Kathy Kay | By Megan Saunders
The day before you died, I hugged you in the hallway of my childhood home. The framed photos to the right, just before rounding the corner into the kitchen, were hung too closely together and yellowed from the sun shining through the front door. Your bones looked so thin under the soft cotton of your T-shirt. You smelled like you.
Things between my mom and me weren’t what one would call “fine,” but that was nothing new. I was seven months pregnant and Annabelle, my three-year-old, and I had visited for a couple of days to belatedly celebrate Christmas. My husband, Cory, stayed home. He was understandably angry at my mother’s recent relapse and refused to support the occasion. I was angry too, of course, but I couldn’t bear the thought of no one from my nuclear family showing up for our post-Christmas gathering. What if it tipped her over the edge, whatever that edge may be? I cursed Cory on the three-and-a-half-hour drive to my parents, stopping at a McDonalds in Abilene so Annabelle could get lunch and use the restroom. It was blistering cold and the wet wind whipped my car door open. I pictured him playing video games in our living room by the fireplace.
That was two days before that hug. Now it is warmer and sunny, and I’m hugging my mother goodbye for the last time. She held Annabelle, and I told her to be a good girl for Ammaw and Papa while they kept her for an extra night.
“She always is,” my mom said.
She wore the necklace we had given her for Christmas. Casually, I leaned forward and hugged her with one arm and Annabelle with the other. Did I sense it, in this moment? That my mother would be dead in twenty-four hours in the bedroom ten feet from where we stood? No. But it’s so easy to imagine I did.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
You spent much of your life apologizing. Apologizing for the trauma you faced as a child and its effects into adulthood, apologizing to my father for your inability to control your addiction, apologizing to my brother and me for being drunk for most of our childhood. Did anyone ever turn to you and say—I mean really say—they were sorry to you? Sorry for refusing to acknowledge the terror and humiliation you faced repeatedly, or sorry for our lack of understanding of what you needed to fill that gaping wound? I don’t know if it would have made any difference.
I have some apologies of my own. I didn’t understand how—or didn’t have the courage—to voice them to you while you were still alive. That is my first apology.
I’m so terribly sorry that I often saw you as a one-dimensional addict. When you were drinking, it was so much easier to be angry with you for the physical act of consuming alcohol and what it did to our family on the surface. There was some comfort in the predictability. You drank, which usually involved lying or at least evasiveness, then you became some combination of belligerent, embarrassing, pathetic, and comatose. The fact that this behavior was a direct result of a liquid you purposely put in your body made it easy to lean on my anger. It was perhaps too painful to peel back that layer to see your pain, to better understand the perpetual nightmare of shame that existed within you. I didn’t understand that it was your own betrayal that led to the one you would enact on us.
The parting words my mom and I spoke aloud were full of love and familiarity, but our final digital communication was ridiculously mundane. I began my eastward return home, sans Annabelle, and decided I’d stop at a local children’s consignment shop in Great Bend. Three shopping bags later, I was back in the car and I texted her.
“Stopped at that consignment place in Great Bend. Super cute stuff if you’re ever looking for stuff for the girls.”
“Yep. Been there.” Our last communication.
The consignment shop was called Forever Young.
Six days later, I was back in the car, this time with Cory in tow. Annabelle, too, as my father had returned her to our home the same day my mother killed herself, probably as he was driving back. We were returning for her funeral.
I purposely timed our arrival so we would miss most of the visitation. Maybe I should feel shame for my selfishness— didn’t my dad need me, after all?— but I know my mom would have understood. She shared my dread regarding crowds of all sizes, well-meaning acquaintances encroaching on our space. The sorrowful eyes, the uncomfortable hugs, the “suicide is such a different type of grieving” sentiments. I just couldn’t. Being quite pregnant meant I wasn’t as nimble in my attempts to dodge them, either. More than this well-worn anxiety, though, I was terrified that I might catch a glimpse of my mother’s cropped blonde hair lying on a satin pillow in the open casket down the aisle of the chapel attached to the funeral home. I simply could not bear it. We arrived at the tail end, plenty of time for sympathetic shoulder patting, but not enough time for my disobedient eyes to wander to the chapel.
I’m sorry I couldn’t bring myself to touch your hand one more time. I still remember how the veins patterned their backs and how your nails could grow so much longer without breaking than mine ever could. I’d rather imagine them in the kitchen, though, wiping a finger across a metal mixer before popping it in your mouth to gauge seasoning for mashed potatoes. You made the creamiest mashed potatoes.
My brother, Marc, was brave enough to face my mother in her casket and for that I’m grateful. He and I operate as different sides of the same coin, perhaps more so than most siblings. In a way, his courage feels a little like something I can share. She looked like a reflection of herself, Marc said. Physically, of course, she had the same attributes as in life, but the lack of a spark made her a stranger.
I white-knuckled my way through the tail-end of the visitation, knowing the worst was to come. Several months ago my father had rented my mom an apartment in an attempt to save his own sanity and keep her out of the house while she was drinking. While she still spent a lot of time living in my childhood home, most of her possessions resided in this apartment. In the pristine cream-sided house back on the farm her memories permeated the walls and her footsteps were beat into the floors, but it was still a shared space that allowed for a level of diluted avoidance. Within that apartment, though, every item had been chosen, organized, and arranged with my mother’s hands.
I prepared myself to enter that apartment, the one you left just a week before, fully expecting to return. You would not, but I would. It felt like an altar.
Did you like living alone? I know you were sad to not be back in the house with Dad, but I like to think you found some power in being away from his suspicious eye. He wasn’t fair to you. I wish I had told you that so long ago, but I spent my childhood and early adulthood being told that he was the hero of this story. He was the one who carried the burden of the alcoholic wife, the embarrassment of your missteps, the raising of the children when you were incapacitated, and, most of all, making the money and keeping the family together.
“Your father is a saint. I couldn’t put up with everything he has.” I heard a variation of this sentiment a million times. And he did put up with a lot, you knew that and you felt the guilt. But you also did the emotional labor that is rarely recognized in women, especially women who are constantly tripping over their own trauma.
When you weren’t intoxicated, you were usually planning the next time you could drink or you were reliving the shame of your last binge. But even with all that chatter and distraction ping-ponging in your head, you still managed to wake children up in the morning, yell at them for eating five granola bars for breakfast, harp on them about making their beds, ensure they had clothes that fit, scheduled haircuts and doctors’ appointments, enrolled them in school and sports, attended their sporting events, bought groceries, made lunch daily for Dad and his hired hands, drove grain cart during harvest, ran to the parts store for farm emergencies, bought birthday and Christmas presents, taught Sunday school, chaperoned field trips, and substitute taught at my school (much to my chagrin).
You made plenty of mistakes, but we all know what the Bible said about casting the first stone. Dad cast a lot of those stones and while I’ll never judge the anger and betrayal he felt toward a spouse who chose a liquid over everything he provided, I think you had some stones to cast, too.
The apartment was silent but for the air gusting in and out of my lungs. At the top of the stairs, just beyond the front door, my mom’s scarves hung neatly on hooks and her gloves rested in a basket below. In my mind, my knees gave out and I tumbled back down the stairs, but in reality, I found myself somehow moving forward. Cory followed behind, silently, letting me soak my grief in and out like a sponge. My dad said to take anything I wanted, as the apartment was going to be cleaned and back on the market by Monday.
How does one decide the items they’ll take from their dead mother’s apartment four days after she died? I grabbed two small suitcases and began filling them with a hunger that will never be satisfied. I started in the office, grabbing scraps of paper with her handwriting, books I knew she loved, then I turned to the bedroom. Her curling iron sat on the bathroom counter, cord dragging on the ground, makeup scattered nearby. I didn’t take any of that. I’m not so sentimental that I wanted a half-used tube of deodorant. Instead, I took the framed picture of my mother as a child that sat next to her bed and the simple flat stone she’d painted with Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.” I took the shawl tossed on the bed, not necessarily because I wanted it but because I liked imaging her placing it there, fully intending to return and hang it back up in the closet.
Sitting on the closet floor, my face wet, I held her sweaters up to my nose, memorizing the smell of the laundry soap. I heard the front door open, followed by my father’s voice softly greeting Cory who waited on the couch.
A moment later my dad popped his head in the closet. “Just wanted to say goodnight before we headed home,” Dad said as he glanced around the closet. “You should pick out some of her clothes to take with you. You two always had the same taste.”
Do you know that Dad told me that I should take some of your clothes because we “had the same taste”? Hilarious, right? You and I both know that isn’t true. You were constantly pushing boots, dresses, and shirts onto me and I would politely push them back. You were a size four on a bad day and the thought of me shimmying into your dresses now would have made us both cringe a little, even if you would have been politely encouraging.
Still, I did as he suggested.
“Yeah, okay. I will. Is there anything you want me to make sure I leave here?”
“No, take whatever you want,” he responded as he turned to walk out.
I stuffed cardigans and sweaters into suitcases—items with a better chance of fitting my very differently shaped body—and quickly zipped them shut. Wheeling them out toward Cory a thought bulldozed me. I ducked back into my mom’s office, trying to channel her thoughts. Where would she have put it? Would it even be here? I poked around in the closet and there it was—the blanket my mother was knitting for the granddaughter she would never meet. Periwinkle blue, perfect in its slight imperfections and, best of all, nearly finished. I let out a low laugh. Even in death she held our shit together.
Months later, I was back at the house—the apartment long gone—for the weekend, this time with the new baby in tow. While my dad was preoccupied I resumed my new reluctant pastime: Searching the house for anything that could remind me of my mom. After turning up little in the hall closets, I opened the coat closet off the front door and felt around the top shelf. Bingo, notebooks. She must have been doing a Bible study in the months before her death as the writing seemed to have a focused quality, like she was answering questions. Beneath all the surface-level familiar highlighted Bible verses a stunningly painful theme began to emerge: Heartbreak.
“I will forgive Kirk, I will forgive Kirk, I will forgive Kirk,” my mother wrote in one corner, line by line. “I will work on bettering myself so Kirk will want me back.”
I’m sorry I read your entries, but I think they gave me your final beautiful, terrible gift: understanding. The divorce a year before had been sold to the family—myself included—as more of a legal formality. What if you injured or killed someone on the road while you were drinking? It may sound cruel, but it’s practical—if you two were still married potential victims could come after the farm and the assets that he, his father, his grandfather, and now Marc had worked so hard to accumulate. Divorce could insulate our historic livelihood.
Slowly, though, the severity of the break became much more apparent. I can’t imagine what that was like for you, watching your marriage dissolve in extreme slow motion, knowing your own actions were causing it but not being able to stop that train. By the time you died it had progressed from “on paper only” to “only at the house when necessary.”
It was clear how long you had been hurting and how little of it had to do with your alcoholism. “I’m so frustrated that he won’t recognize my value to not only the farm, but in raising our children,” you wrote. I know that’s true. Dad is a kind, hard-working man, but his focus is narrow and his flexibility is that of a fresh carrot (you would like that joke). It’s not that he didn’t love or respect you, but I don’t think it is unfair to say he viewed you as inferior. I think you viewed yourself as inferior, too. He was the man, after all, so he made the money and gave his blood and sweat to keep you at home and comfortable. So what if you were home alone all day, in the middle of nowhere with two small children and near-crippling anxiety that made a social life next to impossible? You had a comfortable bed, plenty of food, and Bible class on Sundays. What more could you want?
I must admit that the overwhelming feeling I felt reading those notebooks was guilt. It was the kind of guilt I didn’t feel when Dad called me that terrible evening after Christmas to tell me you had killed yourself. “I should have done something more,” people say in those situations. But I knew there was nothing more I could have done to stop you from putting a gun in your mouth at 2 p.m. alone on a Sunday afternoon. You were drunk—the coroner could still smell the booze in the room—and so afraid and sad. At that point I had no power to help you.
But reading those journals, I fear that I failed you. I know the psychology—I was the child, you the parent, albeit often an incapacitated one. It wasn’t my job to monitor your emotions. But my heart whispers a different story. I wasn’t just your daughter, I was one of your only true friends; one of the only other people in your world who understood the suffocation of anxiety and the constant threat of negative thoughts looping through your brain. Maybe most of all, I understood on some level the complications of the man you married—my father—and how he could be so compassionate and understanding one moment, then quickly turn off emotion at the drop of a hat and repel any source of warmth.
I may not have been able to change it, but I should have felt your hurt at losing your true love. Dad had rescued you from a mother who sat silently with the knowledge of your abuse and now it felt as though he was the next one to turn his back on you when you were struggling. Don’t get me wrong, Mom, I was angry with you too. I was on Dad’s side, and I shared a portion of his pain. But toward the end, I know we had a tendency to treat you as An Alcoholic, and not as Kathy Molitor. You became flat, a two-dimensional problem that was best dealt with using tough love. Often, though, it was more tough than love.
The morning of the day my mom would die my dad briefly left the house to check cattle, getting in a quick chore before bringing Annabelle back to our house. My mom planned to tag along, an opportunity to help me organize the nursery. Instead, when my dad returned home around 7 a.m., he found his wife passed out in bed, inebriated beyond belief and Annabelle standing alone in the hallway looking afraid. We’d been thrilled to leave her there just one extra day, not only to give Cory and me a break, but to give her one-on-one time with her Ammaw and Papa. Subconsciously, maybe it was a misguided motivation to help my mom stay sober.
“Are you coming with us to bring Annabelle back?” my father asked the unmoving form lying on the bed.
“No,” she murmured, lips barely moving.
He left my mother in the same bed in which she’d soon die. Several hours later he would stand in my kitchen with me and explain why she wasn’t there. We both simmered in the familiar disappointment and anger.
“If she thinks she’s coming up when the baby is born, she is very wrong,” I said. “She made that decision for herself.” Dad just nodded somberly.
“If you want to see her from now on, you’ll have to visit her in her apartment,” he said. “She isn’t coming back to the house anymore.” I returned his nod.
He got back in his truck for the return trip that marked the start of his nightmare. For the second time that day he would find her still body in bed. When my father called to inform me that normal life had ended, I blurted out, “I can’t imagine feeling that kind of hurt.”
Of course, I couldn’t, because I was immersed in my own hurt. But her hurt was real, too, and I can’t help but wonder if we’d spent more time surrounding her with love and support and less time trying to parent the alcoholism into submission, maybe that morning would have gone differently. Maybe she would have woken up to find Annabelle making a mess in the kitchen, then made her some peanut butter toast and started a cartoon on the tablet for her to watch. Then, after going to church, the three of them would have driven Annabelle back up and I would have hugged her at least one more time.
I’m not disillusioned—you still would have been an alcoholic no matter what steps we took. Your trauma preceded us by decades. You probably still would have been the mom who got drunk on mouthwash while substitute teaching my high school class or who had to be carried to the car after my wedding reception.
But you still would have been my mom.
Cory disagrees with me and maybe it’s the irrational thought of a grieving mind, but I told him the other day that maybe we should have just let you drink. Would it have been so bad? Even intoxicated, you were never cruel or hateful. Really, any embarrassment or danger came from imposing such strict restrictions that caused you to resort to stupidity in order to rebel.
What if we would have just taken away the keys and let you be?
While you were still alive, I often had a silly, wistful thought: While many of my friends were reaching the age where they spent time with their mothers at wineries, treating themselves to a fancy cocktail at dinner, or even engaging in a little old-fashioned drunken bickering over Christmas I knew I would never have that milestone. I’d never share a glass of wine with you. It’s inconsequential, in the scheme of things, but I think it speaks to a bigger, yet childlike desire: To go back in time and save you from the monster who stole so much from you as a child, every shred of innocence, not just once but time and time again — and still had the nerve to call himself family. What’s worse, the people who mattered knew and they turned away from the little girl in front of them who was loudly crying for help. I want the impossible; I want whatever chewed you up and spit you out, damaged and terrified, to have never existed, so that I could have a mother who still did.
I was robbed of the mother-daughter relationship I craved. Crave.
We were never a family that said a lot of “I love you’s,” but that mistake ends here. I will tell my daughters I love them every day until they’re sick of hearing it and then I’ll tell them some more. I’ll also tell them about their Ammaw and how she loved them both so much that you could see it welling in her eyes when she’d talk about them—even Adeline, whom she never met. On that last Christmas you hastily hung up an extra stocking and pinned a slip of paper with Adeline’s name, even though we weren’t sure yet of the spelling. I treasure the few times I heard her name come off your lips and I grieve so hard that I couldn’t bottle up that sweet sound and play it for her.
Adeline’s middle name is Kay, after you, and I hope that isn’t all she gets from her grandma. I hope she has your fierce kindness and subtle sense of humor that was both eye-rollingly lame and refreshing. I hope she searches for similarities with others, not differences. I hope her silent presence is just as comforting and that she isn’t afraid of her emotions. Your emotions were what made you so strong, stronger than Dad, even. Your weakness was that you didn’t believe it. I hope both of my girls love in the face of great impossibility and hardship, just as you did for all your life, and I hope that, like you, they never give up.
Because you didn’t give up, Mom. You fought like hell for decades to overcome sexual trauma and PTSD, depression, anxiety, bulimia, alcoholism, and a sense of both geographical and relational isolation. You survived. Demons just seized your reason when you were most vulnerable.
“Let’s not end it like this,” you whispered to me at the breakfast table that last morning as I wrestled a screaming Annabelle into her booster seat. “Just let her be.”
I, too, must now let you be.
“I know that I am gone.” – The last text my mother sent my father.
About the Author:
Megan Saunders is a full-time marketing copywriter who moonlights as a creative nonfiction writer. Most recently her work was published in the Mud Season Review. She lives in Kansas with her husband, two young daughters, and too many pets.