I haven’t had a home since I was 25. Not really. That’s when my mother died. She had cancer, and one day, more than a year before her death, I stood at mid-day looking out the front window of the house my husband and I were renting and imagined her dead. I panicked and called my older brother, as I sometimes did when I was afraid, always forgetting that his talent was objectivity — and forgetting, mostly, that his response would not help, and at first it didn’t. He said, “This is what happens. We knew this. We knew she wouldn’t have that long.” I remember saying, “Uh huh,” as though I knew it, too. Then I remembered why I had called and added, “Yeah, but I really imagined it. Like, all the way.” My brother said, “Well,” and then softly, “I know.” And then I was grateful for the sound of his voice, and that he could put aside the facts he relied on. I had not called my older brother for facts.
The fact — the real fact — was my sudden knowledge that soon, I wouldn’t have a Mom. And we were close, my mother and I. I had one child and another due soon and I needed my mother. When she went out on errands, she’d call and ask, “Do you want to come along?” I could talk to my mother; I liked talking to my mother. We didn’t always agree — Mom was opinionated — but I didn’t mind. I knew that she loved me irrevocably. I think I knew I’d never have that again — that whole love that would never turn away. And in that first moment of knowing that my mother would not remain a walking, talking person alive in the world, like the people I saw walking by on our sidewalk, a new feeling fluttered in my stomach and it wasn’t good.
People sometimes hinted that I was “sheltered” and I certainly was. But I knew of no other way to be alive. My brothers left home and went to school and began, I guess, developing. I got married and figured I’d gone far enough. I was done. My mother stabilized me and made me feel brave. I had no idea I wasn’t brave, nor stable. I would find all of this out. I would develop, though to me, the word implies something fluid, like a sauce that gradually thickens. And maybe that’s what happens to some people. After my mother died, the earth gave way beneath me more than once, and each time I’d think: how do I do this? How do I go on in life? I think all of my ideas of home began dying the moment I knew my mother was, which is what makes the memory of one of our last car rides sad — so sad that I’d forgotten it until a few years ago.
One day in August, three months before my mother died, she drove out to some place I’d never been. She parked alongside a huge expanse of green grass, like a small field, and farther back sat a small white house. “That’s the house,” she said. “That’s the one I keep thinking of for you and Mike.” It’s hard for me to remember she was still selling houses — that she had the specs on that little white house. I rolled down the window and the heat of that August — that thick, humid air — poured in and is forever fused with my view of that house. At first I was confused; I didn’t know how things happened. How does one buy a house? How would my mother buy us a house? Because that’s what she was saying: That little house is the house I want to buy for you and Mike. She didn’t say those words, but I knew what she meant.
But this is what I mean: Even though nothing new had happened — the cancer that would reappear hadn’t shown up yet — I felt the house to be a wish my mother was showing me. As though really she was saying: This is the house I would have bought for you and Mike, if I hadn’t gotten sick. Or: This is the house I would buy for you if I wasn’t going to die. So I couldn’t take it in, except in my heart. And the house has stayed, locked there, because I could hear in her voice that this was what she wanted, not what she could do. There is nothing sadder than listening to the threads of what is left of someone’s life, like unrequited love, still alive, still leaning toward what can never be. I want you to have something, she was saying.
I have thought about that house lately — distant and white and heavy with heat — and I make myself walk inside of it. It is empty, of course, and for some reason I am wearing my mother’s blue bathrobe — the one she wore constantly the last month of her life. The floors are wood, and an arched molding separates the living room and the dining room. I know if I go further, I’ll see the kitchen, but I can’t make myself move. I can’t go up the staircase to the bedrooms, either. Mike is dead and we’ve been divorced for years; my children are grown and living in different states. But the feeling of us as a family in this house is so strong that it overwhelms me. I see the basket of toys, the rugs, the sofa, the dining room table, which is set for dinner. I hear myself in the kitchen, cooking, talking on the phone. I know what she wanted to give me and why: a piece of life with a bottom that wouldn’t fall out. A place on this earth to contain me, when she no longer could.
Constance Campana is a poet and essayist who lives in Attleboro, MA and teaches writing at Wheaton College. Recent publications have been in Dogwood, 491 Magazine, Three Rivers Poetry Journal, Brown Journal of the Arts, Cleaver Magazine, and SNReview.
DECEMBER 20, 2018 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #19 / HOME