By Matthew Rossi
I’ve wanted to write about my mom for a while, but I also haven’t wanted to write about her at all.
I could try and justify this, but the fact is, I’m an adult and my mother has been dead for more of my life than she was alive for and I hate it. I hate that she is dead. The word hate is so small, so insufficient for what I am trying to say. It’s like saying the universe is big. It’s true, but it fails to capture what I’m trying to convey. So instead, try and imagine this:
Imagine that someone wanted a child so much that she kept trying, despite miscarriages and stillbirths, and finally managed. That she raised that child, the only one she would ever get, and despite every setback and blow dealt her in an unfair life she made do. That she was his advocate when he did wrong, his defender, and even the harsh hand of reality when he was off the rails. That despite her husband’s affairs and eventual desertion, despite her family and their complete lack of care or help, she persevered and kept that child going. Despite everything, the dwindling finances, the house she couldn’t afford alone, the utter lack of child support from her ex.
Now imagine that woman, near the end of her rope, develops a cough that won’t go away. She’s working two jobs – she’s teaching second grade at a Catholic school that specializes in kids with special needs, and she’s also working a shift at a department store. She goes to doctors, repeatedly, and they tell her it’s nothing. Each doctor visit costs a couple of hundred bucks at a time when she’s barely holding on to the house that got mortgaged by her ex to pay for the airplane and boat he’s using with his new wife. The cough gets worse. Her son insists she go to the doctor again but she puts her foot down. There’s no money. She gets by on cold medicine. Gets worse, but keeps working because what else can she do? Eventually the cough is so bad that she goes back in, but the doctor tells her that she’ll need tests to determine what it is. The tests will cost her monthly salary from both jobs.
She doesn’t get the tests.
She’s dead a week later.
I want you to imagine this because I don’t have to. This is the reality of the end of my teen years. This is how my mother died. I found her sitting on a love seat in the den of our house, the television on, her teeth locked tight together. I tried to do CPR, but I didn’t really know how, and I couldn’t get her mouth open. She was already in rigor. She’d died alone on the love seat while I slept. She didn’t even wake me up.
She died terrified of bills.
She died because working two jobs wasn’t enough to pay for doctors to save her.
She died of a lung infection that was entirely treatable if they’d just run the tests and found out what it was instead of throwing random antibiotics at her. The tests she couldn’t afford. She spent nearly 18 hours a day working between her two jobs, barely got enough sleep to function, had to spend the entirety of every weekend resting to recover… but that wasn’t good enough, and she died.
And there are people who right now think that’s the way it should be. Many of them in the US Senate, House of Representatives, the White House.
So no, the word hate isn’t sufficient for the emotion that comes over me when I think of my mother’s death. There is no word sufficient for it. She’s been dead since 1990 and I haven’t been able to think clearly about her in twenty -eight years. I can’t look at the few pictures I have left of her without remembering what she looked like dead. I can’t remember how she liked her coffee without remembering having to make coffee for the people who came to tell me she was dead.
She didn’t have to die like that.
The tests existed. The treatments existed. She could have been saved.
We just didn’t have enough money.
My mother was funny, sarcastic, brilliant. She loved like fire and hated just as intensely. She wasn’t always right, but she believed it enough that I often did too. We didn’t always agree. I was a young man who had no idea who I wanted to become and a whole head full of self-loathing, a trait we shared. No matter how I gave up on myself, she never gave me up. In the end, when she was dying, she chose to let me sleep. She knew I’d call an ambulance.
She knew we couldn’t afford it.
I come back to that over and over again. My mother is dead because we couldn’t afford to save her. In 1990, in the United States of America, a 42 year old woman working two jobs, one of them a teacher… that woman couldn’t afford to be saved. It would have broken us. We might have lost the house. That financial terror drove her to take pills that couldn’t fix her and work even harder, with less sleep, and not to get the tests needed to find out what was wrong.
Every time I think about this I feel that same thing, that emotion which is forced to fit into the word hate because there is no word for it. No word great enough for the feeling of seeing us 28 years later making the same arguments, trying to get someone to care that people are dying and will continue to die who don’t have to. Who could live for years, decades longer, if we’d just help them.
My mother could have seen me graduate.
She could have seen me get married.
She could have seen me write my books.
She never got to see any of it. At 46, I’m four years older than she was when she died. I was eighteen when it happened, a few weeks shy of her birthday. Much of it has faded away, eroded by time, the sharp edges around the fracture smoothed out. I can look back and remember her before that happened. I can even smile, sometimes. Remember her taking me and my cousin to the store and pretending to be Alfred from the Batman TV show, letting us bicker over who got to be Batman and who had to be Robin. Remember her embarrassing me by calling me a communist in the supermarket. Remember her putting her car in park and refusing to move it until they got a cheeseburger without ketchup or pickles or mustard made for me. Or the time she threatened to beat a man seven inches taller than her to death if he didn’t let go of my arm when I was twelve.
I can remember her. But I can’t remember her without remembering how she died.
How she didn’t have to.
Matthew Rossi is the only surviving child of Joan Rossi nee Morgan. He lives in Edmonton with his wife, 3 cats, dog and a vast and unruly collection of books. He is a freelance writer.
Rossi’s series Nameless is inspired by the death of his mother, you can purchase them by clicking here.