For My Mother and Desmond Dekker

Sixteen years old
Doing my chores
On a summer afternoon
With the window opened
Out over the rolling hills
Of Southern York County
Desmond Dekker sings to me
On the stereo for company
I can hear the world waiting
In the soundwaves
Making their way down the street
Reaching escape velocity
On their way out out
Of my lonely little town
I will make it out one day too

Scrape the dried Elmer’s glue
Off the sink with a smile
Check the stiffness of my hair
In the mirror for the tenth time
Spiked towards the sky
Like a middle finger aimed at every sideways eye

My mother sticks her head in the door
“Oh! I like this song!
I remember when it was on the radio”
Back when I was young
She hums along
With a rare smile
Cracking across her face
Remembering a life
Thirty years gone

All the sudden
My mother is no longer
The narcissistic monster
Living as a prisoner
To her suffering
Tethered to this decrepit house
Raising a selfish afterbirth
Already racing for a world
With no room for her in it

I see you as you were, mother
Young and full of hope once
Summer of ’68 in the desert
With the radio on
A glint of moonlight
Catching in your smile
Your broken home caught
In the reflection of
A rearview mirror
With good things on the road
Ahead of you

Raised ducking for cover
Seeking shelter from gathering clouds
And the chill winds
Blowing ill from a cold war
Summer of ’68
With power’s proxies catching a spark
From fires lit before you were ever born
Your older brothers
Jump from from iron birds
And into the firestorm
With not a reason why
But to do and stay alive
One took a bullet
To the thigh
And never quite got right
The other made it home
And never talked about
The War Again in his life

You grew.

Into the mother
I once knew
Tiny and sometimes cruel, filling the world
Smart and sharp
With a quick wit
And the bitterness lingering
Below the surface to match it

You taught me well
How to stand up for myself
To everyone save
For you
You taught me to lock
All the doors at night
Hide my heart
Hide my light

I see you there sometimes
Out there in the shadows
Lonely and uncertain
Where I am sixteen years old, steel-toes
Stomping up the stairs
To the sound of Desmond on the Stereo
Singing for every mouth to be fed
And waiting for the war’s end
Where all our noble failures born
From the best of intentions are forgiven

I see you now, in the lateness of the hour
The mother who
Did the best she could
With the mess and neglect
And violence
She was given
Spent a life running
Looking for the calm
After the storm
Looking for her son
Without seeing the one she bore

I will meet you there
When sun finally breaks through the thunderheads
Where Desmond Dekker is singing
For every mouth to be fed
Holy forgiveness
And every war’s end

Desmond Dekker

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For My Mother and Desmond Dekker

Poem written to an estranged mother, 2014.

The last time I saw you:
Sixteen years old
With my face to the light
At the north end of old York road
With the clouds breaking
Just after a spring storm

I have seen
In my short life
So many sunsets
But none quite like this
Full of mystery
Hope and promise
And the feeling that
This old road
Could lead just anywhere

One day:
I will drive it
Past the sunset
Right the fuck out
Of this little town
And never look back

Until now:

Sixteen and sullen
Silent and unsteady
In your shadow
In the car next to you
While you smoke
In my head, a checklist
Of all the things they never
Ever teach us in school
Like just what exactly
I should do
And where
I should go
As you slip further away
A little more each day

How terrifying it must have been for you
To be a mother
Left all alone in this mess
Raising this
Tiny terror you created
Growing as fast and as cold
As the time moved slow
All on your own

What do you do?
When Mommy’s little monster
Slashed up his arms again
Stays up too late
And refuses to care
Just what anyone
Expects of him

I remember you:
In the silver April light
Standing in the sun
At the end of York Road
Laughing your
Gravel cigarette smoke laugh

The last vestiges
Of the mother I knew
Aging smile
Fading and breaking
With the light
While the sun sinks
Below the horizon
Barely lighting
Our forever
Diverging paths

The last of the light
Giving way to the black and
Long and cold and dark night
you and I
Chose to make
Out of our lives

Poem written to an estranged mother, 2014.

Christmas time is possibly my least favorite time

What do holidays really mean to someone largely estranged from their family of origin?

Maybe it means you start dreading the holiday season from about the day after Halloween, until January second.  It means you get to listen to your friends talk about going away to see their families, or what gifts they plan on giving their loved ones.  You don’t want to fucking hear it, because you don’t really have a family to go home to.  You can’t even imagine what that’s like.

Maybe you think about how the last Christmas you can remember spending with your family of origin, your solution was steal two bottles of wine from the store before making the several hour drive to your mother’s house.  It turns out, if you and your mother just keep drinking, that makes the holiday and one another’s company actually bearable.

You spend Christmas Eve drinking wine.  Mom drank from a glass, you drink straight from the bottle.  You look at dumb shit on the internet, and didn’t talk about anything of any consequence, except mom shows you this cool website where you can look up people’s mugshots.  She shows you your cousin’s latest arrest photo, for her latest arrest on meth possesion.

“Look at what drugs did do her face!”  She drunkenly exclaims.

“She was such a beautiful girl growing up.”

Then shit gets weird.  You half drunkenly start to think about saying something to your mom about the patriarchal weight put on physical appearance, and how damaging beauty standards are, how maybe your long lost cousin’s addiction boils down to more tragedy than the ravages her demon of choice have taken on her face and figure.  You think the better of it, and keep your mouth shut.  You turn your laptop away so mom can’t see it, and quickly type in the name of your neighbors who assaulted you as a child.  These are the real life monsters that lived under your bed that your mother denied existed.

And there he is.  One of the faces that has haunted you most of your adult life.  Your mom denied he existed all this time, denied your experience was real, and told you to get over it, and there he is.  Right there.  It’s the face you know so well, but with added mileage.  The years have not been kind, and maybe that’s just what you wish on this asshole.  You wonder if it means something in some grand universal sense, that you are happening to glimpse this face for the first time in over twenty years while sitting in the same room as your mother, who you rarely see.  You think about some grand tapestry involving threads of family, violence, neglect, mental illness and despair that weave themselves together to be torn apart as sure as night follows day.

You think about saying something to mom while you’re both drunk.  You wonder if the conversation won’t go differently this time.  Maybe the wine will soften both of you.  Maybe the wine will alleviate some of the bitterness that has accrued over the years.

You realize you are maybe too drunk.  You think the better of it, and go to bed.

You can’t sleep and you answer a craigslist casual encounters ad or two.  You try and work up the nerve to go have anonymous sex in the town your mom lives in.  Sure enough, there are lonely men who like effeminate boys in this place she moved to for it’s southern conservative values, even on Christmas Eve.  You drunkenly think for a second about how maybe this is replaying childhood trauma in your adult life.  You tell your brain to shut the fuck up.  Stop ruining your night.  Anything to fill the void, you guess.

Self preservation prevails.  You fall asleep in the guest room. You don’t drive drunk.  You don’t go to some stranger’s house and get choke fucked by him until he cums and you leave before he even pulls the condom off, or bother to ask his name.

You drift to sleep and you think of the void.

The void, that great colossal emptiness you are constantly filled with weighs heavily on you.  It is your oldest, and surest companion.  You stare at the shadows on the ceiling, and you are sure they are staring back at you.  You’ve known this since you were a child, and you sought the company of FM radio waves washing through your room at night to keep the abyss at bay.

You feel all that void this year too, as December drags on.  The daylight is short, and the nights are long.  The dark feels goddamn endless.  The dark feels abyssal and gigantic.  You have too long to lie in bed and think about where it all went so wrong.  The mornings barely push their light through the curtains in your room, and it’s so cold.  You don’t want to get out of bed.  You think about lighting candles, or doing ritual to bring light back to you, but you don’t have the strength today.  Maybe you will tomorrow.

You think about the Christmas when you were fifteen.  It’s one of the last fond memories you have of your family, and even that memory is stained with poverty and depression.  This was the Christmas just before you and your mom lost your house.  The house is dirty, and constantly filled with blue cigarette smoke.  Mom stays in the house and chain smokes all day.  Sometimes you go to school, sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you go out with friends, sometimes you don’t.  You get uncomfortable when you are around your friends and their nice families.  When you are home, you stay in your room listening to records and staring at the ceiling.

You and your mother decide that even though you don’t have money for presents, you should both go to K-Mart, and buy one another at least something to open on Christmas day.  You find something you think your mother will like, and you think about how little money you have.  The heat has been turned off twice this winter already, and it’s a fucking cold one.

You do what any sketchy broke fifteen year old would do, of course.  You secret the present away in your rad teenage punk leather jacket.  This is after all, the K-Mart where just months ago, in the warmer, seemingly invincible summer days your friends would have you go in to the store with your mohawk spiked up to run distraction while they shoplifted to their little teenage criminal heart’s content.  This is the K-Mart where some hick managed to drive a riding lawn mower on display outside into his buddies waiting pick up truck and not get caught.  You think you are doing great, presents secure in your jacket, and saving this meager twenty dollars at the same time.

“Goddamnit, kid.  Do you realize store security is trailing your around the store?”

You hear your mom’s voice behind you.  Oops.  She manages to explain to the store security guard and employees who have assembled around you that you are doing your last minute Christmas shopping together, and you were simply just trying to hide your purchases from her since you were in the store at the same time.  You weren’t actually trying to steal.  She promises.  She insists you are a good kid.

“Of course that’s what I was doing.”  You agree vigorously.

They let you go, and just before Christmas comes, you and one of your older friends go steal a carton of cigarettes from the convenience store two towns over for you to stuff in your mom’s Christmas stocking late Christmas eve.  You wish she wouldn’t smoke so much, but not much else seems to make her happy.

Twenty years after that Christmas, the void pulls just as hard.  You sit at a bar with one of your closest friends, while she finishes her beer and you drink water.  You talk about how neither of you have any family to go to this year.  You didn’t really have anywhere to go last year either.

“Fuck it.  We’ll buy each other presents.  We don’t need our shitty moms.”

You both smile.  You talk about trauma, love, and loss.  You talk about the difficulty and depression of the season.  You talk about moving on, and moving away from destructive patterns.  You talk about legacies of mental illness and despair, how they leave their long shadows.  You talk about how you can almost see the light moving in at the edges of the dark.

You put your jackets on.  You leave the bar.  You hug and part ways, walking different directions  on Fourth Avenue.  You walk home through the fog, and think about what you are going to get your friend.  You think about how to move through the sadness that has persistently followed you for these last two months.

No, fuck it.  You think about the sadness that has followed you for almost as long as you can remember.  Maybe this year you’ll beat it.  Maybe this year, as this holiday season and it’s fake happiness fades into the the background and the winter days start becoming incrementally longer you’ll find new ways to thrive,  instead of just surviving like you always have.   Maybe all this hurting is really just growing, and the bad times melting away like muddied snow come the spring thaw.

 

Christmas time is possibly my least favorite time