Holding On Is [ ]

by Kay Gram

Featured Art: “Cradle of Kleptocracy” by Madara Mason


[arms & legs]


Be my arms and legs. You’re strong. You can do it! Mom would say. Mom’s body was small, fragile, needed time to move, moved differently than other bodies. I always thought she was beautiful. She was—blonde, blue eyed, narrow nose, all symmetrical. Mom had a determined presence that demanded respect and she had mastered the performance of a Eurocentric female beauty. Outfits were planned, makeup was worn, perfume was sprayed. We were late to everything. Sometimes she fell down.


* * *


Mom was diagnosed with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy, a rare and incurable neuromuscular disease, when she was thirty and pregnant with me. In our life together, she wasn’t able to lift heavy objects, things like pots or pans or dog food bags, her own body. She couldn’t run or dance or move very fast. She used a brown wooden cane, shiny wood, golden handle. When walking was too much, a wheelchair. I was her arms and legs. Elle was her arms and legs. We were good at being Mom’s limbs. Sometimes she held onto us when she walked and we took turns pushing her wheelchair. When she fell, we helped her back up. We loved Mom, her body, went to her for comfort, to cry, to laugh, for attention. Who could listen better? Care more about our days, our lives, our futures. Of course I miss her. She haunts me. Or her pain does.


* * *


Sometimes Mom said she and Dad divorced because he didn’t like that she was sick. He didn’t want a wife with Muscular Dystrophy. They split or started to when I was four, Elle was nine. A year later Mom moved with Elle and me to Kansas where our grandparents lived, Dad stayed in Arizona. Mom drove her car with our dog Fritz and all the houseplants packed in. Her parents followed, each of them driving diesel trucks full of stuff, our family a caravan of belongings, Elle and I tucked into Grandma’s cab, leaving Dad behind (his version) or escaping to safety (hers).


Dad said the divorce happened because sometimes people don’t get along and Mom was a real bitch. “Stop bitching like your mother,” he’d tell Elle and me when we went to Arizona for Christmas or summer visits. Bitch, bitch, bitch, he’d say in a high-pitched voice, short and quick like bitching was silly, like being a woman, silly, like bitching was just the sound some animals made. Women.


When we were in Kansas, Dad called to talk to us every day. Now that I no longer have a kid body, we don’t speak at all.




When I think of my parents, their relationship, I think of spiral galaxies colliding. Some sort of bizarre, golden collision—a long collision, neither of them sure who would outlast the other or why they had to, but knowing they were in it, with no way to reverse gravity—a captivating, dramatic dance to the death. Apparently galaxies collide all of the time. I probably won’t ever understand why or how.




As the divorce unfolded, Mom began recording Dad’s phone calls. I bury myself in those tapes. The court paperwork. The medical reports. Mom’s journal. She kept it all. I found them in the laundry room after she died. I dig in to our history and it is heavy. I bury myself and I know to be buried is to be dead.


Holding on is to die, letting go is to die. I don’t understand black holes, nothings. Space and transformation. I can’t help but feel compelled to make sense of the past. I can’t help but feel stuck. I want to be close to her. I want to be far away. How do I stay in my body, move on.


I listen to hours of our recorded past on the tapes, but I never finish listening to all of them. I know enough, or.


When are you going to die? I hear Dad ask Mom. Like he couldn’t wait. If you’re really sick, how long are you going to last? I need to know.




* [vacuum] *


When I was kid, in a kid body, Mom used to dissect the vacuum bag. Each time the bag reached maximum capacity, she set up shop in the kitchen to cut and sift.


The ironing board became operating table, she laid out a plastic grocery bag to keep it clean. There wasn’t room on the counter. She said the kitchen was too small. The ironing board too heavy. Elle or I would carry it to the kitchen for her. The ironing board longer than any of us were tall. I remember its scratched, dark green metal, the ugly-yellowed foam under the flowery cloth top. I remember the height of the ironing board once it was unfolded, transformed, the squeak as it opened, the struggle to lock it in place. The place where it met Mom’s body, splitting her in two. An above and below.


Mom cut the bulging bag open with scissors, the good ones, and then in went her hands, somehow dragging our family filth out in an elegant way, her hands that played piano when she was young—her always painted fingernails, only ever reds and pinks—those fingers, delicate, spreading that disgusting gray mass across the plastic grocery bag. The particles that inevitably danced out and up and beyond as she sorted through. Inside the bag, every time, that gray crap. Ashes to ashes.


* * *


In her journal Mom wrote that Dad would send Elle and me to bed in the afternoon if he was in the right mood. She wrote that one time she had to crawl to the bathroom. She had crawled to the bathroom, bleeding, had been unable to stand. Unable to walk and bleeding, Mom crawled to the bathroom. There were other times, but that one had been particularly bad, required medical attention. Over time and through my own experiences, I understood more and more what that story meant.


* * *


I do my best to name,

everything. I try to hold on to the power of words, amid their failure. I often feel like I’m looking for something, reasons for Mom’s suffering, or some sort of release. I want to understand my family so that I don’t become them. I already am them. I try to allow for and. Try to allow for


[           ]


There are words, like rape, like rape and intimate partner violence. Abuse. Words like hoarding, words we didn’t use or ever say to each other. In the medical reports the doctor that examined Mom used words like tear, swelling, her husband needs to be more gentle. 


* * *


Other than neon pink Barbie shoes and plastic Barbie earring studs or rings getting sucked into our dirty nebula, I don’t remember Mom finding much during her vacuum bag dissections. Maybe a crumpled pony sticker, no longer sticky. A hair tie, round kibble of dog food or two. Perhaps a string or button, a penny. Most of what made it into the vacuum didn’t seem to be anything solid. The smell of the dust was always the same. I can remember that particular stink—old, contained, a little fried. Maybe she was searching for all of Barbie’s pieces, for perfection, for why things didn’t go the way she had wanted them to.


You know what you did she tells Dad on one of the tapes.


He says if she thinks that was bad, she has no idea.


* * *


Objects seemed to be a way for Mom to expand, her body became many bodies, an ever increasing universe of possibilities she could know and control. She said she was a collector—bells, Barbies, bargains, depression glass. She liked shopping, keeping, giving gifts. Somehow her things were alive, a part of her. We weren’t supposed to play with the bells, the boxed Barbies, the older ones, anything glass. (I was never embarrassed of Mom’s body, her cane, or wheelchair. But I didn’t like our house, its secrets and rules and the continual shifting of piles from one room to another.)


One time a friend and I used the glass bottle of Chloraseptic spray while playing doctor. Somehow in between squirting each other’s throats with that numbing green we dropped the bottle and it broke. We broke it. Mom and Elle cried. How could we. We’ve had that bottle forever. Another time when I was older, I was bouncing a basketball against the living room wall, an obviously bad decision, and the ball missed my intended target, hurled towards a table of glass bells, smashing into and breaking several of them. Mom heard the crash and made her way into the living room, Elle too. It was as if I had broken them in some way, not just the bells. They couldn’t stop crying. That was the only time I got sent to my room, grounded. You’re just like your father. I went to my room and thought about running away while Mom and Elle superglued the bells back together.


* * *


By the time I was in high school, Mom and I were often fighting about objects, stuff, things. I didn’t want our old toys stacked in my room, shoved in my closet, didn’t want my bright pink comforter from childhood, all the Barbies, their frozen happy faces on the shelves lining the walls of my very pink room that I did not want to be pink. I couldn’t open my dresser drawers, they were too full. I argued that my room wasn’t mine, how could it be, there wasn’t room for me. I couldn’t wait to go to college, to get out of that house, away from our family clutter both real and figurative.


* * *


And yet, I kept and keep objects from our past. Hold onto words, journals, high school planners. I have all of them still. The one from junior year when Mom was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer halfway through the school year. Inflammatory Breast Cancer. Doctors expected her to die before I graduated. I quit track so I could come home as soon as school ended, I woke up early to give her pain pills. She took more during the day, more at night. My grandparents would come over while I went to school. We took shifts this way, when I got home from school, they went back to their house. They had always been there for us. Elle was in college studying to be a pharmacist, but came to Mom’s house on weekends when she could. The shift in cancer dictating our lives seemed sudden, overnight. Maybe it was. Time changed, expanded somehow even though we were immediately aware of how little there was.


I’d always helped Mom with her body, carried groceries, held doors open, pushed her wheelchair, hauled in the goods from shopping trips. Cancer was hard on her, her body. She became heavy in a way she wasn’t before, more dependent on my body. Surgeries to her breast and lymph nodes changed how she could move. She had been able to brush her hair, curl it, shower, dry off, do her makeup, put on underwear, her clothes. Go to the bathroom. Cancer, its treatment, changed all of this, she lost her privacy. She told me I could write about her, her life. Cancer was at least a word we could say.


* * *


I keep my planner from senior year. That one. That year, feeling my body belonged to Mom, to cancer. She must have felt her body belonged to cancer more than I did. She was so angry then, so different, darker than I’d ever seen her. She was supposed to die within the year.


 That year a boy crawled in my window at night. I couldn’t get away, get him off me. All the Barbies surrounding my bed, the toys from my entire childhood present and watching with me as I tried to push him off. I started making small black dots in my planner on the days he would come, trying to place this thing I didn’t want. Keep track of what was happening to my body. Some days had more than one mark. Surrounding and overlapping the dots were homework assignments and days Mom had treatments, dates that college applications were due, and of course I called him boyfriend.


The black dot system failed or couldn’t keep up. Or I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep being who I was. By the time I graduated high school, I barely wrote in my planner at all. The last few weeks, all blank. Emptied, like me.


When I walked across the stage at the end of that year, Mom was there. She was so proud, so tired, her skin red and radiated, her hair, a perfect wig. She had made it to my graduation. I had too. We made it together. As I accepted my diploma, college scholarships, was named valedictorian, I didn’t know I was pregnant, didn’t want to go to college anymore, didn’t want my body or any awards.


* * *


Mom lived for several years after her terminal diagnosis and past my high school graduation. We were glad to have more time, to see each other grow still, though it was hard to see her suffer, and hard for her to live it. I never told her about my body, that boy, I didn’t want to bring more pain into her life. I didn’t know how to pay for a baby with Mom’s medical bills, didn’t know how I would take care of a baby and Mom. So I didn’t have a baby, I went to college, I came home every weekend, every school break, to care for Mom, to be her arms and her legs.  


* * *





* * *


The word vacuum can mean void. Space without matter. But even that understanding has evolved. Space isn’t necessarily empty at all. I like to try to understand the universe. I never will.


* * *


College years gave Mom and me more time. We fought less over objects. My grandparents helped paint the walls of my room yellow, instead of pink, stored my toys and clothes at their house for Mom so I had room. A room. College gave me more space and Mom a new graduation date to focus on.


My last semester I moved home, took courses online. We both knew I needed to be there, in that house, with Mom. I was the only one who could lift her body still. You’re young, you can do it!


Mom didn’t make it to my college graduation.


* * *


Elle and I bought masks to clean out Mom’s house, but there was no escaping the dust. The mold we found underneath stacks, the smell of how our history had aged. We took breaks because it was hard to breathe, our bodies were tired.


 I dragged the vacuum cleaner outside, scraping it along the concrete path from the front door to the driveway. The garage was open and there was a grain truck we borrowed and filled with our rotting childhood, the parts we couldn’t save or keep like my yellow duck swimsuit from when I was four or every pair of underwear we had ever owned. I had cut all my hair off, my body felt swollen, heavy in a deep way, the air humid and hot. The vacuum was held together with electrical and duct tapes. I hated my body then, I was so haunted, so full of ghosts and pain, a life of spiraling collision. I hated that house, that shitty vacuum, all of this stuff, our lives, my life, this packed museum home Mom left us with. I lifted the vacuum onto my shoulder, ready to destroy something, but the handle started to break even before I smashed it against the concrete and the fall of the vacuum, its impact with the ground, was gentle, a pity, deflated. I dragged it over to the grain truck, lifted it in—didn’t I used to be stronger?—placed it on top of some broken lawn chairs, a bike, metal, boxes, the shapes of other things I couldn’t and didn’t want to recognize anymore. We ended up taking over 20,000 pounds of past to the dump.


* * *


I keep some of Mom’s jewelry. She loved rubies and diamonds, but also strings of colorful plastic beads, cheaper metals, anything we had ever given her for Mother’s Day, her birthday, Christmas. Some of her rings fall apart, the stones or plastic fall out of place, the glue doesn’t adhere, stick together anymore. I keep those pieces, but I don’t try to fix them.


Sometimes something else from our lives together breaks. The dish she gave me for my wedding before I ever knew if I would get married. She wanted to be there, was planning ahead. A bright yellow ceramic mug with the shape of Kansas on it she’d given me that a roommate broke accidentally. I feel sad losing these things. I feel good losing them. I like losing objects, surviving breaks. Confirming that I can come out of the other side of loss, still [here].


* * *


When we finished clearing out the house, I stood in the doorway of my room, looking at that space, all of it empty. That room so empty. I hated it. I didn’t want any of this.


* * *


We did a good job. I think we did a good job. As a mother and daughter. Do you?


In some of her last days, in a moment of clarity, Mom asked me. She did believe we had done a good job, as a mother and daughter, that we talked. Her question didn’t come from doubt, I don’t think, but from room. Space, for me.



Kay Gram is a writer and editor based in NYC. Her work has been named a 2017 Best of the Net finalist and as a semifinalist for both the Fourth Annual TAR Chapbook Series and the Gazing Grain Press 2018 All-Genre Chapbook Contest. She is currently at work on a memoir about mental and physical illness, family, and the (im)balance between holding on and letting go. Find her online at http://kaygram.com.

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