03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
Hurts Like Hell
I never prepared. I never planned. I am not the list-making, contingency plan type person.
My mother always called me her break-loose baby. From the moment I was born, on my own time. All things on my own time, I was proud of that. The idea of planning just makes me itchy, so I never have. And now, standing in her front hall, shaking hands with black-clad strangers in long faces, I wish my mother had been wrong about me.
A chorus of solemn "bye-bye Jessica", and "we love you sweetheart" died in the door frame as I waved the last guests out. Shutting the door with a muffled click, I pressed my back to the wood and sagged.
She was gone so fast. No one could have been prepared. That's wrong, maybe someone could but I couldn't, because I don’t make plans.
If I went to therapy may be some kind woman in a cashmere sweater would tell me that my spontaneity comes from a fear of being boxed in by expectation. But I never went to therapy...because I knew what would be said. I never thought of my whimsical life as being something that needed fixing.
Now, standing amongst the clutter of my mother's life, I wish she was still with me because she would have had a plan:
Step 1 - end wake with grace
Step 2 - clean the kitchen
Step 3 - sort living room, dining room, bedrooms, study into manageable piles
That would be her list, I could see it as clear as if it were written down. As if she had anticipated this day all along, even if I couldn't. I could follow that plan, I supposed.
As I tapped the heel of my sensible, funeral appropriate shoe against the door frame I groaned. I don't like plans, but now I needed one. Was this the right plan? Maybe I could call someone to tell me, but that felt like giving up. I couldn't do that to my mother, that wasn't fair. It was my job to take care of this one, huge, monumental thing; the weight of parental pressure is never gone, I guess. My hands beginning to shake, I kicked my shoes into the dining room and stalked the kitchen thinking about lists.
Step 1 - open fridge
Step 2 - uncork wine
Step 3 - massive swallow
Step 4 - pull up your big girl panties
Step 5 - massive swallow
“I can do a fucking list,” I declared into silence. “I can totally do a list.”
Step 6 - massive swallow.
“Jessica Conroy, do-er of tasks,” I sighed. Bottle in hand I made my way to the bedroom to take off my funeral dress.
I am not a planner. Case in point: the nap I was waking from was completely unplanned. Pushing up onto my elbows, I took stock of myself. Funeral dress off. Underwear on. On top of the covers with my pantyhose still cutting into my waist. The list was getting off to a bang-up start.
The sense of shame when the clock told me I had slept away the best part of an afternoon cannot be overstated. Jessica Conroy, do-er of nothing, meeting all expectations. I could feel myself getting sucked into the bedspread, despair weighing me down. One job, just one, and I was already failing.
The mounting depression was quickly overtaken by the anger of my protesting ego. I had made the plan, it might have been a shadow of what my mother could plan but I had made it and I would complete it, check by brutal check. I am not a planner, but damn it I finish what I start. Climbing off the bed I rolled my pantyhose down, tossing them in the garbage before pulling on yoga pants and a t-shirt. I stomped to the study, pulling my hair up as I went. That is where I would start.
“Right,” I grumbled, “sort into manageable piles: keep, sell, donate, trash.” I could do this.
My mother's study is a beautiful place. A large picture window makes up most of the south-facing wall. During the day you could watch the wind dance through the perfectly cultivated garden she loved so much. At night, the window became a mirror, reflecting the rest of the room, bathed in the warm light of the lamps she had artfully placed. It was a mirror of grand design, in size and scale, a perfect reflection of her comfort zone.
In that reflection were walls lined in books, shelves on shelves of useful and important things. Cluttered in amongst the collection were the nick-nacks she had accumulated over a lifetime: tiny statues, bookends holding nothing, a clock, a small brass bell, photos of vacations and holidays. I saw my mother's life in that window, a series of memories scattered around the room where she had lived the most. And right there in the middle of it all, me, looking frazzled and overwhelmed and oh so very sad.
Where was I even supposed to begin in a room like this? How does one decide which parts of a life are worth keeping? In that moment I wanted to decide that everything should stay exactly where it was, a monument to a woman forever separated from her treasures. A museum of unappreciated things.
I felt stuck to the floor, unmoving and afraid. My eyes burned, my breath stuck, my heart froze between beats. I had lived so much of my life in this room. I had loved so much of my life in this room. The moment was a massive testament to my loss and I didn't want to face it. It felt unfair that I had to feel this hurt alone. I was desolate in this big room of books which had no pity for me.
For one glorious moment I was a petulant child, angry in my grief. I grabbed that anger like a lifeline, pulling myself from the sinking ship of my own mourning, and turned from the window.
The small, wooden desk in the corner was as good a place as any to start my list.
“Paperwork. Easy enough. Keep, sell, donate, trash.” I released a long sigh and opened a drawer.
Bills and letters. Notes and vital records. Christmas cards and birthday cards and fucking valentines. My mother had kept anything of even trivial importance, perfectly labeled and sorted, in the seemingly endless drawers of her old wooden desk.
I had gone through every piece meticulously, read and re-read documents for importance and stacked them into their designated piles.
Mostly just trash. Why my mother ever thought a paid energy bill from 2003 was ever going to matter was beyond me. There was some stuff to keep though, and some to give to family who might appreciate the letters she kept so well preserved. The desk was done, each pile neatly on top waiting for its final destination.
While I was sorting I found an appraisal estimate for the book collection, completed eight years ago, and in the morning I would call the shop to see if they wanted to buy it outright. I would box up the pictures and collectibles for family and friends to take. Something to remember her by. I would keep the cozy reading chair and lamp for myself. I would hold on to this efficiency as hard as I could and make each room in this empty house as sorted and organized as this desk.
My hands were sore and my neck ached. I leaned back in the leather rolling chair with a smirk etched on my face. I could feel something inside me beginning to rise up, it was warm and pleasant, maybe a little giddy. I think it might have been satisfaction. Working through this list felt good in a way I had not expected.
I reached for the center drawer, the last of the seemingly endless drawers for me to sort. I expected rubber bands and paperclips, maybe stamps or pennies. I expected the general detritus of a life lived at a desk, shoved away into the top drawer for later sorting that never got done. Instead I found a single piece of paper, meticulously folded in two, my mother’s angular handwriting shouting a single word: Jessi.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to burn the page and walk away as my neatly sorted piles caught flame and took this house away with them.
Reaching for the paper with shaking hands I could feel my heart speed away in my chest. A righteous growl ripped through me and I bared my teeth at that single word.
Whatever posthumous, heartfelt, movie-ending-worthy forgiveness in this letter was bullshit. I didn't need it. And I certainly didn't need the sting in my eyes, or the lump in my throat.
I didn't want any of this. But here I was, sorting a life into useful piles.
This letter would have its place. I unfolded the note with trembling fingers. Whatever was here would go into a stack just like everything else.
My mother's handwriting had always been so intriguing to me. It looked like spider legs, thin and black, scattered across the page. I used to try to mimic it when I was younger, but it never looked the same. Now, faced with the lettering again, I wondered why I ever admired it so much.
I know the house is daunting and I’m sorry. Call Uncle Charlie and Aunt Sue, call Leslie, they will help. But if you don't want to, here's a lifeline
1194 W 13th
Next door to that dentist I hated, remember? The one with the terrible breath. How can I dentist have terrible breath?
You don't have to do this, baby.
I read the note again and again. Each time I tried to find the subtext I was missing, and found nothing. It was just a note. The last note my mother ever left me. I didn't notice the dry tear smudge on the corner of the page until the fourth time through. I didn't know if it was hers or mine, and I probably never would.
Laughing quietly through the pain, I gently folded the note again and set it on top of the shortest stack: keep.
I would start in the kitchen in the morning. Jessica Conroy, getting shit done.