Are you mad at me? It’s okay if you are. You have a right to be.
I knew my mom had cats when she died. Two fierce littermates she adopted as kittens that were at least five years old at the time of her death. She would tell me how amazing it was that they knew not to go too far. She lived on a busy street; it was a little crazy those fools hadn’t been hit by a car on that road. They somehow knew not to cross the 22, so they became hunters in her yard, in the alley, on the back streets of South Tucson. Always bringing her something they knew she needed. She would constantly complain of stepping on a dead pigeon’s head right out of bed, half-dead mice quivering on the table, pulling her covers down and finding a fat limp warm lizard on her pillow. “They’re savages!” she would say. “It’s awful, but I just couldn’t imagine my life without them. They bring me so much joy, those sick little bastards!” Then she would laugh, and that’s all that mattered. Her laugh took up space. It was addictive.
No, mama. I’m not mad.
I learned about another cat she had recently brought into her fold from one of her friends the day she died. I was staring at her unmade bed for probably a long time, and watched the new cat jump across it. It startled me a little, and then I felt a hand on my back.
“Yeah, the calico one is new, your mom just fell in love with that sweet little stray a couple of weeks ago.” “Terrific,” I replied. “Do you know her name?” She didn’t.
My mom called them her ‘meows.’ I never learned their real names, which made me feel like a real piece-of-shit daughter. Her closest friends also didn’t know their names, so fuck them, too. I was a distant guest to my mother’s home. I didn’t like it there. She knew that, and we both hated it.
Do you want to talk about anything? Do you have any questions for me?
For the last ten years of my mom’s life, her home was a sanctuary for addicts, recent parolees, vagrants of any form. There was never an occasion where there wasn’t a “very good friend” passing through. Everyone knew all about me and my life. My mama was never not proud of her niña. She loved to talk me up. Those hood-rats were so eager to meet me through their grinding side-to-side meth mouths. I would shake hands and try so hard not to have my pissed-off judgment eyes, my pursed lips. I wanted to say calmly, with intention, that I saw right through them, that they were self-serving junkies dragging my mother down. But I never said those things. I was always just polite enough. I hated her for constantly trying to help a “friend” out. I hated her for bringing a random crack-head to every family dinner at her sister’s house. My auntie and uncle would be so gracious while she introduced some twitchy stranger around the table, always showing up late when we’d already eaten. It was bullshit, and my whole family, including myself, accepted, ignored, and put up with it. We were all raised to be kind after all, not blind enabling fools with no backbone for boundaries. Plus, we all know Kathy, always rollin’ with the drifters.
My mother, the helper.
I guess I just want to know if you’re okay. Was anyone else hurt?
It took about three weeks of daily patience to lure each cat separately into a kennel to be relocated to my home. We kept them confined to our guest room for about a week, and slowly opened the door to what would be their new life. They quietly incorporated themselves. They are welcome to come and go, inside/outside/everywhere they please. It surprised me that they didn’t run. I didn’t want them to, but I expected it. Instead, they settled right in. ‘Here’s a few squirrels, a couple baby bunnies, and some lizards to get us paid up. Thanks for the hospitality.’ Their new territory proved to be lucrative, and spacious enough to infiltrate and rule.
I’m going to be fine for you, and for me soon … and yes, a lot of people were hurt.
I was six years old when my grandmother and stepfather, who I adored equally at the time, sat me down on the end of my grandmother’s bed. I could tell she had been crying, and John had tears in his eyes. He said, “Jenna, your mom isn’t going to be around for a while.” I sat in the middle as we faced a full-length mirror. I watched them through it while they explained to me that she was sent to prison because of the car accidents, and I didn’t know what that meant. I remembered my mother’s injuries from the first crash: a wheelchair, her legs mangled and scarred forever, several teeth knocked out, her bruised face and bulging eye. I was also very aware I was in the front seat of the second accident. I didn’t understand why she was being punished. I watched John cry and my grandmother hugged him. He sobbed in her arms. The mirror hanging slightly crooked captured it all, perfectly.
So, now you have to be here in this prison because you hurt people?
I don’t know how a human can translate to three predominately wild cats that their mother is dead, and now y’all are going to live with me and my family across town. We’ve got two moms, two small kids, two dogs, and another cat. We’ll end up having to take you to several vet appointments and you’ll hate that, and we’ll resent how expensive you have become. At the same time, none of that will matter, because we’ll also learn to really love each other. The three of you will become just as important as the rest of the living beings in our home.
How did that happen?
“I’m ‘meow,’ your sister-mother.”
They just adapted, and now it’s like they’ve always belonged here. A home and a mother gone. A home and a family gained. A process without language. A process of absolute trust.
Yes, I’m here because I hurt people … but I promise I’ll come home to you. We’re a package deal, you and me. I promise to tell you everything soon. I love you so many.
My mother and a few pals had several drinks before she realized she was late for her older sister’s 30th birthday party. She was helping a friend move on the outskirts of town. The road was dark and she was loaded. I like to imagine music playing and her singing along, maybe reaching for her cigarettes, or a new beer for the ride back. I don’t remember this night, but I’m told I was at my grandparents’ home on Suffolk Drive, eating cake, being small, always cared for by other family members. Her truck swerved into the other lane and she crashed head-on under the night sky. The other car contained two parents and three children. The mother, the man’s wife, died from her injuries.
I can only imagine the relief it would bring to that family to know that my mother is dead. A 15-year manslaughter sentence with parole after eight years for good behavior could not possibly have been justice served. How infuriating that she went to prison again and again for different crimes after what she had done to them. I wonder if they have forgiven her in church, but secretly have prayed something terrible would happen to her. They deserve to know that she may have been murdered. I wonder if entertaining that thought would be more satisfying than knowing her child was raised in prison visitation rooms.
I love YOU so many, I just worry about you. I need you to stay safe for me.
We went ahead and renamed her cats, but they still only respond to, “Hey, meow.” Part of me wants to believe that they know we share a dead mother. I also know we rescued them and brought them to a much better life. She was a borderline hoarder, constantly with unfinished remodeling projects. I know my mom loved the cats unconditionally. I know she also loved me madly. Yet she left, over and over again, placing figurative and literal stacks upon stacks of obstacles between us until she was dead.
I was always rescued, too.
Do you trust me?
I can still see the highway, the red and blue lights, firetrucks, sitting upright in an ambulance. The doors were open with a view of it all. It was light out, late afternoon. I was asleep when the crash happened. My stepfather’s red T-bird was flipped upside down and on fire, smoke coming through all sides. He was deployed on a Navy Ship, and we were traveling back to Tucson from San Diego. I learned later we were coming home to her sentencing from the first accident. She picked up two hitchhikers at some point. I remember her making them laugh hysterically. They sat in the back seat and I rode shotgun. One of them stumbled over to the ambulance where I sat with a neck brace while paramedics were splinting my arms. He told me my mom was going to be okay, that she was a great lady. His longish hair was matted to his face with blood and sweat. I passed out and woke up in a hospital to my grandmother and one of my aunties sobbing. I had fractures on both of my arms; my elbows still pop and crack to this day. Other than that, I was unharmed. I learned much later my mother was very intoxicated. I found out even later that twice the same trooper had pulled her over before the accident occurred. What if? What if? What if? She walked away from that crash on Highway 8 with minor injuries. The person she hit that day died instantly. He had no known family.
It blows my mind when there is no known family. No chosen family either? Just a grown man alone in this world who dies by a drunk driver and nobody cares? Was this his karma for something? Did he not deserve to be remembered? Was he not missed? Did he have a cat?
What do you mean? Will you be able to come back from this? Will I be able to trust you won’t come back here again?
What a bizarre gift to share sudden loss and deep grief with cats of all species. Such a strange gesture, mom. Do I say thank you? What a surprise to know how sad you can really be while pretending to completely have your shit together. What an offering when you get to feel your heart crack wide open when you can still remember her voice. I like to think about the way she sounded when she was serious. Do you remember her voice, sister-cats? Does my voice ever sound like hers? Do I have any of the same mannerisms? Do you forgive her? Did you see her body pulled from the water?
Do you think you should trust me, Jenna?
Think about the correction officers, about the parole board, think later when she used to moonwalk past your high-school bedroom to get your attention. Think back again when she taught you how to drive a stick shift, change the oil, change a tire on the car. Think about ignoring everything she taught you about safe sex. Think about the two Samoyed puppies, think about her being a writer, about the basketball hoop on Jamaica Street, think of lying to her, think of her lying to you, think about the answering machine, her lovers, the house fire, the waterbed. Think about not remembering enough details.
What do you remember, sister-cats? Did you see her eyes open wide right before she took her last breath? Did you see her thrashing? Did someone hold her down?
I trust you.
Jenna Korsmo finds something both absolutely beautiful, and completely absurd in every single part of her life. She’s a nonfiction writer who often exposes her bad judgment, while hoping to unveil some kind of bizarre silver lining. She’s currently working on a book of essays which has made its way to be her favorite style of storytelling. Jenna lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her wife, their two children, two dogs, and all the cats. You can find her on Instagram, @Jenna.Korsmo.