With Both Hands
I wasn't screaming anymore; all of my attention was on blocking the blows
Whenever I think of my mother, my mind flips to this story. Not to the whole story, but right to the middle of it, the worst moments of it. For me, that's where the story always starts.
My mother was beating the hell out of me. The first few blows seemed to come from every direction as I grabbed my nightgown and pulled it over my head, not wanting to be naked while being hit. From the beginning my back was to her and the heavy oak hairbrush struck me everywhere: on my back, my arms, my legs. Each time it hit, my hands would fly to that spot, too late, to try to keep the hit from hurting. I was screaming. I was a first grader in a lavender nightgown.
I'd never screamed during a beating before. I'd only cried. But this time was different because my mother wasn't getting tired; she kept on and on. And no one else was home, and wouldn't be for hours. No knock came to the door. The phone didn't start ringing. It would have been around dinnertime so all of our neighbors would have been awake, hearing my mother's yelling (which they were used to hearing) and hearing me screaming (which was new), but nobody answered my screams. We were inside a bathroom with the door closed, inside the center of the house. Maybe that muffled the screams. Maybe they couldn't hear them. That's what I told myself later, needing to think it could be true.
Then my mother hit me on the back of the head, and that's when the beating changed. It was worse to be hit there, I knew that. I didn't know the term 'brain damage' but the thought in my mind was: I could get hurt so bad that I'd never be smart again. Both of my hands flew to the back of my head and held there, guarding my head. I wasn't screaming anymore; all of my attention was on blocking the blows. The strikes kept coming but they hit the backs of my hands. Several times the blows were hard enough to knock me to my knees and make the front of my head hit the wall. I didn't use my hands to break my fall or to keep my head from hitting the wall because then the back of my head wouldn't be protected. The back of my head was more important. How did I know that? I was six years old but I knew that.
I don't know how long it lasted. I remember thinking it might go on forever. Then she stopped, for no reason, and took several deep breaths, and began giving me orders. I was to take bleach and Ajax and scrub the white bath tiles until they were white again, the washable bath paints that were not at all washable, the ones she insisted I use, the red and orange and yellow and blue and green, I needed to make them disappear.
She left the room and I scrubbed at the tiles and my hands went red and raw and the bleach got in the cuts on my hands and stung and I kept cleaning and I cried so hard my face was swollen and I could hardly see. After a long time the tiles were white again. The lines between the tiles were white also. I didn't want to be hit again.
The next day my teachers would see the bruises on my arms and they'd say nothing. They were used to seeing me with bruises. They were good at saying nothing.
That wasn't the worst time my mother hurt me. It's the worst time I can write about. Years after it happened I heard someone mention how blows to the back of the head are the most dangerous and I remember thinking: I was right. And I remember I felt dizzy when I thought that.
Years passed, with many hurts, big and small. I didn't hope for anything different because she had taught me that would be pointless. Gradually I put distance between my mother and myself, both in miles and in my heart.
We exchanged Christmas cards. We had the occasional phone conversation and kept it to small talk. Sometimes I'd think about how I'd worked it all out in my mind so logically, and how healthy that was, and I'd pat myself on the back for it. Good Job, I'd tell myself.
I grew up and tried to be far away from the little girl I had been. Sometimes my younger self would pop up, unannounced, and bother me. The time, in a dorm room, when my friends and I were wondering what Heaven was like, what we hoped it would be like, and my first unspoken thought was: in Heaven, my mom will let me hug her. And before I could clamp off that thinking, the younger me had more to add: she would not make me kiss the air next to her head, movie star style, while she whispered "don't mess up my face", she would not reject a hug immediately after it was given by using her hands to push my shoulders two feet away from her while she made a disgusted face and said "ugh get away from me". In Heaven I could hug her as long as I wanted. In Heaven she'd hug me back.
STOP, I thought to myself. And I stopped.
Good Job, I told myself, and I patted myself on the back.
And then at 36, I had my last day with my mother. I sat in a chair and she slept in her hospice bed. Cancer had taken all of her fire and her hours were now spent in a morphine sleep, all day and all night. I felt alone in the room. As I was leaving I thought: I'm about to be a person who doesn't have a mother, a good one or a bad one or any kind at all.
The call came the next morning at 6am. I stood in my kitchen and bright morning light was streaming in through the window but it felt like the middle of the night all around me as I listened to the nurse, as I hung up the phone.
Oh no, I thought, Now it's too late. I heard myself think this in a child's voice, in a voice I hadn't used in years. And it wasn't hearing that my mother had died that made me cry, it was realizing that somewhere deep inside me, all of the years I had thought I was so healthy, so strong, so healed, I was a great big liar because somewhere I had never stopped hoping my mom would be a good mother. I had hoped in secret and had kept it a secret even from myself.
I cried as I wrote in her obituary: 'We will remember our mother when we hear the music of James Taylor, or see bright red lipstick, or smell cinnamon rolls'. I will, I thought, and I wept for my terrible mother who had so many times said she hated me and whom I loved anyway, from safe and unsafe distances.
I don't know if it hurts more to think about it or not think about it. I don't know which way means I loved her more or why that still matters to me. I don't know if I kept hoping for her because I loved her or if it was because to do otherwise would seem like a bad way to think and if somewhere in my head Bad always leads to bruises. I tell myself: she's dead, she cannot hurt me anymore. And this is a lie.
I grew up holding my hands firmly against the back of my head, protecting what was crucial, protecting what could not be repaired if broken. It worked and I was safe and then in that minute in my grownup kitchen, with the light shining on the counters, on the sink, on me, in that minute when I thought Oh no, now it's too late, my hands had slipped, just for a minute, and the blow came, and knocked me to my knees.