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  • Writer's pictureAmy Stephenson

to mom

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

as we approach the sixth anniversary of our separation—

I always feel like you’re watching me. I feel like you see every one of these stupid posts, like you keep yourself apprised of every tiny update in my life. I have no idea whether that’s wishful thinking or vanity or paranoia, and I’m not sure which of those options is least sad. They could all be true simultaneously.

It feels equally likely you avoid them out of pride or spite or hurt. That’s fine. When I sat down six years ago (god, can you believe it) to write you the email telling you I couldn’t have you in my life anymore, my therapist urged me to remember that I can’t control how my message would be received: I could only relay my message. It was vital that I relay it.

When you make a piece of art and let it out into the world, you don’t get to control it anymore, either. It makes me feel like the core of all art is just a message. You do your best to relay it and hope it gets interpreted the way you intended. In a way that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I think I’m a little good at a lot of things because I’ve always just been trying to make messages that someone (you) will hear. It started with music, the hours I’d spend learning Bach by heart, walking around playing a partita with my eyes closed so I could feel the agony and the lust of the melody all the way down to my bones. Now it’s my occasional photography habit, the meals I spend entire days cooking, and, god help me, writing, if I can pull it off.

Writing has always been the one that I liked best, the one I dabbled in no matter what else I was up to. I have always liked trying to find the exact right words to express something because I spent a lot of my time with you thinking that if I could just find the exact right words you might hear what I was really trying to say.

No matter how hard I tried to tell you the truth, you always thought I was lying, for some reason. But then, I’ve long been a repository for all the worst things you feared about yourself. And so in some ways I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to find The Words to make you hear. That’s fine, there are so many words to find.

I think about you every day. I think about how when we were in a room together, you always knew who to flirt with, knew how to make everyone in it like you. I think about you when I hear a thick New York accent. I think about you when I make eggs and when the weather is 70 degrees and when we pass Bayshore on the train and I think about you when I see Danielle Steele in a little free library and I think about you when I see the dimples in my thighs and the gray in my hair and when I hear my voice when I have a cold.

The other day I sat down to write and three pages later I realized I was making a list of every horrible thing that ever happened to me growing up. I don’t know why I started or what I’d meant to do, I just know that I had suddenly come to, pen in my hand and a list of traumas on the page, as though I’d been in a trance. I wondered if that’s what cult leaders feel like when they thought they were receiving a message directly from god. It felt like that, a little, like reading a list of things someone else put in my head, like the divine was up there just fucking with me.

I experience that when we go to Long Island, too. We pass all the towns on the train, Alan and me, and I hear their names in your voice in my head, the way you stretch the the first syllable of 'Babylon' and rush the rest of the word. I know that I know that place. I know intellectually that I grew up there, but I think that if I ever allowed my lizard brain to feel my body in that place, I wouldn’t be able to step foot on the train that takes me there.

One time, Alan came out of the bathroom with a mustache. The mustache reminded me so much of my step father that I immediately started crying and hyperventilating. I screamed at Alan to shave it or I would leave the house, I would put on my shoes and I would go if he didn’t get that fucking thing off of his fucking face immediately. That’s what happens when you take my lizard brain by surprise. So I learn to sneak around it.

That’s how we coexist these days, mostly, my lizard brain and me. I like the image of a lizard because I can picture it in there, sunning on a rock, camouflaged and easy to miss. And then you walk by, doing something totally unrelated and innocuous, but you get too close to him and so he darts in front of you, you stop dead or you lunge out of the way to avoid him. You didn’t see him there and now you’re breathing hard and you’re sweating and maybe crying in midtown a little because he scared the shit out of you, that fucking lizard. What the hell is he doing in midtown anyway? Why is he on my husband’s face? Anyway, that's what it's like for me.

This morning I couldn’t write or do anything, but it was a beautiful fall day, high sixties with a light breeze (too chilly for you, I know), and so I went wandering in Central Park, took myself out to lunch. I ate fried chicken at my favorite place and drank a beer. There was a woman at another table towards the front, older, maybe 70. She was having lunch with friends and she was wearing a little purple fascinator on her head, had a red flower pinned to her lapel. She wore a sash, like the ones brides wear for bachelorette parties, and it said FUCK THIS SHIT. I thought I wanted her to be my friend but really what I wanted was for her to be my mother. That feels like the kind of thing I would do for you on your birthday or for a divorce, buy you an embarrassing sash and make you wear it in public while you complained even though you secretly loved the attention. Like the time you got into raising chickens and I mailed you a box of condiments and you yelled like you were mad but I know you thought it was funny, really. I pictured an alternative universe where you learned to feel pain without bouncing it back at me and where we could laugh at the stupid shit I do over day-beers on the UWS on a Thursday.

I’ll never have that, I know. We’ll never have that. I fixed my old Canon Rebel camera recently and it’s a goddamn relief because when we’re with Alan’s mom and I get real sad, I can just take pictures of clouds or flowers or my nieces. I can try to make something that evokes the sadness, the loneliness. I can make art to mask the feeling of having nobody to send the message to. So I curl it up tiny and stuff it inside a bottle, throw it into the sea (or post it online).

In case you do read these: I hope, sincerely, that you’re well.

i have heard that photography is about finding the light

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