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Amy Scheiner | Longreads | July 2019 | 11 minutes (2,695 words)
My mother died carrying water.
She was hauling a 24-pack of Poland Spring to bring to my brother’s new dorm room. She was proud of him because he was finally moving out. She had struggled to raise two children who had themselves struggled immensely along the way. My mother was tireless, indestructible, “high energy” as she described herself, but lately she had seemed worn to me. Aside from a high-powered law career, she spent the last few decades caring for her husband and her children, the community, her grandmother, and her mother. When I learned about God as a child, I remember thinking: He had nothing on Mom.
In many parts of the world where water doesn’t instantly flow from a faucet, people venture by foot to retrieve water just for everyday drinking, bathing, and cleaning. These people are usually women. They often walk miles, all day, leaving them little or no time to enter the workforce or pursue an education. It’s estimated that “one-fifth of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water,” according to Women and Water: Issues of Gender, Caste, Class, and Institutions, a report by Maithreyi Krishnaraj.
There is a quote in the Taittiriya Shakha, a set of books in Hinduism, which reads, “Water is the greatest sustainer and is hence like a mother.”
My mom was probably carrying the water in her left hand, the one on which she wore her mother’s engagement ring and her grandmother’s wedding band, both of which I would inherit. She most likely already had her arms filled with belongings, perhaps her purse and a shopping bag full of snacks. She was headed out the front door.
My dad and brother went separately to move in some things — bedding, books, clothes. She would follow later, she said. That was what was supposed to happen.
Since women are the primary water gatherers, they are the “most vulnerable to water-related diseases,” writes Borjana Bulajich in an article entitled, “Women and Water.” Meaning that the community’s survival is not only the responsibility of these women, but that their own lives are at risk for the good of others
My dad most likely was pacing in my brother’s dorm, glancing at his phone, monitoring the time as each minute pulled him away from his unyielding schedule. Maybe he was thinking about the term “empty nester” and how it would apply to his future. I never could imagine my parents alone without either of us in the house.
Across the country, I arrived home from a meeting with one of the teens I worked with. I fell into a job working for a nonprofit where I acted as an advocate for “at risk” youth. These teens lived in poverty, experienced abuse, dreamt about suicide, and faced many other current stressors regularly mentioned in the media. My mom was proud of me for the job I did. I was helping people, as she did for her entire career. I was putting others above myself.
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I’m sure I yawned when walking in my apartment, longing for my bed. The heat still lingered, a remnant of the end of summer. The days felt long and I was still adjusting to this new life I’d created. Finally, on my own. I called my kitten to settle next to me under the covers, the sun seeping through the slits of my dusty blinds. I set my alarm for 1 pm, so I could wake up in time for my next meeting.
“Frequently, young girls are unable to complete school or get jobs because water scarcity means they are forced to walk miles daily to obtain this most basic need,” write Natalie Keefer and Rina Bousalis, in an article called, “How do you get Water? Structural Violence Pedagogy and Women’s Access to Water.” These girls start early, accompanying their mothers on this trek, to learn the business of being a woman.
Earlier that morning, I spoke to my mother on the phone. We talked about how she’d slept the night before, what I ate for breakfast, her plans for the day. I was getting ready for work, brushing my teeth, donning a denim dress with a sleeveless top printed with elephants underneath which I would later throw out in the dumpster behind my apartment, unable to stand the sight of it. Although I was now an adult, I was still in the habit of calling my mom four or five times a day. It was comforting. I think the last thing I said to her was, “Talk to you later.” I can’t remember what she said, but occasionally she would end the call with “I love you.” I hope this is what happened.
She died on September 6th, 2016.
I never liked the number six, but after that there really was no chance of reconciliation with it.
Her heart stopped. After she died, the doctors at the hospital examined her and determined it to be cardiac arrest. My dad explained this to me when he picked me up from the airport. He said it was like a machine had just shut down. Unlike most heart attacks where the victim could have some degree of awareness, in her case, there would have been immediate loss of consciousness. Her heart likely didn’t skip beats, her left arm probably didn’t hurt, she would not have thought about what has happening. She didn’t think. Her heart just stopped beating. It was as if someone just turned the lights out.
They say women’s heart issues are grossly under-diagnosed in America, mostly because their symptoms greatly differ from men’s and doctors are just now gaining awareness. I wish knew that before.
The greatest issues westerners face with trying to bring technological advancements in water to developing nations are culture and tradition, especially as they relate to the gender divide. “It’s the women’s role to manage the water while the men make the decisions concerning the water,” writes Emily Archer in “The Wells are Drying up: Women & Water in Ghana,” in the journal Off Our Backs. Simply meaning, women do not have agency over their lives.
Perhaps the dogs barked as they watched her go down, calling for help. Maybe they ran away in fear. She fell in the hallway in between the front door and a table of photographs. My mom had this antique table since before I was born. It stood proudly displaying captured moments from our family history. Our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, all grinning widely into the bright light. There was my great-grandmother’s wedding picture from the 1930’s, the beads on her flapper dress almost tangible through the frame. My young mother, a teenager with straightened, hippie hair. There was me, a tiny ‘90s version encompassed by my mom’s protective arms, her peering down at me and smiling.
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My mom and I spent the majority of my life in conflict. Her rage, inherited from her mother, was directed at me, and my rage was recently aimed toward myself. Her trying to control everything, me being uncontrollable. Her yelling, causing fractures in our nuclear family, my screaming surpassing hers. How often during my adolescence did I wish her away? Wish her dead?
She flew to the west coast to see me just nine days before, an inversion of dreaded six. She told me then that she was proud of me, proud of the life I created after making a mess of it for so long. I gave her my bed while I slept on the couch. She would check on me in the middle of the night, feeling guilty for putting me out, offering to switch. I wish, in hindsight, that I had slept in the bed next to her that week. Listening to her snoring, feeling the heat of her body, watching her breath journey in and out.
She had an ulcer, which masked a heart condition, and she stopped eating toward the end because of it. She was throwing up a lot. Vomiting puts a strain on the heart. I would know, since I had been diagnosed with bulimia.
I was 26.
When my dad found her, she had already turned blue. Blue like water when collected in the land and reflected in the sky.
Women and water are usually in the same conversation, oceans and rivers and currents and rhythms. This is how it’s been throughout human history. Stories emerged personifying this great entity that could simultaneously create and destroy.
My mom carried too many burdens. The burden of being a mother as an adult; the burden of having been unmothered as a child; the burden of being the leader in a high-powered job; the burden of being a woman, still in time when being a woman meant your burdens were inescapable.
Earlier that day, my dad suggested to my mom that she rest. She wasn’t feeling well. He said this gently but she was defiant. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she said.
Her burdens were her own.
My alarm went off that day and not even ten seconds later, my cell phone rang. It read “Dad,” which I found odd because my dad never called me. I was still disoriented from sleep and didn’t have time to realize this in the moment.
“Hello?” I said.
“Amy,” he replied, “I have some bad news.”
My dad got a copy of my mother’s medical records after she died. Searching for reason, searching for answers. My dad liked facts; they comforted him. My mom had a heart murmur she’d hid from everyone and according to the paperwork, she complained of chest pain just a couple of weeks before. She didn’t want people to worry about her. There were a lot of secrets in my family, but I’d never considered that one of them would end up killing us.
She died on a Tuesday.
Gathering water is seen as a women’s role, the same way hunting is seen as a man’s role. Women aren’t considered strong enough to use a weapon and kill, but they can carry up to 40 pounds on their backs, sometimes more. They strap these containers to their shoulders, the weight of their responsibilities pounding into their skin with each step toward home.
I wore her dress to her funeral. I didn’t own anything suitable and she had a sleeveless, simple black dress, perfect for any occasion.
The humidity was unbearable. We went in a limo, the only time I’d ever been in one. None of us spoke. It took a slow, empty hour until we got to the cemetery, where my grandfather had been buried just 10 months before.
We stood around the grave, just immediate family and friends. I clutched onto my uncle’s arm, my face digging into his shoulder. I was the only one wailing. My dad’s cousin read the mourner’s Kadish, something I’ve heard before, but never could translate. It seemed appropriate.
The mourners each took their turns shoveling a scoop of dirt onto her casket. The scraping of the Earth is forever imbedded in the dark corners of my memory. It was my turn.
“No,” I yelled. I wouldn’t bury my mother in the dry, barren ground.
The last day I saw my mom, we went out to brunch. She was flying back home later that day so we decide to share a final meal together. Mom ordered bacon and eggs, sunny side over. “Don’t break the yolk,” she requested, as usual. It was a Sunday. Nine days later, she was gone.
I sat across from her, sipping my latte, staring at the face that seemed to be nearly indistinguishable from mine but with more lines, sunspots, freckles and other discolorations from the sun. Her hair was still perfectly sculpted into a shoulder-length bob from her recent trip to the salon. She wore a sweater even though it was August; she was always cold. When she smiled, her eyes disappeared.
As humans, we have always looked to the spirit world for explanation.
According to various mythological traditions, Tiamat will purify you, Anuket will feed you. The Lady of the Lake flows throughout time. Sulis says healing and sickness are mirrors of themselves. Styx will take you out of this world.
It wasn’t until I moved out of my apartment, about two years after, that I found the plastic water bottles she left from her visit in the back of my fridge. She hated room temperature water and scolded me for not having any ice in my freezer. I left them there, dreading the idea of throwing them out. Maybe I’d known they were there all along. They were comforting, as if one day she might come back and retrieve them.
For a second, I wondered if it was an omen. Was this a clue the universe had left for me? My mom used to say everything that happens was meant to happen.
There is no end to the advice those grieving hear from books, therapists, bereavement groups. The first year’s the hardest. The second year’s the hardest. You should be moving on in five years. There is no date at which to move on, but it seems like you’re struggling too much.
During our last meal, the one I didn’t know was the last; we started talking about the past. All that happened, all that we wished hadn’t happened. I sat across from her, grown up, an equal, and didn’t run. There was no more space for blame, anger, or half-truths.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she admitted. “You didn’t come with a handbook.”
I know, I either verbalized or she silently understood. We both did. I didn’t know back then either. She unknowingly gave me one last gift, the gift of an apology, the gift of reprieve.
Some people ask me if I feel cheated losing my mom so soon after that reconciliation. Some people ask me if I’m relieved I had that moment. Both are true. Neither are true. Nothing makes sense when your mom is dead.
The archetype of a dark woman artfully draped in bold cloth, one hand raised to meet the pot of water balanced skillfully on her head, perhaps with a baby on her back, haunts women today. These images romanticize what is not in. It’s similar to the images girls grow up of Barbie’s miniscule waist, or blemish-free faces on Instagram. How can we carry it all, the truths and the lies? The limitations and expectations. We are each an amalgam of contradictions — caretakers and feminists, selfless and powerful, gentle and bold. Our backs are aching.
Later that day, before her flight back home, my mom sat on my couch while I rested my head in her lap. I gave her container of aloe gel so she could help soothe my mosquito bites, which had then expanded to create a constellation on my back. She ran her acrylic fingernails in lazy circles, easing my discomfort. She seemed tired and I remember thinking during her trip that she looked older, as if time had finally caught up with her. We were silent, the front door opened to the brilliant sun, blazing into my sheltered eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time we sat together and just… sat. I couldn’t remember the last time she touched me with the healing touch of a mother. While I lay there, I finally understood what peace felt like.
When I took her to the airport, I could tell we both were feeling the same pain in the space between our stomachs and our hearts. The pain of saying goodbye. “Promise me you’ll never leave me,” I pleaded as I had done since I was a child, terrified of living a motherless life, believing without my mom’s strong arms to carry me, I would surely fall.
We carry our burdens on our backs, in our stomachs, in our hearts. We carry the burdens of those who hurt us, those for whom we are responsible, those we’ve lost. My mom’s burdens were heavy — heavy enough to stop her heart. Must I go on carrying her burdens? Or can I release them, let them spill to the ground and wash everything clean.
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Amy Scheiner is a writer of essays, memoir, fiction, children’s stories, and screenplays. She is an incoming MFA student at Stony Brook University and is currently working on her memoir.
Editor: Sari Botton