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Peggy Louise Robinson, about 1955 (?)
Born October 25, 1932 / Died September 11, 1978
Note: This was orignally posted to the Tent Show at Salon on September 11, 2006. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death.
My mother was killed on September 11th—September 11, 1978—28 years ago today. She died a month short of her 46th birthday, two years younger than I am today. “9-11” has been a grim sort of anniversary for me for a long time, you see.
She and my father had borrowed my motorcycle—a 400cc Suzuki—not one of these lifestyle accessory Harleys you see on the streets these days—for a Sunday afternoon jaunt on the lakeside drive a mile or two from our suburban home. I don’t really know whether September 11, 1978 fell on a Sunday, but that’s the feeling of the memory.
I had two helmets, but one of them was in my locker at the trucking company loading dock where I was employed at the time, so neither Mom or Dad took the one that was at the house. That turned out to be a fatal mistake. They were put-putting along at about 25 miles an hour, on a section of the lakeside drive that was part of the original roadbed of Hwy 66, on the north side of the lake.
A man had been sitting by the shore on one of the turn-outs, fishing and drinking, but mostly drinking. I don’t think the fish were biting that day. I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I suspect. This man had already lost his driver’s license due to repeated DUIs, but he had driven his employer’s pick-up to the lake that day. The man got tired of watching slack fishing lines, perhaps, or maybe he ran out of beer. He got in his employer’s truck, and pulled out of the turn-out at the precise moment my parents happened to be passing by on my motorcycle enjoying a fine September afternoon. This is the intersection of fate that resulted in my mother’s death—that, and the intersection of my mother’s helmetless head with the pavement of old Hwy. 66.
Much of the above is conjecture built on fallible memory. I only know what my father told me about it, and he couldn’t bear to tell me much. I don’t know the precise spot where my mother died. I don’t know how fast the drunk in the truck was driving, but I don’t think it was a high speed collision, my dad would not have going as fast as the speed limit, which I believe was 30 mph. Dad came away from the accident with cuts and scrapes. I don’t know how badly my motorcycle was damaged—I never saw it again, because Dad never wanted to see it again. He bought me a car to replace it.
I never met the man who killed my mother. I don’t even know his name, though I must once have known it. He was tried in county court for my mother’s death under a charge of manslaughter; somehow, he was acquitted. I did not attend the trial; I couldn’t bear it. Odds are he’s dead now—a penchant for drunk driving and associated bad behaviors has a way of shortening the lifespan—your own as well as others. Be that as it may, I never sought him out, either for vengeance, or just to know who it was that killed my mother.
I can—have gone—to that lakeshore, watched slack loops of fishing line lean sideways on a breeze, and listen to that same breeze hum on the mouth of an empty beer bottle. I don’t need to know him. I can be that man, that place, that moment just before…as Tess Gallagher wrote, vengeance is a hurt given to the self in the name of another.
The company that had the insurance on the employer’s truck—which, of course, my mother’s killer was not authorized to drive—offered my father a settlement of something like 3500 dollars. Dad sued them, and won a larger amount. Just how much larger an amount it was I don’t know, because Dad is not very chatty when comes to money, and I never asked, but I suspect a couple of zeros were added to the final check.
My memory is not entirely clear on several points. I was deep into a long nap at my parent’s house when my father called from the hospital. I had been living in an apartment with a roommate, a friend from high school. I think I was still living at the apartment, but my friend and I were having a falling out, and that may have been why I was at Mom and Dad’s place that day.
My fourteen year old brother woke me in the midst of a vivid dream, in which I was pursuing a thin but muscular older woman dressed in dark silverish clothing that occasionally glittered. She walked very fast, taking long-legged strides, through the nightscape of a futuristic but ruined city—or cities—and my dream self followed after, never quite catching up with her.
Still caught up in the dream, I heard my father’s voice on the phone, “She’s hurt, she’s hurt real bad…” What Dad didn’t say, what he was probably incapable of saying, was that Mom was dead, probably killed instantly. I held this against my father for a long, long time—very unfair and completely irrational, but I did.
I got my brother and sister into my dad’s van, and drove to the emergency room. I remember very vividly sitting down across from my father in the little waiting room watching his face as he told me, as he admitted to himself, that Mom was dead. It was an extraordinary thing. I watched him age twenty years in less than thirty seconds. My brother went into a sort of walking coma; he didn’t speak for three days.
I asked to see the body. I wanted to see my mother in death, as death had come to her, before the morticians put formaldehyde in her veins and pancake makeup on her face. A nurse took me to a curtained alcove, where my mother’s body lay on the gurney, with a sheet over it. The nurse turned back the sheet from her face and shoulders, and went down the hall a little bit.
Her eyes were closed, bruised black and swollen, from internal hemorrhaging. Tracks of drying blood ran from her ears down the sides of her neck. I don’t remember much if any blood in her dark brown hair; the fatal injury was what is referred to as a “closed head wound.” As I said, she was probably killed almost instantly. I picked up her hand, the hand on which she wore her wedding band—it was still warm, the fingers still supple. Not enough time had passed for her body to cool, for rigor mortis to set in. My mother’s body lay there under a white sheet, but there was a vast black hole pulling at me where my mother had been. I stood there a long time, looking, taking it all in, wanting to remember what death looked like.
I lost some part of myself to that black hole; some fraction of my “I” followed after the absence where my mother had been, as if I had lost my shadow to that greater shadow. I did not get my shadow back for a long time. Part of my shadow never came back.
I had to ask the nurse to help me with my mother’s ring. I did not want to leave it on her body. We had use Vaseline to get it off. By that time, my grandmother had arrived in the hospital, and I gave it to her for safe-keeping, because I didn’t think it would be good for Dad to see it right then.
Oh, how I hated the funeral—a Baptist minister who didn’t even know my mom, speaking over her, selling Je-sus over her dead body—Mom looking like a painted doll in the open casket—People trying to be kind—I hated it. I did not wish to be consoled or condoled. The mania that is my inheritance from my mother had been cut loose of its bonds by the grim reaper’s sickle. The crack in my pot became a rift, and on the other side of that rift was the consensus reality where my family and most everyone I knew lived. To say that my mother’s death changed my life is species of litotes so extreme it becomes hyperbole. Like America’s 9-11, it’s not something you “get over.”
No, you don’t get over something like that. I remember the faces in the pictures we saw over and over, of the dust-covered people on the streets of New York on September 11, 2001. Many of those faces twist in the same contortion—can’t call it an expression—that overcame my brother’s face when he heard my father say, “She’s dead.”
Yet today, on what is a grim anniversary for all of us, I listen to the radio and I hear the voices of the President and his men speaking, with nostalgia almost, of 9-11, “a day of national unity.” I hear vainglory and lies served behind pious sentiment; the day and its victims no more than prelude, an introit to a high mass celebrating an endless war against an “Enemy” that “hates Freedom,” appealing to the very same god—the war god, the god who takes sides—for whom the 9-11 hijackers martyred themselves.
I listen to these voices, and a grim anniversary grows grimmer. In the theater of memory I see a preacher in white robes gesticulating over a painted corpse, mouthing empty words.