This is a story about my mother.
On the last day of classes at the end of my first year in college, my father picked me up in our old, blue Chrysler dynasty, and I climbed into the back seat like a child. By then I’d stopped wondering what he was thinking, and I remember the feeling that I was stepping slowly into black water, the earth disappearing behind us as we descended from the mountains into the city.
We didn’t say a word to one another.
Back home he’d sold many of my things. My CD player, books, bed frame, and even the stuffed elephant I’d cherished and squeezed flat to fall asleep each night. It was dank and disgusting there. The air smelled like cooking grease, rubbing alcohol, and body odor. I’d wanted to take my life almost instantly upon returning.
How, I wondered, could this be where I’d come from.
I was in love with the first boy I’d seen back in Leadville. Sitting atop my desk in my dorm room that first day, facing what I’d like to think was due North, I’d spotted a strawberry blond with an adorable cowlick and an air of deep contentedness. He seemed loyal and humble and bare. All this I gleaned from my window.
When he moved in next door to me, I knew that the universe had her ropy hands in all of this. I did everything I could to make him fall in love with me until he did.
We both had a deep affinity for escape and nights we’d drive to Buena Vista and down through Salida, or sometimes all the way to Boulder. He taught me to skip rocks at Turquoise lake and also the names of trees I should have known. I learned to pay attention to the changing of seasons and the nature of light. I haven’t been here, I wanted to tell him. This is all new to me: living.
We made love for the first time and he bore my pain without knowing anything about its origins. Each time he asked about where I’d come from I bore down into silence or minimized the damage to keep him close. He didn’t need protecting from my past, but I didn’t know it then.
By spring we were engaged and talking about leaving for his hometown. We’d marry and finish college in the East, and I’d never have to return to the place I’d barely survived.
Except we were broke and young and afraid.
He held me that last night before he left promising to call every day, promising to save money for our very own place. The room was already empty of his maps and clothing, his packs and gear and skis. Moonlight shone through the window onto our bodies and hurt.
When I’d called my mother from school to tell her that I was in love, she was relieved. She didn’t lecture me about falling too fast, or making hasty plans, or ruining my life. She understood that there was an opening, some slight hope, and she’d wedge something there to hold it for me.
After long shifts at the hospital, after working all night to support my father and to keep up the mortgage payments, my mother drove me around to job interviews in the draining heat. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. Long-term abuse had infantilized me; I’d been kept from these very basic modes of independence. I sat through lectures on pyramid schemes and took tests at the local employment agencies to no avail. I knew that I’d die there coiled up on a mattress at the back of the house, wishing my life away.
Sinking along with my mother.
Except she reared up one last time.
She’d come home one morning, exhausted and swollen and bare-faced. “Let’s get you a plane ticket,” she’d said. “Let’s get you out of here. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it, but we have to do something, and we have to do it now.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
I loaded what was left of my life there, what I could fit in my oversized blue duffel, and my mother drove me to the airport. All I could think of was my own looming freedom, how any little thing could derail this final piece of the road there.
I wasn’t thinking of her, or where she had to return, or what was going to happen to her. Whether she would finally die at my father’s hands. Finally I was her child that needed help, that needed her, and she got me there just in time.
She saved my life.
I married that man and so many of you know little pieces of our story now. We live in the woods, in the quiet and peace here, with our young daughter. And we experience moments of real happiness born of feeling known.
We think of my mother often and imagine her in this gentle forest.