Friday, October 18, 2013

Fictional short story (I made this up)


Dani felt giddy the day they buried her mother. She felt lighter and freer. As her family arranged themselves in the church foyer, it reminded her of her wedding day, only with a coffin and a black dress instead of a white one. As the oldest, she stood next to her father behind the casket. Her brothers and aunts followed. As much as this mimicked a bridal procession, she realized she felt happier than she had on her wedding day because her mother was dead and that – unlike her marriage – was going to last forever.

Everyone kept calling it a casket, but Dani preferred the word coffin. She and her father processed behind it as the music changed from Linda Ronstadt’s “Tú Solo Tú” to her mother’s favorite “Pescador de Hombres.” Dani felt the gaze of everyone in the crowded church, but she kept her eyes on the huge crucifix that gleamed behind the altar.

“Thank God,” Dani thought, wishing there were a better way for an atheist to express fervent gratitude. “Mother is dead. Mother is dead.”

She didn’t actually smile as she stepped along the carpet next to her dad. Or maybe she did. Dani had told herself to act sad, but it seemed a shame to hide her joy. Hadn’t Father Luís said they were here to celebrate the life of Araceli Gonzalez? Well, Dani was ready to dance.

Dani’s happiness was all the more remarkable because she spent so much of her life struggling with her mood disorder. She’d inherited her mother’s capacity for depression and her childhood was such that Dani developed chronic depression by high school. Even after she moved out of her parents’ house, she struggled with anxiety, low self-esteem and periods of self-hatred. She knew some kids recovered just fine once they got away from a parents’ abuse, but Dani buckled under the weight of memories of her mother and the awful feelings they kept alive. She had worked for decades with various therapists who helped her face her childhood pain, mourn the mother she didn’t get and build her self-esteem. Dani had forgiven her mother again and again, trying to release her resentment, but the anger never seemed to go away.

As the procession reached the front of the church, Dani noticed Amalia Cantú, one of her mother’s closest friends. Amalia looked distraught, but calmer than she’d been when she’d first arrived at the church. Upon seeing Dani’s dad, Amalia had said, “Oh, Jorge!” then wrapped her arms around him and wept. Dani’s father bore the embrace silently but when they parted Dani saw his raw grief. It lasted only a moment before he composed himself again, but it stunned her and made her feel terrible about her joy. She wanted to go to him and say, “Don’t feel bad. We’ll be so much better off without her!” But she couldn’t assume that would be true for him, so she left him alone.

Dani’s relationship with her mother had been completely different from the one she had with her father. Dani was the calming presence in her mother’s life. It was as if her mother had borne her first child to help her raise the rest. From as far back as Dani could remember she’d been aware of her mother’s panicky need to have her daughter by her side. Dani anticipated her mother’s needs, finished her sentences, did what she asked and never ever talked back. Exhausted, Dani gave her mother full massages at the end of the day. With her stomach in a knot, she listened to her parents argue, and she accepted her mother’s vilification of her father that always followed. It often felt like Dani held her mother’s hand through life instead of the other way around. She didn’t realize how it drained and suffocated her until she examined her childhood in therapy, but even then she didn’t know how to stop it.

In the years before cell phones, Dani had first established a semi-independent life. In college, she held two jobs while carrying a full load of classes. She lived near campus in a student co-op and loved her new freedom. But when her mother needed her – which was often – the phone rang, and she had Dani’s phone numbers at home, at both jobs and at her boyfriend’s apartment.

“Dani, where were you?” her mother’s voice came through the receiver when Dani got home one day during her junior year. Without knowing she was doing it, she gauged the level of emotion in those words as she put down her backpack and shrugged out of her jacket.

“I just came back from English.” Dani subconsciously slipped into her calming-presence voice.

“I’ve been calling you for an hour! When are you coming home for Christmas?”

“Daddy’s picking me up on Christmas Eve, in the morning.” College had given Dani her escape, but the campus was only a half hour drive from her parents’ home. Sometimes the distance felt like enough. Sometimes it didn’t.

“Well, the Lopez want to stop by when we’re all home and I told them I’d check with you. They’re probably going to bring another one of those huge, ugly baskets. I don’t know why anyone would want that junk. All that sugar and chocolate and fregadera. I do not have time for the Lopez in the middle of my Christmas Eve!”

Dani stayed quiet.

“I just want a nice evening at home with my family. Is that too much to ask? Why do people think everyone wants to see them on holidays? I just want to be with my family!”

Dani ventured, “Can you ask them to come after Christmas?”

“No! Your father would kill me if I did that. He’s so concerned about being friends with them.” Araceli sighed loudly. “We’ll just have to put up with them.”

Dani tried to think of a distraction and said, “Hey, I’m going to sing a solo in church this Sunday.”

“That’s nice,” her mother murmured.

“Well, it’s not a song, but I get to do the responsorial. I’ll sing and then everyone sings with me. You know?”

“I’m going to have the clean the entire God damn house just for the Lopez to drop by for half an hour. And you’re going to help me!” she threatened.

“Okay.” Dani drew a deep breath and released it silently.

Finally her mother said, “I’ll let you go. I’ll see you on Christmas Eve, along with the Lopez.”

Looking back on this from the safety of her mother's funeral, Dani thought, "I'm so glad cell phones weren't invented until I was all grown up." While her brothers seemed exempt from such treatment, Dani had no choice but to accept it. When ants invaded the kitchen, when the cat pooped on the carpet, when Dad needed emergency gall bladder surgery or when PTA members behaved rudely, Araceli’s fear and frustration sounded like this: “What's wrong with you, Daniela? Why can't you do anything right? No piensas! Nunca piensas!” 

Dani found her mother’s rage terrifying. From the time Dani was very young, her mother would hiss that she was stupid and had no common sense, and little Dani accepted it. Her mother needed her to be calm, so Dani kept up that appearance, but actually her mother's fury made her feel like the world was ending and she would become frantic to make the yelling stop. She hated herself for not being able to make her mother happy and often felt worthless.

After years of therapy and anti-depressants, Dani tried to talk to her mother about their relationship. She tried both conversations and thoughtful letters to ask her mother to please take it easy on her. She explained that she wasn't really the calm, unflappable person she pretended to be. She told her mother about her chronic depression that was triggered by stress and characterized by self-loathing, but her words didn't make much difference. Dani yearned for respect, but her mother just didn’t have it for her oldest child.

Dani’s final attempt to be a good daughter was when her dad needed hip replacement surgery. Since he’d be in the hospital for at least four days, Dani flew in for moral support. How could she not go? Tom’s high powered job never let him visit and her other brother only fought with their mother and made things worse. After a few days of her mother’s low level panic, constant need for neck rubs and demands for rides to the hospital, Dani was on edge. She was 39 years old, but her mother still believed she was entitled to treat her however she liked.

“Wait, where are we?” Araceli demanded. On the fourth day of Dani’s visit they were looking for a hospital supply store. Dani was driving while her mother navigated, but in her anxious chatter Araceli had forgotten about the written directions she held and missed at least one turn.

“We’re on the west side of Palo Alto somewhere,” Dani said “What were we supposed to do when after we turned on First Avenue?”

Her mother looked down at the directions in her hand and read, “Turn right on First Avenue. At the Mobil Station turn right on Leland. Did we pass the Mobil station? Did you see it?”

“Um, I don’t know.” Dani wasn’t the strongest driver. In fact, she’d been trying to pretend she wasn’t even in the car. She had been mindlessly doing as she was told and had no idea what scenery they had passed. She felt irritated that her mother couldn't even manage to read directions, but she couldn’t express that and knew what was coming.

“What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you have your eyes open? Are you driving with your eyes closed? You’re supposed to know these things! I’m counting on you!” Araceli’s eyes grew furious as Dani put on her poker face. Araceli raged, “This place closes at four o’clock! Now we’re not going to get there in time and your father won’t have a commode to sit on when he gets home from the hospital! What’s he going to do then? Eh? What are we supposed to tell him? I’m going to tell him you screwed up!”

Araceli thrust the paper with the directions at Dani, who tried to look at them while keeping control of the car. “Figure out where the fuck we are!” Thirty minutes later Dani found the hospital supply place, but being trapped in the car with her screaming mother was the last straw.

It took weeks for Dani to recover. After returning home, she had dragged through bleak days, hating herself, hating her mother, and wishing they were both dead. Life just felt too hard and it felt this way all the time. Why was life so hard? She envied people the news reported as accidentally killed in car accidents or by random gunfire. She wondered why she was never in the right place for such a thing, so that she could finally just sleep and never wake up. Dani spent a large part of her 30s wanting to sleep and never wake up.

After trying to talk to her mother about how that day in the car had made her feel, Dani stopped all visits and phone calls. She just couldn't be her mother's emotional support and she didn’t want to be hung up on anymore. Did this finally make clear how difficult it was for Dani to support a mother who didn’t reciprocate? She hoped so. All that was left was an exchange of greeting cards on birthdays and holidays. During the final seven years of Araceli Gonzalez’ life, she had almost no contact with her daughter, and Dani liked it that way.

But the guilt was horrible. Dani knew she was the worst kind of daughter: one who had abandoned her mother. Even though her mother was out of her life, she stayed in Dani's head. Dani's depressive episodes were full of self-loathing: she couldn't do anything right, she was a screwup and wasn't strong enough to be the daughter her mother deserved. She felt stupid and weak, but longed for a mother who nurtured her and whose company she enjoyed. Caught between guilt and the need to take care of herself, Dani carried a burden of remorse and responsibility that she knew wouldn't end until her mother died.

The funeral fascinated her. No fewer than five priests celebrated the mass. It astounded her that her mother had given so much to the church and the community that the adoration and grief poured out: enough holy fathers to start a rock band, flower arrangements from people Dani had never heard of, very tearful condolences and loving eulogies that went on and on. It seemed that Araceli Gonzalez had been endlessly generous and inspirational and was responsible for people’s high school degrees, college acceptances and entire careers. She had volunteered tirelessly in the church, organizing clothing drives, posadas and support when families lost their jobs. She taught the English-dominant how to speak Spanish and the Spanish-dominant how to speak English. She never stopped giving to the comunidad and now the comunidad grieved their loss with one voice.

More than half of the mass was in Spanish. Dani focused for as long as she could, following the sentiments until her brain felt overloaded. As she gazed at the Virgen de Guadalupe image that adorned the coffin, it was easy to tune out the language her parents hadn’t taught her. She could only concentrate in Spanish for so long. She imagined her mother in that box, weighing almost nothing. Cancer had caused many changes, and now they were burying a tiny person. Dani had noticed the thinness the last time she had seen her. Determined to reach a peaceful end to their relationship, Dani had said mostly truthfully, “I love you and I miss you. And I’m sorry we lost so many years together.”

Araceli’s colorless hair shifted on the pillow as she said in a small voice, “I never understood that. I never understood why you did that.”

Dani pursed her lips and didn’t say, “Christ God, old woman. Did you really never get it?” Instead she just kept holding her mother’s hand. From within her mother’s reality, it must have been extremely painful to have her only daughter disappear from her life. As Dani caressed the dry, shriveled hand, she realized that her mother really didn’t have the capacity to understand how she affected others. To her mother’s wounded heart, Dani’s withdrawal must have seemed cruel and inexplicable. Dani knew her mother didn't have much longer, and pitied her that she was dying with so much heartache and so little understanding.

Two weeks later, after her father called to say her mother had passed away, Dani shed a few tears. That took about a minute. Then she took a deep breath and let the relief flood in. No more hunting for a Mother’s Day card that wasn’t full of lies. No more obligatory birthday cards. No more reports from other family about her mother’s latest bad behavior (her mother was reliably nice to non-family, but not so good to those she was related to). No more guilty waiting for her mother to die. Dani was free.

Later at the graveside burial, Dani felt even more out of sync. Unlike others around her, Dani had already wept for her mother over decades of therapy. She remembered times when her mother had been loving, funny and nurturing, but those times had dwindled until, in Dani’s thirties, the nice Araceli Gonzalez had disappeared from Dani's life. Clearly others had experienced her as nurturing and loving, but Dani felt left out of that warmth. She had done so much crying during the years she and her mother were estranged that today Dani had no more tears. Instead, she felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

The sun beat down on their heads as Father Luís prayed over the coffin, now suspended over an open slot of brown earth in Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. There was more Spanish, more handkerchiefs pressed to faces, more eyes staring respectfully downward. Unwilling to pay any more attention, Dani looked over the crowd and wondered how many of these people had spoken English as their first language. Not many, she guessed. Her parents had lived in a very different world than the one into which they’d thrust her.

Dani and her brothers had learned English from the crib, grown up in a middle class suburb and attended a college preparatory high school in which the minorities were definitely in the minority. Her parents were raised in the barrio and had kept strong ties to the working class mexicanos in the area, especially those who had recently emigrated. Araceli and Jorge’s life sounded like ranchera music and tasted like orange rice made with chicken boullion. Dani’s life sounded like American top 40 and tasted like Prozac.

Dani’s gaze fell on the young man who had eulogized that Mrs. Gonzalez was the reason he became a lawyer. To his right was a family friend who had written a poem about her mother’s devotion to la raza. Had Dani been the sacrifice for all those people whose lives her mother had touched? Had Araceli Gonzalez been able to give and give because she’d had Dani’s strength to draw on? And if all those lives had been helped at the expense of Dani’s personhood and self-esteem, was it worth it?

"Fuck," Dani thought as she glared at the patch of grass between her feet and the grave. "Was that it? Was there some kind of twisted sick cosmic deal that I got the -- no, I can't start thinking that or I will go crazy. Fuck." She tried to pull her mind off of that line of reasoning. Better to focus on today's happiness.

After the coffin had been lowered, the dirt thrown on top of it and the flowers had followed, Dani wondered if some form of heartache would overtake her yet.  Thinking of her mother’s loving moments made Dani sad, but the sadness felt as faded as the memories. She shuffled with the rest of the congregation back to the parking lot to caravan over to a small reception. She had to respect the memory the parish had of Araceli Gonzalez, but wondered if anyone else in the world had ever felt this way on the day of their mother’s funeral.


Rayfield A. Waller said...


First of all, the whole piece begins, effectively, with a very powerful and vivid in medias res ('in the middle of the action') that shows an author who has made two solid and good choices: you cast the narrator in 3rd person—omniscient view point, which gives the reader some distance from the protagonist--the main character, Dani. This also gives the reader the freedom, through an omniscient narrator, to travel between characters, between events, to be anywhere in the story, not imprisoned in the protagonist's POV. If anything, you should capitalize more on this element by zipping into the heads and thoughts of a couple of other characters at the funeral. That choice of omniscience allows you to as the writer to use the tools of irony. The beginning over more, is very strong:

Dani felt giddy the day they buried her mother. She felt lighter and freer. As her family arranged themselves in the church foyer, it reminded her of her wedding day, only with a coffin and a black dress instead of a white one.

Because it puts us right into the situation and introduces the story's overall tone of irony. The line, "it reminded her of her wedding day, only with a coffin" is very on the mark--very ironic, even scary. The story is literally FILLED with dashes of stringent irony, as harsh as vinegar, such as:

Dani had told herself to act sad, but it seemed a shame to hide her joy. Hadn’t Father Luís said they were here to celebrate the life of Araceli Gonzalez? Well, Dani was ready to dance.

and each one is both horrifying and also moving, saddening, and revealing of the life of this woman who has died and of the things that obviously were wrong with this woman that her daughter feels this way, although the story has the subtlety that allows the reader to admit that we all have felt a lot of these feelings at funerals, whether we will admit it to ourselves or not. Not to mention there is a strong seam of humor in this writing. Well done.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Thanks, Ray! What a stunning critique. It surprises me how much humor there is in even the worst pain. Now I'll have to read some Jamaica Kincaid. Thanks, again.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I am estranged from a mother who seems to have lived a parallel life completely unrelated to my own. She wonders why I don't call, don't visit, don't communicate. Yet I refuse to expose myself again, to relive the pain of neglect over and over again. That she doesn't (can't?) explicitly acknowledge that I've been injured repeatedly by her rage and neglect only further distances me from ever connecting to her again. Save for the one last time I shall see her -- at her funeral.

Rather than dwell in the sufferings of the past, I've decided, consciously, to leave the past and live in the moment, ever-vigilant that I not recreate my own past with my own child.

Thank you for a touching, all-too-close-to-the-heart story.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Anonymous - I suspect there are many such relationships between children and parents that no one ever hears about. I wish you the best as you heal, and admire your bravery in becoming a parent yourself. Thank you very much for your comment. That's why I write. (Let me know how you feel at your mother's funeral, whenever it happens.)