From Sampiro: The Things We Said Today

There are millions of words in English which means there are potentially billions of sentences. Even so it’s not odd that the same sentences reincarnate so frequently but that they assume such new and different guises and the importance and meaning so mutates.

1973, Weokahatchee, AL. After a huge fight my mother has announced that she is leaving my father. I am terrified and have locked myself inside of her huge bathroom where I am crying my eyes out.

“Jon, baby… will you come out of there?”

Me: Just go if you’re going! Go on and go!

“Sweetheart come out here! Baby I need to talk to you! Honey I’m picking the lock!”

One lock picked with an unbent coat hanger letter, she opens the door to find the bathroom empty. I’m ‘hiding’ in a built in clothes hamper in the side wall, having opened the window to give a “possible escape route”. She sits down on an iron lawn chair next to the laundry hamper.

“Jon? Baby… come out here!” She lights a cigarette and pretends that I must have jumped out the window and run. “Well, I guess he jumped out the window and ran… or did he? I guess just in case I can talk to him and if he’s here he might can hear me. I don’t know if you’re still in there. But if you are I’d like to tell you something. I’m leaving soon, and I really need you to pick your favorite toys and your favorite books and your favorite dog and get ready.”

I come out of the laundry hamper. She acts suitably surprised, even though my crying has been audible probably from other rooms.

“Ready for what?”

“To come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“I don’t know yet. Maybe to Mustang and Meemaw’s, maybe to your Aunt Jackie’s, we’ll decide.”

“How long are we gonna stay there?”

“Well… until we’re not there. Until we get our own place.”

“We have our own place… here! We can’t have another place!”

“Yes we can. You don’t understand…”

“What about Kathy? And David?”

“Kathy’s coming. David wants to stay here for now.”

“And Daddy?”

“No. He’s the… well, he’s not coming.”

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated… but I want you to know he loves you. Don’t doubt that. He just… well, he’s just… honey, I love your Daddy, he made you, how could I not? But… well it’s just that at the moment I also happen to hate the sorry son of a bitch again and I hope he dies and burns in hell and takes his goddamned mother and all those cows with him! But I do love him because he gave me you and that’s what you need to know, and you do don’t you…”

“I think so…” and my voice chokes up so much that I can’t speak.

“What’s the matter?”

“I thou…. Tho…. You…. i… d”

“It’s okay. It’s okay… there, don’t try to talk, just take it easy. Here,* just hold my hand.* You know I love you don’t you? Just hold my hand… there… did you think I was going to leave you?”

I nod.

“Sweetheart… I’ll never leave you. You know… sugar, you’re a part of me. You’re not just a part of me, you’re the greatest part of me. I couldn’t leave you if I tried. Now stop that crying… you’ll have me doing it…” And she does suppress a sniffle while holding me in her lap. “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born? My aunt Caledonia came to see me in the hospital, and I was holding you and giving you your bottle. And she looked at me, and she said ‘Blanche, you look less like a new mama than any new mama I ever seen’. That’s how she talked, a tooth here and a tooth there. I said ‘Aunt Cal here’s the baby! And here’s me feeding him… and I couldn’t be happier… what are you talking about?’ and she said ‘That’s just it. You don’t look like a new mama, you look like a woman who’s in love.’ And I think she was right, cause you’re the best thing I ever did.” She hugs me painfully tight. “And you think I could leave you? Baby… I might be a lot of things and a lot of them aren’t good, but one thing I am is mama to you and that’s the best thing I am…. And we’ll always be together! Now stop crying! Sweetheart…” and her voice breaks just a bit. “I can’t promise you a lot because I don’t make promises I keep, but if I have anything to say about it, no matter where I go, you will always be with me. That I absolutely promise you and I wouldn’t promise it if it weren’t so.”

We have a Romper Room Pieta Like Moment for a moment. My mother and my father reconcile and go on making each other’s lives a merry hell for another decade. The 1980s come and things get bad, then they get really bad, then they colonize some new areas of bad, then the colony gets worse, and finally we live in Montgomery, just the two of us after a strange odyssey. 1987 is the first and the worst year of that.

We’re so broke that most things of any value are in the pawn shop. One of our pawned items is $100, which means that the interest is $20 per month, and to pay that interest we bring in the last few things of value we can find (a set of binoculars and some sterling silver forks) and pawn them for $25 (the extra $5 for gas, which by this time she has done the infamous selling of the wedding ring to do). While in the pawn shop getting the new ticket and renewing the other I notice the ring- a big ankh, heavy, 14kt gold I later learn. I’ve always loved Egyptian art, and I think this ring is beautiful. I show it to her much as I’d show her a lovely 32 carat pink diamond, because the ring is $120 and that might as well be $30,000. We’ve had to cash in pennies found in the sofas to get the quarter to put air in the tires of the Yugo (who goes “DING DING DING DING” constantly when you drive him because of a faulty wire left over from the huge accident he was in but that’s another story, though let me add that the DING DING DING DING constantly every 1.25 seconds could make you confess to conspiring to drop the Lindhberg baby off of the Chrystler Building to win a bet for 8 pounds of heroin with your Satanic high priest, but we get pretty good at ignoring it because we can’t afford to have it fixed and to take out the “DING DING” also kills the windshield wipers and interior lights. You’d think that a people who were so continually made the bitches of the nation that invented the Volkswagen and the Mercedes and the BMW would have learned at least how to stop a DING from DINGing (every 1.25 seconds- 20 years later I can still time 1.25 seconds by remembering that fecking DING).

Anyway, she insists that I try the ring on. I don’t know why- the reason she’s here is we’re penniless. There’s no hidden money, after this there’s nothing to pawn but the TV set which we’ve tried to hold off on since it’s the one means of entertainment, not that my mother ever gets to watch it. She works from 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. five days per week, catching 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep if she’s lucky, managing a group home for a corrupt and grossly mismanaged mental health agency, reporting to an incompetent and stark raving power mad musical-comedic self-impressed martinet of the sort who should be giving her husband hell about his bungling of Levy Pants and ordering him to bring home Miss Trixie). She makes 12,000 for 90 hour weeks in which a typical day includes wiping shitty asses and doing work she never required her maids to do in better times but, paying premiums on some off-brand FUH-KING-FUH-GADDABOUT HEALTH INSURANCE that doesn't pay off the only time she goes to the only doctor in town who takes it. But true child of the Depression that she is she does the work, somehow holds up, and is truly grateful to her employer for giving her a chance, for after years of looking for jobs only to hear "overqualified", "too old", "overqualified and too old", "you have a foreclosure and a repossession and an outstanding unsatisfied lien against you in your past year's credit history" and other damning items that drove her to alcoholism and attempted suicides she's absolutely thrilled to be working even if the overwork is taking a visible toll almost daily and I have fantasies of dragging her boss behind the DINGing Yugo (and still do), but between my hotel job and her executive asswiping job we're finally just finally starting to see a little tiny progress, but so far there has not been a dime of spare money at the end of the month and there's more ways to cook .29 leg quarters than you’d ever imagine. (Had both of us not eaten free most nights at our jobs we’d never have made it.) But she insists I try on the ring, and it fits, on my pinkie finger anyway, and of course she doesn’t buy it because she doesn’t have the money and she doesn’t have the hair to sell to raise it and if she did it wouldn’t go to something as “live without-able” as an ankh ring, a literal trinket. Damn it was pretty though.

Last Christmas (1986) was bad. The highlights included a subpoena a week before Christmas delivered by a snickering brat in the employee of my mother’s total bastard of a brother (may his shrieks from Hell reach netherworlds not yet even revealed) followed by a 97 year old breaking a hip one day and a repossession of the car and my mother’s arrest for wring a $5 bad check both on the next day, and that day Christmas Eve. Twasn’t good, but it’s behind us and now my mother and I both have jobs and the old lady is situated in a nursing home (an ordeal but necessary) and we’re in Montgomery in a shabby but okay apartment and we’re working and finally, months after the exchange in the pawn store, we have the makings of a minimalist but at least endurable Christmas for the first time in many bad years, and it would have been too had Mama not been arrested a week before Christmas for contempt of court in not paying a judgment against her for $1,208 in favor of her brother for the simple reason that she doesn’t have $1,208 or any way to get it. The asshole of a judge (still alive unfortunately though certain inquiries were made and he did at least get caught in a major child abuse scandal) let her remain in jail for a week before releasing her “as an act of Christian mercy” (his words) on Christmas Eve, another Christmas ruined.

And she had to damned near plead to keep her job and that hurt her more than anything. And it all hits her and she feels terrible for her failures to herself and to me even though I literally beg her not to, that she has not failed me in the least, that I couldn’t be prouder of her and I tell her I mean it and I tell her that because I mean it. And that Christmas she has to work and I have to work and the only time we see each other is during the 40 minutes between the ending of her shift and the beginning of mine (and we’re neither of us seeing relatives because we have no gifts to bring pah-romp-pah-pah-fuck to other relatives), and that’s spent in the Yugo, finally thank God no longer DINGing courtesy of a homeless mechanic who accepted $2 and a screwdriver as payment for doing something. And I give her my present, which I can’t remember what it was but it was cheap I’m sure, and she gives me her’s which is in a small white box and it’s the ankh ring, which she put on layaway and did everything from collect and crush and sell aluminum cans to buying the cheapest available whiskey instead of the already cheap Evan Williams she usually bought in order to have it out in time for Christmas (5 months to scrape together the $100 she haggled them down to- almost inconceivable now) and I am speechless. I almost cry, but I don’t. I haven’t cried since my father died and those tears weren’t genuine. My last real outpouring may actually have been when I thought she was leaving me when I was a kid- I’ve had tears come just enough times since then that I can vaguely remember what it feels like by 1987. I thank her profusely but sincerely, the ring not meaning a thousandth as much to me as the sacrifice behind it, and I love the ring.

“It…. It’s nothing… Oh God it’s nothing… I’m nothing… I… oh shit. Christmas 1980, I bought your sister a Pontiac, brand new off the showroom floor. I bought your brother a tailor made suit, 1981, he had no idea how I got his measurements… and you’re my… you’re the reason I live, and it takes me four months to save money to get you one little ring… and you’re not in college and it’s my fault because I can’t afford to help you even a penny’s worth and I just spent a week in jail because… if that .22 weren’t in hock I swear I’d kill that judge and that bastard brother may he rot in hell… and it. The whole fucking… I too. A ….”

The voice cracks and it’s a sickening, terrifying feral sound, a silence that precedes the tears of one who never cries, one who very nearly hates any show of weakness in others but more than hates any show of weakness in herself, as the tears flow like a saline stab wound onto cheeks that feel violated by the moist and a whole countenance that shakes with shame and fury at this betrayal of the emotion.

“Oh God you have no idea how I hate this… you are the polestar of my world and I can’t help you… here I am… I’m driving you to a shitty nothing job in a shitty nothing car until I have to go back to my own shitty nothing job in my shitty nothing life… I hate this…”

“I love it” I tell her, not joking.

“How in the hell can you say you love it? Did you not hear the number of shitty nothings? Which ones do you dispute I beg you tell.”

“I heard them all. But I also heard the most important words. You said 'here I am”. And there you are. You’re alive. You’re still here. Others wouldn’t be. You’re mad as hell and you’re mean as hell but you’re here and you’re the one person on this Earth that I give a good god damn about on this Christmas Day and I would rather be here with you in this shitty nothing car than with anybody else at a feast of sultans. I am so glad you are here. I love this ring… I… but you here is the best present I could ever have."

The tears continue and she says, in hyperbolic sincerity, for it is clear she truly does mean every word, *“God alone knows words, if there are any, to say how much I love you.” * And I hug her and kiss her cheek, and she still crying does mine, and I get out of the NON DINGING Yugo because we’re at the Budget Hell Hotel I work at and it’s 3:59 p.m. and one more write up for being late due to transportation problems “that aren’t the problem of this franchise” and I’ll be fired and that would be as bad as the memory of the early stage Alzheimer’s co-manager but not quite as bad as the prescription painkiller addiction of his hypochondriac wife who will eventually set fire to the place by smoking around cleaning supplies that she learned were explosive.

And another decade passes of many changes and most for the better actually. She’s able to leverage her nothing shitty job (and it was truly both) for a better paying/better hours job with another better run mental-health agency, managing an apartment complex this time. After a series of misadventures with roommates I finally end up living with her again, the two of us sharing a 1 BR 450 square foot manager’s apartment where I sleep on a living room sofa that’s a foot too short for me and more than earn my keep by helping her with the clients, finally entering the field myself and using the financial freedom of no rent and a full-time job to slowly and worthlessly complete my undergraduate degree, and though it’s only a B.A. in history she’s ecstatic.

Her lawsuit with her brother is finally permanently resolved and some property she had no idea her father had a claim too reverts to his estate and is sold, her share bringing $5,000 deus-ex-machina dollars that for the first time in decades make her… solvent. A tiny savings account when it’s over, even. And it turns out that warts and all with her own mental issues (and they are legion) she’s… just fucking incredible when it comes to working for mental health. She gets her master’s degree in psychology, she gets a credit card and though 60 she dances and sings “WHOOP! THERE IT IS!” outside the Schizophrenia Estates entrance because somebody somewhere actually gave her credit! Her of the repossession and the foreclosure (but not a bankruptcy- she is proud of the fact all debts were ultimately satisfied even though it left her less than penniless). And her savings account slowly builds and so does her IRA through work and her responsibilities increase and after more than paying her dues in the closet sized apartment she is given a major promotion, major raise in pay, enough to actually rent a private apartment where she doesn’t have to be worried that suicidal obese retarded delusionals will walk through her door while she’s having friends come to dinner or crack whores from the nearby HUD apartment will offer to perform favors for $4 that she has to make inquiries later to understand; now she has her own apartment, a quite decent one, her own furniture for the first time in almost a decade, her evenings and weekends are (usually) free for the first time in her life and she’s good at what she does and she’s used all around as the gauge of professionalism and work ethic by her bosses and her co-workers.

Oh, she’s still batshit crazy at times mind, no shrinking violet she ever, but she’s financially and professionally and physically and in many other ways-i-ly better than she’s been in years and years. In some ways ever, for even when she was trading block long Cadillacs every other year her lifestyle was built on debt and with the help of a husband she didn’t always love, but now it’s not and the husband’s long dead, and even her issues with him have largely faded (and she more than atoned with her care of his ‘chattel’, but that’s another story).

And I also decide to take my leave of her. That didn’t work out so nicely. Moving out went marginally better than coming out- there were no suicide notes or gunfire- but it was still no cakewalk.

“I do not understand what you are trying to find out there that you can’t find here?”

“My freedom, Mama! It’s time. It’s long past time. You needed me for many years, you don’t. You fought a great fight, you really did, but it’s peacetime now, you don’t need me. And I need to get out, you need your space, we irritate each other…”

“I love you dearly and you know it!”

“Of course I know it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get on each other’s last nerve!”

“Well fine then! Go. I will never hold you down when you want to go. If there’s some place where you can be free and happy then please, go there. * Don’t think of me. Do not think of me being here, lonely and alone. Just go! Don’t think one bit about me, I’ll be fine!”*

“Mama, if you’re lonely you can get out, make friends, you have the time and the liberty now and…”

“I don’t want friends. The problem with friends is they’re made of people and I can’t stand people. I’ve known too many bad ones…”

“Well, there are good ones…”

“Where were they when I needed them? When the chips were down, it was just you and me. It was always just you and me… side by side and…”

“Mama, it’s peace time. Lay down your arms, enjoy life.”

“Hmm. Easy for you to say. It’ll always be war for my part, it’s just sometimes there’s a cease fire for a moment.”

“Mama, enjoy the cease fire… I love you, but…”

“Hmmph. Peace. The war is over. Lay down your arms. Be at peace” she says, half wishful and half sneering. And in reflection “Maybe the war is over. Maybe there is peace. But I do not have to enjoy it and I will by GOD NEVER lay down my arms. If there is peace it’s just time before there’s another war and they’re not catching me unarmed. Go on… do what you must.”

“Mama, if I thought you needed me to stay, I would, but I honestly think you …”

“No! I don’t need you to stay! I am quite well equipped to handle things on my own, thank you very much!” A smoke puff. “Oh, I’ll admit,* the selfish part of me wants you to stay. The selfish part of me says I can’t make it without you.*” Another puff. “But it’s your life, you go one and live it. I’ll be fine… …. …. I think… …. …. Somehow …. …. …. And if I’m not, so what? I’m ready to go… … … I might as well be….”

And a few years passed and she didn’t “go”. She did well in fact, she prospered financially and professionally. She did go to the hospital and was told she would not live the day when a routine surgery developed massive complications, she went into a coma, a pastor was called and funeral homes consulted, and a month later she walked out of the hospital of her own volition. (And kept on smoking- those collapsed lungs were brought on by allergies, don’t you know.)

She bought a house that she loved- now this may not sound like much, mind, but consider- she was a woman who came to Montgomery with a credit rating of “apprehend and kill”, no money, penniless most of the time, working a horrible and underpaid job, unable to afford the transmission fluid the Chevette drank like water sometimes let alone to have it fixed and then having to find a deranged homeless mechanic to take the DING out of the Yugo she shared with her son. And she bought a house, a nice house- not a mansion, but quite respectable, a decent middle class neighborhood where property values rise, and she built up a good equity and bought a nice car and she did all of this with money she earned herself, that NOBODY helped her earn, and in 15 years she managed to build from total scratch enough of an IRA to retire comfortably, and she did. And in time she even got accustomed to my having “left” even if she never liked it or quit lobbying for my move back, and though in part it was due to the fact that even when I lived 4 hours away I came home at least every other weekend and every holiday.

And then the inevitable diagnosis happened. In 1935 she attempted to be born shoulder first and the doctor said there was a good chance she’d die at birth, but obviously she didn’t, nor when she was sent home to die from a ruptured appendix while WW2 was going on, or the times with pleurisy or double pneumonia. Then the inevitable diagnosis and she was told, a month ago, by her Pakistan born oncologist “You may have six months, I doubt it”. He said it on each of her visits and she took it with grace until the third time.

“My other doctor says I have a year or maybe two…”

“He’s wrong… I’d be surprised to see you make Christmas…”


“Now, my deary, I am trying to tell you about statistics and averages. Now, let me tell you what an average is, it’s when you take the information from a large set of information and…” and before I could stop him with a slow motion “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” it was too late.

Two things my mother would call patronizing: 1- being called “deary”, or “Hon”, or “Shug”, or any synonyms, and 2- it being assumed that as a woman she could not know about math and statistics and averages and such and it had to be explained (patronizing is a deadly risk to anybody in my family)

And to my regret the response began with “My dear doctor, I happened to teach math and science in public and private schools from 1958 to…” and ended with something to the effect of “…phone calls and get your patronizing unprofessional last-rites-saying holy hamburger worshipping ass all the way back to Assassinistan! Next time I see you say something positive, don’t just bring a fucking shovel in the room and say time to start digging!”

And she got better just to spite him and had a fantastic week. Then another attack of pneumonia left her in a coma. In a waiting room her children kept each other and the other patients kin in stitches with stories about a shared past that “nobody on Earth would believe happened… hell, we have to downplay this shit… and remember the time that Mama convinced the Germans who were insulting America at Mt. Vernon that every American on Earth spoke German? Or the time she got the Regional Vice President of Shoney’s himself to show up at her door with a cherry pie and beg her to accept his apology? Or the night she shot at the Snell boy and…” and the relatives of the other patients are laughing hysterically as well. They want to meet this woman.

Unfortunately ICU only allows visitors once every two hours and then immediate family only and for 30 minutes only. And it’s not the same woman but a remainder of said woman with tubes tied into her mouth, one pumping her stomach and the other pumping in oxygen, and on the first day I tell her constantly “Mama… you know who I am don’t you?” and she’ll open her eyes and nod her head a bit, but she can’t talk because of the tubes, which she cannot take out because her hands are in restraints. Though she damned sure tries on both and nearly makes it a few times.

I explain to her where she is and what she’s doing there, and that once the tubes are out she’ll be able to talk. Nothing doing, she wants to talk now. And she damned near does, but not quite. A 70 year old woman with very advanced cancer, now in her lungs and her kidneys and her bladder and her brain, but with incredible strength briefly breaking free of her left arm restraint and going for the tubes, an extremely natural reaction for all who are intubated and medicated.

The same Pakistani doctor gives us the news that “She won’t make the night, the medication isn’t working.” But she lives to confound such verdicts. She once told me “Doctors have been saying I would die that day since the day I was born, sooner or later one of them’s gonna be right. But I don’t have to let it be one I don’t like.” And she doesn’t like the Pakistani doctor.

The next day she’s still alive. She’s in and out of consciousness, but I know that a sometimes she knows me.

“Mama, remember in 1955? You were an amateur but you were in the ring with {southeastern ladie’s wrestling champion} Mars Bennett, and it was a draw, but she said ‘The day this gal signs her a contract to fight on m circuit, I’m retirin’ from the goddam ring?’ We need you to fight like that one more time. Just one more time, fight like that, knock out this infection, let them take these tubes out, then you can talk, or you can at least hold a pen, you can write if you’ll just fight like you fought Mars Bennett…” But another doctor tells us, “She won’t live to see tomorrow.”

And he’s wrong. But it’s no great joy, other than knowing she’s still kicking the shit out of a Mars Bennett somewhere. She only briefly responds, and I plead with her to fight the first few times I see her. By the late afternoon I start to tell her again, but instead I repeat words that I’ve been reliving in my mind even though the waiting room is filled with laughter and the loudest perhaps is mine. Her eyes are closed and she has made no response all day, but she lives according to the machines.


*Here, just hold my hand. You know I love you don’t you?

I don’t know if you’re still in there but if you are…*

A sentence takes longer than a speech should sometimes. It’s fucking irritating when it happens.

*… but if you are… The selfish part of me wants you to stay. The selfish part of me says I can’t make it without you


The voice cracks and it’s a sickening, terrifying feral sound, a silence that precedes the tears of one who never cries, one who very nearly hates any show of weakness in others but more than hates any show of weakness in himself, as the tears flow like a saline stab wound onto cheeks that feel violated by the moist and a whole countenance that shakes with shame and fury at this betrayal of the emotion.

*Mama, God alone knows words, if there are any, to say how much I love you.

But… *

Oh fuck…

*If there’s some place where you can be free and happy then please, go there.

Don’t think of me.

Do not think of me being here, lonely and alone. Just go

Lay down your arms. Be at peace.

And know that no matter where I go, you will always be with me. That I absolutely promise you.

Hold my hand. Please. If you can hear me at all, hold my hand.*

She didn’t hold my hand but I felt it move. For the only time in hours one of her eyes opened just for a second. Still a pretty gray-blue like always.

The doctor said she would not see nightfall. But she did. She lived til after midnight, probably just to mess up his paperwork.

At her worst she was a nightmare and I’ll never deny that. But if I live to be nine-hundred-and-sixty-nine I’ll never stop missing her. Because at her best- only God knows the words to describe her.

To borrow a line from CITY SLICKERS:

Oh God we send you Mama. Try not to piss her off.

Be at peace.

The final irony: she’ll be buried on my father’s birthday. If there’s life after this, this is one birthday my father will never ever forget, even if Heaven has a witness relocation program.

Daddy, now would be a good time to reincarnate. Something in an Inuit might be good- Mama hates cold weather.

RIP, Mama. We’re here, Sampiro. Come back when you can. We’ll be waiting patiently.

Thanks for posting that, Dung Beetle.

Thank you.

::: sets quietly a while :::

Dear god, I wish I had met that woman.

Sampiro, please know that you’re often in my thoughts, especially today.

Sampiro, you know you are in my thoughts and prayers. Take care.

Sampiro your family and you are in my thoughts and prayers. R.I.P. Mama.

Thank you for posting this Dung Beetle.

Sampiro, you’re in my thoughts today. I’m very sorry for your loss.

Sampiro, I am sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you and your family.

You and your mama are in my thoughts and prayers.

Me, too. I’ll be praying for you and your family.

Thank you, Sampiro, Dung Beatle, and most of all, Mama. Thank you for the inspiration and love of Sampiro. I bet your stories could beat his six days out of the week, and that’s saying a lot.

Be at peace. Unless it’s too boring. Then find some angels to wrestle.

Sampiro, you have my deepest sympathies for the passing of your mom. I wish you the best in these tough times ahead of you.

And, Dung Beetle, it was kind of you to pass along the information; however, we don’t allow post-by-proxy here. Sampiro has an active account in good standing; if he would like to post when he feels comfortable doing so, he’s welcome to do so. This thread, though, will have to be closed.