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An Elegy

On December 26th 2021 the universe relaxed a little bit.

In a town so small that it wasn’t quite a town, up in a remote piece of redwood paradise, a kink in the long cord of causality finally unwound.

A piece of driftwood finally fell back into the sea, and a popcorn kernel stuck in the palate of God finally came loose, and a shrieking banshee of love and justice finally screamed her last scream.

Erin Rowe, my mother, died.

I wasn’t there when it happened, so I don’t have anything profound to say about the stillness of death, only I hope to share a little bit of the understanding that she and I came to in the last days of her life. I’m thankful to say that I have no regrets about not being there. Somehow I had seen the moment playing in my head since I was 14, and I knew how she would die, and I knew that I wouldn’t be there.

These aren’t words that I will ever get to share with her, and that feels important too. They weren’t words that I could write while she was alive, and now that she’s dead I’m sure that I won’t be saying anything that she didn’t already know.

I’m writing this for me and for everyone that was there. I hope that now that she’s passed I can use what she gave me to explain what we had. I want to put words to the peace we found as a part of the legacy that she will leave behind.

I think that the greatest tragedy of children and parents is that children take on so much of their parents that they can’t help but despise one another. Even this - the voice I write with - found its core in her dying message of Vonnegut, and childhood lessons of Douglas Adams.

I think this is hardest for the parents that are most broken. They have the children that need the most and strangest help. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for my mother to give me the help that I needed.

I wish that I had faster recognized the help that she needed.

Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a ouroboros of abuse, mental illness, and love. Sometimes I feel like I’m one step away from transmuting lifetimes of pain into a monument to progress. Sometimes I feel like I ought to write off the grand experiment that was me - write back to the manufacturer that this model has too many bugs, a dead end.

Near the end, when I saw her, she was drifting in time. Unstuck, rather, just like Billy Pilgrim. She went forward and back, changing topics and subjects mid-sentence. Struggling to get her words out because the more dislodged she became from us, the worse her words seemed to match her feelings.

So little of what was important near the end could have been said in words. Even as I sit here, typing away in a futile fool’s errand to try to keep this water cupped in my hands a bit longer, I realize that no words will do justice to what we felt in those last days.

The only physical evidence I’ve got, really, is this picture of a dying woman surrounded by family and a scared dog coaxed into a moment of reprieve. I am - just like I always was - sitting off screen stealing fire from the Gods. This time with the quiet pressing of glass that could have been a thousand other things instead.

That woman is not my mother, and that family is not family, and that dog is not my dog. The ember of that picture still burns, but to me it is cool. It’s like ash in my mouth, and I hate it for all the same reasons my mother would hate it. And I took it for the same reason that she let me take it, which was the same reason she let us stay: to give ourselves away. To slice our flesh away and feed it to family so that we might find salvation in that giving.

My mother didn’t want any pictures taken. Just like she didn’t want her sons with her when she died, and just like she didn’t want to speak with her sisters before she crossed the Styx. It was not that she did not love us. Forbid any of us think that for a moment. It was that her purest love was to ask nothing, and that our purest love was to give it anyway.

And it was only that framing, with my brother and I trading shifts of sleep as we crossed through the foggy highways that spread like hyphae through the redwood coast, that freed us all to show our love in the ways that we knew how. It led us toward the best possible end. The one in a million chance that we walked towards until the road fell apart beneath our feet.

My mother did not like many things. She had a fierce, uncompromising view of the world that floated out of the cruel crucible of her childhood. Her sense of justice and fairness and righteousness was so strong and unwavering that she was brought into constant clashing conflict with the outside world.

Living in a bleeding, farting, belching city like Los Angeles must have been torture. I can’t imagine how she survived it for so long.

Every gallon of gas she burned must have been like a long camping spike driven into the joints of her hand. The monotonous, unyielding desert of her drive to Lancaster her very own yellow wallpaper.

She was out of place, and out of time. She was building a future that nobody could see, and she strained every fiber of her being to push for that future for decades. She made progress, too. The kind of progress where anyone looking at what she had accomplished would say she had done a good job, but for her who only saw the state of the world I’m sure it was insignificant. No matter the progress she made, or the people she helped, she was still struggling under the yoke of an unjust world. I think she felt that much more tangibly and painfully than most.

So when she left Los Angeles, I think that’s when her tank was finally used up. She had given so much to so many people, and her soul was in chaos. I imagine that her leaving Los Angeles was a matter of life and death, just like my leaving Los Angeles would be a matter of life and death exactly a decade later.

I didn’t understand, but I do understand, and she knows that I understand. Knew still doesn’t feel right, so she knows. That’s important. Maybe more important than anything.

So when she was dying, and when she told us how she was flying through time and identity in jagged leaps, I imagine it wasn’t so big of a difference from how she was for the rest of her life. It’s how I am, and chronology has always been difficult for me. My self feels transient and willowy and fragmented. I imagine that’s the kind of thing that either makes perfect sense or doesn’t, but I know that to her it did.

So when she was drifting, and talking more in grunts and feelings and sounds than words and thoughts, and when she’d cross decades of time in as many words, she always felt like herself. Maybe more herself than she had ever been. I saw her there, in those last days, simply spreading out her concept of life to the proper fuzzy boundaries she had always felt.

And I remember, thinking back to when she started on that journey. I remember how every step and every word felt like a jumping jack on a minefield. It was several years later, when me and my now-spouse, and my brother all came out. It was just before the abyss of the pandemic, and that was important too.

As we vaped out of her Mighty and ate mushrooms together on that boat I knew that something had been resolved. I felt a knot - barnacle’d and algae’d with age - dissolve into tatters and fall into the surf. I think that I knew, even then, that we were there to uncoil her mortal fetters.

A sarcastic voice in the back of my head tells me that it’s a shame we resolved things so quickly. That maybe if we hadn’t she would have had more of a reason to stay. Lord knows that her will was strong enough to force out some more time if she needed it.

I’m glad that voice is quiet. It is the selfishness in my soul. It squeaks like a timid mouse under the chorus of voices that hopes my death is half as beautiful and intentional as hers was.

I think she was slowly leaving everything unnecessary behind. It’s not that she hated things any more near the end than she did before, just that she was willing to put up with less and less. She carved down her porthole into the world as best as she could, slicing off everything that wasn’t perfect till she could blink out in a ray of golden future.

At the end it was just fine chocolate, foraged mushrooms, vegetables from her garden with the world’s best black vinegar, bitters mixed with sake in the perfect ratio, and a handful of delicacies that stuck out like icebergs in the shattered timescape of her memory. Maybe one meal’s worth across each of her last weeks.

All that, and a handful of drugs so powerful they’re only fit for the dying.

People want to know what killed her. We can throw around symptoms and diseases like liver failure, pancreatitis, and late stage metastatic cancer, and the truth is that she probably had all that and more. None of that is what killed her though.

We like to think of death as this very discrete, aberrational thing. That people are living machines, and that diseases and injuries pop up like hurdles on a long track. I don’t think this is right. I find it much more comforting to think of us as dying machines, and my mother shared this kind of clarity with me.

All time for us is dead time. It’s only for a brief fraction of a strobe against the backdrop of infinity that we inhabit these bodies and get to experience everything that life has to offer. That time is precious, more precious than anything, but it’s also a choice.

She died. She was not killed by a disease, though I suspect she employed one to help her accomplish her own goals. She was frustrated, I think, with the stubborn gossamer thread that connected her to life. That, and by the cruel twist of fate that took food from her in her last moments. I think that if there were any way that she could have gone out cooking and eating, then she would have taken it, but alas, death is not so simple.

She was not given the tools to be a mother. I think that there are certain tools that one needs to learn in a loving home that she was never able to acquire. It is only by the scorching intensity of her love that she managed to get by. I think that, just like everything else she did, being a mother was not so much a choice for her as it was a natural consequence of who she was.

The scale of her ambitions, and the depths of her trauma, were too great to resolve in a single generation.

I had gone through my whole life, I think, believing that she did not know this. I learned how wrong I was only in her last weeks. My mother knew that love alone was not enough. She knew that no matter how much she wished for things to go another way, she would never have the pristine, privileged life of normalcy that so many take as their birthright.

That was her last lesson to me. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to give.

How hard it must have been to watch me walk away in anger, and feel that inadequacy, and flash back to horrible pain. How in everything she did, she never stopped thinking of how she could model success for me. How she stood up against the world in front of me, and let me watch them break her bones and tear her to pieces so that I might avoid her fate.

And I did.

I learned. Every time we had to walk out of a restaurant, or when she fought against the school administration for the sake of my education, or when I leafed through her egg-crate of a memory box to find that she hadn’t forgotten anything.

I do not like many things.

But just like my mother, the things that I do like, I love with a passion hot enough to melt the steel fetters of fate.

She taught me that this is not enough. She taught me to be stubborn and indignant. She taught me how to love with reckless abandon - how to love when love is all you have to give.

She sacrificed herself for our sake. To give us the ultimate lesson of patience and love and humility. She needed, above anything else, to know that we heard her - to know that we were finally old enough to understand the monument she had been building.

And so I left, to show her that she was right. She lived to see me change the world. She lived to see me build the partnership she had always dreamed of. She lived to see me finally, finally read Vonnegut, and restart the path of writing that she set me on so many years ago.

And then she died, with so much left to see.

But that’s okay, because there’s still plenty of moments where she’s doing just fine, even if she happens to be under the ground at this particular moment.

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