For my creative writing class, we're required to meet with our professor 3 times during the semester so that we can receive one-on-one critique on a work of fiction we've written this semester. I met with Brother Harrell today, and I swear, I floated home. He said he really, really enjoyed it, that it was just plain well-written. He was so delighted to hear that it was the 5th draft of the story, because he could TELL I'd put the work into it. His only criticism was that the conclusion was too open-ended, but then as we sat and talked about it, the less he felt like it deserved the criticism. (I added more to it anyway; the expanded version is included below.) He said my writing was "beyond my peers". It was so good to hear that yes, I am good at this, yes, my work does pay off. When he ran out of things to say (which was pretty early on in the appointment!) he started asking me about my plans for the future -- "Are you a creative writing emphasis? Good." "Have you thought about publication? No? Good. It's good to have humility. Publish in the school's literary journal before you graduate, and then in one or two other tiny journals in the next ten years and you'll be doing really well." It was so awesome.
So without futher ado, here's my magnum opus of Fall semester 2008, a literary-genre short story entitled Thicker than Water.
Her mother’s room smelled like stale cigarette smoke, cats, and dirty clothes. The aroma surrounded Katie in an uncomfortably intimate way, like the arm of a stranger around her shoulders.
“So…this is it.” Katie shifted the position of the box tucked under her arm. The amount of stuff crammed into her mother’s room – under tables, on dressers, piled high on shelves – was incredible. “I guess I’ll start gathering up some things for her then.”
Aunt Jess watched Katie attempt to marshal her fortitude. “Are you sure you’ll be all right here by yourself for a little while?”
“Oh, yeah, of course. I’ll be fine. You go bring her some dinner and I’ll head off to the hospital to meet you as soon as I’m done.”
“Well…if you’re sure. But call me if you need anything, okay sweetie? And – thank you.” Aunt Jess gave Katie a quick hug before she walked back through the tiny front room, spoke for a moment to Cameron’s roommates, and was gone. Katie smiled vaguely at the hug – she’d only opened contact with her aunt in the last four months, but she already felt closer to Jess than she’d felt to her mother for years. That was why she offered to gather things for her mother’s hospital room – to give Aunt Jess a little less to do, and so she wouldn’t have to see her mother, not yet.
Katie reluctantly turned her attention back to the disarray. All of the floor space was taken except for a shuffling path from the door to the bed, which Katie dropped onto. She had no idea where to start. For now, Katie was on her own in an oppressive tangle of puzzles, quilting squares, boxes of who knew what, and glass unicorn figurines.
Katie waded carefully across to the other side of the room and picked up one of those unicorn figurines. It was heavier than she expected. The figure was reared up on its hind legs, front hooves waving in the air. There was something vaguely familiar about it, and as she held it, bittersweet memories began to edge heavily into her mind. She put down the glass unicorn and turned away from it, and from the memories. It had been hers as a child.
Katie stared around the room, wondering again where she should start. She leaned over the side of the bed and extracted a shoe box from the wreckage. In it were a mostly-empty pack of cigarettes and prescription bottles of Lithobid and Symbyax. Holding her mother’s bipolar medication was startling and surreal; it was a tangible symbol of her mother’s mental illness, something that had always been so vague to Katie. Underneath laid a pile of letters, many of them still in their envelopes. Katie pulled one from the box and turned it over. Her own name, in childish scrawl, stared back at her.
She kept my letters.
She slowly pulled the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it with trembling fingers. Dear Mommy, said the letter, dated the year she was ten, I miss you! Daddy says you live near Grandma now that you don’t live with us. Is that fun? Do you play tea party with her like you do with me? I want you to be here to put braids in my hair. Daddy says he needs more practice with ponytails before he does braids. School is good. Miss Shell my teacher is reading my class a story about a mouse who talks and fights with swords. I don’t know what the book is called but the mouse’s name is Martin. I like it a lot. Do you have kitties at your house? I miss you Mommy! I love you. Love, Katie
Katie dug into the box and pulled out another letter at random. Cameron, she had written the year she was sixteen, I haven’t heard from you in months, again, and I don’t know why. You’re supposed to be my mom, and I’m hurt that you won’t even take the time to write me. What do you want from me? That was the year she had given up on her mother.
For the next five years, she made no attempt to contact her mother. Her family moved across the country, she fell in and out of love, she went away to college. Katie didn’t tell her mother any of it. She moved on, learning to forgive her mother, but mostly just to forget. For years, Katie had dreamed she and her mother could be best friends, sharing the same quirky sense of humor and the creative, girly side she only roughly remembered. It had been the great emotional success of her life to finally give up on that dream and accept that her mother’s illness left her with nothing to give to her daughter.
Then, Aunt Jess had found her profile on MySpace. She sent Katie a tentative, hopeful note, asking to initiate a relationship with her grown-up niece. Katie tried to make her reply as encouraging as possible – Jess sounded so nice, and so sad about never making herself a part of Katie’s life – but Katie left no question about how she felt about her mother.
Feel free to update my mother on how I’m doing, Katie remembered writing, but I do not want messages from her relayed to me. I would be happy and eager to hear that she is doing well, etc, but I'm not ready to talk to her just yet. I don't mean that in a mean way, just that I don't want to get my hopes up only to get hurt – again. As a child, I was so hurt by her leaving, by how she’d write pages and pages of letters, and then nothing for months or sometimes years at a time, and then try to step back into my life after all of the hurt she caused. I realize now that that was just part of her cycling through mania and depression, but I can’t do that again.
And yet, just months later, she was here on summer break, visiting Aunt Jess and about to reconnect with her mother.
She pulled her cell phone from her back pocket and hastily punched in the first speed-dial number. Katie sat through two long rings before her father’s voice came on the line.
“Hi Daddy…how are you?”
“I’m all right.” The sounds of the football game in the background quieted as Katie heard him turn down the TV. “How are you?”
She sighed. “I don’t know.”
“I’m…frustrated. Confused.” Katie imagined him there, sitting in his big recliner in the living room of the house where she grew up. His voice crackled slightly over the phone, and re-realizing that he was a thousand miles away hurt enough to make Katie’s eyes prickle with tears. “Dad, why am I even here?”
He slowly exhaled. “Because you thought it was the right thing to do?”
“But I haven’t seen my mother in more than ten years. I haven’t written to her in five. It’s like I’m some kind of glutton for punishment.” Katie swallowed hard, and held the phone a little tighter. “There are so many memories here, Dad.” Or, Katie thought, things that should have been memories, if her mother could have stayed. “I know she left us for a good reason,” she continued. “But part of me is still that little girl who doesn’t even know what manic-depression is. All the little-girl part of me knows is that my mommy left.”
“I know, princess. It’s not fair. But think about the part of you that isn’t a little girl any more. It’s not fun being the adult, but now that you’ve accepted she can’t take care of you, you need to remember – you’re the one who decided to be there.”
Katie sighed. “I know. But what else was I supposed to do, though, you know?”
“Yeah…it’s like that country song. ‘Blood is thicker than water’.”
“But ‘love is thicker than blood’.” Katie shook her head. “I’ve loved Jenny like a mom from day one. I don’t need another mom.” Because Katie and Dad were friends, in addition to father and daughter, Katie knew what he would say next. She also knew that deep-down, she couldn’t disagree.
“Jenny is the best step-mom you could ask for, I know. But no matter what, Cameron is still your mother.”
When she finished filling the box with pictures and knickknacks and magazines, things to make the hospital room more homey, Katie finally talked herself into driving to the hospital. The smell there was like her mother too, from long ago when she worked nights at Sharp Memorial and would let Katie wear her nurse’s cap. Katie stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the eighth floor. She leaned back against the elevator wall and tried to smile at the other woman there, holding a bunch of get-well balloons.
“Visiting someone?” the woman asked.
She made a sympathetic face. “That’s so hard.”
“In more ways than you can imagine,” Katie sighed. She glanced at the bright balloons in the woman’s hand. “Are you visiting someone too?”
“My daughter had surgery yesterday. I’d bring one of those big obnoxious singing cards, but she’d never forgive me for it.” The woman grinned.
Katie laughed, and watched the elevator doors open. “This is my floor. Nice talking to you.”
“You too. Best to your mom.”
“My mother,” Katie corrected automatically as she slowly walked through the elevator doors.
My mother, Katie repeated to herself, moving toward the bleak, graying door of the hospital room where Aunt Jess and her mother were waiting. Daddy’s voice replayed in her head – I know it's not fun being the adult. But remember, princess – you're the one who decided to be there.
Katie took the last heavy, hesitant steps toward room 845, the room with Cameron Hendershot printed in sterile letters on a form posted outside. She was here out of obligation to a deeply-rooted idea that what was easy and what was kind weren’t always the same thing.
She is my mother, at least, if not my friend.
Katie knocked softly on the door.