Perhaps I’m at risk of turning this memoir into Mom’s hagiography, but previous to her cognitive decline, I can’t recall any instances of her words or actions burning, or even smouldering with the hatred of a single sun let alone a thousand. With that in mind, I’ll now explain the eavestrough metaphor mentioned in the opening chapter: There was this one time in the grocery store. I must’ve been six or seven years old, standing beside her while she picked through the apples in the bin. Worthy specimens were placed into the produce bag that I dutifully held open. A man and woman within earshot were arguing about something in hushed tones and their voices drew my attention, so much so I failed to keep the bag open, and the next apple fell on the floor. As it rolled away from me, Mom knelt down and whispered, “eavestroughers will never know nothin’ about the inside of a house.” Eavestroughers was her way of saying eavesdroppers, of course, and although I missed the gist of her malapropism, the incident stuck with me. Many years later, I came to understand what she said. In her own wonderfully bizarre way, she warned me about making judgments based on hints, allegations, and impressions, rather than reality. Using words more akin to hers: She told me that drinking from someone’s eavestrough is vastly different from drinking down around their dinner table because the added distance invites misinterpretation, which can lead to ill-informed action.
Naturally, some of my DNA came from my father, a man who lacked the willpower needed for resisting the solipsistic urges that precede crimes like rape, and this might explain why I’ve found it difficult to refrain from the eavestroughing Mom warned me about in the grocery store. Cursing my paternal genes is something I’ve often done but it does nothing for me except to bring Mom’s nobility into sharper relief. I mean, the idea to target others for her lot in life did not occur to her and if it did, then it was shown the door, never to return. Nor was any quarter given to feelings of shame or self-pity; rather, she remained stoically comfortable in her own skin while drawing strength from all the good things in life, like kindness, forgiveness, equanimity, forbearance, and above all, the pacific power of love.
There’s just no getting around it: Beth Anne Campbell, my gracious mother, was a bona fide saint before the perchloroethylene began its awful rampage through her brain, dissolving the exquisite neural network that made her the flower of mine and many other people’s lives. Day by day, year by year, decade by decade, she diligently performed her duties as a dry-cleaning technician, removing stains from garments she herself could never afford to wear, and all the while an industrial solvent was stealing from her like my father did in the backroom of his donut shop.
As a youngster, I threw my share of tantrums, yet she never raised her hand or voice in anger. This gentleness and the tranquil homelife it engendered was in stark contrast to the turbulent households making up most of our low-income neighbourhood. In my late twenties, during one of our kitchen party Saturday nights, I praised her parenting style and her response was as candid as ever: “What kinda mother would beat a boy who already had the world on his chest with its fists balled up?” When I asked what having the world on my chest meant, she said, “you were the cutest thing but everyone knew you were a poor lil’ bastard, fathered by a rapist, and they treated you different because of it, so I swore I’d do everything I could to make you feel loved.” I cried upon hearing those words, and she took me in her arms and held me until the tears dried up. I loved her to the moon and back, and that’s what made her dementia so hard to bear.
If the reader remembers, on the night before they admitted her to the psychiatric hospital, she chased me around the house with a bread knife, accusing me in a guttural voice of being an alien dressed in the skin of her son. After she cornered me and slashed me on the side of my neck, I wrested the knife from her, and called 911. Both of us were covered in my blood, engaged in a wrestling match on the living room floor when the first responders arrived.
How do you fully recover from watching your mother transform into a stranger whose fits of rage were as frightful as they were unpredictable? Full recovery from that kind of trauma is impossible and anyone who says otherwise is feeding me a line. Yeah, sure, coping strategies work, but it’s hard to live and it’s even harder to face the future when all you can do is cope.
The sicker she got the more I drank, because alcohol is a misty-windowed time machine into the past. Come to think of it, the bottle always changes people and that’s probably why she started accusing me of being an imposter. Three or four double vodka cranberries immersed me in golden memories, the best of which were bathed in the burnished glow of childhood. Every night after work, I’d drink myself back to when Mom was bringing me to the protests she and her friends would organize. Long before activism turned vogue, I’d stare up at her as she sang songs of resistance in a voice sweet and bright, her chin held high, her shoulders squared above the steps of city hall. I was too young to understand what was really going on, however, the electricity in the air would put goose bumps on my arms and when she saw them, she’d smile down on me with the face of a radiant angel.