On Christmas Eve, I arrange the carrot sticks on half of my mother-in-law’s narrow scalloped dish, stack pale ribs of celery on the other side.
The phrase echoes through me every few seconds—last time, last time—as I nestle large black olives into the curves around the edge of the dish, drape whole green onions over the top, balance some radishes in between. As I add a couple of ice cubes to keep everything cool and crisp.
Last time, last time, last time.
This has been my job at my mother-in-law’s for the last 20 Christmas Eves: arranging the crudités into an intricate vegetable Jenga. It always feels like serious work. It always feels like art. Like love.
I am leaving my husband on New Year’s Day. The new house is rented, the boxes half packed. The beginning of a trial separation I know in my heart will be permanent. Everyone knows, but no one says a word—not my husband’s mother or sisters or their significant others; not our kids, not my husband. Certainly not me. Christmas Eve goes on—my mother in law dumps the clear plastic tub of oysters and their brine into a copper pot along with some cream; she rubs the usual garlic clove along the inside of the salad bowl, takes the wide loaves of moist, dense, delicious bread—the batter of which she whips with a spoon rather than kneads–from the oven.
Last time. Last time. Last time. Last time.
My mother in law has become more of a mother to me than my own, especially in the fourteen years since my daughter’s birth, when my mom’s delusions first surfaced. I watch her pour a glass of white wine, her jet black Louise Brooks hair falling forward into her face, and love her so fiercely, so desperately, my chest aches. I waited so long to ask for a separation partly because I didn’t want to separate from her.
She usually makes a pot of Christmas borscht to accommodate me, her Russian Jewish vegetarian daughter in law, but this year, she’s made split pea. It bubbles and snaps on the stove next to the oyster stew. “I thought I’d try something new,” she says, but I imagine it’s her way of starting to pull away from me, to loosen me from her heart.
After dinner (last time) and buttery jam-filled cookies (last time) and the distributing of presents under the tinsel-dripping tree (last time), the instruments come out. My husband’s family is a musical one; their gatherings often involve guitars and piano, sometimes fiddle and accordion. The usual carols are played, along with some bluegrass songs that give them a chance to harmonize; then the grownups retreat to the kitchen to clean up, and my 17-year-old son starts to strum Belle and Sebastian.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I had never heard of Belle and Sebastian until I saw the movie High Fidelity, and then I thought they were a made-up band, a fictional excuse for Jack Black to lose his shit. It wasn’t until my kids became fans that I realized they were an actual group. If it weren’t for my kids, I’d probably still be listening to Prince and the Talking Heads on a near exclusive basis.
I help wash the gold-trimmed stemware my mother in law inherited from her mother, almost the exact same set my mom inherited from hers. I find myself violently gripping each goblet, and I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t want to let them go or because I want to crush them with my hands.
My son launches into “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying.” The song sounds so peppy but the lyrics slay me, even though I don’t catch most of them, just the title phrase and “You’re so naive” and “I always cry at endings.” That’s enough. I set down the glass, tear off my yellow rubber gloves, run to my mother in law’s TV room and wail. Deep subterranean sounds that rip through me and seem to last for hours. No one comes in to check on me, no one asks if I’m okay after I finally emerge, embarrassed, my eyes completely red. They all love me, but not enough to forgive what I’m about to do. When we’re walking to the car, though, my husband’s older sister pulls me aside and gestures to her leopard print coat. “I bought this for myself when I knew I had to leave my ex,” she says, then wraps her arms around me. I start to cry all over again, tears matting the fake fur.
I always cry at endings.
The first weeks of the separation, I feel like I’m falling through space. Our shared circle of friends has tightened around my husband and I am careening out of orbit, into someplace vast and dark and cold. I have taken to crying at night in huge, jagged sobs that make my face fall asleep, make my body disappear.
“I think you’re going crazy,” my daughter tells me, “I think you’re going crazy like your mom.” It feels like the most hurtful thing someone could say, but I see her concern and wonder if she’s right. Still, when I catch myself in the mirror, I am surprised at how the whites of my eyes look—clearer and brighter than I’ve ever seen them.
A friend leaves a ritual-in-a-bag on my doorstep. I am to cast a circle of salt, put a figure eight made of ribbon in the center, my name in one loop, my husband’s in the other. I am to eat a blood orange, taste the sour and sweet together on my tongue. I am to take the scissors and cut the eight in half, severing what I thought would be infinite. I sob some more, but feel the release of it, the light creeping back, as I wish each newly separate circle well.
New circles form. Love rushes in. Life enters the space blasted open by all that crying. I find out I’m pregnant at 41, nineteen years since my first pregnancy. I find myself saying, “I do.”
I rest in bed with my two-day-old son, and listen to my sister and my new husband whisper in the hallway outside the closed door. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I know it has to do with my mom. They are trying to keep her away from me, to keep me and the baby in a protective bubble inside the room where he was born. I nuzzle my nose against his new head and breathe in his raw, sweet scent.
My mom has had delusional “episodes,” as my family has taken to calling them—undiagnosed, untreated—on and off for almost sixteen years now, but nothing like this. When she picked my sister up at the airport the day before, she had a flannel nightgown wrapped around her nose and mouth, a barrier against the poison she thought was coming through the vents. A Jack in the Box cup full of pee in the cup holder that she planned to have tested to see what drugs my dad had sprayed at her from his cell phone. When she held the baby for the first time yesterday and he immediately fell asleep, she was sure she had gassed him from the fumes lingering on her clothes.
My older kids come to meet their baby brother, and I venture out of the dim bedroom to have dinner with them, the table covered with aluminum take-out containers full of red-sauce-heavy pasta delivered by the local pizza place. My mom is still wearing the same purple turtleneck and black pants she had on yesterday, and looks disheveled and sweaty; disconcerting, as she normally takes great pains with her appearance. Her eyes look different than usual, too, beady and dark. After we eat, she corners my 19 year old and tells him she’ll give him $100 dollars to drive her to her friend’s house in Carlsbad, an hour and a half away. She doesn’t tell him she’s scared to take her own car because she thinks it’s being followed by numerous Middle Eastern men. She doesn’t tell him she’s been driving as if she’s in the Bourne Identity to escape them. He agrees—he has to study for an exam, but who wouldn’t want a quick $100? When my mom goes to the bathroom, my sister and husband swoop in to give him the scoop. His face drops.
“I’m sorry, Nana,” he says when she returns. “If we leave now, I won’t be back until 11, and I have a lot of homework.”
My mom immediately charges toward my sister. “Sabotage!” she yells, one arm in the air as if she’s rattling a saber. My husband steps in between them.
“We’re going to a hotel,” he says firmly. He had taken her to a hotel three nights ago after she showed up at our house unexpectedly, a cushion from an outdoor chaise under her arm so she could sleep on our floor, and she and I got into a shouting match. I went into labor a few hours later. “You can’t come into my house and talk to people like that.” My husband’s face and voice both sharpen; I’ve never seen him like this before. The papa bear in him rising up, protecting his clan. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
My mom grabs my sister’s batik scarf, the one she bought during a trip to Sausalito with an ex-boyfriend many years ago, and throws it over her head.
“You don’t know how dangerous this is for me,” she says, her entire face covered, then races out the door into a world where she thinks she’s being chased and drugged and conspired against.
For a moment, we’re all silent. It’s as if she’s pulled all the oxygen out of the house behind her. “Fuuuck,” I say under my breath, not a word that often comes through me. We all stare at each other, eyebrows raised, reeling. Then my son points to my arms and says, “Look! A baby!” and everyone laughs and the oxygen whooshes back in.
The rest of the night feels like a party. The kids start messing with instruments. My son puts on my daughter’s blue Snuggie and looks like some sort of crazed monk as he plays guitar, swaying wildly in his chair. My sister and I sit side by side on the piano bench, laughing so hard, I’m worried the stitches in my perineum will pop. Then he starts to play “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” and she and I turn to each other and burst into tears.
“What if that’s the last image we ever have of her?” I ask and we fall into each other, the baby nestled between us.
A few days later, we get a call from the coroner’s office.
A car crash, I first imagine, as I watch my sister on the phone, color and emotion streaming across her face like a time-lapse film. But no, I learn, as she drops to her knees, as she crawls around the room, as I stumble after her, crazy wails ripping through my throat—our mom had hanged herself in a parking garage.
For weeks, I can’t get the Belle and Sebastian song out of my head. I still only know those three lines “Get me away from here, I’m dying,” “You’re so naïve,” “I always cry at endings,” but they’re enough. They stiffen the hair on the back of my neck, send cold rivers of adrenalin down my arms, tighten my chest. They take me straight into my mother’s desperation, my poor mom with my sister’s scarf over her head, the scarf that was among the clothes in the paper bag from the coroner’s office, the things she had been wearing when she died. I had wondered if it was what she used to hang herself until I saw the electrical cord listed on her death certificate.
Get me away from here, I’m dying. I’m dying. I’m dying.
The baby looks into my eyes with the wise, direct gaze he’s had since he was born. “He was brought here to be a healer,” a friend said shortly after his birth, and it feels true. It feels like he is the reason for my painful separation and divorce, like he came when he did to help me get through this monstrous grief, to ground me with a pure and simple love. I don’t want him to feel that responsibility his whole life, to be his mother’s healer, but for now, I’ll take it. “You’re so naive,” the song warns me, and maybe I am. I always cry at endings. I cry at beginnings, too. I lift my shirt and he latches on and I am all tears and milk and sweet deep ache, alive with the mothers I’ve lost.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.