My mom and I disagreed a lot when I was a kid – for example, she disagreed with me losing her silver and moonstone earrings, breaking an inherited porcelain vase when I meant just to admire it close-up, and such like.
The one experience we could share quietly was art.
When my mom started drawing, I'd be lulled into attentiveness as I watched her create something out of nothing – it was such a contrast to my habit of creating nothing out of something. I asked her questions without evil intent, and she enjoyed answering them. As long as the drawing session continued, we forgot about everything else (including even the earrings).
One evening, when I was about 10, I did a pen sketch of my dad as he sat reading the paper. Mom loved it. She showed it to my dad (or tried to — it was always hard to get him to look past the newspaper). When she handed it back to me, she explained in detail why it was so good. I looked at this scrap of paper, transformed by a ballpoint pen into something that made my mom enthusiastic. About me!
I’d show you the drawing here, but, of course, I lost it.
Mom and I fought until I was 21, with art periodically serving as a temporary detente. We didn’t trust each other in any other part of our lives — any topic, no matter how inane, would eventually lead to me blaming her for cutting my hair with a bowl when I was 12. Then she’d reminisce about how I’d throw random tantrums in public as a toddler; she'd walk away as I bellowed and pounded the sidewalk, knowing that I’d shut up and trot after her, seemingly oblivious that I’d ever been crying. Once, before I was quite done with the sidewalk, a stranger came up and accused her of emotional child abuse. At this point in the story, she’d look like she was still reviewing possible retorts.
Later on, after I grew up, so to speak, she said how once when I was sobbing and she had no idea why, she asked me, “Kellas, why are you crying?” I immediately stopped, looked thoughtful, and said, “I don’t know.”
Apparently, I also said something else, but I can’t remember what it was. Whatever that something else was, it was so odd, my mom said it made her worry about me. That’s the thing when your parent dies. The stories about your childhood, that serve as your own personal creation myth, die, too. The stories (and many were good!) that my mom told about me, that made her worry and hope for my future, were obvious evidence of what made me so great and special. I had no clue at all that these stories weren’t evidence of anything. It was the fact that she told them, and the way she told them. After she died, I asked my dad if he remembered this or that, but he couldn’t. The stories are gone. The way my mom told them — how they made her worry for me and hope for me — that’s gone, too.
Except for the ones that really stuck in my head, of course — like losing her moonstone earrings.
Well, there is one other story, which I’ll tell here, because it involves a cat. Once when I was asleep in bed, with Charlie I next to me, her little head on the pillow next to mine, Mom came in, picked up Charlie and tossed her across the room. She said she couldn’t help it — it was an uncontrollable reaction, to do with the cat looking like a hairy little man, the way she was lying length-wise, instead of like a proper cat, curled up. Mom felt the cat to be having pretensions. She was more a dog person, to be honest.
Anyway, back to art serving as our peace-keeper. When I watched her create things, like the Chagall type mural on my bedroom ceiling, or the Canadian tapestry, I’d be distracted from my inner drama. Art was the one area we could go to together, completely at ease.
Years later, when my mom’s cancer treatment went awry, she ended up in a coma in the ICU at St. John’s Hospital in LA. She’d only gone in for the night to be watched over and when I visited early the next morning, she was sitting bolt upright in bed, her eyes wide open, like she was unable to blink. I called for help and pressed the button, but no one came. I went in the hallway and pleaded with the doctor to come. He wouldn’t.
He said, “You’re just not used to seeing your mother like this.”
I went back to my mom and apologised for not being able to get her help and kept pressing the button. The doctor eventually came in, tut-tutting me, but as soon as he saw my mom, he said, “We need to get her to ICU,” and he pulled the curtain around the bed, shutting her off from me.
The last thing she verbally said to me, a few minutes later up in the ICU, as the hospital superbug infection was already making itself visible and they put her on drugs to knock her out, was, “This is it. I’m through.”
They put her into the coma as her organs all failed, but then they started coming back. But, she wouldn’t wake up. The doctors kept saying, unless she wakes up, there’s no hope. The thing is, I knew she was conscious. Maybe it was through the pressure of her hand, which no one else said they felt.
When a creepy lady with baggy panty hose came by, saying she wanted to read my mom bible passages, I told her my mom was not interested. “How do you know that?” Well, for one thing, on entering the hospital, a nursing assistant or somebody had come by with a checklist and insisted on knowing my mom’s religion; every question on the form had to be answered and her religion had to be chosen from the listed options. "Atheism", the one non-religious option, she didn't feel to be an accurate category for her, either. My mom made him read them all out, saying, “Nope, nope,” until eventually there were none left. “We have to put down something for you.”
“How about apostasy?” she suggested.
He looked sceptical. “I’ve never heard of that.” But, she insisted it was real and he wrote it down. When he left, we cracked up.
Now a sloppily dressed woman was berating me for keeping God’s solace from my mom. Mom would’ve never taken advice or solace from anyone dressed so badly, or from anyone who'd hired such a person.
But, I was scared and tired and this woman was extremely self-confident. Eventually, I told her to wait and went into my mom. “Mom, there’s a lady here, a chaplain, who wants to read you bible passages. Do you want her to come in?” Her eyelids fluttered and almost imperceptibly, she shook her head. I felt so guilty. I hated that chaplain for adding yet another story to my mythology.
So, the days and weeks went past, and she didn’t visibly wake up and the doctors (always different ones) talked more and more about “letting her go.” Always in an off-hand manner, as they entered or left. In the waiting room, there was an old National Geographic. In it, there was a photo of a really cute frog. I hadn’t drawn anything for years, but I got some scrap paper and a pencil and drew this frog. I did a really good job, too. At my mom’s bedside, I told her, “I made a drawing. Here it is.” And I held it above her. She opened her eyes and looked at it for a long while. Then she closed them again. It was the first time since she’d entered the ICU that she’d opened them. But she never did again.
Almost a year later, I adopted my cat. She would’ve been born around the time my mom died. Sometimes I thought maybe my mom’s spirit had come back in Charlie.
A friend from across the country sent me some reed pens he’d carved. I used them to draw Charlie. He said, your drawings are really good! Although I didn’t quite believe him, I kept on drawing her. And I’ve been drawing her ever since.
So, in a way, my mom’s spirit did come back to me through Charlie.