Kim Reeder is a teacher, writer and lawyer. Her essays have appeared in skirt! magazine and the Shriver Report. In 2014, she was awarded second place in the Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium essay contest for her essay “Redemption and University of Kentucky Basketball.” She lives in eastern Kentucky with her daughter.
In my black Jeep, I was on my way east from the Pacific Ocean with my daughter and anything too precious to entrust to the moving company. Stopping to pump gas in Oklahoma, I wondered whether Thomas Wolfe used the wrong verb. Of course you can go home again; the more important question is whether you should. Should I have ever chosen to move from California back to the small town in Kentucky where I grew up?
I had left Kentucky when I was 17 to live in exile among people who, even if they came to love me, could not see how I struggled to balance my mismatched halves: poor kid from rural Kentucky and lawyer working in the high tech capital of the world.
Now, I was compelled to return. The person pulling me back and the person who pushed me to leave were the same: my mother. For seven years, frontotemporal degeneration, a disease that causes progressive degeneration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, had eroded my mother’s capacity for empathy and socially appropriate behavior, robbing her of her independence by age 62. Her essence wisped away until, like a balloon with a slow leak, she was no longer who she had been.
Despite this most recent transformation, her illness represented only the last patch of rough road we had walked together. Even our beginning was inauspicious. On the day I was born, my mother’s body refused to push me into the world. Her doctor explained the stoppage as stalled labor. I believe, however, a better explanation is that my mother’s awareness of the dysfunction that lay in store for me caused her body to decline complicity in the act of relinquishing its tiny charge. Her body raised a fair point. The first time my father hit her she was pregnant with me. Desperation does, indeed, resemble a 20-year-old with a big belly, a bruised face and limited options.
She spent the remainder of my childhood compensating for her body’s initial reluctance; she pushed none too gently. I responded to her insistence by looking for every possible opportunity to propel myself away, up, out, around, beyond. Anywhere. Reading old textbooks during the summer before fifth grade and making acorn flour for extra credit in Kentucky History class culminated in an educational and professional pedigree that would have been acceptable to most helicopter parents.
Neither my mother nor I understood, however, that leaving my life in Kentucky behind wouldn’t necessarily mean leaving behind the dysfunction. Dysfunction sticks around. Once you develop a tolerance for its cycles of terror and release, it skews your perception of what is normal. By the time I found myself in the gas station in Oklahoma, this burden had made my life very complicated. If only replenishing myself had been as simple as refueling the car.
Prodigal children don’t get ticker tape parades. I finished the drive from Oklahoma to Kentucky and slipped into a routine built around caring for my mother and daughter. Sometimes, in my mother, I would see fragments of the woman who had made numerous sacrifices to secure my well-being. A few months before she died, she told me she felt sad about the fact that I was divorced. Knowing my ex-husband had not been my mother’s favorite person, I was surprised and asked why. She responded, “It makes me sad for you.” Even as her brain turned against itself, she salvaged a sliver of empathy for me.
Yes, she died. Aristotle and Shakespeare agree that tragic heroes always suffer and usually die. When she stopped breathing, I pressed my ear against her chest to listen for a heartbeat. I heard quick thumping, but I couldn’t discern whether it was her heartbeat or my own. To some extent, I guess they were the same. Only, after hers stopped, mine continued alone.
The funeral home packaged her ashes in a nondescript blue box. I think I once received a shipment of business cards in an identical container. Only a sticker with my mother’s name suggested that this cardboard box might be special in any way. The box ended up on the table beside my bed. The first few mornings after it arrived I found myself staring at it. Meditating with my mother in the gray light, I waited to feel something profound. But what possible purpose could be gleaned from the suffering in her life?
Searching for this meaning took me back to California. My mother was 47 years old when she saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Then, a few years later, before the FTD symptoms were apparent, she visited me in California and saw the Pacific Ocean on a day when the waves reached record heights. As she stared at them, a look of contentment spread over her face. In the presence of those massive waves, I like to believe she felt the wonder and beauty of our human existence. Wanting a part of her to stay in that place, I decided to take some of her ashes back to that beach.
As I sat on the shore, ready to scatter the ashes, I recalled a conversation we had on my porch in Kentucky. Referring to me by my full name, as she did in the late stages of her illness, she asked, “Do you like your house, Kim Reeder?”
“I like it a lot. It’s very peaceful here.”
“Why is it peaceful?”
“Well, I guess because it belongs to me and no one can hurt me here.”
“No one can hurt you here,” she paused, then smiled, “I like your house too, Kim Reeder.”
As I remembered this exchange, I felt her energy around me and heard the words, “We did it. You are safe,” as if she were speaking to me. In the end, the violence and dysfunction in each of our lives was no match for the powerful ways my mother managed to alter my fate. She pushed me away from her to ensure I would grow and become self-sufficient. Then, when each of us was at our most vulnerable, she pulled me back so that I could heal and refuel my hope for a better life for me, and for my daughter. “We did it.” We sure did, Mommy.