The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Cold Blue

By

Mom sent my blue baby book to me once in an act of severance.  As I flipped through the musty pages I found where she recorded my first sentence:  “Momma, see!”

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Phillip Lopate writes in Portrait Inside My Head, “What is important to an adult and what matters to a child are so often at variance that it is a wonder the two ever find themselves on the same page.”

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mi·graine: a throbbing headache typically on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light, sound, and/or smell. Migraines are one of the oldest known human diseases.

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I’d rather not feel the beating of my heart because if I do, it means the blood is pounding sadistically in my head.  In these moments, I want the heart to never beat again.

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A dream: Mom and I unpack boxes inside of boxes, cardboard nesting dolls, uncovering things from the past.  I sense she doesn’t want to look deeper, but when I ask her if she wants to quit, she says, “It’s okay. I want to keep going.”

The last time Mom disowned me was six or seven years ago.  We haven’t spoken since, so when I wake up from the dream, I’m hopeful we are mending wounds in the ethereal even if we can’t heal them here on earth.

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1:32 a.m.: I’ve just let Izzy out back for the fourth time tonight.  Moments ago we cuddled under the covers for warmth, our blonde heads touching. But then she sat up and stared at me. I’m attuned to her, like mother to newborn, so I wake up immediately.

Now I sit bundled on the back stoop, half asleep and feeling annoyed. Smoking while Izzy sniffs around makes the interruption in sleep bearable. It’s so cold the snow is frozen solid.  She tiptoes on the shell carefully, not understanding this unstable ground beneath her.  I tell her to hurry, but then I worry she’ll fall through.

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Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia on one-sided headaches:  “Life becomes a burden.  For they flee the light; the darkness soothes their disease.  The patients are weary of life and wish to die.”

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At its worst, I have to force myself to take each breath.

At its worst, I crave an ice pick thrust through my temple. Why? I wonder.

a) To murder the migraine?

b) To cause pain that would distract from the other pain?

c) To release the blood pounding in my skull?

Yes. All of the above.

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1:43 a.m.: Izzy makes it over to me without falling through the snow crust. The brilliance of the moon makes the whole yard glow electric indigo.  She wags her tail, ready to crawl back into bed. I’m shivering, but no longer annoyed, just grateful to have seen the cold blue hue.

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Another dream: I’m sitting in a parked car next to a woman I don’t know.  Her head rests on the steering wheel as she cries.  Mom is going to disown her, too.  I pat her on the back comforting her and explain how it will be: “You’ll get a letter from her and then neither of you will ever talk again.  You will survive, even though it doesn’t feel like it now.”

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Evidence of trepanning first shows up in prehistoric times.  Archeologists find skulls with drilled holes buried in ancient caves.  Wall paintings indicate that trepanation treated several brain afflictions including migraines.  The cave people believed these holes allowed evil spirits to escape, perhaps relieving pressure in the brain. When I learn of trepanning, the ice pick I crave finally makes sense.

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3:27 a.m.: Another bitter-cold, middle-of-the-night potty and cigarette break out back. Five degrees this time. It’s too cloudy to see, but I hear geese flying south, honking above the clouds, trying to outrun the icy night.  I hold the pain of the cold and the wonder of the geese together, all at once. Why weren’t they already in a warm place?

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The light emanating from the blue digits of the cable box is more than I can bear.  I place a pillow over my eyes.  The ticking of the clock keeps time with the pounding in my brain.  I force myself to breathe.  I wonder how I can survive another moment, but the seconds tick away without any concern for me.  Imagining death offers the slightest relief. A sense of control where there is none.

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Archeologists find partially healed skull bones in the cave, proving that people did not die from the openings in their heads.  They lived on, but did they feel any better afterward?

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8:20 p.m.: I’m walking Izzy. We approach a frosted street light.  The night tastes like wood smoke and I notice movement behind us. Unnerved, I turn around. It’s only our shadows. As we walk, our ghostly shapes come up beside us, and then they move ahead, showing the way through the chilly darkness.

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As I sit on the back porch, I think about how smoking outwardly shows your pain. And perhaps that is why Mom smokes too, and perhaps that is why she weighs three times more than she’s meant to.  Anything to numb our pain.

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I know I need to quit smoking and I do stop (often), but when I succeed in quitting I miss watching over Izzy; I miss midnight moons, flying geese, and crusty snow.  I even miss the pain of the blue cold against my skin.

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Maya Angelou in Mom & Me & Mom says, “She had my back, supported me.  This is the role of the mother…why a mother is really important.  Not just because she feeds and also loves and cuddles…but because in an interesting and maybe an eerie and unworldly way, she stands in the gap. She stands between the unknown and the known.”

Sometimes when I’m lying in my darkened room, blue ice pack on my head, I want a mother to stand in the gap.

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A post on a Facebook migraine support group discussing the Comparative Pain Scale:  “The number 9 is used for pain that is ‘utterly unbearable’ and we ask for surgery and/or think suicide would be a better option. Number ‘10’ is pain so intense you will go unconscious shortly. Most people have never experienced this level of pain. It’s like having a limb severed before losing consciousness.”

I wonder what people think before they go unconscious.  I wonder if they cry out before the silence comes.

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While in bed, all I can think about is this:  The only thing that can match the violence playing out in my skull is the blue steel barrel of a pistol pressed into my temple.

What stops me is the cruelty of it. Even though my mother and I have no relationship, how tragic it would be for her to have two children dead from suicide.

I focus instead on the clicking of the clock.

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June 6, 2014: The Today Show. Frank Devita of the U.S. Coast Guard remembers D-Day. He talks about that morning on Omaha Beach.  “There’s a fallacy. People think when a man is dying he asks for God.  The last words men say before they die is ‘Momma.’  ‘Momma.’”

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Momma, see? Even the soldiers need their mommas.

Photos by Kristin Basta


Cathy A. E. Bell is a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. When Cathy is not writing or working as an IT manager, she spends her time volunteering as a submissions reader for Hippocampus Magazine and helping with literary events at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has been published in The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Hippocampus Magazine, and other literary publications. Read more of Cathy’s work at cathyaebell.com. Or say hello on Twitter: @cathyannelaine. More from this author →