The day that hurts the most for me isn't the day, a year ago, that my mother took to a treadmill as she tried to make her troubled life more full.
It was 9/11, a Friday. I was at my work desk - doing nothing much of any value. Right before 1 p.m., I got the call from an uncle I haven't spoken to in years. He didn't like me, and she had made sure to let me know that.
So many times, it would be someone from Florida to call that my Mom was in the hospital. She had passed out, had some medical issue. "You're her son. She's got no one else down here, except for this brother she says is abusive. What can we do?"
I would tell them, "I've tried to help her. And I will, under certain circumstances. But she's got to do her part, too."
There were so many other calls over the years, some more real than others.
Just 13 days earlier, I had gotten a call from my aunt to tell me I should call my mother because she had had her surgery and would appreciate talking with me.
But this call on 9/11 is the one she had fixated on it seems for the entirety of my life.
My Mom was gone, at age 63.
I had written this on Mother's Day earlier in the year:
SUNDAY, MAY 10, 2015
We spoke about me becoming a writer and getting married and having two boys. We talked about how I wouldn't be a writer without her, because she is who all my empathy and communication ability and idealism comes from. I had just published a great collaborative project with a colleague that day. And I thanked her for being who she was to make me who I was. We also talked about the strong throwing arms her two grandsons have. She brought up her state records in high school in standing long jump and shot put. I believe she felt loved, felt like a contributor. And one day I saw taking care of her, but not yet. She had more she could and needed to do herself.
But all along, I knew she lived in a bad place. A government-subsidized apartment complex. I remember what that was like as a child. But somehow I knew this was different. It was worse, more dangerous. I could say I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but she was still living it.
She was supposed to call me when she checked into her rehab facility. She was having trouble adjusting to the pain medication - she had built up a tolerance, apparently.
I didn't hear from her, but it also wasn't my first priority to try to track her down.
She'd let me know. Meanwhile, I would live the life I created for myself.
I didn't know that late, unassuming morning that she'd be getting on a treadmill, working herself back so that no one could barge through her front door and hit her and steal from her again as she sat defenseless.
I'm told her heart simply stopped.
I have no access to her medical records, because she didn't think I cared enough about her medical conditions - mostly involving mental illness - to want her to list me as an approved family member for doctors to communicate with.
I tried. No one would tell me anything, except for the coroner and the knee surgeon who later called to express his sadness and tell me that the surgery had gone fine, except for some extra bleeding that caused her to stay in the hospital longer than originally planned.
That was all I would know, short of any information she might have written down somewhere.
I drove down to Florida the next day, knowing nothing of where I was going and little about what I would find.
All throughout the morning yesterday, I would look at the clock and dread the notion that she was getting on that treadmill to improve her life and didn't realize that she had only some minutes left to live.
It was like it was happening again, and that I had some way to communicate with her this time around - but, again, wouldn't.
Instead, it was just the time of day on a day where the sun shines in the same coordinates in the sky, the day is exactly as long as it was the year before, the grass is beginning to brown and everyone in America is mourning a national tragedy.
But not as much as tonight.
This night last year, I was in her apartment in Titusville, Florida - a depressing town along the central eastern coast of Florida, somehow tied to the success of the Kennedy Space Center, where space shuttles no longer launch.
It's a place of a collective sense of missed opportunity.
Driving up, the place was chaotic. People outside rolling dice with wads of cash in their hands. There were no gunshots that night, but it was something that would happen. A few months earlier, a person murdered another person in the cluster next to my Mom's place.
There was a woman upstairs who had taken care of her - paid her bills, got her clothes when she needed them, encouraged her to stop drinking so much Diet Coke. My Mom depended on her, signed her modest life insurance policy over to her. But it was only me who would be able to see that she was cremated and buried in the historic Savannah cemetery where her dysfunctional family ravaged by alcohol and mental illness lost their fortune and was buried along the Wilmington River This woman was matter of fact about her situation. She didn't seem to have any plan to get out of this complex. She talked about how my Mom was fortunate that the bottom floor walls were made of concrete, to stop any bullets. Later that evening, the police in a half-dozen cars would arrive with lights flashing, then wait outside and talk with another to ensure the unruly remained inside. This was a common occurrence on a weekend night, apparently.
Inside my Mom's apartment, it was much as I remember my childhood. Neat but with small pieces of sentimentality placed throughout. Largely pictures of me and items from my childhood. There was a photo collage over her television with some pictures I had sent of my boys and me and my wife that earlier Christmas. She was so thankful for that.
On the TV was an old key chain. Its anchor was made of wood, with the name "Eric" carved out of it. It was mine when I was a child. I must have left it behind when I left for college.
All around were evidence of the cats who became her children. There were the memes of yesteryear spread throughout, things about having faith and Mr. Right coming along one day. There were medical bills. Written reminders of doctors appointments.
She had stored away old pictures and items that reconstructed her life - one of abuse and neglect, misplaced affection and loyalty, and a glossed-over view of her history.
It was a museum to the life she wanted and the notions that she so badly wanted to be true.
I found journals. She would start them and leave many of the pages blank. Then start another. Each one marking a new declaration that she was starting a new life.
In one, from several years ago, she talks about a one-eyed, stray cat that had been shot with a BB gun. Over time, the cat came to trust her. She wanted to take him to the vet and have him taken care of, vaccinated, put on his feet to have a better life. She wrestled with it over the course of a few days, then woke up to the conclusion that she would spend her disability check on the vet charges and that the two were in it together. It stops after that. I don't know what she did.
In another entry, she talked about how my uncle was wrong about me. I would come and save her. I did care about her, and he was the one who hit her and demeaned her. She made her case.
My wife found another journal. One she looked at and then held close to her. She wanted to hide it. I asked her about it, and she told me it didn't say much of anything. I insisted. She handed it to me and told me I needed to understand that my mother did love me, that my mother was mentally ill and that what was written wasn't the true way she felt about me.
In this entry, she writes to me. In short, she tells me that I've abandoned her.
There are many reasons why I didn't go down there before, why I carved a place in this life that placed her outside of it. I did, without exception, always answer her calls. I never knew what she would say. Whether she would attack me or lavish praise and appreciation that I was her son.
But this isn't about that.
This is about the night I visited the terrible apartment complex my mother lived in, well after the time I should have, after she was no longer there to show me herself the life she had created inside - in all its beauty and illusion.
This night hurts the most.