Love As I Know It
They say that a person can only break your heart if you hand it to them first. But I never handed my mother my heart.
By Hayley Folk
July 12, 2021
They say that a person can only break your heart if you hand it to them first. But I never handed my mother my heart. She already had it in her grasp. She had it long before I took my first breath. She has held it long after she took her last breath.
I don’t remember the first time I yearned for her affection. But I am certain I always have. As a small child, I knew early on the pain of what felt like unrequited love. I’ve spent a lifetime wondering.
Does she love me?
When I was four years old, the family decided to go on a trip to SeaWorld. In the car on the way there, I excitedly sang a song about dolphins and whales.
“Dolphins and whales, dolphins and whales, I love dolphins and whales!”
After a few minutes of this, angrily turning around in her seat to face me, my mother said, “Could you shut the fuck up for just five minutes?
I have heard my father often say that this was the defining moment. These were the few seconds in which he realized he couldn’t stay with her anymore. He got full custody of me within a few months and we moved out.
From a very young age, my mother used to tell me that my father wasn’t actually my father. She had been with two other men around the time she got pregnant with me: a one-night-stand with a marine she met at a rodeo and a man she had been in a volatile, on-again off-again relationship with years prior. It was no secret that my mother proudly claimed the title of slut and when she’d cheat on my father once again, I imagine she thought I can’t help it if I’m a whore. When she wanted to especially hurt my father, which happened more often than not, she’d spout Hayley isn’t really yours.
Shortly after I turned 18, I got an email from the second man.
You don’t know me, but I hope that we can become acquainted. Your mother contacted me recently, after 18 years, to tell me that you existed. She was always a little nuts, but for some reason, I’m taking her word on this. I think I could be your father. Please take your time, but I’d love nothing more than to connect with you.
I had no contact with my mother for over a decade, but I’ve had many conversations with her in my head. It isn’t that she didn’t reach out. She did. But I struggled to respond. I used to think about it often, and I still do, sometimes. In times when my grief feels almost tangible, the thoughts have a way of gradually and quietly creeping up. Thoughts of what I would have said, what I could have said, and what I should have said. I wonder what she might have said. Would I have known what to say at all? What would have come of it? These are things I will never know.
My mother was 13 years old when she did meth for the first time. Her mother, my grandmother—who has always been mentally unstable—introduced it to her. Her mother and her stepfather had her selling meth, picking up for them, and eventually, doing it with them. They probably thought they wouldn’t get caught that way.
My mother was beautiful. She was beautiful outside and sometimes inside. When she was doing well, it was easy to look beyond her negative attributes. Beyond the cloud of her drug-induced frenzy, the dreaded comedown and the rage she felt to be in her own body. She could be loving — like when she religiously rubbed my back as a child to help me fall asleep or how she’d be especially proud of me when I got an award at school. When she was good, she was really good. When she was bad, she was really bad. Her striking blue eyes, slightly-crooked smile, tall athletic frame, and long blonde hair could be mesmerizing. She was filled with the kind of light that people find hard to look away from.
Let me be clear: I’ve done a lot of therapy. I’m not angry anymore. But no amount of therapy can take away the wish I’ve always had: I wish my mother could have had the mother she deserved. Perhaps, if she had the mother that she deserved and needed, I could have had the mother I deserved and needed, too.
My maternal grandfather died on an early January day. His funeral service was a week later. There had been no confirmation of whether my mother would be coming or not. The celebration of life ceremony was being held three hours from my hometown, by car.
My husband held my hand as we walked up to the entrance of the church. In a black knit dress resembling that of Wednesday Addams, I wore black tights and high-heels and ensured my blonde hair was perfectly placed. There was a crowd of family members, friends, and others who came to pay their respects outside of the chapel. I looked around, scanning the crowd for a familiar face, but I didn’t spot her anywhere.
We filed into the church, one by one. Most of the pews were open while others were marked ‘reserved’ for close relatives. Planting ourselves in the very front row, we sat next to the rest of the family. There was singing and praying, and more singing. The Pastor speaking made a brief mention of those he had left behind, throwing in my mother’s name at the end, as if she were an afterthought.
“... And his eldest daughter, Kimberly.”
And then, the service was over.
At every funeral I’ve ever been to, there is always this moment afterward where people appear before the family, standing awkwardly, looking for the right thing to say. Spoiler alert: there is never a right thing to say. It can be ok that there isn’t.
A half-hour of this passed by, before my husband asked, “Did you want to head to the reception? It seems like it’s almost time.”
I was ready. I was tired. Grabbing my sweater, I swung my black leather purse on my shoulder and turned toward the back of the room. I took a few steps forward, before finally looking up from the floor. And as I did, I met eyes with a woman. A woman who suddenly stopped in her tracks. There she was. There was my mother, right before my eyes.
She did not move an inch, but my limbs automatically moved forward, carrying me to an unknown place. This. This is what I’ve imagined for so many years.
A lot can happen in over a decade. There, I saw the evidence on her face. Her hair, an orange-blonde, was shorter than I’d ever seen before. Signs of aging gathered around her slightly crooked mouth and still bright, strikingly blue eyes. She wore a dark dress, but I couldn’t tell if it was black or navy. We were the same height now, a testament to time passed.
She held her hands together, her fingers covered with silver rings, of all different shapes and sizes.
The memory of her, which I had etched into my brain, was replaced by an older version. I am sure I looked older to her, too. I felt a small comfort in not being alone in that.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” she finally said.
“I am sorry for your loss, too.”
She began to fumble through asking if she could hug me, but before she could get the words out, I found myself leaning in to embrace her. Our arms wrapped around one another and I took in her scent: a mixture of Calgon Hawaiian Ginger she bought from the drugstore and Marlboro Cigarettes. It was exactly as I had remembered.
My dad stood nearby, witnessing the reunion from the sidelines. As we embraced, our two bodies fell into one another. A moment we both long waited for. My dad watched, but they never spoke to one another.
“She closed her eyes,” my dad told me later, “she seemed to fall into it. It was like watching a moment of release. Like she desperately needed it.”
Untangling from our embrace, I didn’t know what to do next. I quickly grabbed my husband by the hand and pulled him over to where we stood. He had seen the awkward conversation and the hug, but he had no idea it was my mother. I had never even shown him a photo of her.
“This is my husband,” I quickly blurted out.
It’s a weird feeling, introducing your mother to your husband, and your husband to your mother. It feels misaligned like it shouldn’t happen that way.
“Wow, it’s so nice to meet you,” she excitedly said, “I can’t believe it, my daughter is married!”
She smiled widely, an image that has now replaced the one I had of her. She shook my husband’s hand. I couldn’t stop making eye contact and neither could she. It was like entering a portal in time, preserved just for me. They were just as I had remembered.
“Well... I am going to go say hello to everyone,” she finally said, “Are you coming to the lunch? I have something I’d like to give to you.”
I didn’t speak but nodded yes. She smiled and turned to the front of the room. I clenched tighter to my husband, as I began pulling him out of the room, and through a long corridor until we reached a spot hidden from anyone’s view. Next to a table of church pamphlets on sex before marriage, I cried in his arms, overwhelmed that I could hug my mother.
Then, we had lunch. I sat in the banquet hall, glancing over at her from across the room. Dishing up her food, assembly-line style, she smiled and said hello to every person she came across, even those who were filled with judgment and discomfort at her presence. I thought about the courage it took her to show up.
She was clean that day. I could tell. She was awake. Awake and grieving, maybe hopeful even. My Aunt Bonnie, who graciously welcomed my mother, even saved her a seat for lunch. She never once approached my sister and me. She didn’t say hello to my dad. It was the most considerate I’d ever seen her.
“I think I should go over there, before she needs to leave,” I said as I stood from my uncomfortable plastic chair.
As I walked over to her, I could feel the eyes of people in the room staring. I was nervous and I wondered if she was nervous, too. She smiled again when she saw me walking toward her, her purse over her shoulder and a small box in her hands: a gift box wrapped with a pink bow. As she handed it to me, she shook.
“I made this for you, it’s just something small that I thought you’d like.”
I didn’t open it right then, but I thanked her. She was always one to make one-of-a-kind gifts. We met eyes again, for a moment, before she turned to my husband reaching for his hand. “Please, take care of my baby girl.”
Then, stretching out her arms wide, she leaned in to hug me one last time. Her face close to mine, she whispered what I had always longed to hear.
“It was so good to see you, Hayley. I’m so proud of you. I will always love you.”
On the way home, I unwrapped the little box she had given me. Inside, there lay a small crystal, attached to a long string. Hanging in a window sill, if the light hits it just the right way, a cast of rainbow color reflects, hitting the walls. It was the first time I saw my mother in 11 years.
She died of an overdose one week later.
Does she love me?
I saw it on her face the last time we spoke.
Hayley Folk is a writer and editor based in New York City. She enjoys writing LGBTQ+, lifestyle, personal narratives and sex + wellness content. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, Salon, Yahoo!, Bold TV and more. She is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at The New School. Most often, she can be found on an airplane, thrifting or writing in a coffee shop somewhere.