Sometimes, during the night, in those moments of half wakefulness when the cool air covers my face and the darkness clouds my eyes, I think I’m in my mother’s bed again. The box fan drowns out the sounds of where I am now, and for a few lost moments, I am back in Alabama. I am back home.
It’s been seven years since I lived in that place with her and at least a dozen since I slept in her bed. I was embarrassed of it then – twelve years old with a belly as big as Moon Pies and bangs that split in a cowlick she gave me. I didn’t want to tell my friends that at night, every night, I couldn’t fall asleep without the sound of her breathing and the feeling of her pulling the blankets every time I rolled over. She never made me feel badly about encroaching in on her room, though sometimes she may have wanted to. It was her space, her world that I forcibly made ours. I think that may be what motherhood is, or at least what she taught me it can be.
It hadn’t always been our room, our bed. I can remember being a small child in the room with pink walls, playing with the edge of my comforter on a white daybed and humming myself to exhaustion. Nothing felt frightening then, or if it did, the fright was easily scared away with my mother’s promise to check on me during the night. I can see now that she’d said that only in passing, mentioning once that before she went to bed at night, she stopped in my doorway to ensure I was safely asleep. The comment didn’t ring so casually to me then; I imagined her every night, in the darkness of midnight, dutifully climbing from bed to stand guard in my doorway like a sentry, or a soldier, or a man. I thought we were invincible in this routine. Nothing could take me because she would know I was gone. I slept heavily through those nights.
It was always just me and her. Well, and my brother, but he was unconnected: a boy, a boy who liked boys, quiet, moody, thin. He felt so separate because my mother and I were so inseparable. I told my grandmother once as we used mason jar lids to fasten biscuit shapes from dough: “these are all the same, just like you, me, and mom.” Mom’s eyes are my eyes. Her right dimple sits on my left cheek. I laugh the way she laughs: quickly and too often.
I can’t remember when the change happened. I imagine I must have been eight or nine, but it could have been earlier or later. All I know is one night, I crawled into her bed and I never wanted to crawl back out. Eventually, she stopped making me.
My brother – the other – started filling his veins with what I imagined could only be battery acid. I couldn’t see it as anything else: pure energy. Frenetic Poison. The reason the shapes in the dark corners of my room at night stopped feeling so benevolent. My brother was angry and thinner than ever before; his bones poked at his skin like toy blocks in a trash bag. I hid from him in the shadows of doorways and woke up in cold sweats, imagining his hollowed face floating in our bath tub.
My mother and I haven’t talked about those years in years: the dark years when we slept on her pillowed mattress with the bedroom door locked, jumping at every small sound, the box fan turned to “3” to drown it all out. With the whirling air, the nights too became chopped up hours that we ticked off holding our breaths.
What were we waiting for? I don’t know, but it always felt like we stood on the brink of something larger, as if the world was just a breath away from tumbling off the edge of itself. Fragile. Every day was a new uncertainty: would my brother come home? What version of him would walk through the door? Was my mother a bad mother for both hoping and fearing he wouldn’t come back each night?
My brother doesn’t remember these years at all. My mother stays silent as if she has forgotten them too. Me, I wake up still in them.
What does a mother do when one child clings to her bed in fear, but the other child is the reason fear exists? I do not have an answer, except that my mother must have been made with match sticks soaked in kerosene and metal. Her bones had to have been shaped by marble, cut with blood diamonds, and filled with the hardened magma from a land I’ll never stand tall enough to reach. I have her eyes and her dimple and her second, longer toes, but I do not have the fire in her that made it possible for us to stay afloat in her bed. Just us two, blankets and a deadbolt, a box fan, and the night.
When I was sixteen, my mother sat on the edge of my bed and watched as I colored my eye rims black with crayon. Her hair was shorter, styled differently for her new boyfriend, and she wore jeans that were now too small for even me. I hated her and I missed her but the rushing air in my head was too loud to let me realize it.
“Wouldn’t it be fun if you slept in my bed tonight? We can watch old crime shows and I’ll order pizza.”
It was a generous offer. I knew how she dieted. I also knew how little television she got to watch working seventy-hour weeks to pay for my brother’s medical bills and my own impending college. Her time was precious and her off-nights were rare. When I think back to her asking, I always hear myself saying yes.
“That’s weird, Mom,” I answered, and the hurt in her eyes was a mirror of my own tattooed expression. I’d covered my own bedroom mirrors months ago, sleeping with towels over the glass, in order to avoid seeing her staring back at me. This was no mirror now though. She was real, in my bed, and I was telling her to leave.
I only wanted to sleep alone.
My husband asks me now what I dream about when I startle out of sleep. My pulse races and often, I’m clutching at the comforter like a rope. Most nights, when I come to and see the familiar blue of our sheets or smell the soft fabric-softener on his skin, I smile and say nothing. How can I tell this man that I love about the way my mind still thinks it’s sinking? That I’m still tied to the family ship that my brother steers towards ___ ?
My husband’s family’s twenty-five years of Christmas cards fill the pages of a memory book downstairs. His childhood stuffed animals sit in the box of mementos his mother saved in anticipation of the young docile wife he didn’t marry. He has memories of story books she read to him, stowed away letters she wrote to him, and home movies of the hundreds of events she sat patiently through, and sometimes I feel jealous.
But he did not have her bed.
The last time I shared the bed with my mother was when I was nineteen and a shell of myself. I’d moved out months before to the college upstate, but on weekends, I stuck around for the older man she’d never wanted me to start dating. He’d thrown me out again in the dead night, this time with no shoes. It was December and the pads of my feet were stained black from the soil outside his bedroom window.
She did not look surprised when I crawled into her bed. She did not ask why I was home. She could feel it in her bones.
“Mama,” I cried, and she opened the blankets beside her like a caterpillar’s nest. I climbed in and pulled the familiar covers up to my chin. In the gray light leaking through her window, I could just make out the darker stains from my tears smeared against the sheets.
“You’re too good for him,” she whispered, and I nodded, the words not unfamiliar at this point. Neither of us looked at the other; instead, we laid parallel with the backs of our hands barely grazing the other’s. The box fan roared in the background, a deafening silence I knew like my name.
“After all your brother put us through, I never thought you’d let a man make you weak again.”
She turned over, her back to me, and my tears stung less than my shame. I wanted to cry harder then, to tell her she didn’t understand, but of course she did. We became the women that we are in this bed. We had always been just like we were in that moment: back to back, covers drawn, paired together because of a man, and silent because of love.
My mother and her new husband’s anniversary is the same day as mine and my husband’s. She calls me most evenings on her way home from work, and we talk about the men in our lives as if they are our children, and it is comforting. The bed she has now is the same bed frame we slept cradled within. But now, a new mattress and instead of her child, her husband and her dogs crowd the sheets. She tells me she must cocoon herself within the blankets, lest they be stolen in the night and leave her freezing and exposed. She laughs when she says this, and I laugh too. I’ve learned the memories will be sweeter this way.
I am eight-hundred and fifty-seven miles from her now, and she is forty-six miles from the house where she raised me. My brother lives four-hundred feet from her back door, and he raises goats he named after me and vintage television stars. His hands shake when he tries to use them, and he cannot drive for long stretches due to seizures that clench his muscles like elastic. He did not come out of our childhood unscathed, but yet, I suppose no one does.
I have not felt the stability that I have now ever before in my life. I have routines and a power bill and a favorite grocery store I go to every Saturday morning. Life is quiet and the air tends to stay still no matter the time of day. Even with this new-found peace, I cannot fall asleep without the sound of the box fan, stirring up the night air. A mother’s lullaby. It sends me straight to sleep.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Elias