Sunday, November 01, 2009

we have lost people

Yesterday was Halloween, a day I have not traditionally enjoyed all that much since I moved to Chicago. There have been breakups, aborted parties, snow, and all sorts of other inconveniences, and until last year I don't think I ever even had a "real" costume, only half-assed ones that I had to throw together for children's concerts with my old orchestra. This year I was a librarian, which mostly involved awesome shoes and a glasses chain made of a necklace and some string; I saw my very first ever Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater, and then ate incredibly greasy diner food, and then I fell asleep far too late. It was a good night.

Today is the Day of the Dead; every year I try to think of who I want to remember and it always comes back to the same person. L was my high school boyfriend's mother, a more-than-slightly wacky older woman with a sense of logic that often defied my straight-A student mentality at the time. I simply could not wrap my head around someone who would one night take us to a midnight movie and stay talking in the parking lot for hours afterwards (that one got me grounded) and the next would forbid her son to play a booked music gig because he hadn't finished his dinner the night before. She was a former Vegas card dealer, a possible former alcoholic, and a presumably current lesbian, although I never saw her be remotely connected with anybody; many of these things were aspects of her personality that I only understood later, after she had died, and some of them are still only guesses. When I knew her, I simply thought of her as a little crazy, a wild card that was so different from my own mother that it was like a whole different idea of what parenting should be. I loved her but I was also wary of her, because I also knew that she was unpredictable and occasionally irrational.

She's been dead for a little over six years now; she died in a car accident the day before I got back from my first summer teaching in Poland, and my father didn't tell me for the entire ride back from Phoenix. When I got home and hugged my mother, jetlagged out of my mind and excited to share the details of my month-long vacation, she suddenly pulled back and her mouth turned into an O. L was dead, and her son, my ex, was in the hospital, because he had been in the car with her during the crash. He had been thrown free, and she had been crushed and died almost instantly. I had been avoiding her for the entire summer prior to my trip, because the last time I had seen her she had been a little weird and I'd felt uncomfortable; I wasn't used to seeing her without his presence to temper things, and it made me nervous to receiving her undivided attention. During my vacation I'd felt guilty about the avoidance, and so in my bag there was a postcard that I had written to her but not sent, which I'd promised myself that I would give it to her in person when I returned and now it was too late.

I saw her van, dark blue and beat up, for years after that, and I would scan it for her coke-bottle glasses and shaggy hair. I still see it once in a while, but I don't look for her anymore. It's been six years, and that's long enough. I eventually covered the back of the card with paper and wrote a postsecret on it, because I couldn't bear to have it in my keepsake box any longer--it just made me feel guilty. My life has been rather remarkably free of mortality; other than L, the only person close to me who has passed away was my grandfather, and he was so sick with Alzheimer's that we both cried and rejoiced for him when he finally died because really he'd already been gone for a long time. L, though, it took me years to let go of. She had left so suddenly, leaving in her wake an emotionally and physically shattered son and a string of questions and blank spots, and I didn't understand why. I finally let go one winter day; I was back in Flagstaff for Christmas and so was my ex, and he asked me to drive him out to where he had scattered her ashes. I hadn't seen him since the accident, almost two years earlier. We drove, mostly silent, away from the city, until he told me to pull over, and then we walked together out towards the lake and we talked. He talked to me for the first time about what had happened, things that I had never known or even really suspected and that are for once too personal for this public forum, although I've occasionally told some of them to people I've been close to because it wasn't something I could just keep inside myself. We cried together, holding on to each other and resisting the cold wind as we stood in the bright winter sunshine, and I knew that that was the closest we would ever be.

L was my first subversive role model, and she also scared the shit out of me. I wish I had known her later, when her particular form of crazy might have made more sense and we could have talked more about things that mattered, about her life, about being a single dyke mother and radical politics and dealing with rage and shame and fear and poverty. I wish I could have been an adult with her. But I wasn't, and all I can do now is remember her in all her excess and imagine what that would have been like. I don't think of her with sadness exactly anymore, but she's who I come back to every year when I think about who I want to mourn and celebrate. Life is so much more complicated than I gave it credit for when we knew each other. I wish I could tell her that I learned that, in part, from her.


erica said...

such a beautiful tribute. thanks for posting.

Rosiecat said...

Oh, Ammie. This was beautiful, so sad and moving. I lack the words to describe how I'm feeling, so I'll simply stop here except to say...

I like your Day of the Dead ritual.

Amber said...

I certainly did not know L a tenth as well as you did but she left a lasting impression one could never forget. This is a beautiful and accurate tribute to her memory. She would be proud to live on in your memory.

ammie said...

Thank you all, really. I didn't feel like I wrote this as well as it deserved, but I don't know if that's possible for me. Life is hard like that sometimes.
And Amber, as the only commenter who actually knew L at all... Thank you. That means a huge amount to me.