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"the thick present"

By KPPublished 3 months ago 36 min read
Photo by Kevin Andre on Unsplash

TW: suicidal ideation/death/grief

A yellow billboard stands out against a darkened highway landscape; black and bold lettering reads, “PAWN SHOP guns jewelry furniture….” There is more, but I forget; I stopped reading carefully at guns. In the top left corner, an outlined smile reminiscent of the old Walmart mascot suggests trust in this list of words strung into sense only by a cultural context that values the dollar, the cheap, the haggle, the violence, the instant.

Yellow. A deceptive color. One which belies its true nature. A jovial front of sun and light with a sinister performative force, a determinant command of trust. While running an inventory on the shortest of strolls, one will note the calls for attention, warnings, and cautions, instructions on how to drive, walk, park, and live. If not for this vibrant marketing strategy evoking such imagery, I might have made it the two hours to Mt. Pleasant without fantasizing about an orchestration of my death.

Instead, here I am, imagining a scenario where I take the exit for the happy face pawn shop, storm the door, throw $80 down on the counter, and ask for the best gun to get through a skull for my money ––

“for self-defense purposes,” I add. The store owner looks at me, looks at his guns, pulls out a .357 Magnum, and tells me, for $100, I can leave with it, no questions asked. I tell him all I have is the $80, and I still gotta load it. He returns to his case, places a .38 Special on the counter, and returns the .357 to its home. He gently sets a single bullet cartridge on the glass.

“On the house,” he says, taking the money from my hand as I sweep my purchase into the other. I turn to leave and wake from my daydream. I have almost reached the Mt. Pleasant exit. Still alive. Despite what might be said about it, living with persistent suicidal ideation as a baseline is not always debilitating; often, it’s an effective means to kill time instead of myself.

I am not always suicidal. Sometimes I am pretty at peace with myself and the absurdity that comes from existing in this world. As Camus said, it is not me nor the world that is absurd, but the joining of the two. The fusillade of experience, perception, and sensation forms the singularity, the inescapable pull into the unknown at the moment of consciousness, that work in grey matter, blurring the problematic and now laughable mind/body distinction. And, as Camus resolved, I can consider myself happy in this awful mess because, in proper Sisyphian form, I may shoulder this burden any way I damn well please. My rock is my thing, and I throw its weight around.

Jimmy’s home is a layout that looks like every other layout in a building that looks like every other building in a lot that, too, fits this pattern. It can be difficult to find if you don’t know Jimmy enough to have learned of his knack for botany. During the day, you can see most of his eighty plants in the window of his apartment, all varying species, sizes, and care requirements. At night, you see his bright blue Christmas lights bordering the frame, parallel to the purple Gynura Aurantiaca he trains to surround the sash. In the glow, the profiles of the larger Philodendron Selloum, Colocasia, and Carnegiea Gigantea growth obscure the movement of a distinct James. Saguaro arms mark this vibrant home settled amongst monotony.

I come here before every visit to Big Rapids. Not only do I want to see one of my oldest friends, but I also want to get my mind blown before I see my hometown.

When you’re an addict, no matter what, you use. No matter the conditions, the people, the place, or the things you do, you use. When you are an addict exposed to one of the stressors that helped you to start using in the first place, you erase time.

I come to Mt. Pleasant, this transitory place, to prepare myself for the onslaught of aggressions and ignorance. I come to empty my mind and properly situate myself before entering my hell. That which I did not create but work avidly to maintain. Isn’t it just the things we can’t resolve? The terrors that escape our subconscious workings and the traumas that evade our psychotherapies? Big Rapids is my hell, and Mt. Pleasant is my limbo. The liminal. This soul who tried to cross but never left.

“We’re gonna build a wall. It’s gonna be the best and biggest wall the world has ever seen. It’s gonna be huge.” Jimmy makes his best Trump impression, which is quite accurate. I laugh and remind him that we only find it funny because we’re white and live in Michigan.

“First of all, I’m Spanish. Second, it’s not like he’s going to be able to do it,” Jimmy reasons. His ability to offer levity in even the most trying of times has always been something I appreciated. We became friends in high school, and he kept me sane. We came out together. To each other first, and then our friends. We discussed our sexualities openly and in ways I could not with anyone else then. That connection and that closeness have never waned, and I doubt they ever will. Jimmy is a home that I hold dear, and seeing him is grounding. A way of feeling home before exposing myself to the city and the family that should stand in his place.

I text my mother that I’m still over an hour away. I still sit at Jimmy’s, thirty-five to forty minutes from Big Rapids, if I speed and don’t hit any lights. I leave this detail out. My prediction accounts for finishing a blunt and playing Grand Theft Auto with Jimmy. By the time I leave, I have given myself thirty minutes to get home before I have to explain why I took longer than I told them.

After ten minutes of driving, my brother calls me to check on my progress.

“Where are you?” I’m not sure.

“I’m not sure.” He’s not having it.

“What do you see?” I see Mt. Pleasant.

“I’m on M20, I think, um, blue trees coming up.” A landmark is all they need for me not to have to explain more.

“Oh, she’s past Remus now, isn’t she?”

“Should be heading towards Rodney next,”

“Sure, probably about twenty minutes away.” I’m on speakerphone and hear my mother, father, and brother attempting to divine my precise coordinates. I haven’t seen the blue trees yet; I didn’t say I had, but it was implied enough for them to assume, and I let them.

“Have you passed a small town yet?” My brother asks. I am in the process of coming into Remus, so I mutter a hesitant yes.

“Did it have a single stoplight?” I am sitting under a stoplight and think it could be what he is referring to.

“Yes.” They are certain after this.

“Oh, she’s definitely through Remus.” My brother corners me.

“How long ago did you see those blue lights?” I hesitate,

“I wasn’t really paying attention, maybe three tracks ago.” I’ve now lied and offered too much.

“Tracks? Oh, you’re kickin’ it old school with a CD? Ok, so three tracks; I’d say she probably passed the trees about ten minutes ago. You’re probably about twenty minutes away, if not fifteen, by now.”

“Ok, sounds good; see you soon,” I say and hang up. Why this conversation sounds familiar escapes me for a time. Until I remember how often my family attempts to know me, specifically where I am.


“So what will you do with all these degrees and classes you’re taking?” I remember her question, a familiar inquisition.

“I don’t know, mom. My voice has no energy left, and I hope she will let this answer suffice. "I just want to write, I guess.”

“How will you support yourself while you’re a struggling artist, huh?” She raises an eyebrow—a challenge.

“I don’t know, mom. I’ll probably just keep working in healthcare for now. I’m good enough at it.”

“Well, that’s true. You’ve always been so good at caring for people, and you have such a way with your residents. It’s so sweet to watch.”

“They’re just people. They feel more like friends than residents.” I work with developmentally disabled adults, and this “way” she’s referring to is my ability to converse with anyone, even if they aren’t reciprocating in a typical fashion or are entirely non-verbal.

“See, it takes a certain kind of person to have that mindset and to be able to treat them with the dignity they deserve.”

“That’s fucked up. I don’t think it does.”

“You know as well as I do how much abuse and neglect happens in these homes. They are lucky to have you.”

“If you say so. I still think it’s easier than most people think, and if they gave it a try, they would probably end up loving the work as much as I do.”

“Katelyn, have you ever thought about how your life has come full circle?” I glance a skeptical look.

“Now bear with me; it makes sense! You always befriended the students I worked with in the special ed. classes, you always were a bit of an amateur photographer, and you’ve always been a writer. Look at you now! Making these things your livelihood.”

“No, mom, I’ve never thought about that before.” My answer is laced with far more sarcasm than I intended, and she is slightly hurt.

“I was just making an observation.”

“Right. Sorry. I have thought about it but haven’t put much stock in it. I think it just means I’ve stuck to my passions and what I know best. Now I need to get on Broadway, and my life will be complete, eh?” I joke, but she takes it quite seriously.

“Why don’t you sing anymore? There have to be opportunities for you in Ypsilanti to perform?”

“Yeah, I just don’t have the time. Maybe someday I’ll do an open mic night or something for old time's sake.”

“You need to record it if you do.”

“Of course, mom.”


It takes me another forty minutes to get home. They don’t ask questions when I arrive; they’re just glad to see me.

It is dark when I pull up to my parent's house. The purple lilacs that surround their front yard have finished blooming. The buds that once lit up in the night sky are now a dull ochre that fade into each other the more you look at them, creating an effect similar to the brushstrokes of a painting by Kinkade. Their smell lingers, and I stand outside my car for a few moments, remembering the childhood I spent in those tall bushes that are more like trees. I was an adventurer growing up. Or I fancied myself one. I would put on my father’s high-crowned, wide-brimmed sable fedora that made me feel like Indiana Jones. I would venture into the thick of the lilacs, pretending to search for lost species and artifacts that no one knew existed but me. I climbed trees in our backyard that would eventually be cut down due to illness or storm damage. I started fires in our pit and imagined myself surviving in the wilderness, cooking food over the flames and warming myself by the embers. I would stay out until my parents made me come inside for bed. The smoke would cling to my clothes and body for days, and I loved it. I would refuse to do laundry or shower to smell it longer. This is the childhood and the home I like to remember. I forgot that I was lonely.

My parent's house is full, besides a winding path through the living room that goes to each available seat. This path follows the piles of personal treasures easily confused for trash: the old gift bags from Christmas past, new and possibly broken televisions, and multiple cardboard boxes full of what would be the contents of a junk drawer. The garage offers only headroom, and the yard is also beginning to accumulate a collection. They have cleaned several times since I moved out, but that mainly involves moving some things downstairs and shuffling other stuff into the open space. The gospel of Kondo skipped our home. It mattered little what brought you joy; to revivify was to be newly baptized, not cleanly or intentionally with belongings. Connection to the material world was an abjection replaced by a spiritual obsession, one that failed to realize the relationship between the two.

My old bedroom is used for extra storage and laundry, and my brother still lives at home, so I have no spare room to stay. On the few occasions I do visit, I sleep on the couch. This isn’t the worst surface to be resigned to, but it is a resignation.

The whole visit is a surrender, from how they are in their space and bodies to how they treat me in mine. A part of me always recedes before I reach the city limits, and it takes days for that part to return.

Familiarity does not mean comfort here. Recalling a time when it did is almost a burden. Painful but brief.

Familiar. From the Latin famulus, meaning servant, or familia, meaning family. In this sense, familiarity indicates intimacy and servitude to those with whom you share that intimacy. A closeness that is supposed to be found in familial connections. An intimacy I have not known for many years but that I have been working to recover.

New is an impossibility in my hometown; not just an unknown, but a defiance of good Christian sense. The town's facade changes only enough for the known to be considered a reappropriation of itself; the character remains strikingly static. This character ensures the clarity found upon returning to one’s roots, which I hear so many speak of, eludes me.

Familiarity does not even mean comfort in my own space. It attempts to come to me, and I recoil into myself. My home feels like an unknown territory. It is devoid of the usual comforts that a place a person was born and grew up in should provide. What has changed from my childhood is simply that I have come out. I am no longer safe because I have revealed an unacceptable truth about myself to the masses here. Unapologetically gay, I think, until I return home. Until I bring someone I love to this place. I am alone on this trip but think of times when I was not. The fear I felt dictated my actions and behaviors in ways that are quite unsettling to reflect upon.

“Where did you get that kitchen mat we have in front of the sink? Do you remember? It was Christmas years ago, but I can’t think of where you said you got it.” My mother sits across from me as she attempts to open a conversation with some small talk.

“I think I got it at Lowe’s or something. I can’t remember now; it has been a while.” I soften my voice, welcoming further conversation despite my brief response.

“Oh sure, I bet they have something like it, even if you didn’t get this one there. It’s just so nice for doing dishes. I don’t stand all that well anymore, especially not in one spot. It’s good for me to have that sort of cushion under my feet. It really helps my back and knees. It still works great; the cats have just torn it up, so I was thinking of replacing it.” She motions towards the kitchen as if she wants me to investigate the mat myself. I do. It is indeed in tatters but still quite plush. Functional but aesthetically a nightmare. It fits nicely into a room with missing floor tiles and piles of my father’s treasures strewn about in an order that only makes sense to him.

I examine the dishes in the sink for a moment too long, and my mother gives voice to what I interpret as slight embarrassment at its condition.

“Your dad is supposed to do those. I’ve been in a lot of pain lately, and it’s too hard to get much done around the house. The cleaning pretty much falls on him now, and you can see how that’s going.”

“Don’t worry about it, mom; I can do the dishes later if you want.”

“No, you’re here for a visit, not to work.”

“Where is Josh? Does he not help out around the house?”

“Oh, getting your brother to do anything is like pulling teeth. It’s all right, though; he’s very busy with work and doesn’t have much energy when he comes home.”

“Is he still drinking every night?”

“I wouldn’t say every night, but he drinks a bit.”

“If he has time and energy to drink with his friends after work, I think he has the time and energy to help you guys around the house.”

“I just don’t like asking him to do things that much. He has a life now.”

“Sure, I suppose. It would still be nice if he took it upon himself to do something, but I get it. I’ll do the dishes for you later.”

“You won’t, but thank you.” She turns up the television a few notches to indicate that she is finished with this conversation. It’s the news, and she is never one to get herself invested in anything but Rachel Maddow. She loves to remind me how much she loves Rachel Maddow, as if the fact that Rachel is gay proves my mother has accepted my sexuality. Despite its awkward delivery, she offers this information as a sense of relief, and I welcome it. There was a time when television shows like Will and Grace sent my mother into conniptions about the state of the world and its abhorrent acceptance of homosexuality.

I rejoin her in the living room and take out my laptop to write. This is usually an indication that I, too, am finished with a conversation, but it is often received as an invitation to ask what I’m working on. The news is turned down, and the question is asked:

“What are you writing?”

“Nothing in particular. Just writing some thoughts down for an essay I might want to write later on gender performativity.” Given my mother’s lack of background in gender studies, I thought this would be either an opportunity for her to drop it or to ask more of me on the subject. She chose the latter.

“What does that mean?” She eyes me suspiciously as if I intentionally tried to trip her up with my language use.

“I’m basically writing about how we perform gender roles and why. I’m writing from the understanding that we don’t have biological gender; it’s a conditioned set of behaviors that have become culturally ingrained in our society.”

“Wait. No biological gender? But people are born a man or a woman, aren’t they?” Her question is sincere and not laced with any malice.

“That’s sex you’re thinking of, but even that isn’t binary.”


“Oh, yeah, sorry. The sex/gender binary is the idea that there are only two sexes or genders for people to exist within, which we know isn’t the case.”

“Right, because of hermaphrodites.”

“Well, the term is intersex, but yes. Intersex and non-binary or trans folks are examples of why this binary is problematic and limiting. Just like we understand sexuality as a spectrum now, we should understand sex and gender as the same. Take me, for example. I am what’s called ‘assigned female at birth,’ but my gender performance doesn’t fit neatly into the category of woman. So my sex may be one thing, but my gender is something entirely different. Does that make sense?” She gives me a look that indicates she may have missed my point, but she offers that she understands.

“So sex and gender are different things? Sex is the biology, and gender is how you act?”

“I mean, that’s a simple, slightly reductive way of putting it, but yes. There are people that bend sex and people that bend gender, so basically, the argument is we shouldn’t be enforcing a binary because it doesn’t even exist. It’s all a construct meant to enforce heteronormative values and a nuclear family structure.”

“Ok. You lost me again.” She leans back in her chair and shifts her weight uncomfortably.

“Well, some feminists have pointed out that sex is dictated solely to determine a person’s reproductive ability or role. This narrows the whole of a person’s existence down to whether or not they are doing the begetting or the bearing. You know what I mean? Even our language reflects it with terms like beget and bear. Only males beget. Only females bear. If sex is central to a person’s role in life, then gender becomes central to our identity. It’s meant to be used as an indicator of sex for mating purposes so that people might couple ‘correctly,’ but that operates from a heteronormative perspective. Obviously, not everyone is straight.”

“Remind me what hetronorm...heto...you know what I mean. Remind me what that is?”


“Yes, that. What is that? I can guess, but I want to be sure.”

“It’s basically just what it sounds like. Hetero, meaning heterosexual or straight, and normative, meaning it’s what is considered normal or typical behavior. So the idea is that being straight is the default or preferred way of being.”

“Ah, ok, and that’s wrong?”


“Who’s on first?”

“That’s the man’s name.”

“Whose name?”

“First base!” We take a moment to laugh and forget about the seriousness of the conversation. My mother’s levity is always welcome. She is the first to bring us back to the issue at hand.

“So you’re writing about how the gender binary is wrong and no-binary….”

“Non-binary.” I correct her.

“Right. Non-binary people are doing it right? But if everyone were non-binary or trans, how would we reproduce?”

“That’s another important distinction to make. Sex and gender are also not necessarily related to sexuality. A person can be non-binary and heterosexual. Trans people get pregnant all the time, too. Sex and gender do not indicate a person’s attraction to other people. Like I was saying before, everything is a massive spectrum.”

“Wow. Ok. Clearly, I have a lot to learn, but I always appreciate you taking the time to explain it. Always so knowledgeable.”

“I’m just regurgitating things I’ve read, or that other people have taught me. I didn’t always know this shit. It just makes sense for me, though.” We grow silent for a few minutes as everything I said sinks in, and she begins to take it into her being. I can see it changing her. Her face, her posture, and her affect all become different. Softer. She feels closer to me now; I can tell. She feels she knows me more, which always brings her peace.

We haven’t always had the easiest relationship, and we certainly have not always had talks like this. There was a time, not long ago, when she told me I was going to hell unless I quit this experimental phase of homosexuality. There was a time when she tried to force me into women’s clothing and mocked my style choices that didn’t reflect a certain level of femininity. There was a time when I was a disappointment to her because of these simple facts of my existence.

I never mind explaining my identities to either of my parents, but like many people who exist on the periphery of society and culture, sometimes I wish they would take it upon themselves to be more educated and not put the onus on me to explain myself. However, this is not a problem reserved for my parents, and I practice patience with them to better practice it when someone I don’t love asks me the same questions.

When I am home, I am more aware of myself. Not necessarily in a positive sense, either. I am more aware of how I am different, of my hair being shorter, of the binder across my chest to flatten it, and of my masculine appearance. This is not entirely my family’s doing. It is the work of the community as a whole. There are not many people like me in Big Rapids. I don’t know any trans people currently in Big Rapids. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that I haven’t met them. I am pretty sure that the bulk of the LGBTQIA+ community in Big Rapids exists in the college there, Ferris State University. I know a handful of gay people I grew up with who have left the town and an even smaller group that stuck around. The gay adults I knew growing up were mostly closeted, and it was understood that they kept that part of their life a secret, and we weren’t to discuss it...in front of them. Of course, behind closed doors, anything was fair game.

I remember the first gay people I saw in my hometown. They were a butch lesbian couple that owned a rock shop I frequented. I remember thinking I would be them someday and feeling uncomfortable about that. I didn’t want to be like them because of how people talked about them. The way people looked at them. I had already been conditioned to understand that their difference was unacceptable. I thought they were ugly, and I hate that I did. I thought I was ugly and didn’t want to see myself in them. As much as I didn’t want this, it still happened. I saw their relationship and embodiedness and craved it as much as I despised it. At that tender age, I had already internalized so much homophobia. I dreamt of women at night and woke in the morning feeling wrong. I would cry first thing in the morning because I knew I was different and thought that meant I was bad. I didn’t understand how someone could be happy with themselves in a body or a mind like mine. I didn’t know how to love myself or people like me. This feeling would linger for years. Long after the rock shop owners ‘divorced’ and closed their store. Long after graduating high school. Long after coming out. I held these prejudices against myself and others.

“If a woman dates someone that looks like a man, why doesn’t she just date a man?” A question that I have been asked and am also guilty of asking but certainly not responsible for formulating. I now understand that butch is beautiful, to put it simply, and I get that attraction is more complicated than just desiring a specific physical appearance. Still, it was years before I considered this for myself. For a time, my beliefs meant that I would be alone for the rest of my life because who could desire me? I couldn’t change my preferences –– I tried –– I made myself more feminine and palatable to the masses, but this did not last long. For a few brief years in high school and a time after this granted me social acceptance, but when I returned to what felt natural, I was ostracized and told that I was no longer beautiful. Too mannish. Too masculine. Too ugly. “But you were so beautiful!” was an exclamation I had heard too many times not to let it affect me. Although I felt more comfortable with my short hair and men’s clothing, I still hadn’t accepted myself or begun to love myself. Self-hate festered, and suicidal ideation skyrocketed. I felt I didn’t deserve to be alive. Didn’t deserve to be happy. These feelings rotted a healthy sense of self that I struggle with today.

The first time I thought about killing myself, I was about fourteen years old. I was heavily involved in theatre and found myself sitting in the auditorium, thinking about what it might be like to throw myself from the catwalk that hovered over the edge of the stage. The thought had never occurred to me before. Suicide wasn’t on my radar before high school. I’m not sure I knew what it was or that people committed it. It was a novel idea to me, much like masturbation; I was sure I was the only person doing it and never discussed it with anyone around me. Shame kept me silent for much of my youth. Silent about my mental health. Silent about my sexuality. Silent about who I was underneath the happy, smiling, and sociable individual people had come to know and expect. This is a conditioned response I now actively work to dismantle with radical openness—tenderness, and softness toward the world and those around me. By being honest, I relieve the stress and pain of not feeling seen or known. I commit to loving myself and every aspect I have neglected by sharing myself.

“When are you leaving?” My mother asks.

“Probably tomorrow morning. I have to get back to work on Sunday.” I never stay for long when I visit my parents. A day or two at the most. My father is at his woodworking class, and my mother struggles with being alone. I know she is relieved that I am not leaving today.

“I wish you could stay longer. When will you be home next?” I never have an adequate answer for her, so I remind her that visits can happen both ways.

“I’m gonna come home in probably a month or so, but you can always come to see me.” As suspected, this is not received well.

“I can’t make the drive anymore; you know that. I understand it’s hard for you to come home, but I wish you could spend more time seeing us. I hope it’s not that you don’t want to see us.”

“It’s this town, I promise; it’s not you,” I reassure her of this and consider that it may be meant to convince myself as much as her. “Coming out was nearly impossible here, and it doesn’t feel like home anymore. I’m tired of the stares I get when I go out. I feel like I can’t leave the house without someone with me. It just doesn’t feel safe.” I tell her a story about a time I went out to the local watering hole and was attacked verbally and physically by a man who did not appreciate my sexuality.

“Hurricane Bill. What a guy. He told me his wife left him for another woman and wondered why ‘you lesbians can’t keep to yourselves.’ Basically, the night ended with me on the floor and him dragging me by the wrist across the bar. The bouncer pulled him off of me and threw him out.”

“What? Why have you never told me this? I would have called the police.”

“There was no point. That kind of violence isn’t uncommon, and there’s not much to be done about it.” She wasn’t satisfied with this and couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that this was a regular part of my experience in Big Rapids. It’s also difficult to express that a look of disgust is as violent as what Hurricane Bill did to me, so I don’t blame her for not understanding that not all interactions have to end in physical violence for me to feel unsafe.

“Ypsi is so different. I fit in there. People look like me and love people like me. I don’t stand out. As nice as it is to be known, it’s also nice to be a face in the crowd.” I thought maybe this would be the end of the conversation, but she had more to add.

“We love you no matter what you look like, Katelyn. You’ll always be our little girl.”

“That’s the thing, mom. I’m not really a girl. I get that you feel I’m your daughter and will always be, but that’s just not how I identify. I’m your child.”

“Well, that won’t be easy for me to get used to. I’m still just going to call you my daughter.” Progress comes slowly.

Rain begins to spit against the window, and distant thunder sounds off, more like a passing semi than the storm to come. I close my laptop and sit with my mother for a moment in silence. She knows she has said something hurtful, but neither of us addresses it. The conversation is dead. Our understanding has reached its limit. On this point of my gender identity, we will not agree. At least not for now. I resolve to finish the dishes in the sink and move toward the kitchen.

“Where are you going?” She asks.

“Just gonna tidy up a bit for you.”

“I told you not to! I want to spend time with you; you’re not here to work.”

“I’ll just be a few minutes; let me help.” The first flash of lightning signals it’s time to move. I stand at the kitchen sink and begin filling it with water.

“What are you doing?” My mother calls from the other room.

“Just doing those dishes, mom; calm down; I told you I would only be a few minutes.”

“Right now? It’s the middle of a storm, Katelyn. Do you want to get yourself killed?”

I had never considered electrocution before. How new. How exciting. The idea tempts me. I laugh and return to the task at hand.


Another drive home. A year has passed, and the circumstances have changed. My mother is dying. I’m no longer driving home the longest way possible, and I’m not stopping anywhere on the trip. I do not pass the billboard for the happy face pawn shop. I do not kill time. I do not imagine anything about myself at all; my mind is focused on the death to come. This time I’m driving through Grand Rapids instead of Mt. Pleasant at a comfortable clip, about 85mph, while self-soothing with marijuana and Anderson Paak, Harry Nillson, Van Morrison, Yusuf, and so many others. The distance is essentially the same, but going through Grand Rapids feels faster. I'm meant to pick up my mother from the hospital at 3:00 pm and don't want to be late.

We’re about two months into the pandemic, and the hospital won’t allow me further than the lobby. I tell them my mother’s name, and they instruct me to wait for the nurse to bring her down. The room is painted white. Floral prints hang from the walls, an attempt at softening the sterility and edge of the space. Death and grief linger heavily here, and no amount of color in the decor will change that. I’m watching the hallway that leads to the elevator closely, trying to find a place to put my hands. I stuff them in my pockets and focus on my breathing, slowing it and settling my nerves. I do my best to look casual, unbothered, and prepared. I don’t know what to expect when I see my mom. I didn’t even know she had been in the hospital for a procedure that would place a hepatic drain. She had been going in regularly to have her liver drained by the doctor, but the fluid build-up was getting to be more than they could keep up with.

When the nurse brought her down, she was wrapped tightly in a loose coat, she had a blue fuzzy hat on her head, and on her lap sat a warmed blanket with the fluid bag her drain was attached to. She was pale and slight in frame, much smaller than she had been two months before. She looked down towards her feet as if it pained her to lift her head. When she eventually looked up, it took her several moments to register who was standing before her. Her face brightened, and she said to the nurse,

“Can we forget the social distance rule? I haven’t seen my daughter in months.” She reached for me, and I leaned down to meet her embrace. She began to weep.

When a loved one dies suddenly, the grief, for a time, feels insurmountable. Until this death, I had only ever experienced abrupt ones. We didn’t have time to prepare for it. One moment they were there, and the next, gone. These deaths left wounds so deep that I still feel I am healing from them. I wondered what having time with my mother would mean—an anticipated death. I now had the opportunity for intentional moments with her. I didn’t know how much time I would have, but I felt determined to be with her for all of it. Instinct told me my grief would be the hardest to bear while she was alive and suffering but that I might feel a sense of relief once she was gone. I had no idea the myriad emotions I would experience in the two weeks I had with her. No sense of the ambivalence and confusion I would feel. But somehow, I knew it would eventually be ok. I would be ok.

The drive to my parent’s house was tedious. It was brief, without feeling brief. She was lost in her ammonia-filled mind and asked questions I didn’t know the answer to.

“What are we doing? Where are we going?” I attempted to ease her.

“I’m taking you home, mom. We’re going to take care of you from there from now on.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure. Dad didn’t tell me much; he just told me to bring you home. They’ll have everything set up for you there.” She grew silent and occupied herself with the passing scenery until we got home.

I can’t pretend to know what my mother was thinking in those moments or any of the moments leading up to her death. She didn’t share much. That could have been her imminent demise or a lifetime of practiced emotional repression at work. Hard to say. Two things she said stood out to me in the first few days of her being home: when we first brought her home, she asked, “What next? Did I just come home to die?” and a few days later, she was telling us, “I’m ready to go, this is all I need to die happy, my family around me.” It was difficult to hear both of these things, but the change in her perception made the latter a welcome sentiment compared to the former.

Hospice had set up a bed for my mother in the living room so people could more easily come and visit her. My brother, although he had moved in with his wife by this point, had spent a great deal of time helping my parents clean out a small portion of my father’s collection. Mess was still present, but there was room to move and chairs for sitting. A vast improvement from the last time I had come to visit.

I stayed by my mother’s side nearly every minute of the entire two weeks she remained with us, leaving only to run the occasional errand for my dad or to rest in the other room for slight reprieves from the burden of watching my mother slowly detach from us and die. The detachment was most difficult to deal with—the ambivalence this caused within me. I was relieved my mother was slipping towards death peacefully, without fighting it, but I was also deeply saddened that I couldn’t connect with her anymore. It hurt not being able to laugh with her or look into her eyes. I was already missing her.

Early in the first few days she was home, my brother tried to coordinate “last words” with her. He told us all to wait outside and come in one at a time to speak with her alone. It felt contrived, and I resented him for forcing this on us. I went last. When it was finally my turn, I couldn’t speak. My mother, still lucid at the time, looked at me as if to say, ‘well?’ I had nothing, though. I cried into her hand and squeaked out a simple “I love you so much.”

“I expected a bit more from my wordsmith.” She joked, “I love you, too.” She gripped my hand, and I stood up to hug her. Later, in her final days, I told her the words I wished I could have said when she was more present. Behind more tears, I said, “mom, you’re such a badass, and I admire you so much.” I couldn’t explain it or tell her that her way of facing death inspired me, but she squeezed my hand tightly, I think acknowledging my statement. She didn’t speak. She didn’t even open her eyes, but I believe she heard me.

When my mother died, I was properly medicated and relatively stable for all intents and purposes. We all surrounded her during her final breath. Held her up as she struggled to move air to her lungs and laid her down easy as she went silent. We closed her eyes and tried to shut her slack jaw. It remained open. I told my brother to turn off the tv which was blaring out some ridiculous pop playlist to distract our minds. Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder was the last thing she heard, if she was hearing anything at all. I think she would have hated that. I considered curling up with her one last time but recoiled at the thought of her being cold and unable to hold me back. I sat beside her and watched her for several hours until the mortician arrived. When he arrived, he wrapped her in a quilt that looked like another mother had made it, offered a prayer over her body, and asked us if we wanted more time with her. When we all said no, he covered her face with the quilt and had his companion help him wheel the body out to their vehicle. After they left, I sat outside with a spliff. Wearing her scarf around my neck, I took deep breaths of nicotine, weed, and her perfume.

One of my favorite environmental philosophers, Donna Haraway, discusses how to “live well and die well with each other in a thick present.” My mother may not have mastered living well, but I felt she nailed the dying well part. I considered at that moment more than any moment before how I could manage to do both. I felt compelled to live in a way I had not been. Compelled to intentionally build my “oddkin,” the family Haraway says you choose. It was clear to me I had a desire to live, unlike what I had felt before. I hadn’t even noticed that I felt no suicidal ideation and hadn’t in nearly a year, but in that moment, I became aware of how much I wanted to be alive. How much I wanted to live not only long but well. I know medication and therapy gave me that, but in a way, my mother did, too.

travelsiblingspop cultureparentslgbtqimmediate familyhumanitygriefchildren

About the Creator


I am a non-binary, trans-masc writer. I work to dismantle internalized structures of oppression, such as the gender binary, class, and race. My writing is personal but anecdotally points to a larger political picture of systemic injustice.

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