Published on April 14th, 2021 | by Gina Frangello


Something Is Wrong: An Excerpt From BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN

In contrast to my loneliness when my father died, my partner and I found my mother’s body together. In the March of my fiftieth year, when I was three years cancer-free, my mother’s weekend caregiver rang our doorbell repeatedly past midnight instead of using the telephone or coming right up the stairs the way her regular caregiver would have done. As a result, we ignored the ringing for a time, thinking it some drunken teens pranking the house and then, finally—a vestige of old fear, the ringing so insistent—fearing it could be some man intent on doing harm. My partner took with him a paltry makeshift weapon and made his way down the stairs, but in the foyer it was only my mother’s weekend substitute. “I think,” she told us, “something is wrong with Miss Alice.” But by then I had entered my mother’s apartment in my long white nightgown, and I had seen.

My mother was in her recliner, the remote control for the television still in her hand, a blanket still on her lap, like she might be sleeping. But there, the resemblance to somnolence ended. Though her apartment is small and she was seated in an area that would have been visible from anywhere except the recesses of my father’s old bedroom, where her caregiver must have been sleeping or Skyping, my mother’s body was already hours into decomposition. Bile leaked from her nose and mouth; her stomach was distended six or seven times its normal size. Later, the funeral director would tell us that he suspected she had been dead for a minimum of six hours but perhaps up to twelve. I had just seen her the day prior, delivering antibiotics for a recurring bladder infection. Her breathing, always labored from her COPD, had seemed more strained than usual and I asked if she wanted to go to the hospital, but my mother had been in and out of hospitals several times per year for thirteen years and she waved me away and said, “I’m not going to any more hospitals.” I could hardly disagree.

These are the facts of my mother’s death: that she died from a massive stroke, cardiac arrest, or a pulmonary embolism, all three of which she had been at constant risk of suffering for so many years now that her long-standing physician essentially just picked one at random for the death certificate. My mother had been through seventeen surgeries. She often ran into walls with her walker when having a seizure—later, wheelchair bound, she wet herself frequently because she had lost the strength to make the transfer to the toilet or the will to care about bodily dignity. She had endured heart attacks, strokes, a valve replacement, replacements of both hips and knees, and a pacemaker, and from 2015 to 2019 made so many ICU trips that resulted in a Bi-Pap machine strapped to her face that a hospice had all but started stalking me on the phone to sign her up. That she kept rallying, kept making it back home, kept breathing even without her nasal cannula. That, like my father, it seemed that she had ninety-nine lives and nothing could kill her. That my parents, who in many ways led lives of fabled “quiet desperation,” were also the toughest, most resilient people I have ever known.

Photo by Kealan Burke on Unsplash

These are the facts of my mother’s life: that she was molested by her biological father, teased relentlessly by her stepfather, and spent fifty-four years married to a man who would not fuck her or even make out a little bit or sleep in the same bed, due to his own demons. That after my father’s death, a man from her past resurfaced who had loved her since high school, who had been a widower for many years, and that although he told her he had “always imagined they would end up married,” he in fact developed dementia and died rapidly before they could so much as hold hands. That after her would-be-second-husband died and she told her best girlfriend that she wanted a boyfriend, her friend asked her what she had to offer and my mother said, “I’m nice,” and her friend said, “Most women are nice.” That she used to entertain her boss with stories of her dreams about our old dog running in circles, or about burning the pork chops—that she said, “I’m so repressed even my dreams aren’t exciting.” That the year my father died, my mother and I both began new lives of a sort, but hers too late, too far into her own decline, while I was busy buying new, non-underwire sexy bras and giving my father’s sweaters and cufflinks to my partner. That I left her behind so many times—and that doing so was also her greatest hope for me.

That the last time I ever saw my mother and my ex-husband together, he was crouched over her chair promising she was his mother too and that he would always love her. That she called him her son until her death, even as she loved my partner with a childlike and joyful abandon, at times acting around him like a schoolgirl with a crush and at other times rejoicing to have an audience to whom to sing my praises, most of which were entirely less deserved than she imagined, but that her love for and belief in me were the lights of her life, and that I have learned the humility not to try to deny her them. That she was my first great love, and the person who taught me both how to love and how not to love, and that I can only hope with everything I am that the ways I mixed these things up will in the end fall short of the ways I got them right. That she was my most unbridled fan, my cheerleader, my first confidante, my caregiving burden, my one constant in the years in which I bled family members and body parts with the speed of light. That she and I had been talking casually about going to the new French restaurant in our neighborhood in her wheelchair and debating whether she could chew the food with her new set of false teeth, and had decided to go when the weather was warmer. That we never got the chance, and that I must content myself now with—unlike my father’s regrets about his father—all the chances we did seize for half a century.

That at the memorial service celebrating her eighty-six years of life, I played a vinyl record she’d made before ever meeting my father, her girlish, spookily beautiful voice singing about wanting someone to love.

That love was the absolute center of her life. That she was the most loyal person I have ever known.

Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

That when I saw her body, bloated and rotting in the same recliner by the window in which my father had died, I became animal. That I shouted Mommy! until my throat was raw, hurling myself on her gas-filled corpse so that her fluids leaked onto me with squeaking noises as I tried to crawl up her skin. That when the word “Mommy” could not form in my throat anymore I simply screamed, loudly and repeatedly, while my partner stood gingerly touching my back, crying quietly, and my mother’s caregiver hid in my father’s old bedroom until we finally had the presence of mind to send her home. That whatever grief I had never fully processed about my father, in the midst of my hellish divorce, flew into the room like a living force and knocked me to my mother’s feet, where I held her swollen legs, keening with none of the self-conscious tentativeness of my tears over my father’s body. That I sobbed, They’re both gone, they’re both gone, as though her death had made his real at last. That when the paramedics, the police, and finally the undertaker came, I did not know they were in the room until they repeatedly asked me questions while I sat howling in my sheer nightgown with nothing beneath it, a newly born orphan devoid of any sense of self or shame.

Between 2015 and 2019 I lost: a marriage, many useless luxuries and privileges, two breasts, my hair, my menstrual cycle, a hip, both parents, my sense of myself as inherently “deserving” of any of these things.

I gained a new life. A more complicated life, filled with more laughter, more joy, more fire, more accountability for my own future and survival, more confidence in my ability to endure.

I did not and will not regain my mother. I am the only mother now.

I am the oldest generation from here on out, the imperfect archetype whose successes and mistakes my children will strive to emulate or avoid. I am the one who will ultimately recede next, in order to make room for the splendor of them.

Excerpted from Blow Your House Down, which you should pick up from your local indie. I mean:

“Compelling, honest, and thought-provoking, Gina Frangello’s memoir is an inspired addition to her astounding body of work.” –Charlize Theron

Copyright © 2021 by Gina Frangello, from Blow Your House Down. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press. 

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About the Author

Gina Frangello is the author of Blow Your House Down, Every Kind of WantingA Life in MenSlut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in PloughsharesThe Boston GlobeChicago TribuneHuffPostFenceFive ChaptersPrairie SchoonerChicago Reader, and many other publications. She lives with her family in the Chicago area.

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