When my mother died, I lived two blocks from the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro stop. I turned 21 in that apartment, which I shared with two other women who were interning with me at Scripps Howard.
They did not like me. I didn’t know why. I learned not to care.
That winter, I had one real friend in my internship program, a Chilean student who had roommate troubles too. In our own ways, we were both “other,” and I think that sealed our bond.
At night we met for dinner at a Chipotle between our apartments. We hung out together on the weekends too. The Newseum had just opened, and we went there once. He took a funny photo of me outside the main entrance. My arms are outstretched, like I’m trying to hug the sky. I found the photo a few months ago, and it made me laugh because I remember the last few months of my mother’s life as deeply unhappy. I’d forgotten tiny moments of joy that seeped through my sadness.
I threw my friend a birthday party when he turned 20. My mother met him that night. But it’s been so long, I can only remember what she wore, a red vest and blue jeans. I can’t remember if she liked him, or if even he liked her.
In retrospect, it seems odd that this boy and I did not date. We spent so much time together. But I was on the verge of losing my mother. I had no capacity to date. I froze him out when he got too close, which I regret to this day. I couldn’t handle another person needing me. I couldn’t be available to his need.
Still, he met me on the stairs when I went back to the apartment a week after my mother died. He held a box full of my notebooks and the last Jimi Hendrix CD I’d listened to at work.
He’d cleaned out my desk for me. He’d carefully packed my possessions. He did not know I’d soon throw the box away because I could not bear to look at its contents. He did not know I could not even stand to look at a newspaper. Grief turned me upside down, inside out, unraveled all the threads that had once tied me together.
He kissed my cheek, then turned away. I never saw him again.
I’d only come to the apartment to retrieve a few things. I’d go back once more, and then never again. Then I’d leave for Scotland, then Syracuse, then Scotland again, then Mississippi, then Louisiana.
I had a few brief trips to D.C. in between all the years I lived away from Maryland, but I could never stay for more than a few days. I could never live there again.
When I walked the pavement or negotiated traffic, I’d feel like the person I’d been before my mother died. Dread tightened my chest, turned my skin to ice. I’d feel like I was grasping for something I desperately wanted, something just out of my reach. Yet, I also felt certain in my steps, like the person I was before she got sick.
Each time I came to D.C., these two selves collided. I was both the person I’d been when my mother was healthy, and the person I became when she got sick. The question of who’d I have been if she hadn’t died haunted me.
I fled from facing the person I became because she died, the person I am now.
I’m in D.C. this week for the AWP Conference. Each night, I’ve walked the streets near my old internship office.
These are the streets I walked everyday when my mother was dying. These streets are the last places where I ever heard my mother’s voice. I used to walk them when I couldn’t concentrate in the small office space I shared with other interns.
The last time I walked these streets, I didn’t know it was the last time. I left my internship on a Friday afternoon. I went home for the weekend thinking I’d be back on Monday, ready to file a story I’d worked on all semester and was ready to publish in a national newspaper. But my mother died on a Sunday. So I never went back to that office. I never filed the story I’d worked on for three months.
The other night, as I walked, I realized I no longer recognized this place. All the buildings look different, more antiseptic and cold. I felt disoriented, the same way I felt after my mother died. Like I had no sense of forward or backward, no east or west.
I realized I needed to go back to the internship office. I needed to see it in the light of day.
Today I walked in circles initially. I couldn’t orient myself. But as I neared the internship office, my right ear ached, and I knew I was getting close.
I thought I’d feel something when I stood in the doorway, peered into the sterile lobby. But the force of self protection is powerful. I just felt numb, like this building could have been any building, insignificant and anonymous.
Only when I reached McPherson Square Park did something break open. My knees wobbled. A wave of dizziness sailed over me. I had to sit down on a bench.
This park was where I most often talked to my mother. She spoke to me from her living room sofa, from hospital beds, from dialysis breaks. We talked about my articles, about my Chilean friend, about the interns who didn’t like me. We did not talk about her death. We never even said the word.
Against the clamor of cars on K Street, I strained to remember the sound of her voice. Was it nasal? Was it high pitched? Did she elongate her Os in the standard Baltimore fashion?
But I could barely remember the answers to these questions.
Now her voice is not even a whisper. It’s an echo at the edge of fading, the sound a leaf makes when it falls to the ground.
Two tears slid down my face at the exact same time. I cried for what it was to be barely 21 and motherless, and what it is to be almost 36 and unable to recall the most primal sound of my life, the voice that called me to this world, the one that assured me I was safe. I was loved.