I Would Carry You If I Could
I was in the Northern Arabian Sea when the notice arrived. I knew my mother was sick– in fact, I had acted almost spitefully in the face of this knowledge, openly acknowledging that I would lose her before the end of this deployment, and still refusing to reach out to her, to show that I cared about her, even to call her. I don’t think I ever thought the message would arrive, that my mother was dying- her illness just wasn’t real to me. Looking back, after everything that has happened, I was acting as a child. In many ways, I was acting as a child, but particularly in the way that I thought it didn’t matter if I lost her, and in the way that I refused to act out of care towards her.
We never had a “good” relationship, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. Ever since the time that I was no longer a child, maybe around 7 or 8, the relationship began to turn cold, and we only became colder and more distant the longer it wore on. I can only speculate now, as to the reasons- perhaps she saw my father in me, due to our similarities in personality and appearance, with my face and even presence conjuring ancient memories, reopening long-closed scars. Perhaps it was that I was her oldest and she placed all of the hopes and expectations that come with that on me, and I bore these pressures slightly less than elegantly. We were both confrontational and contrarian– highly skilled in the arts of verbal and emotional abuse– far too often finding opportunities to hone our craft at the expense of the other; both wanting little else than an end to the fighting, but both too stubborn to ever show the effects of our attacks, never letting on just how badly we were hurting on the inside. She was the second-generation victim of years of domestic and emotional abuse, suffered at the hands of men who were supposed to care for her and protect her, and after years of numbing that pain with both recreational and self-medicinal substance abuse, mentally ill as well. I was an emotionally challenged boy, who needed his mother’s love, and could never bring himself to know this out of pride and stubbornness. We mixed like oil and water.
In any case, our cold war ended when I joined the Navy. Something no recruiter talks about, and which I learned too late- once I left home, I had left home. Seemingly obvious, I know, but the honest truth- the fact that the most you will ever see your family is the once or less a year, when you fork over perverse amounts of hard-earned money and leave, to fly back to Kansas, of all the forlorn places– You just can’t understand at the time. The return-and-visit calculus can only last so long before the temptation to pursue adventure takes over, making a voyage with friends to someplace exciting, to be young, to travel the world- like you are promised when you sign-up. And that is what happened. I returned home that first Christmas, and I saw her at my bootcamp graduation. The following Thanksgiving, that year’s Christmas. Each time, it made me question why I came back more and more- the people became more estranged, the place more loathsome, the entire character of the trip already distasteful. I saw her four times in the five years that passed between when I joined the military and the day that message reached me. I regret that now.
I remember vividly, after I was making decent money in the Navy, I returned around the beginning of May, maybe a week after my little brother’s birthday. I took him to the local mall, in all its local shittiness, and bought him some new clothes- some real clothes, not the rags and tatters we were raised in. That night I begged my family to let me take them out, so they could try an exotic dish I had discovered in my “vast” Navy travels- sushi. My mother obstinately refused to try even a small piece- as a replacement, I insisted on a nice steak, to which she agreed. That was the first time me and my brother shared sushi, a meal that would go on to become a food frequently shared between us, later when we were in California together- our dish of fraternity. It’s ironic because– as you can imagine from a sushi place in Wichita, Kansas, the food was mediocre at best– but my brother didn’t know any better, and he loved the dish. I didn’t have to heart to ruin his discovery. I think the whole meal was about $40 a plate, and with a few drinks for my mother, the bill wasn’t too bad. I didn’t know it then, but that would become the most expensive meal we would ever share as a family, and also our last.
Upon our return home, my mother continued drinking- her Franzia, boxed wine, as per the usual- and as the evening wore on, things turned hostile between us. She accused me openly, for the first time in my life, of being like my father, ranting at me and railing against me for being something like a person I had no notion of, whom I had never even met- who I wanted nothing more in life than to be the polar opposite of, because of how badly he hurt all the people I cared about. I remember, I was so confused… I had been so happy, the dinner had been great… Why this was happening, what I had done to deserve this? She was hitting me then, the weak arms of a fifty-five year old lady, doing no harm but emotional. Tears in her drunken eyes, she kept demeaning me again, and again, for doing nothing but trying to treat them how I had always wanted them to be treated. That was the second to last time I was to see her, and it left me emotional scars I’ll likely take to my grave.
Given all of this, it is almost understandable for me to have acted out of such extreme, callous ignorance. To predict my mother’s death and say I probably wouldn’t even come home to bury her… It was all so stupid of me. I remember talking to her the last time on the phone, I had no idea how bad she was at the time, you couldn’t hear it in her voice at all. We made a plan that night, for me to smuggle her out of the hospital when I got there, to drive her to San Diego, even if she was to expire on the fourteen-hundred mile voyage there. Within the span of a telephone call, I had become the dedicated and loving son I had never been before. I made promises to her, told her I would do anything, whatever it took, carry her if I had to, disregard any doctor’s orders, for her. She is the entire reason I came to California in the first place– San Diego was her favorite place in the world, after she had visited it for a few weeks on vacation in the early nineties. Having been raised on tales of golden California, of beaches and palm trees and sail boats, it was only natural that I choose it as my first duty station. It was her last wish to visit the place that she loved the most… The place I had lived for two and a half years, and had not once invited her to come visit me at. Not a single time.
After that phone call, the illusion of carrying her to San Diego shattered, and I along with it. I remember, like I am still there, I could barely talk I was crying so hard, an entire life’s pent-up emotions rushing out at once in a flood of pain. I told my boss about the situation, and the administrators on the ship worked through the night to accomplish a miracle to get me off before she passed. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was already too late. That night I tried to call her again, a lengthy process aboard a ship at sea, but the nurse staff told me that she wasn’t well enough to speak, and turned me away despite my best attempts. The next morning, I had a flight out of Dubai waiting for me, but I received the notice by email that she was gone.
I didn’t even know what to do at that point, what to feel, how to believe these things. Maybe a part of me still doesn’t, the process inside me is so jumbled and confused and painful. I remember standing on the deck of my ship, overlooking the jade green of the Northern Arabian Sea alone. It was a cool, clear morning, and the gold of the early morning light was playing off the perfectly serene waters. It was a sight that is normally transcendentally beautiful, but I couldn’t enjoy it. The sun was rising for the first time that day, for me, on a world which no longer contained the person that was Tawana Roe. I felt numb. I was standing amongst some of the equipment I maintained, equipment which for 3 years I had placed higher in priority than my family and my mother, and I spent the morning turning away anyone who tried to penetrate my shell, tried to offer their support. I didn’t tell anyone that morning, maybe saying it out loud would have made it more real.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact, I couldn’t understand it- she was gone. I no longer had a mother. I remember going through the motions of having small talk with a couple of the guys that worked with me, telling them about what I was going to say to her when I got there, and how amazing it was going to be to take her to San Diego with me. It wasn’t just keeping up appearances then, I believed what I was saying; it simply wasn’t real to me. It wasn’t real to me until, almost 30 hours of continuous travel later, I got in the piece of shit car my brother was driving when he picked me up at the Kansas airport. It was a bitterly cold day, and as the snow was blown in violent gusts over the ice in the parking lot, I was painfully aware that I didn’t have a jacket- I hadn’t needed a jacket in the Middle East. That was when the knowledge of why I was in Kansas, when a day ago I had been in the UAE, began to sank in.
He was driving our mom’s car, of course. Our car, now, I realized. I couldn’t contain it any longer, couldn’t stand the thoughts. Maybe it was on the way home, when it finally dawned on me that I was in Wichita, I was home. And I wasn’t going home to see her, that I was never going home to see her again. That, when I arrived at the place where I was raised, she wouldn’t be stationed at her normal place between the television set and our fifteen year-old computer, for me to surprise her when I walk in, for her eyes to grow wide when she noticed me, for her to greet me, and give me a hug, and say she missed me while I was away.
I never knew it before she passed, but somewhere inside of me I had always housed a belief, that one day, before all was said and done, after I was out of the Navy, and onto bigger and better things, and her mental illness had been conquered, and she had been sober, we would have a talk with each other- open and honest. I would get the chance to be able to stand before her, and show her the adult I had become, proud and intelligent, able and strong. That I do good things in the world. I would show her that somehow, miraculously, I had turned out alright, and she didn’t need to worry about me. I would tell her I was sorry for being such a difficult son, and I was sorry for arguing with her, and that she had mostly been right about everything, and that everything we had ever fought about didn’t matter at all. I would tell her how sorry I was that I had ever hurt her, and be able to admit to her that I mostly did it because I too had been hurt very badly, but that I was ok now, and she just needed to know how much I cared about her and loved her, and how much I never said it.
But I never got that chance. That day is never doing to come, and the end of our story was a thirty minute phone call made from a warship in the ocean. She died on the exact opposite end of the Earth, never knowing these things. She died in abject poverty, almost entirely alone, and unsure of the relationship between us. This was the reality I hadn’t wanted to know the morning she died, standing in the cold sunlight. This was what had been afraid of confronting, why I lied to myself about going to San Diego with her. It only began to be real in that airport, beneath the muted Kansas winter sky.
I lost it then, for the first time, in that car with my brother on our way home, and I still to this day haven’t caught it again.
Thor Roe is a student at Fullerton College.