Last night and into the early morning I was reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Ferociously reading, I might add, as the act of reading this book is like running in three different races: One, to beat the library return deadline. Two, to beat my songwriter’s book club deadline. Three, it’s so brilliantly and poetically written, I can’t help but take a long walk around each sentence before sprinting over to the next one.
There is a section where Vuong describes the process of how veal is made. Baby calves in tiny cages, taken from their mothers, fattened and led almost immediately to slaughter:
“All freedom is relative - you know too well - and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they 'free' wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough.”
I tuck this away as a tool for explaining privilege to all the free range folks I know. Myself included. Just because you don’t know what someone else’s cage looks like or feels like doesn’t make it any less brutal and violent for them. Doesn’t mean you aren’t in your own damn cage. Doesn’t mean you aren’t a willful or willfully ignorant participant of things being caged.
I should back up a bit.
Before bedtime, I took a bath. Mom died on February 7, 2017, but this year grief woke me up before the alarm, so to speak, first with aching hips around January 20, then with a thumping heart and racing thoughts around January 23, and last night with that bone-deep longing and throat-burning sadness. This shit is stored in my cells, yet it still somehow catches me off guard. Like that scene in Elf where Buddy tests the toys, only I am Buddy. Only the toys are little Jackie-Whites-in-the-box. Only it is not funny.
After a brief, soothing but unsatiating stint of overeating and undermoving, I crossed a foggy Xanax bridge into the land of less harmful coping skills, like crying, cbd, grief oil, music, meditation, and baths. Ever the multi-tasker, last night’s bath was a hot, candlelit, salty, milky, honey mix of all those things.
As the steam rose, tears fell. I called to my mom, that same guttural, audible cry that my ears still question even though I’ve heard it several times before, the first time from my mother’s mouth when her mother died, then on occasion from my own mouth starting on February 7, 2017. When a creature cries for its absent mother, you can hear their stomach tightening. You can sense the body’s subconscious recall of its own birth. And in that way, a child’s grief goes into labor to give life to death. Mama. Moo. A baby calf, uttering, searching for her mother’s udder. Sustain me.
The call shoots out over the distance between us. Jumps the electric fences that separate life and death, sickness and health, body and soul, love and whatever the hell it was that kept us from it for so long.
Vuong’s book, though a novel, is written in the style of an epistolary memoir from the main character Little Dog to his mother Rose. Maybe I’ll try that.
Mama, I’m scared - please protect me. I whisper softly through the tears that crowd around the corners of my mouth. Mama, I miss you - please come see me. I repeat this out loud til my fingers and toes start to shrivel. I repeat it in my head til the water is drained and the candle is extinguished and my skin is dry. I repeat it in my heart forever and ever.
Okay, so back to the ferocious reading. It’s around 1am and I’m trying to sniffle quietly as Little Dog describes the dying and death of his grandmother Lan, whose name translates to Lily. In addition to the names of his mother and grandmother, there is other flower imagery. A little bit about tulips, which remind me of my mom in the way that they were her favorite flower. A lot about sunflowers, which remind me of my mom in the way that, for a period of time - the same period of time we held each other in high esteem - they were my favorite flower. They were so much my favorite flower, that she once pulled the car over on the dusty country road next to a field full of them so I could get out and grab one.
As enamored as I was by their beauty and strength, I was quickly disappointed and disillusioned by their rough, sticky texture, their unyielding stubbornness, and their lack of sweet smell. I got the sense sunflowers didn’t want to be under anyone’s nose or in anyone’s fucking flower arrangement. They are unwilling to bend toward anything or look at anyone but their creator. Loyal til their scorched, shriveled death. Just like my mom.
I didn’t think of any of these floral references as a visit from my mom, per se. I have a way of talking myself out of the possibility she is with me. Plus, it was late and the words were starting to blur together. Maybe I was imagining her there in Vuong's' words. Another way to cope.
When the alarm finally sounded at 8:15am after the sweet free sleep I enjoyed by waking up before it, I rushed out the door and drove to my friends’ apartment across town. Supposed to be there by 8:30am. Parked the car at 8:29am. Ran in to put down my backpack. Told them I’ll be right back, I have to go scootch my car up, since I got yelled at by the neighbor for taking up too much space a few days ago. And that’s when I saw it. Not sure how I missed it a minute ago.
Across the sidewalk from my parked car, discarded on the pebbly landscape of a neighboring apartment complex, a huge, and I mean huge canvas. Painted on it, a huge, and I mean huge sunflower.
I stared slack-jawed at the work of art that is also a piece of trash. Vuong’s book, and his character Trevor’s words, rush to the front of my mind. Trevor, who (spoiler alert)...
...dies in a cage he built for himself with the tools of his cagers. In his case, drugs. In mom’s case, a man-made god that broke both of our hearts and made both of us believe I was a disappointment.
“It’s kind of like being brave, I think. Like you got this big ole head full of seeds and no arms to defend yourself.”
Thanks for visiting, mama. Thanks for protecting me, in your own beautiful, strong, sticky, stubborn, brave way. For nourishing me posthumously, as I excavate you from a million tiny dried shells, cracking you open again and again between my teeth and my tongue, spitting what was and what will never be into a styrofoam cup between my legs. Swallowing the rest.
I miss you so so so much.