if the new psychotropic drugs would help you. I do know you loved me, very much, and that despite all I've been through in almost 48 years, I still have a sweet nature and a great deal of empathy for others. Heaven knows, I could've turned into some psychopath, given other things that were yet to happen. Instead, you gave me what I needed while I was very young, taking naps with me, my arm draped over you; buying me coloring books and praising my lopsided horses; reading stories out loud to me; teaching me to tie my shoes with the "Batman and Robin" story.
I'm sure you'd be surprised to know what I am, what I do, although maybe you know, up there in Heaven. I somehow feel you with me always. Sometimes I wonder if you're my angel. It seems like whenever things are about to go horribly wrong, something intervenes, gently pushes me onto the right path. I tell people nowadays the story of how I wound up in rehab. I was in a total blackout, drunk off my ass, about to make a very bad decision to take off, leave my relationship for yet another geographic cure. Somehow, sanity prevailed, even in that dark, drunken moment. When I woke up the next day, I couldn't remember making the decision, but I remembered that I'd decided to go to rehab. I cannot believe that was MY decision, that this came out of my own head. Mama, did you put it there?
I think you did ... Still doing what mothers do, even long after you're gone.
One day we will meet again. I plan to give you a rose for every single year we've missed together.