I wanted to get back to the episode of The Cosby Show waiting for me in the other room. But I followed Mom’s directions and wrote in my neatest handwriting. I studied my signature. It looked too practiced, like the signature of someone who had just learned penmanship a few years ago. My letters didn’t slant like my mother’s, with the ease of someone who had signed her name for years.
“Good,” Mom said, looking over my shoulder. I made three or four more checks out to imaginary payees until I got the hang of it.
* * *
That November, she died. I walked downstairs one morning to find her hospital bed empty and stripped. Her body had already been removed, my aunt said. In two days we would see my mother again lying in the casket she had picked out weeks before. She had already paid for her own funeral.
I went upstairs and woke my sisters by tugging off their covers.
“I have some bad news,” I said, as though we’d run out of milk. Instead, I was to announce something like a nuclear bomb going off. “Mom died.” I’d already come to loathe expressions like “pass away” and vowed never to pretty this reality with euphemism. In the weeks ahead, when creditors called to collect on unpaid medical bills, I’d relish giving it to them straight. “Is your mother home?” they’d ask. “No, she’s dead.”
But my bluntness startled my sister Joelle, and she fired back, half-irritated, half-fearful, “You’re joking.”
“No, I’m not,” I giggled in a fit of nerves. I was not a giggler. I cried easily. But that morning I laughed harder and repeated that our mother had died as my other sister Shauna sobbed.
Candor became my trademark move. As Christmas approached, my father and I scrambled to cover the gaping hole my mother’s death had left—logistically, emotionally, and financially. Dad didn’t have much money to give me for my sisters’ presents. What I was able to put under the tree looked paltry, even after I strategically propped up a few flat packages to give the illusion of abundance. Sensing disappointment on Christmas morning, I told my sisters, “You know Santa isn’t real. Dad and I had a lot of funeral bills, so I hope you understand.” I was certain they already knew the truth about Santa. They were savvier than I had been at that age. And anyway, I couldn’t risk them thinking they were bad or undeserving. It was tragic enough to lose your mother at 10, let alone think Santa had punished you with crappy presents the same year.
“What?” my sister said, looking confused and wounded.
“C’mon, you knew,” I said, annoyed at myself for underestimating their naïveté. I had become not only a poor substitute mother, but also official bearer of bad news, guiding my sisters through a world of loss.
For the last two years of high school, I lived a double life. I was quiet, responsible, and a straight-A student. No one really asked me much about the life I went home to, and I didn’t want to talk about it anyway.
My father continued working in New York, a 2½-hour bus ride away, and spent most of the week there while my sisters and I stayed in Pennsylvania by ourselves. On nights he didn’t come home, I prayed nothing happened, like a fire or break-in that would alert the authorities to our questionable arrangement. In addition to the “no punching your sister” rule, I instituted new ones for our changed circumstances: No opening the door to strangers. Not even if it’s a cop or a fireman—especially if it’s a cop or fireman. Never say “Dad’s not home” if someone calls. Say “He can’t come to the phone right now.”
After Mom died, I had more freedom than I’d ever had in my life and no idea what to do with it. Mostly I just bought previously unauthorized purchases at the grocery store, like gummy worms. I never had to worry about getting in trouble again, but I liked to imagine that Mom had just gone somewhere for a while and would be back. Dad made that easy enough. After reporting to the Social Security office to collect on our mother’s death benefits, we didn’t talk about Mom again.
But her absence was always felt. With Mom gone, we had no one to serve as a buffer against my father’s temper. She’d often taken the brunt of his outbursts. A typical argument with my father stemmed from any number of minor annoyances, such as his dislike of the TV shows we watched, the food I cooked for dinner, and the scent of our nail polish. Fortunately, distance helped. We saw him weekends and maybe one night a week. My father never stayed longer than he had to, so the periods we spent with him came with a definite expiration date that helped us all manage our time together.
Managing situations is pretty much what we all did. During the eight years I raised my sisters, I never mothered them. I made sure the house didn’t burn down and that everyone had a bowl of spaghetti at dinner. A combination of delayed grief and teenage invincibility powered me through, but I didn’t have the ability to nurture myself, let alone those girls. When a caring college professor hugged me one day, I realized that no one had done that in four years. In my family I occupied an awkward, indeterminate place, somewhere between sister and mother, daughter and wife. That undefined space still shapes my relationships with my siblings and father 17 years after my mother’s death. I’ve accepted that this strangeness will probably never go away. I don’t have any children of my own yet, in part because it’s still hard to wrap my mind around ever having that staggering responsibility again. I feel sorry for those little girls who lost the most important person in their lives too early. I wish I could have been a better replacement, but that was never going to happen.