We’re pleased to publish an excerpt from Frances Badalamenti‘s novel I Don’t Blame You, out this week on Unsolicited Press. The publisher describes it as follows: “I Don’t Blame You is a young woman’s journey of losing her mother a mere two months before becoming a mother. It follows Ana through a year of going between her home in Portland and her mother’s home base in New Jersey as she battled cancer and as Ana grew a baby. The narrative begins with backstory around her mother’s early life being raised by a single mother in poverty in a Bronx tenement apartment and also her father’s early years in depression-era Brooklyn, both raised in challenging circumstances by Italian immigrants.”
When I found out that my mother was sick with the cancer, I was working as a project manager on temporary contract at an ad agency in Amsterdam. Drew and I had rented out our house in Portland. He had come over to Holland and was working remotely for a few months. When I got the call from my mother that she was ill, I knew that I had no choice but to return to the States. I also knew that I was done with working in advertising. As much as I have talked all kinds of shit about it throughout the years—the inflated and needy egos; the maddening, stress-inducing deadlines; the sickness and disease of capitalism—my time in the cubicle had served its purpose when I needed nothing more than a large dose of stability, a sturdy desk, and rad people to go to lunch with. So after I said good-bye to that chapter of my life, I left Holland in the pissing-down rain with a pocketful of euros, which thankfully ended up funding the following year of my life. I made nine cross-country trips from Portland to New Jersey. This journey began in the fall of 2006 when I found out that my mother had stage 3A lung cancer. And in a way, it both ended and began in the fall of 2007 when I gave birth to my son.
After a very challenging year for my mother and for her four grown children, after lot of both physical and emotional pain had been endured, my mother left her body in the early-morning hours of September 12, 2007. I was seven months pregnant at the time. And as much as I have made many attempts to make peace with losing my mother right before I became a mother, as many times as I have picked through the narrative for hidden clues, as much as I have tried to edit the frames so that they created a more cohesive and linear motion picture, what my personal story—not just that one year but all the years leading up to it and following—has offered me more than anything has been a giant shot of inspiration and a tremendous dose of healing.
It was late in the afternoon on Christmas Day. My mother’s four children, her six grandchildren, her sister, some nieces and nephews, and a few significant others were crammed around two large folding tables in the living room of my sister Dani’s rented condominium in central New Jersey. I was still somewhat jet-lagged and most certainly culture-shocked from having spent the last six months living in a natural light–filled sixteenth-century flat on a narrow cobblestone street in central Amsterdam. It had taken me a few hours to adjust to these surroundings, a dark apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting in desperate need of a steam cleaning. But now that my nervous system had settled and accepted, I felt comfort in being there with my family, as we gathered around the woman who had always been the central figure in many of our lives.
My sister and I had been chopping and cooking and cleaning in her dated and run-down galley kitchen since morning. At one point earlier in the afternoon, my mother had sat upright in her bed while I prepared to sauté a carton of white button mushrooms. I had been standing a few feet away in the kitchen, only steps from where my mother slept in a twin bed up against a gold-speckled mirrored wall in the converted dining room. It was the first time since the cancer diagnosis that I had been able to see that my mother was not physically well, that she was unable to stand up to cook. This felt more than strange because my mother was usually at the control panels in the kitchen even when someone else was cooking, dipping her fingers into sauces, adding salt, commenting on flavor, making a giant fucking mess.
I could see that the radiation treatment that she had started about one month before was clearly weakening her body, even though the tumor that had been choking her was shrinking considerably. And although my mother had instructed me otherwise, I took the plain white button mushrooms, put them in a metal colander, and rinsed them under the faucet. My mother saw this and snapped at me.
“I told you not to wash them!” she yelled, her black and gray hair flat and matted on the side that she had been sleeping on most of the morning, her voice crackly and wet from the sickness that lived in her lungs.
“Just brush the dirt off, Ana!” she snapped.
I ignored her orders and stood at the sink and kept washing the mushrooms. She was too weak to do anything about it. My mother was powerless.
Now there were two large round plastic platters of pre-sliced carrots, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, green and red peppers, all surrounding a cup of ranch dressing in the center of each platter, one on each side of the long, improvised holiday table. There were smaller plates of cubed white and yellow cheese and crackers and sliced Italian bread. A few days earlier, Dani had bought colorful Christmas-themed paper tablecloths, paper plates, paper napkins, plastic silverware, and plastic cups at the Dollar Store.
“Can we at least use good plates?” I had asked my Dani that morning.
“The paper ones always get soggy,” I had said.
“We won’t have enough,” she had told me.
“Wait,” she had said.
And then she had taken out a box from the hall closet. I had set the table with the good plates that my sister had gotten when she was married, even though she was long divorced.
“That looks so much better,” she had said, as the two of us stood in the living room looking at the table that was supposed to hold twenty people.
Now my sister and I brought trays of food to the table. We were sweating profusely because it was hot in the kitchen from running the oven all day and from all of the bodies that had filled the small living room. At one point, we looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. Nobody had offered to help. They never did. In my family, when you host, you hustle and everyone else sits. And even if they had offered to help, there was no room for another ass in the kitchen.
“This is so sick,” my sister Dani said, as she walked from the kitchen into the living room, an apron tied around her waist, like my mother had worn all those other holidays, when she could.
Lasagna, smoked sliced ham, breaded and fried chicken cutlets, the mushrooms sautéed in butter, steamed broccoli with lemon, a salad that my sister-in-law had brought. There were multiple conversations going at once, voices firing in all directions.
My brother Mike was about to make a toast. I sat on the arm of one of my sister Dani’s couches, which was only a foot or two away from where everyone else was sitting at the table.
“Ana, sit,” my oldest brother, Anthony, said pointing to an empty chair.
“I’m fine here,” I said.
“You sure?” he said.
I nodded. I preferred to sit and observe from that perch rather than be a part of this thing that I felt did not yet have a name. The energy in the room was tense, heavy, thick with heat and sickness. We toasted to something about all being there together in that one room. My sister ran into the kitchen sobbing, black mascara running down her face. She has to live with this every day, I thought to myself. She has had to live with my mother for the past seven years. It’s not been easy, and it’s not going to be easy.
Mike said, “Let’s eat.”
And we ate.
When the tables had been cleared of people and holiday detritus, Dani and I folded them up, and we put them in a closet where they would be stored until the next family gathering. We put the living room back together. My sister vacuumed the carpets. I took garbage and the recycling outside to the dumpsters and then began spraying and wiping down the counters. My mother was sitting in her room off the kitchen wearing an old light blue nightgown and a pair of cheap reading glasses. The television was going in the background, and she was holding the makeup-stained cordless phone in her lap. There were rust-colored translucent bottles of pills lined up on her nightstand next to a small plastic container of holy water.
My mother looked pale and exhausted, the kind of tired and drained that was so different than when she used to say she was sick and call out of work.
“That was so nice, wasn’t it, Ana?” she asked in that crackling voice. “Yeah, Ma,” I said.
“The mushrooms came out good,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“You and Dani did such a good job,” she said.
“Hey, Ma. So Dani will take you to radiation this week and then Mike the next. Then I’ll be back in a few weeks,” I told her.
“Okay, honey,” she said.
“Don’t kill yourself traveling,” she told me. “Drew needs you,” she said.
“He’s fine, but I haven’t really been home in months,” I said.
What I didn’t say was that we had been trying to start a family.
It was early morning, and I had just flown into JFK on the redeye from Portland, completely sleep deprived and jacked on bad coffee. But it was inspiring in a strange way to be running on fumes, mostly because there was something beautifully shocking about being thrust into the bright, bright sunshine of a clear blue New York City winter sky. I headed into Brooklyn on the subway with my bags between my legs, and a deep well of emotion came over me. I wept silently, not necessarily out of sadness about my mother’s health but more around an intense feeling of coming home, of finally arriving. For most of my adult life, maybe even into childhood, I had longed to return back to my family’s roots in Brooklyn and to make a home there.
I had once consulted an oracle about this longing to live in Brooklyn, where my grandparents lived after leaving Italy, the borough where my father and his siblings were raised.
“It’s so painful—this pull,” I had told her. “Like it’s deep in my guts.”
“It’s your ancestors calling you home,” she had said. “You just have to tell them to wait.”
And so I had told them to wait, and even though the pull was not as strong anymore, I could still feel the significance of home in my body when I was there, traveling on an elevated train through the stark winter landscape.
“You seem different when you are here,” a good friend had once remarked when we were walking through the leafy Carroll Gardens neighborhood one fall afternoon a few years earlier.
“What do you mean I seem different?” I asked her.
“Oh, I don’t know; you just seem more energetic and happy,” she said.
“I think this is where I feel the most full,” I told her.
“My grandfather lived in this neighborhood after he came from Italy,” I told her.
“He died before I was born, so maybe this is the way that we get to connect,” I said.
“Why don’t you just move here then?” she asked me.
“It’s complicated,” I said. “Drew doesn’t want to leave Portland. I’d move here in a second if it were up to me,” I told her.
I got off of the subway in Williamsburg. Droves of twentysomethings and early-thirtysomethings were heading toward train to go to work in Manhattan. Good black shoes, side bags slung over their shoulders, white paper coffee cups in hand. I thought to myself, I used to be that person. As I walked down Bedford, I considered what might be next for me. I had recently left my last job in advertising, an industry where I had worked often begrudgingly for a decade and promised myself never to return. And now that my mom was sick in Jersey and I was still living in Portland, I knew that I would be uprooted and uncertain for who knew how long.
I watched a woman around my age, early thirties, walking on the other side of the street. She had on fitted jeans and trainers, a wool pea coat, and a thick wool scarf around her neck. She ducked into a café. I thought about her as I continued toward South Third Street, where my friend Donna lived, where I would spend a few nights before heading to Jersey. As much as I was that woman, as I could still be that woman, I didn’t want to be that woman anymore. And then I felt a sense of wholeness at the fact that I had made the right decision to quit my job, to leave that career, that I was doing the right thing by being able to be there for my mom.
And then I didn’t get off of Donna’s couch for two days, other than to walk up to Bedford Avenue to pick up takeout and DVDs. It felt like the past six-plus months of my life had finally caught up with me. Living abroad in Holland and working a crazy stressful job. Trying to figure if I wanted to relocate to Amsterdam, as I had been offered a much longer contract, and discussing this with Drew: Could he find work there? Would he want to live there? And then finding out that my mother had cancer and trying to manage so much fear and having to make sense of all that. When Donna got home from a photo shoot in the city, we cracked open a bottle of decent Côtes du Rhône and crawled under the covers and watched Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People, two films that I had picked up from the video store earlier.
“What is wrong with you?” Donna asked, laughing.
“I need 1980s and depressing right now,” I said. “It’s comforting. And nostalgic.”
A few days after I’d arrived in Brooklyn, Donna drove me to Queens because I had to pick up my car, which I’d had shipped out from Oregon. I wanted to be able to drive my mother back and forth to the hospital for her cancer treatments, and my brother’s friend, who owned a shipping company, had offered to ship the car gratis. We arrived at the shipping facility, and my white 1989 Honda Civic hatchback from Oregon was rolled off a ramp and into a parking area. Seeing the car that my husband had bought for a thousand bucks off his buddy back in Portland parked there in Queens, the place where I was born, was jarring. It was this bizarre convergence in the form of an old car with green moss in the cracks and a familiar grassy mildew smell.
After I had signed some paperwork, Donna left to go into the city to shoot photos. I felt a little sad, like a little kid left to fend for herself at camp. But then I collected myself, and I got in the car and rifled through the glove compartment. I pulled out a case of CDs. I put on Out of Time by R.E.M., and I proceed to head toward New Jersey. Now I was in this familiar car on these familiar roads with this familiar music. A true convergence of my new life in Oregon and my old life in Queens and Jersey.
I thought about the year when I had still worked at a bar and lived at my mom’s apartment, trying to make my way through college. How I would drive home in the early-morning hours listening to R.E.M., with the New York skyline behind me, not knowing what was ahead of me in life but feeling a pull to be somewhere different. That was before I decided to leave my roots and forge new territory in the Pacific Northwest. Now it was ten years later, and Michael Stipe still sang on the track “Country Feedback,” “I’m to blame. It’s all the same. It’s all the same.” But what I knew now that I hadn’t known then was that I was not to blame and it was not all the same.
I had run the fuck away to Oregon with someone that I wasn’t meant to love. And after I had left that guy in a huff because I had fallen in love with Drew, I walked around wearing a heavy woolen coat of guilt for years. I had always thought that I was a bad person. Not only for fucking over a really good person but for being a fucked-up kid, for stealing and lying and messing around and doing bad in school when it seemed that everyone else around me was thriving and living epic lives with no mistakes being made.
As I headed south on the New Jersey Turnpike in a ratty hatchback from Oregon, I blasted the music of my youth. I came to the realization that it was really not my fault. None of it was. Life is just super fucking messy and unpredictable, and you grow though this shit, you really do. You build strength and character.
And nobody is to blame.