Post-Mortem Gift of Empathy

It would be another eight months after her funeral until I stepped foot into the apartment again. My father contacted me and told me that he wanted to get rid of everything and asked me if I wanted to come pick up her clothes, her albums, and any other possessions of my choosing. After recovering from a Scabies scare which he probably picked up at Beverly’s junkie house of ill repute, I finally met with him for breakfast. When we got back to Park Towers, my father insisted on taking me on a grand tour of the ground floor. They had renovated everything to the point of it being nearly unrecognizable. The small TV lounge with the vending machine that carried the cans of Frank’s orange soda had been turned into a computer lab. The back hallway on the other side of the floor that lead to one of Pop-Pop’s long since gone friend’s apartment had been filled with various Administrative, Social Work and Nursing offices for the residents. Even the wall of the original mailboxes where I had once covered Pop-Pop’s box with heart and smiley face stickers had been torn down and a new mail room had been built. I was relieved to find that the old elevator still made the same buzzing, static sound when passing the floors.

The first reminder that my mother no longer lived there was the disappearance of the “No Smoking – Oxygen In Use” notice on the front door. And then my father unlocked the door and we stepped inside. My first glance was across the entranceway into the living room at the floor space in front of the couch where I had last seen her lifeless body laid out. The tears began to pool. The full release came when I sat on the floor in front of the media cabinet and opened up the bottom door. I didn’t remember her owning so many albums. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust – they hadn’t been touched since the move from the house to the apartment in 2004. And this wasn’t just because she no longer had a turntable on which to play them – she had subconsciously opted not to buy a new one so that her authentic self could remain closed away in a dark, cramped, forgotten space. I began to file through the albums, but the emotions became so intense that it was impossible to continue pushing them down; I had to stop moving and just sit with the feelings. I looked up at my father who was standing over me.

“This is so hard. I never would’ve been able to touch these albums and take them like this if she were alive. These were her most prized possessions – it makes it all so much more real.”

My father continued to stand over me – no offer of verbal or physical acknowledgment of my pain. Only a “You’re not going to sell them, right? Some of them are worth a lot of money.” He must have asked me this a half dozen times until I gently retorted,

“Of course not. I’m not that kind of person.”

I got up and we walked down the short, narrow hallway where the Raging Bull and Private Parts posters hung, into the bedroom where the princess-in-the-pea-esque bed took up the majority of the space. To the left of the doorway stood a tall bookcase where my mother had crammed in all of the VHS tapes.

“Do you have a VCR?”

I nodded but didn’t think to grab any of them – I was too focused on fulfilling my original agenda and made a beeline to the three dresser drawers next to her side of the bed where I knew that I’d find a treasure trove of nostalgia: my birth certificate and Simchat Bat certificate, all of my baby teeth preserved in a vial of rubbing alcohol, my first two pairs of baby shoes, my first diaper pins, baby rectal thermometers, all of my Montessori, elementary school, middle school, and high school report cards, drawings and writing projects, her Narcotics Anonymous book from when she was in rehab, and family photographs dating back to the 1920s.

And there was something else. Something that I thought I remembered catching a glimpse of some years ago, but it might have just been déjà vu. Something that would change my perception of my mother’s struggle forever. There hidden under a pile of other junk in one of the drawers was another book – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.  I opened it and began reading some of it. When I got to the chapter on Step Two, a surprise awaited me. There laying in between pages 28 and 29 was a photograph being used as a bookmark. In it, my mother was sitting around with what I presumed were some buddies in rehab. On the back of the photograph, she had written a description in her favorite red calligraphy marker and my guess was confirmed,

“Oct. 86. Chit Chat West “Rehab”. Sitting on steps are. . . Lisa Chesney, Me, standing… P.J. Feeney Mr. Stuttergay Boy and last but not even known, some dyke therapist, staying at Chit Chat to earn a certain amt pts. for her degree, who cares?”

Turning to the very back of the book, I saw that it was an unreturned library book belonging to the Free Library of Philadelphia. The first stamped check-out date was Nov 27 1998, followed by:

May 12 1999

Jun 10 1999

Jul 08 1999

Jul 19 1999

Aug 03 1999

The desperation in that list of renewals was as palpable as the taste of the salty tears that had taken residence on my lips. Unbeknownst to me and my father until after her death, my mother revisited the idea of recovery when I was 15.  By my educated guess, I’d say that she was using heroin around this time considering that my father had his first suicide attempt just 4 years later which he claims was in retaliation for her using. But clearly, judging by the dates which were around Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and her father’s birthday, there was another priority which was very much still alive in the race. And while her addict ended up winning in the end, I now have no choice but to give her a lot more credit than I did.

She really did try, goddamn it.

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