Magin LaSov Gregg
You know you’re dreaming when you hear your mother scream your name. She shouts in a voice like ruach, the voice of spirit and wind. You are buoyed up by that voice, your mother’s, breathy, urgent voice, a voice you have almost forgotten. Energy pulsates through your arms and legs, awakens you. You open your eyes to see the narrow kitchen of your off-campus apartment. You stand in a corner, beside a window and in front of the stove. Sunlight glares against bare walls. You’ve walked here in your sleep. You remember your mother died last April. Your chest tightens to a hard knot.
You don’t know why you kneel on the linoleum and peer into the oven. You search for the blue light that burns beneath a lower shelf. Hot air whooshes toward your face as you stare at racks caked with casserole drippings. No flame. Your roommate forgot to turn the oven off last night. You switch the oven off. Click. The smell of gas hits you slowly, edges toward your nostrils and mouth. You open the windows. You call poison control.
The woman on the other end of the line tells you to take Ibuprofen for your headache, says you’re lucky to have awakened at all. But you don’t feel lucky because your mother is dead, and you cannot get back to your dream, where she was undeniably alive.
You think back to last year, when your mother could still answer your phone calls. You called her at least twice a day: when you woke up, before you went to sleep, in between classes. You remember how your creative writing professor asked your class last fall if any student had loved another person enough to swallow glass for her. You paused your doodling of psychedelic mushrooms and stared at him, confused. Who would be so stupid? Students avoided eye-contact. But one perpetually teary girl ventured, Yes. She had loved someone that much.
And now, you get it. You are that perpetually teary girl who understands love and all its glass-swallowing complexity. You think your love could have saved your mother. You wish you could trade your life for hers. You’ve only been back at school a few months and already you’ve fled one classroom in tears, unable to sit quietly among your fellow twenty-one year-olds and their chatter about bars you no longer frequent. When you climb three sets of stairs to attend a religion class in a building that looks like the Addams Family mansion, you think about jumping from a top-floor window. But you stop yourself when you have this thought. You look through the window to the cottony sky and tell yourself, yes, things are horrible now, but your life will get better, sweetheart. You speak gently to yourself, adopting your mother’s tone and idioms. You want to believe something better awaits you, beyond this first year of mourning, between your mother’s death and your own, unfurling life.
On the phone, you do not tell the woman from poison control that recurring resurrection dreams of your dead mother keep you alive. You say goodbye. You hang up the phone. You watch maple leaves flutter to the ground. You think of falling stars.
When your roommate returns, you scold her. She sits on a broken futon, eats a salad, and says, sorry repeatedly. Tears fill her angel-blue eyes. You feel mean and unfair for belaboring her forgetfulness. She offers you a slice of blueberry pie, but you decline. You do not feel entitled to sugary fruit and buttery crust. You no longer know how to hold another person’s kindness.
You used to be friends with her. You used to blast Led Zeppelin and drink Coronas and wear too-tight jeans and sandals in the snow. You used to kiss boys who didn’t deserve you and sleep with them in tiny beds and wake up with hangovers. She still goes to parties, but you stay home. You watch The Shipping News in the dark, beneath the tent of your sheets. You cry until your eyes sting. You have a boyfriend, but keep him a safe-safe distance. There is literally an ocean between you. This is the best you can do: go to classes, study, talk on the phone to your boyfriend, e-mail him when you wake up, before you go to sleep and in between classes, visit him on semester breaks. You can’t know how grief strangles your love, steers him toward the available bodies of other women.
At night, when music thumps in the apartments around you, you curl up in your bed, beneath a comforter that used to drape your mother’s bed. You wrap yourself in this blanket and remember you’ve washed her rainwater scent away.
Once a week, you read the Pentateuch in a classroom in the building where you sometimes fantasize about killing yourself. You take this religion class because you think it will be an easy, “A.” Your mother graduated from community college. Your father worked construction and drove a cab. You are unprepared for the professor with Ivy League degrees and a family of Bible scholars. You are even less prepared for the unending enthusiasm of the graduate students who are taking this class with you. To use one of your mother’s favorite expressions, they get on your last nerve.
This year, your senior year of college, you are a “B” student who does not have the energy to strive for more. You write good enough papers on the contradicting creation myths in Genesis. You pay careful attention to your favorite author, the Yahwist, and the feminine conjugation of verbs. Once a week, you attend an hourly extra credit session led by your Yale alumnus professor. You translate Hebrew chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse. You attend this session not because you care about extra credit, but because your professor told you that you can write one less paper if you show up each week to translate. Other Jewish undergraduates show up, too, grateful that a long, Hebrew School slog can benefit them beyond the Bar Mitzvah bima. You are the only woman who attends.
Maybe it is here, in this room of men, that you first come across the word bayin. You are translating the Yawhist god speaking creation into existence. Yahweh commands land to divide waters, mayim bayin mayim, then hangs sky above water and land. You can’t remember it all exactly, but you want to believe the professor stopped you at the words for water and sky, mayim v’shmayim, and held their calculated symmetry for a moment, before he pointed you back to the word, bayin. Between.
You know you sat there thinking of a planet emerging through acts of division and separation, drawing form upon the void, forging what is from what was and is no more. You left your mother’s body in a similar manner. Before you split apart, your bones drew themselves from her bones. Your skin took shape from her skin. You fed on her cells, absorbed them into your body, carry them still. Your mother is your root, your memory, your skeleton, your home. The house you can never return to. In class, you are too angry, too grief-numb to speak up. Still, you feel a softening in your heart. The holiness of the liminal overtakes you. You are not lost or found or whole. But you’ve found a name for where you are, a word you can hold up like a mirror to your grief and probe its vast recesses, soothe the ache reaching deep into your bones. This word stuns you from your sorrow. Bayin.
All winter, you dream of your mother. You follow her into forests and over streams. You meet her in abandoned houses where trees reach through the walls. In one dream, your mother hands you a yellow rose, says nothing. You will dream of her for years, make her memory your anchor. Save the dream where your mother’s voice roused you from a gas leak, she does not speak.
You awaken when she dissolves into a shadow.
The year you learn the word bayin, Alice Sebold publishes The Lovely Bones. You buy the book at the campus bookstore because Alice Sebold is an alumna and once sat in classrooms in the same building where you take your weekly Pentateuch class and beat back thoughts of death. You flee to your apartment to read The Lovely Bones in a bed still covered by your mother’s blanket. You read with a desire you had forgotten existed. You can’t get enough. You bend back pages and wither the spine. When you reach the last page, you begin again. Susie Salmon transports you from the snow-worn streets of Syracuse. You lay with her in a hole below the cornfield when Mr. Harvey overcomes the girl. You stand with Susie in the In Between when the ghost-girl watches her family mourn. You hear a detective tell Susie’s mother, Nothing is ever certain.
At his words, you know no happy reunion awaits you or Mrs. Salmon or Susie. You remember the Persephone myth you loved as a girl –– just a story now, an almost-fairytale. You know there’s no exit from the underworld. You and Susie must walk alone, beyond the void, between life and loss and mothers you cannot reach. You watch snow glitter in the street. Flakes swirl like confetti in the night wind. A line from Robert Frost comes back to you. No way out but through.
You are neither out nor through, but you are peaceful. You breathe softly, gently. You do not know who you are without your mother. You do not know who you will become. When you think about ending your life, you know her hope is the voice that whispers things will get better in your ear, makes you see your life as a sacred, surviving part of her. You lay The Lovely Bones across your chest and feel your heart soften once more, a timid melting, ice turning to slush. You love the book’s water-blue, sky blue cover.
You graduate on Mother’s Day, the same weekend of your mother’s fiftieth birthday. You only go to commencement because Bill Clinton gives a speech. On your walk to the Carrier Dome, you notice azaleas blooming in your mother’s favorite colors: purple-magentas and hot-pink-reds. You remember nothing of President Clinton’s speech, only that you shake his hand before walking back to your apartment, your eyes settling once more on the azaleas and their firework pop of color. You ache for your mother and feel soothed at the same time.
Before you leave campus forever, you walk alone to the building where you translated Genesis. You find a window. You remove your shoes and stand barefoot to look at the water-blue sky. You look down at grass blanketed all winter by snow. You’d forgotten the sight of green ground, the urgency of spring. You watch families snap photographs and hug. You see mothers and daughters laugh, lace arms around each other. You feel odd watching them. But you go outside and lift your face to the sun, let light warm your skin. You did not dream of your mother last night. You will not cry for her today.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Maryland. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, River Teeth’s Beautiful-Things, and The Bellingham Review. She holds an MFA from Goucher College.