The Everlasting Sorrow of Silence
by Michael C. Keith
My mother came back to life after being dead for two years.
At midnight there was a tapping on the door, and there she was, Margaret Patricia Moore, looking better than during her last days on life support. My body stiffened and my heart sputtered. Terror pinched my capillaries and the ground began to pull out from under me.
People do rise from the dead, I reminded myself in an attempt to keep from coming totally unglued.
"Who's at the door?" inquired my groggy wife as she approached from the dark recesses of the hallway, and when she caught sight of my mother she let out such a deafening shriek I could not repress one of my own.
"Calm down, you two. You'll wake your neighbors. Can I come in?" asked our improbable visitor, a bemused grin on her pale face. "I feel a little light-headed. I haven't had anything to eat in quite a while."
It took a few protracted moments to overcome my shock enough to respond to her request.
"Of course, Margaret," I said, my voice shaking as I put my arm around my trembling wife. "Come into the kitchen. Can you walk?"
"I got here, didn't I?" she replied, a faint echo attached to her voice, "but it wasn't easy. My legs aren't what they used to be. Pretty much skin and bones, as you can see."
She lifted the hem of her skirt revealing legs that had long lost their form and function. The network of varicose veins that had plagued both her calves and her spirit were even more prominent as they levitated from her desiccated limbs -- bulbous purple aneurysms on a rampage. After some effort I managed to navigate her to the kitchen table where she sat catching her breath as we quickly emptied the contents of the refrigerator before her.
"Leftover meatloaf. I love your meatloaf, Celia, but you know that, don't you, dear? I'll just have a sandwich with a smidgen mayo. Put the rest of this stuff back in the icebox before it spoils," said my mother sweeping her hand across the table's bounty. "I'm not that hungry, honey."
"You love pickles. How about a nice dill?" I said, unscrewing the jar and placing a spear on the plate before her.
"Lord knows that's true, and these look particularly lovely," she replied taking a tentative bite. "Flavor's a bit off, but I haven't used my taste buds in over two years."
Celia busied herself stacking slices of meatloaf on bread all the while fixated on my mother's every move. A mix of disbelief and apprehension altered her usually sunny expression.
"Would you like me to warm your sandwich in the microwave?" she offered, placing the sandwich on a plate and holding it before her.
"No, honey. It just turns stuff to leather," answered Margaret reaching for the sandwich. "Never liked those darn contraptions. They do something funny to things."
"I'm going to call my sisters," I said, as Margaret took her first bite.
"No you're not!" blurted Margaret, pieces of her chewed sandwich cascading from her lips. "I'm here for you, not them."
"What do you mean? They'll want to see you. I have to call them. They'd never forgive me if I didn't."
"Look, if there's still time, I'll see them, but you know returnees can be back for a very short time, and I have important business with you."
"Some have been back for days, even longer," I protested. "A man in Turkey was back for two weeks."
"Maybe, but that was two hundred years ago, so I don't think you can rely on that account."
Since such records were kept, eleven people had reportedly returned from the dead. The last known "resurrection," as some in the religious community called it, was 67 years ago in a small farming community in western Iowa. No one but the returnee's husband had witnessed the visit. On the whole, accounts of returnees were sketchy, and some argued that they were just hallucinations or apparitions inspired by the profound grief of those left behind.
"Margaret, please, I have to call Sarah and Mary. It wouldn't be right not to," I continued to plead.
"I'm mother, not Margaret! You're my child, and children don't call their mothers by their first names."
"So that's it? You've returned because I call you by your first name?"
"That and the fact that you never once told me you loved me. At least not since you were five and went with your father."
"That's not true."
"Don't tell me!" snapped my mother, pushing her sandwich across the table. "It's something I've been very aware of... painfully aware of, in fact. Do you know how it affects a parent when their child behaves in such a way?"
"I never meant to hurt you. It just... well, felt funny."
"It felt funny to tell your mother you loved her? It felt funny to call me mother? Your father turned you against me. All he did was lie to everyone, and I'm sure he said things about me that made you think I was awful."
For over a decade, I roamed the country with my miscreant father, only occasionally spending time with my mother and sisters. The fact that she let me go with the person she constantly derided as irresponsible, even though I genuinely wanted to go with him, made me feel she had abandoned me -- that she didn't love me enough to keep me, or fight to keep me. In the end, I felt she had given me away. It was then I decided never to address her as mother, a form of appropriate punishment, I believed. In my mind, she had failed to earn that precious designation, and my grievance had survived into deep adulthood like scar tissue. It had lodged in my soul and refused to be exorcised even as my mother and I grew closer over the years.
My father suffered the same fate, because I quickly concluded if he really cared for me he would not be taking us from town to town like common drifters, causing me to miss school and form no lasting friendships. While I was attracted to the unstructured gypsy lifestyle -- crisscrossing the country provided me endless delight -- I knew deep down a responsible parent would not be subjecting his kid to such a peripatetic existence. So no more addressing him as dad or father either. These ancient and honored sobriquets I duly removed for unfulfilled and neglected services.
"Please eat your sandwich, Mar..." I said moving the plate back in front of my mother while catching myself before addressing her by her first name again.
"I think bad people don't come back, and that's why your father didn't," she countered.
"Jeez, only a handful have, so that leaves a lot of bad people," was my repost to what struck me as an utterly absurd and self-righteous statement.
Celia looked as if she might bolt from the room at any moment, and as Margaret took another tentative bite of her sandwich I shot my wife a look of reassurance in the hope of staving off an emotional eruption that clearly was building in her.
"He wasn't a monster. Just missing something that makes people live a normal life," I replied with an increasing edge to my voice. It was the same argument we'd had so many times when she was alive. Now here I was having it with her when she was dead.
"Please don't use that tone with me. You know darn well that normal was not a word in his vocabulary. He had no idea how to treat a wife and kids. I thought if your father took care of you like he promised after we were divorced, I would be able to manage with your sisters, but that was foolish thinking on my part. I knew he wasn't up to it. While you and he were away on your trips, the girls and me got by, and it wasn't easy. He never gave us any money, and my low-paying job hardly made ends meet, but we survived, because I was a responsible parent. I worked and kept food on the table and a roof over your sister's heads. Your father hardly fed you. When you'd come back from the road, you always looked so thin, and while you were with us, I'd try to put some meat back on your bones, but then you'd take off with him again. What was his allure anyway?"
"I was a kid and it was an adventure with him. I didn't realize it wasn't the best thing for me. I just knew I didn't have to do all the things regular kids had to, like go to school and attend church."
"And take baths and wear clean clothes. You always looked dirty when you came back. I'd have to scrape the grime from your ankles. What kind of a life is that for a child, but your father had no concept of what was the right way to raise you. He just thought of himself and dragged you around with him. It was probably the alcohol, but I think he was born with something missing, too. A lot of drunks know what the right thing to do is, but not that man. Sober he was no better. Always discontent and looking for something else. Something besides the wife and three kids he had."
Again, she pushed the plate containing the remains of her sandwich across the table.
"Would you like some tea?" inquired Celia, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest as if to keep her from listing and falling over.
"What I'd like is some respect from your husband for being a mother who tried to do the right thing by him and his sisters. Even though he wasn't around most of the time, I never stopped thinking about him. It tore me up that he was away from us and with that man, who couldn't even care for himself let alone a child."
"I'm sure it was hard," responded Celia sympathetically.
"I know what you went through," I added, placing my hand on my mother's shoulder.
"So why do you continue to punish me?"
"I don't punish you," I responded defensively.
"You let me take my heartbreak to the grave, and that's cruel and unusual punishment, as far as I'm concerned."
Celia moved in the direction of the kitchen door and excused herself saying she was going to let us continue our conversation in private.
"Thank you, honey," replied Margaret, adding, "You've always been so considerate, unlike someone else we both know."
"I don't think that's fair. I did everything I could for you, and I think you know that, too," I protested as Celia made her exit.
"Well, not quite everything, but I'll admit that you were pretty decent to me in most things, and that helped some, but the pain of being denied what is due is pretty hard to live with... and die with."
"Denied?" I asked, "What do you mean?"
"Do I have to repeat myself? You stopped calling me mother, and only once or twice did you say you loved me, and that was after I put you on the spot by saying I loved you first. You were forced to say it out of a sense of obligation, because others were present. You didn't want them to think you were heartless. You did it to save face, not out of genuineness."
Tears began to well up in my mother's eyes, yet I felt as much irritation with her as sympathy. Throughout my life, it had seemed to me she had played the martyr card, casting herself as one of life's foremost victims. True, she had a difficult past. Orphaned by her alcoholic father, whose wife had run away leaving him with two young daughters that he couldn't deal with, and then she was saddled with a reprobate for a husband. It was understandable that she would view herself as wronged, but in my opinion she exploited it, and for my benefit. It was not until I was in middle age and she in old age that I began to comprehend that she played the martyr out of a sense of guilt. I realized she, too, felt I had been abandoned by her and wanted me to understand and appreciate why and forgive her. Despite that I could not let go of my need to withhold the recognition she so acutely craved.
As I stood across from my mother in the awkward silence, she grew smaller and less physically palpable, a gossamer image. In that moment, and for the first time ever, I felt intense compassion and uninhibited affection for her.
"I love you, mother!" I cried out, joining her chorus of sobs.
With the utterance of those words -- words she had sought into eternity -- she grasped my hand with her cold fingers and then gently withdrew them. An expression of measureless satisfaction transformed her fading countenance and, in the flicker of a moment, I was staring at an empty space where she had sat.
(This story previously appeared in Danse Macabre XXIV.)
© 2009 Michael C. Keith
Bio: Michael C. Keith is the author of the memoir The Next Better Place (Algonquin Books, 2003).
E-mail: Michael C. Keith
Website: Michael C. Keith
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