dead mom face
BY MICHELLE MEYERS
“The Dead Mom Face, right?” We were sitting across from each other in the dining hall. I gnawed on a hunk of petrified chicken and Laura destroyed a mound of wilted spinach. All around us were college freshmen gossiping about heteronormativity and Sex Power God and the complex organism that was Brown’s hipster illuminati.
“What do you mean by ‘The Dead Mom Face?’”
Laura demonstrated for me, mouth hanging open, something of the zombie apocalypse in her demeanor.
“That’s exactly it!” I said. “It made me so uncomfortable that I just kept apologizing to him, like, I’m so sorry, wow, maybe I’ve inconvenienced your day, like, maybe your coffee won’t taste as good or the sunshine won’t feel as warm because I troubled you with the fact that I have a recently dead mom.”
I hadn’t actually said all that, but Laura had it spot on. I’d gone to Dan’s office hours earlier in the week. He was my playwriting professor, handsome guy, cleaning chemical blue eyes, dark, frolicky curls, and you’d think, as a playwriting professor, he’d have been prepared to deal with plenty of tough subjects because, you know, writing, emotions, tragedy, theater, they all seem like they’d go together. Oedipus Rex? Hamlet? A Streetcar Named Desire? Not exactly fluffy romcom material.
This playwriting professor of mine, Dan, well, he’d asked me how my Thanksgiving break was and I decided to tell him the truth. Not the full truth, not a particularly detailed truth. Just that Thanksgiving had been awkward since my mom had passed away a few months before. So then he busted out the dead mom face, hardcore—and note, this was a guy who lived for a good fart joke, thus the dead mom face on him, very different from his usual look, much less becoming—and I sat in his office coughing up apologies left and right until finally his face transmogrified into its normal form and we pretended the conversation had never happened.
“My favorite’s the uncle’s toe that fell off,” Laura said through a mouthful of Lucky Charms. She’d moved on to dessert. She was an expert on these things. Her mom had died three years ago from an aneurysm.
“Whose uncle’s toe fell off?”
“No, like, when someone finds out your mom died, and they’re all, ‘Oh, I totally get what you’re going through. Because you see, this one time I had this uncle whose toe fell off…’”
I had my first kiss three weeks before she died. Alex Phillips. We worked at a sports camp together. He bought me a copy of Atlas Shrugged. I thought it was such a sweet gesture at the time.
When he kissed me, I couldn’t help noticing how big his lips were, how small his teeth, like some sort of prehistoric white Protestant platypus emerging from the depths of the ocean, slurping at me and pulling me under.
“He was super cool,” my dad said after I found the photo. “I get why she wanted to, y’know…”
My parents met at North Hollywood High School. They never dated in high school—my mom said she’d wanted my dad to ask her to the prom, but he was too slow so some other guy did.
The summer after they graduated, in a hot, airless bedroom in Studio City, my mom lost her virginity to her 35-year-old Mormon English teacher, Mr. McElroy. He was popular, kidded around with his students, dressed with a sort of Midwestern sensibility.
Apparently the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wasn’t too keen on one of their parishioners having sex with an underage girl, and it wasn’t long before Mr. McElroy was excommunicated and my mom was single once more.
Sometimes I wonder where the rabbi for the funeral came from. Rent-a-rabbi? Did he charge a fee? That couldn’t be ethical. At the same time, though, a rabbi’s gotta eat. A rabbi’s gotta put food on the table. Can’t let a rabbi starve, that wouldn’t be ethical either.
I thought about my mother as I made out with boys my first year of college. I thought about her as James shoved his large wrestler tongue down my throat, as Jonathan peppered my face with little butterfly kisses, as Sam attempted to find my clitoris somewhere between my navel and the upper edge of my pubic hair, his tongue like a leftover hotdog in my mouth.
My parents dated for a month or two before grad school. My mom was heading up to the Monterey Institute to study French interpreting. My dad had been accepted into law school at Berkeley.
When my mom left L.A., my dad sent her a letter. My mom said she never got it. My dad assumed she just wasn’t interested. And that was that for awhile.
I still don’t know if the letter really existed.
A week after the funeral, Eric and Taylor came over, brought a movie to cheer me up. It was back in the era when the very last of the video stores were dying out but hadn’t yet gone extinct. They’d picked out Death at a Funeral (not the weirdly too-soon remake directed by Neil LaBute, the first one, with Matthew MacFadyen and Peter Dinklage). I don’t imagine either of them considered the irony of their choice. Maybe not irony, but at the very least, an awkwardness of taste.
Later that evening, I kept thinking about Uncle Alfie’s last words in the film, sitting naked and high on the roof: “Everything’s so fucking green!”
As legend would have it, my Grandpa Jay had a knack for marrying women who would die prematurely from cancer. So you’d think my dad would’ve been really good with us kids on this dead mom thing, given that he had not just one, but two dead moms growing up. His real mom died of breast cancer when he was three or four, his stepmom from lung cancer when he was fourteen. Practice makes perfect, right? So my dad should have been damn near perfect.
I’ve only had one serious boyfriend, Dan. He was ten years older than me, bald and shiny with a handlebar mustache. He named his butthole Larry and refused to play Settlers of Catan because he said he had an addictive personality.
Dan’s mom was Danish. She was a librarian. She liked to cook roasts. When Dan tried pot brownies on his 34th birthday and had a bad trip, his mom drove all the way down from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to take care of him.
Three years after the letter debacle, my mom and dad bumped into each other at Eddie’s, a sandwich place on Little Santa Monica. My dad was a lawyer. My mom was working for the Arab sheik. My dad had never had a girlfriend, only a short-lived affair with a woman we call “Pillow Girl” due to her supposedly ample bosom. My mom had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with named Peter, a sommelier who was overly attached to his bicycle.
My future dad asked my future mom out to lunch, and without hesitation, my future mom said yes.
It’s been seven years since her death now. Her clothes are still hanging in the closet: slacks, blouses, and that horrible lavender dress she wore as a bridesmaid to Lynne’s wedding. I wonder how long her clothes will have to stay in that closet before they become vintage. Ten years? Twenty years?
My mom’s car is still in the driveway. Her voice is still on the answering machine. Maybe that’s why people don’t call the house anymore.
“Can you make sure my weed doesn’t get thrown out?” It wasn’t until after my mom died that I discovered my dad smoked weed, that he’d hidden his true stoner identity throughout my entire childhood.
The truth had been revealed during a grey L.A. day in late September that involved a flipped circuit breaker, a malfunctioning garage freezer, and me and the housekeeper throwing out all of the expired frozen food. I called my dad to give him a play-by-play of the day’s events and his only response was: “Can you make sure my weed doesn’t get thrown out?” He’d wrapped up the baggies in tin foil to look like tamales and put them in a Tupperware container in the back freezer. It had seemed like a good idea when he was high. Lucky for him, after a brief but euphemistic conversation in Spanish—Me: “Sabes dónde están las hierbas de mi padre?” Linda holds up the plastic container of “tamales”: “Ay, sí, las hierbas de su padre que huelen muy mal!”—his weed was found unharmed.
Before my mom died, my dad seemed much more adult. Emotionally distant, perhaps, but there was a sense that he was a figure of some minor authority and that my sister and I, as his offspring, were in a different subset. Now it’s like he’s become one of us, regressing into a mid- twenties hipster-type who spends his weekends at dive bars called The Liquid Kitty and The Tattle Tale Room.
It’s hard to know what to say on dates. Inevitably, I get asked the question: “So what do your parents do?” My usual response is to tell them that my dad is a lawyer and to shift the subject before my date inquires further.
On my first date with Mitch, we sit at a bar in Culver City, each of us sipping a Moscow mule. He’s lanky, all angles, with a surprisingly wide forehead. He doesn’t let me get away with my trick, and so I explain to him that my mom is no longer alive. His eyes well up with tears and he begins to cry. Not only does he have a Dead Mom, he has a Very Recently Dead Mom, and he describes the gradual decline of her health in excruciating detail. I don’t know what else to do so I reach across the table and pat his right forearm.
My mom and dad almost didn’t get engaged. It was the usual story, the fear of commitment, the looming tower of future responsibility. So my dad broke up with her, fled to Hawaii, hung out at the beach with a dude pal of his, David.
A couple months later, my dad found his footing and returned with a ring. My mom took him back. And then they lived happily ever after. Except…
Sometimes I wonder if my father regrets it, marrying someone who would die so young. If he could go back and do it again, with the knowledge he has now, if he would’ve just stayed in Hawaii. If he would have chosen something else.
I wonder if my father will ever move on. If he’ll ever date again. If he’ll ever fall in love. Or if he’ll just spend the rest of his life watching baseball, walking the dog, and smoking that sweet Mary Jane.
My doctor wants me to get tested for the BRCA mutation. That’s what my mom had, makes me thirty times more likely to develop ovarian cancer than the average woman. It still boggles my mind that the deletion or rearrangement of one or two nucleotides can cause a person’s entire body to self-destruct.
My doctor says that even if I have the mutation, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to die early. We’ll just have to be more vigilant, we’ll be careful, we’ll take prophylactic measures. Who needs those ovaries anyway? Menstruation. What a pain. And breast implants are all the rage. I could get them as big as I want. I could get breasts so big, so light and airy, that I would float away.
I’m in grad school now, reading and writing and all that fun stuff, and last week I went to my lit professor’s office hours to ask him why we have critical theory. What would happen if we didn’t have it? Would the world really be all that worse off?
“Just trying to find ones that won’t break,” Fred says as I walk into the office, gesturing to a website on his computer screen featuring a pair of aviator reading glasses. He says it in the same hurried way one might try to explain porn to one’s mother, claiming it’s just research for a sex ed project. He then rolls his leather chair away from the computer, offers me a hot tea or a seltzer. Fred looks sort of like a grown-up version of Dennis the Menace—short, cowlicked hair, striped yellow T-shirt, and navy Keds like he just got in from the playground.
Our most significant sticking point on the theory thing is Freud (no surprise) and the question of whether or not all dreams have meaning.
“Come on, think about it. You can’t tell me your dreams don’t have meaning, right?” He says this in his cocky Boston accent, resting his hands behind his head.
I’ve had the same kind of dream for years now, over and over again, the sort of the nightmare that makes you sweat through all your clothes. Sometimes it’s the paramedics carrying the black body bag down the stairs. Sometimes I’m standing next to her bed, IV cord dangling, those clichéd last words, “I love you,” like deformed crows struggling to fly away. But most often in the dream, I’m caught in a lie—I’ve told everybody my mother was dead only to find out that she actually wasn’t. Even in those dreams, though, she’s always still sick, always still dying, and so there’s no need to tell anybody the truth, no need to correct the narrative.
But of course, I don’t tell my professor about any of this. I’ve learned to avoid the Dead Mom Face at all costs, to answer questions ambiguously or not at all. It’s just not worth it. Because instead of empathy in response, all I get is fear. They are afraid of saying something wrong. They are afraid of their own mortality and the mortality of those they love. Every person has a mother and every mother is going to die.
Instead, I look Fred right in the eye, and I say, “You think all dreams have meaning, do you? Well what about that dream I had about you the other night? The one where you were a failed amateur magician? What do you have to say about that?”