My mother was lying on the couch looking up at the rafters when I entered my parents’ 600-square foot cabin in north central Mississippi. I could not remember ever having seen her lie on that couch. I stepped directly to her side, dropped to my knees, immediately seeing the long, Frankenstein-like trail of stitches running vertically down the left side of her neck. She turned her head and smiled and I kind of half bent over her to gently give her a hug, so glad she was, I could tell, to see me. I’d just flown in from Boston for a week’s visit. Mom was recovering from the first of two carotid artery surgeries she’d endure before the cancer that would kill her was diagnosed.
I was singing hymns to her when she died 15 months later, her cut gardenia blossoms floating in a shallow bowl of water above us on the dresser. After, I’d find and read stacks of her journals, the most recent ones filled with crude sketches of a head, neck and shoulders with flat straight lines radiating out as if a painting of Jesus and his holy crown, light coming from within and above. These and others, whole bodies floating on the page like post-crime outlines on a floor with arrows and stars and filled-in circles indicating each point from where pain rang. She was recording where she hurt, illustrating how the clogged arteries, both at 80%, rendered her body and mind. So much pain and anger and sorrow.
Drawing a map to pinpoint my own pain wasn’t as simple. I was 48 years old that winter of 2010, teaching full time at university in the Northeast and 23 years into a marriage that had long been broken and would not survive. I was eking out time to write even though I’d put away a memoir about my marriage in order to stay in it. I’d lived all my life with depression and a destabilizing anxiety disorder, fear so tangible, it changed my DNA until good meds changed it again and in the right direction. I was terrified of death and I was not once afraid as my mother allowed me to witness her going during those final weeks.
Ten years later, I am a divorced woman, nearly 60, and living in my mother’s last home on earth. Which is no small turn of events. I loathed this state where my parents landed, the small derelict town 40 miles outside of Oxford, in fact, all the small towns we drove to or through during any one of my visits over 20 years. I’d held Mississippi at arm’s length. I couldn’t see what my mother had grown to love, why my father stayed.
It was his illness that brought me back in the spring of 2017. One year before this, I’d left my 30-year marriage suddenly and without a plan. I took to the road, crisscrossing parts of the South, mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Dad called the following spring asking for help with medical tests. My one-week visit turned into five, which turned into an unexpected job offer and divorce papers filed. I rented a sky-blue house on a hill seventeen miles from my parents’ cabin; I’d not lived near my dad since I was twelve years old. I was not one moment afraid. All arrows pointed here, and I was getting good at listening. I followed myself back to Mississippi.
I live alone in this old and sturdy Blue House that holds me when I cannot stand. At night, I watch stars light up and the moon lazily cross the skyline above me. I listen to tree branches scrape against my tin roof, the occasional steps of birds and racoons across it. I am totally on my own. I am broken and remade. This time, because I know sorrow and pain, gratitude and joy exist together, always. Grief is where I have done some good and urgent living. Maybe the best we ever do.
Each year I think I am leaving Mississippi, and then I stay. This state ranks last in all the categories you’d hope for firsts; people think Confederate flags, poverty, uneducated, conservative, racist, pro-life. It’s all true. But beauty, humanity, humility and grace live here, too. In this place where my mother died and so many continue to suffer, we continue to rise. I am rising.
Dawn Denham’s work has appeared in Brevity, Zone 3, Solstice, Literary Mama, and Poets and Writers. Her essay Aleatorik, the 2012 Solstice Magazine essay contest winner, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is co-author of Writing Together: How to Transform Your Writing in a Writing Group from Perigee Press. She writes and teaches in north central Mississippi and took this year off to complete a memoir, The Blue House.
Dawn is proud to support RISE (Reach, Inspire, Support and Empower), a newly formed club at Oxford High School, Oxford, MS where she has taught college writing that focuses on bettering the lives of students through advocating for their health. Oxford High School ranks third in the state and yet has the widest achievement gap. “RISE is passionate about the health and wellness of the Oxford School District community,” says club leader, teacher Kakky Brown. “We connect students to reliable health and wellness resources and promote healthy behaviors through public service campaigns in the school community,” which can positively impact underserved students’ goal to graduate. The club can be found on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook under the username @riseoxfordhigh. Donations can be made directly to Oxford High School, Oxford, Mississippi.