We knew January 12th was going to gut us no matter what. Six months is a significant amount of time for your mother to be dead. Any amount of time is significant when you’re talking about your mother being dead, really, but six months has a certain something about it. That’s half a year. It’s a measure of time frequently used as a milestone. Many jobs have a six month probationary period. Six months into a romantic relationship is enough time to know whether you want to spend another six months in that relationship. You’re 2/3 of the way through a pregnancy at six months. At around six months, babies develop in ways that suggest they’re actually becoming real, tiny little people at instead of terrifying, floppy-headed breakables. Six months. It’s a real measurement, a quantity of time great enough to compile enough data to actually mean something. It is a period of time significant enough to be used as a metric.
But it’s not just that today marks six months since we had to let you go. Not that the six month checkpoint is not enough in and of itself, don’t get me wrong. That alone feels significant, colossal, overwhelming. But even if you were still here, January 12th would be a rough day, and this January 12th marks the first time my sisters and I understand fully and completely how hard this day is.
Six months ago today, you died. Thirty-four years ago today, your mother died.
Throughout our entire lives, we watched you struggle with this date. It was always worse in Illinois, when the crops are gone and everything is dead and it is difficult to distinguish where the gray of the land ends from where the gray of the sky begins. It was probably the very hardest for the years we lived at the farm house, that tiny dingy white box atop what we in Central Illinois generously refer to as a “hill”. It was more of a mound, really, a gentle sweeping up of the land in that particular part of the state where glaciers created some semblance of notable topography. But the wind out there was relentless and it howled through the eaves of that modest little mid-century structure, and the winters there made everything harder and more painful.
January is a cruel month in Illinois. The brightness and hope of the holidays is gone, and the cold is deep and biting and unforgiving. As kids back then, we could not fathom the deep cold that must have imbued your soul all those January Twelfths when you strove to hide the incisive sadness in your heart. As a confused and frustrated child, I struggled to understand, tried to cheer you up. As a motherless adult, I commend you for the remarkable job you did at putting one foot in front of the other when it would have been so easy to crawl under the covers and simply give up.
Like you, there was a time in her life when your mother was filled with hope and excitement for a future ahead. But unlike you, she allowed herself to retreat to a place of solitude when life was difficult and she often left you and your sisters alone with the drunk and erratic husband who was in many ways the source of her disenchantment. More than half a century later, it is hard to know exactly what your mother wanted out of life, and you struggled with that question yourself as you sought to process your complex relationship with her, all the way until the end of your own life.
Just before she died, it seemed your mother was finally reaching a place of knowing what she wanted out of her life, or at least a space where she could enjoy being her without the baggage of depression and anxiety and mental health institutions that had been the hallmark of your childhood. She was away from the oppressive relationship with your father, for which she blamed much of her abiding unhappiness, though it could probably be argued that some of her new-found state of contentment stemmed from being almost two hundred miles away from the suffocating small town where she had always been. Decatur, Illinois was thirty times the size of Loogootee, Indiana. The anonymity of a city was likely thrilling, and being near her grandsons and her brand new granddaughter probably felt like a totally new lease on life. She could leave behind her the memories of violent fights with your father, the scars of shock therapy, the shame and inertia associated with inadequacy as a mother in her era.
Much like you and me, it seemed that your relationship with your own mother had finally reached a sustained and stable place of joy, mutual understanding, and respect when her life was snuffed out. The year 1980 had just begun. For you, it was a year pregnant with hope and possibilities. You were twenty-three years old. You’d been married for eighteen months. You had a five month old baby daughter. Your sisters and brothers-in-law were in the same town and you all hung out together and the real, healthy family situation you’d longed for your whole life through the physical and sexual abuse was finally coming to fruition.
It was a Friday night, probably somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five degrees outside. Your mother wanted to go to Bingo at the Allied Industrial Workers, as she often did. My dad worked the third shift at Staley’s, and he was a member of the AIW. The hall was situated at the corner of Jasper and El Dorado and she frequented it with your Aunt May. She wanted you to come along, but you had a new baby and it was January and you didn’t feel up to it. So she went alone, and after she left the AIW, she went to a bar called Alcazar, but that everyone referred to as “Alcatraz”. Known at the time as the roughest bar in Decatur, my dad had warned her a thousand times to stay away from that place. Every weekend it seemed like someone got stabbed. But they played loud country music and the allure was too strong for her.
You got the call midday on the Twelfth when my dad was in the shower. Some children playing outside had found your mother’s battered and frozen body in a creek bed not far from where your little sister lived. She had been beaten, possibly thrown from a moving vehicle, dragged down a rocky embankment, and left to freeze to death. You were inconsolable. It took me a long time to get her settled down enough to tell me what was going on, my dad told me.
Your mother had been eyeing a tunic outfit and you’d been hoping to buy it for her soon. So you did, and you buried her in it.
For thirty-three years you were entirely unable to forgive yourself for not going to Bingo that night. Maybe it would have turned out differently. Maybe she would have come home with you to see her sweet grandbaby and spend the night while your husband was at work. Maybe she would’ve just turned in early at her own place if you’d been driving and had insisted on going home. Perhaps she wouldn’t have been lulled into or struck up conversation with a dangerous stranger if you’d been there with her. Maybe you two would have talked and laughed and danced and enjoyed the music and kept to yourselves. Maybe. Possibly.
In the private moments of sweeping sadness, we let our minds take hold of the Maybes and run wild. We tumble head first into a rabbit hole of what might have been if only we had done something differently. We feed the shame of what if, indulging in unapologetic self-flagellation, and we take responsibility for the unfolding of the entire universe, naïvely believing that one changed decision of ours might have an impact on destiny or fate. We place squarely on our own mortal shoulders the cumbersome burden of all of humanity.
I can never know how many hours of your life you spent sobbing alone, desperately trying to turn yourself inside out to make sense of such a tragic loss. I can never know the endlessness of your agony or the density of your self-blame. I can never understand what it is like to be wholly unprepared for the sudden and violent loss of my mother. I had the gift of praying over you, holding hands with my sisters, and singing you into your next existence. I do not have to wrestle with the torment of imagining you lying in a frigid creek-bed for hours, alone and dying. I cannot imagine how your mother’s fate must have pulled at your seams for the rest of your life. I cannot blame you for turning to the bottle, the church, the pills – whatever might numb the protracted anguish that was the reality of your soul, covered over only by a frangible, carefully crafted veneer.
I cannot comprehend precisely what your pain was like because I was not you and I did not lose you in the same way you lost your mother. But on this January twelfth, I can wrap my head for the first time around the mosaic existence of a permanently grieved motherless daughter. I can hold in my hands a keen understanding of what it is to know a date with every cell in your body, to be painfully aware of a precise measurement of time and to feel it in my every nerve.
Loud, old country music has been synonymous with your parents for as long as I can remember. When I returned to our house and you were home alone, or once I was out on my own and you were in your own place, it was not uncommon for me to hear the plaintive wailing of early-to-mid-twentieth century country artists wafting to me before I even reached the door. The distinct croon of Patsy Cline, the determined lilt of Loretta Lynn, the lonesome holler of Hank Williams – these and many others were the soundtrack of my childhood, the canary song that warned me that your despondency had broken through the surface and thick grief had flooded the day.
You are both gone now. And I can only imagine that on this January twelfth you are somewhere in the universe in a crowded honky-tonk, drinking beer and sipping whiskey, laughing loudly with your mother. The two of you are probably singing along to some evocative country song designed to pull your heart right out of your chest, except I have to imagine that you’re both the happiest you’ve ever been.