A Memoir


It was late June and as evening began to ease in, my older sister Laurie and I sat atop a truck load of sand just outside the double-wide trailer we had only days before walked into. “Do you know what glass is made out of?” she asked gently. It was 1978 and just days before, my sister and I flew from where our dad lived in Mill Valley, California to where our mom lived in Sky Way, Washington. Our parents were divorced and the agreement was that my sister and I spent one year with dad and then one year with mom. June of ‘78 was the beginning of our year with mom.

Mom picked us up from the Seattle-Tacoma airport (we locals call it Sea-Tac) and I remember her long long hair, and a red or orange blouse with a pair of tight bell-bottom jeans. My mom was a petite woman – the coroner’s report lists her at at 5’5”, but to me, age seven, she was a GIANT among Lilliputians. She was my world. There was no one in my small world that made me feel more safe, more loved, more important, more accepted, more cared for, more seen than my mom. Was I a momma’s boy? You bet your ass I was. I LOVED MY MOM! And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she loved me with almost all of her heart.

On the day my sister and I landed we climbed into mom’s red two-door rust bucket that was actually super cool because it had no front passenger seat and my sister and I could see the road through holes where bolts we’re surely intended to go. Laurie and I LOVED to drop shit down the hole onto the road – pennies, old french fries, straw wrappers, straws, ice from our fast food drinks, little shit the other sibling owned when we were fighting…If it could fit through that hole you could count it gone!

Not a long drive from the airport we pulled up in-front of a double-wide trailer we knew nothing about. Mom was known for making stops at stranger’s houses at weird times so it wasn’t a huge leap to assume mom was about to say, “I have to run inside, you two stay here and I’ll be right back.” However, this time she told us to grab our things and to come in with her. My sister and I shot each other “The Look” – if you have a sibling you might know “The Look.”

“The Look” can look like, well, just a look to anyone else, but siblings know that “The Look” really means; ‘did you know about this?’ ‘I did not know about this – swear.’ ‘Okay, well if you don’t know about this and I don’t know about this, then it’s safe to say there is some bullshit about to go down.’ That’s what “The Look” meant between my sister and me…and we were not wrong.

Drinks & Cigs – my mom and her mom, Grandma June – ’70s. ©Thomas James Hurst

Our mom told us she had met this really nice man at work (she was a cocktail waitress at a tavern up the street from the double-wide) and we were going to be living with him from now on. I hated everything about this news and when I was introduced to her boyfriend, I hated it even more. There was however, one saving grace in this fucked up situation. Her boyfriend’s name was…wait for it…Dick!

Now lets understand something here – when you are 7-years-old and out of the heavens above falls a free, never ending pass, to use a “Bad Word” you run with that shit and you run with that shit HARD. I was just old enough to appreciate the word “dick” and it took me 1.2 seconds after our introduction to know that I was going to get to say “The D-Word,” without getting into trouble…A LOT, for the rest of their relationship, which with mom was never too long.

Man I was on him quick; “Hey dick!” – “whatcha you do’n dick” – “mom, I think dick is ugly” – ”You sure are hairy dick” – I just couldn’t think of phrases to add dick to fast enough. Looking back on it, my mom and dick had to know that my use of the word dick in every sentence was not well intentioned. But, when my mom talked to me about it, I was like, “but mom it’s his name. It’s not my fault his parents hate him.” So dick it was and as much as I could.

Surprises with mom were not surprising, random stops at people’s houses were not surprising, new boyfriends were not surprising, old boyfriends were not surprising, new place to live not surprising, new place to work not surprising. Not even the blowout argument happening that moment in the double-wide trailer between my mom and aptly named dick wasn’t surprising. So as usual, my sister took me outside rather than stay in the house during the blowout. We sat on a pile of sand and contemplated some deep things.

“I don’t know, what is glass made of?” I answered. “It’s made of sand,” my sister offered. I picked up a handful and let it run between my fingers wondering; if that were true, why isn’t it cutting the shit out of me right now?

The door to the trailer flew open and mom came storming out. It was hard to tell if she was angry, sad, or both. She looked at my sister and I and simply said, “I’ll be back in awhile.” This was…not surprising.

My sister and I side-by-side in the middle – flanked by I have no idea. ©Thomas James Hurst

It was late when mom got home. I was in my pajamas sitting in front of the large tube tv watching reruns of some 1960’s show – Hogan’s Heroes or some shit and mom came through the door much more softly than when she went out. To say that I was thankful to see her is a drastic understatement. I always had anxiety when mom left us somewhere mainly because she didn’t always come back when she said she would. When she didn’t come back it meant having to sleep in our clothes on a dirty shag carpet floor or in some strange spare bedroom which often smelled like pee because a kid peed in it and no one at the house did anything about pee beds. Oftentimes my sister would lay in the wet spot so I didn’t have to – It was kinda like I had two moms, but I didn’t pick up on how unhealthy, unfair, and totally fucked-up that was for my sister until I was much older…like an adult older. So when mom walked back into the double-wide I felt the usual explosive joy, relief, and happiness as I always did when she returned from somewhere. My sister and dick were already in bed. My mom set her purse on the counter, turned off the tv, and walked me to my room. My sister Laurie and I shared a room with bunk beds – I was on the bottom and she was on the top. I remember my mom tucking me in that night and as all little kids do, I asked her to read me a book before I fell asleep. “I’m going to take a bath and when I get out I’ll come in and read you a book,” she said. Being. a parent now, I know that’s ‘parent speak’ for ‘I love you very much, but there’s no way I have the energy to read a book right now.’ My mom leaned down, kissed my forehead, turned out the light, and gently closed the door leaving it open just enough so the hall light could beam in. I didn’t like the dark and oftentimes I had to get up in the middle of the night to go pee. If I couldn’t see anything I would be too afraid to get out of bed and I would pee.

At some point in the night, I got up to do just that, go pee. Just outside our bedroom, to the left, was the main bathroom for the double-wide. The door was closed, but not locked so I opened the door and walked in. My mom was in the bathtub, her head leaning on her right shoulder and her eyes closed. I continued to look at her as I walked by her naked body, my eyes staying glued onto her eyes waiting for her to hear me and wake-up, she didn’t. I lifted the lid and went pee. When I was done I flushed the toilet and started walking back towards the door. Again, looking at her, wondering if she was going to hear me and wake up, but she didn’t. I stopped directly in front of her and whispered as loud as I could; “mom, mom, mom,” she didn’t answer. I walked out of the room, back to my bed and back to sleep.

It was still dark when I awoke, but I’m unsure of the time. The bedroom light is on and at the foot of my bunk I can see someone from ankles to mid chest standing where my sister Laurie slept on the top bunk. While I couldn’t see the person’s face I knew it was a tall skinny man. He wore blue pressed slacks and a blue suit jacket. Outside in the hallway I heard people talking as if there was a gathering of some kind. I swung my legs off the bed and set my feet on the floor. I leaned out from under the top bunk, peering upward at the stranger talking to my sister. He was holding a very large tape recorder with a microphone pointed towards her as he asked my sister questions. She was sitting up and looked frightened. I stood up slowly, trying not to be noticed for fear I’d be told to get back into bed. I walked to the bedroom door which was wide open and peered out. I looked left towards the bathroom. A very tall and wide uniformed police officer stood with his arms folded across his chest staring straight ahead. He noticed me out of the corner of his eye and looked down at me without expression. Then he looked back straight ahead. I looked to my right where the remainder of the shared living areas of the trailer was and across the kitchen. There I saw my mom’s boyfriend Dick seated in one of the dining room chairs with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He was crying, sobbing uncontrollably. Confused, I looked next to Dick and there sat my Grandpa Jim, my mom’s dad. He sat in a dining room chair also, hands on his lap with expressionless. I loved my Grandpa Jim and I raced past other police and people and climbed into grandpa’s lap. He pulled me up, wrapped his long arms around me and drew me into a long hug. It felt safe, I felt safe. I pulled back from Grandpa’s hug, looked around and then back at my grandpa directly in his eyes. “Where is my mom?” I asked. He sat silent looking down at me. “Is she okay?” I asked. He said nothing. “Is she dead?” I asked. Grandpa Jim nodded yes and I remember nothing more after that.

From the moment my mom died, I lived in a world of shame and guilt and doubt and questions. I was fucking angry – Why did I have to be the one to lose my mom? I got ripped off? People would say; “she’s in a better place now” – man, fuck you! I felt abandoned and unlovable. I felt like love was something you had to work and earn by being what everyone wanted you to be when they wanted you to be it. I grew up always waiting for the other shoe to drop – ‘yep, everything nice now, but any fucking second this shit is going to be gone.’ My relationship with women was continual, constant, and contentious. When I was dating one woman I was in an almost a constant state of anxiety for fear they would just up and leave without reason or understanding. When I was in a season of life where I dated many women, my soul was empty and lonely. I had so many unanswered questions because no one would ever tell me the truth about my mom’s death. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to know the truth themselves or maybe because they knew the truth and felt like they needed to protect me from it. I heard things like, “she fell asleep in the bathtub and drowned,” “she slipped and fell,” “her boyfriend Dick murdered her in a fight jealousy and rage,” and of course, I created my own narrative; mainly that we moved back to live with her and she had committed suicide. The worst of all was the guilt and shame I felt for having found her and that she might still be alive if I had just woken someone up and told them. I grew up with chaos raging both inside and out – unless you were close to me, you’d never know it, but I was an absolute storm inside.

Mom and I about 1974. I don’t have too many pictures of us together, but of those I do have this would be my favorite. ©Thomas James Hurst

I finally learned the real truth 22-years later. My mom was a drug addict. She shot PCP. The track marks on her arms and the drugs in her system told the story. That night, she got in a fight with her boyfriend and did what most all of us do when our emotions are heightened – we find a way to calm down, too numb, to forget. My mom went out and bought drugs and her body couldn’t handle it anymore and she died with her little girl and her baby boy sleeping just feet away. I loved my mom as any 7-year-old son does – she was my everything, but as I’ve looked back over my childhood it wasn’t hard to find the cause of my chaos. My greatest problem was I couldn’t find the antidote…until I landed in a far off country, in a dank basement, reeking of death, as bombs dropped and bullets popped, on a warm Summer day in June. Standing over little babies fresh to death, with my new found hero at my side. The steady sound of the shutter clicking, the film sliding, and not another noise could be heard. I found what I thought was peace. It was the calmest and clearest I had ever felt. I knew that this was my purpose on earth. Warm was the antidote I had been searching most my life for. It calmed me. It centered me. It put life in clear perspective. It gave me purpose and worth. It calmed the war inside of me like nothing else ever had.

John took his last few pictures of the orphans. I had long stopped taking pictures and just stood in the small room looking at the children and how much they looked as if they were just in a deep asleep. I watched John work. Moving himself this way and that trying to find the best angle for him. And then he was done. He gently nudged the door open, it hadn’t shut all the way, but had swung closer to shut than open. I followed each of John’s footsteps out as if we were slowly making our way through a minefield. We got over the bodies and back to where the tile was still barren of tragedy. The doctor at the end of the hall was still standing against the door, but had lit a cigarette. He looked at us and motioned for us to head back up the stairs which we did. First John, then me, then the good doctor.

I don’t remember if anything was said between the three of us at the top of the stairs or as we turned the corner back to the front of the Trauma Clinic. What I do remember is a car racing down the street and slamming on its brakes as it made a wild left turn from main street into the clinic parking area. Its tires screeched and smoked and you could see black skid marks behind it as it turned into the entrance gunning it the last 15 or 20 yards. The good doctor we were with recognized what this was as he had already seen it a hundred times before and he took off running. John bolted next on the heels of the doctor, raising his camera to his face in an instant. I would love to say I knew what the hell this was all about, but I was still struck by how the driver made that fucking turn into the clinic like that. I mean no shit, it was some Fast and Furious level driving. I then thought “well I guess I’m supposed to run right now.” so I started running also.

The car came to a screeching halt and the driver and a passenger jumped out screaming, sobbing, waving loudly. They are motioning to the back seat and John is shooting pictures of the scene as it unfolds in front of us. The good doctor is listening to the two men and then runs inside to prepare to treat whomever is in the backset. The passenger opens up the back seat and there is their older woman, their mother. She is groaning in pain but I still can’t see where she is hurt. The man on the passenger side grabs her ankles and begins to draw her out of the car. The other man, the driver, reaches in to grab her under her armpits awkwardly. As she clears the car and comes out, the side of her body spills open and shards of bloodied glass fall to the ground shattering. The sound is just as you would imagine – it is the sound when a busboy loses control of a large tray of wine glass and they spill crashing, shattering, on the hard concrete or tile floor. It is shocking to hear something like this at a restaurant, sudden and unexpected, it silences everyone for a split second. It is shocking to hear something like this now, it is sudden and unexpected, silencing everyone for just a split second. Out of the car, her head is turned away from me, but as the doors to the clinic open, with anxious doctors and nurses waiting inside to take over, the older woman’s head flops over and towards me. She has no face. Her lips are gone. Her teeth are knocked out, she has no nose. If there is skin still remaining you cannot tell.

John is still shooting, the motor-drive on his camera ripping off bursts of pictures. I’ve not yet raised my camera. Fuck, I’ve not yet processed the basement filled with bodies and the silver tin table with two dead babies on it. I’ve not processed my own mother’s death 14 June’s ago to the month as I stand there looking at their mother. The speed at which war can move is both painfully slow, and at times at a speed it could take you years to catch-up to. Many times it is both. This is what war is. This is just the beginning and I am hooked.

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