Speak Ill of the Dead

As we approach the three year anniversary of my mother’s passing, I am wrapped in nostalgia and memories of the night we learned she’d passed and the conversations that have taken place since then.

I can see it all so clearly again.

I sat in silence for several minutes processing. My brother draped his arm around my shoulders. He kissed my forehead. He and other family members had gone on a late night icecream run and he’d gotten the call right before walking up my aunt’s front porch steps.

My mother had passed. She was 57.

He left me on my aunt’s porch with his wife, one of my closest friends. A cousin lingered. A gray cat stared at us from the window. It was quiet and it was still. We sat there, huddle around a wrought iron bistro table, half empty cigarette packs and butts littering an antique ash tray. I leaned in for another, my cousin leaned down to light it for me.

I inhaled.

I exhaled.

And then I spoke ill of the dead.

I’d been speaking ill of my mother for over ten years. I’d been speaking the truth and my version of the truth for over a decade. I’d begged family members, friends, and an entire community to believe my siblings and I: things weren’t okay in our home. We weren’t safe.

A problem I continued to encounter was a very simple, logical question, asked by people who either never met her, or met the controlled, cleaned up version of her she played on stage: if things were/are really as bad as I say, why did I still have a relationship with her? Well, I didn’t for several years off and on. But then, why did I welcome her and her husband into my home, feed them, sometimes clothe them, pay bills, pay for medicine, pay for gas, pay for so much, if they really were so abusive and so manipulative?

Because she was my mother. Because I loved her. Because she was dying. Because no matter what had happened the first 30 years of my life, when she needed me, I was going to be there for her. Because it was the right thing to do.

And when she died, the only thing I could do was speak ill. And after years of doing the right thing, I’ll be damned if you tell me it was wrong.

So, sometimes I speak ill of the dead. I tell the truth of the life she led and the life she wanted people to believe she led. I speak ill because I loved her and believed in her more fiercely than she believed in herself, for reasons I will never understand. I speak ill because she was a powerful, beautiful, courageous, intelligent, self-possessed, classy woman who didn’t think she could be all those things without a man. she was, however, always all those things. Just as she was. And sometimes I speak ill because I love her so much I’m angry that her life ended before she found the kind of happiness and freedom she so desperately wanted.

One day I won’t speak ill any longer. One day I’ll have peace that this message has fulfilled its mission. One day I’ll close this chapter of my life, the part that belonged to her and her choices, and I will never again re-open it. But, today is not that day. Today I will speak ill. Because she deserves to be spoken of. She deserves her story to be one of truth. No more hiding. No more lying. No more fear. Just freedom. The kind of freedom she wanted for me. The kind she wanted for herself. The kind she would have wanted for you and your mothers as well.

I will speak ill. And I hope one day someone will love me enough to speak the truth about me and my life as well.

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