I know where my mother is, and still I cannot find her.
Image from Flickr user harrytoumbos.
By Marissa Higgins
Search: Massachusetts inmate database (7,270,000)
I found my mother’s name on the list of inmates at a local correctional facility the night before her birthday. I refreshed the page, twice; I felt sick to my stomach and called to my wife, “My mom’s in jail,” I said. “What?” “My mom, she’s in jail.” The words tingled on my tongue, and I felt both relief and dread. Parents who live on the outskirts of society take their children with them, and we possess the knowledge that our parents can be separated from us at any moment. As a child, I moved from shelter to shelter with my mother, always waking in the night to check that she had not disappeared.
Several years have passed since I’ve last spoken to my mother. We don’t chat on the phone. We don’t text, email, or private message. We aren’t Facebook friends. That said, I still routinely scour the Internet looking for her—a habit I picked up after I moved from Boston to New York for my first job out of college. I felt intensely guilty about my decision to cross state borders, but inside I knew that it was the best and healthiest choice. My relationship with my mother had always been tumultuous, and I attribute that reality to several factors: her struggles with addiction, her mental illness, and her resentment towards me for her life as a single parent.
When I search for my father, Google offers me 20,200,000 results in 0.56 seconds. My mother used to talk about hiring a private detective to find him, and I daydreamed about a man in a trench coat wearing a fedora handing us manila folders full of evidence of my father’s new life: new wife, new daughters, new house behind a white picket fence. Now I scroll through pages that tell the details of other men’s lives—doctors, lawyers, and an esteemed psychologist all share his name. None of them is my father, but I imagine what it would be like if any of these men, these search results, were a part of my life. I imagine how much happier my mother could have been, and it makes me sad.
Define: dyke. (43,200,000 results in 0.45 seconds)
I often joke with my wife and close friends that my mother knew I was a lesbian before I did; she used to corner me in the laundry room and accuse me of being a “dyke” long before I had gone on a date with someone of either gender. After I came out to my friends and began dating women openly, I battled with massive anxiety and guilt about my true sexual orientation—I lied to my family and pretended either to be single and focused on my studies, or to have a boyfriend who lived in another state and who could never meet them over college breaks.
Even before I realized I was gay, I made sure to tell my mother I was re-watching my favorite movies to ogle the male stars, even though I was always wide-eyed for the female leads.
Search instead for: how do you make yourself straight?
The more my mother pushed my love life, the more I pulled back—we had never been close emotionally, but my sexuality became a quiet battleground. Looking back, I feel that I’ve always understood that my sexual orientation was something I could never tell her about. Even before I realized I was gay, I made sure to tell my mother I was re-watching my favorite movies to ogle the male stars, even though I was always wide-eyed for the female leads. When I got my first laptop in my freshman year of high school, I deleted my Internet history meticulously; I was terrified that my mother would realize how much time I spent looking at pictures of the female celebrities I had crushes on (889,000 results in 0.28 seconds). I just really like her makeup, I would tell my mother when she walked behind me in the living room. I’m trying to figure out how to do my hair like that.
As I grew into adulthood, I found myself unable to forgive her for her homophobia. I could forgive her for her addiction: one of my fondest memories of my mother was when I five or six and she’d snorted a pill before bed. She called me into her bedroom and patted the mattress beside her, her movements languid, her fingers loose. There was a little white powder left beneath her nostrils and I watched the particles drift across her upper lip to the rhythm of her breath. She woke up, momentarily, and told me it was fairy dust and that if I went to sleep, too, I’d come to the magic kingdom with her. She fell back asleep, and I watched the powder move on her lip for hours, waiting for her to wake up and hold me. I loved her then.
Before I knew the details of my mother’s case, I blamed myself for her incarceration. I didn’t know a single fact, nor a sole allegation or finding, but still, guilt consumed me: I should have stayed home, forced her into rehab, helped her register for classes at the nearby community college. “I want so little,” my mother used to say, a sort of catch-all phrase for when her emotions were beyond her. Both in fury and in sadness, I understood what those words meant: I want next to nothing, and I have not even that. As a little girl, I used to watch her utter those words in moments of elation: I want so little, she would say, popping pills into her mouth by the handful. I want so little, she would say, lighting two cigarettes at a time. When it came to my mother, the happiness scared me the most: she was like a stranger in those moments of bliss, alien to me as I knew her. Search though I did, I could not discover the mother that I knew in her unfocused hazel eyes.
No results found
My mother went to jail on a technicality: a violation of probation. In lieu of facing her charges, she took a plea deal and the judge sentenced her to brief jail time, plus two years of probation. I’ve researched her original charges extensively in the months since I discovered details of her case. Instead of searching for my mother, I began searching about my mother: I felt at once closer and further from her, and became consumed with reading about these other people’s lives and crimes. What makes people this way? Where does this sad path start? My searches feel endless and these people look like caricatures. I discovered a woman from my mother’s area who committed a nearly identical crime: she faces ten years in prison. I find myself wishing their roles reversed, with my mother being the one facing a decade in a cell: I worry, too, that as I’ve grown from a scared little girl I’ve morphed into a bitter woman, so I remind myself that I was once a part of her, sleeping and kicking and pulsating in her womb, and that we only ever move several steps away from where we begin.
Several Mother’s Days have passed since I cut ties. Each year, I’ve wrestled with my choices. Should I reach out? A polite voicemail, a brief text message—offer her a little bit of warmth and space to speak her piece and show me how much she has changed, to reassure me that everything I’ve heard was a lie. In those moments, I want to be that little girl again, believing that the world is against my mother and that I am at once her guardian and her infant.
how to have flowers delivered to an inmate, I search. I press my hands to my eyes and try not to cry. I wait several hours, then I type: do homophobic parents still love their gay children? I read others’ stories and again, I cry. I wait several days, then I type: is love always unconditional?
I want so little. I often remember my mother in one of two ways: one is of her asking me for a porcelain plate. I always chose one with flowers painted on it—big pink and purple peonies—and watched her use a spoon to turn pills into fine powder. Afterwards, while she cleaned her nose, I washed the dish and imagined new life growing from the plate—flowers and big, green trees, oxidizing the air and breathing life into my mother. The other way I remember her is crouched, small, child-like: squatting against her bedroom wall with her arms wrapped around her knees. Mascara stains on her cheeks, blood dried on her nostrils. I want so little, she said again and again, and I patted her hair and said, me too.
does my mother love me?
I type this question repeatedly, though I know the results will never satisfy me.
Marissa Higgins is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her creative nonfiction explores LGBTQ and women’s issues and she regularly contributes to the Huffington Post, Jane, and New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery. Her fiction has been featured in The Bridge Journal and Provocateur. She is a graduate of Bridgewater State University with a Bachelor’s in English.