AUGUST 30, 2014
“A GIRL DOESN’T become a woman overnight,” Adriana Páramo writes. “It happens in hiccups of self-awareness, like coming in and out of consciousness.” The same can be said of the way the story unfolds in My Mother’s Funeral, which weaves snapshots of a life with lush, lyrical descriptions, scenes set in the author’s native Colombia. The result is a memoir that is both elegy and coming-of-age story. My Mother’s Funeral is about loss, about life, about what it means to be a woman, a mother, a daughter — a love story, a reflection, a celebration, a history.
The story begins with a terrible phone call. Having left Colombia more than a decade earlier, Adriana is now a married woman with a daughter of her own. When she gets the news, her life is forever altered. Her mother, Carmen, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, has died. She travels back to her homeland to bury her mother, to try to understand the woman her mother had been and the complicated relationship that shaped the author’s life. “My Mother’s Funeral is about a daughter who loves and lives, who desires and dreams,” Ira Sukrungruang writes in the short introduction to the book. “It is a memoir about the moment one receives that phone call from continents away and how the mind spirals, how memory is written and rewritten.”
My own mother is an addict, a hoarder, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and drug-induced Parkinsonism, and I received that phone call a few days ago, as I was heading out the door, running late for work.
“Your mother is dying,” my Titi Sandi said, her voice breaking. “We have to do something.”
I had moved back to Miami to be closer to her, but had yet to see her. I kept going to her apartment, knocking and knocking until the neighbors opened their doors to stare me down, asking who I was looking for. “I didn’t know she had a daughter,” they sometimes said, but I could never tell if what they actually meant was “She never talks about you” or “How can you let your mother live like this?”
It’s true. My mother is dying. Painfully. Of addiction and mental illness, of loneliness, despair. My mother has been dying for 20 years.
In Mariquita, Colombia, in the early 1950s, Páramo’s young, innocent mother Carmen meets and falls in love with Mr. B., a womanizer (dubbed “The Snake Charmer” by some of the town’s women) who will be the father of her six children. Mr. B. is a terrible husband and father, leaving his wife and children again and again, but he remains Carmen’s only love, a love that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Carmen’s heartbreak hardens her, transforms her from a naïve, romantic girl to a single mother determined to educate her kids — a strong, willful woman resolved to raise independent, hard-working women.
Páramo envisions her mother’s youth, the early years of her marriage to Mr. B., even daring to imagine and recreate her mother’s fears, dreams, lust. Take for instance this moment in “Opal and Topaz #2,” when the author depicts her parents after they’ve made love for the first time:
Afterward, groggy and content, [Carmen] suddenly realized that she had made it to the other side: she had crossed the threshold that a woman passes through only once in her lifetime. She relished the memories of those minutes — his body rigid, strong; hers quivering, malleable. How he had seemed to know her body like a poem learned by heart […].
Later that night “she dreamed of walking on burning coals. Charred flesh. Open wounds.”
These details the author can’t possibly know unless her mother told her the story, but the reader allows for this recreation, this rewriting of memory, because rather than a fabrication, this is the author’s honest attempt to envision and understand her mother’s response to one of the most important events of her life. Also, the writing is artful — the dream both metaphor and omen; a harbinger warning of the heartbreak that is yet to come.
I finished My Mother’s Funeral before moving back to Miami, but I keep returning to the book, reminded as I am, by Páramo’s recreation, of my own parents’ volatile love.
The first time she saw my father my mother knew he was hers. She was in high school. He was in college. She lied about her age.
My father says he didn’t find out how old she was until my grandmother caught them in bed. They were married a week later. My father was a college activist, protesting the Vietnam war, studying literature, writing angry poems about the American colonization of Puerto Rico. My mother so young, so desperate to leave her abusive mother, so in love with my father she would’ve done anything to keep him.
Sometimes when I write this story, I think of my mother as the villain, tricking my father, knowing the exact time her mother came home from work every day, leaving the bedroom door unlocked, forcing him to become a husband, a father, when what he really wanted was to write poems and save the world. How maybe I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t threatened to have him thrown in jail.
Sometimes it’s my father who wears the mask. The brilliant college student who pretended not to know my mother’s age as he slithered his way into her bed. How he decided to ignore the school uniform folded neatly and left on a chair in the corner of her bedroom.
They are different people now, divorced more than 20 years. But no matter how much they’ve changed, how much memory is rewritten, there is always this: My mother loved my father obsessively, violently, even years after their divorce. My father was a womanizer, withdrawn, absent. And it was after three children, after leaving Puerto Rico for Miami, after 11 years of marriage, after my father left her for the last time, that my mother started hearing voices, that she started using crack cocaine. Each time I write and rewrite this story, though, it is never my mother’s fierce, all-consuming love for my father that destroys her.
Páramo’s multi-faceted and textured memoir is not only about heartbreak and loss. The pages are laced with mystery and history and humor. And despite the hardship the large family faces as a result of her father’s abandonment, they are close; a family full of joy and gossip and mischief. In one chapter, “Skeletons,” — which is funny despite the macabre circumstances — Carmen and her girls conspire with Catholic school nuns and a body snatcher to acquire human bones to make a model skeleton. In “Mariquita,” we encounter Margarita, a dangerous woman who is kept in a cage, and Juan el Malo, the too-smart-for-his-own-good cousin who just can’t stop “milking the monkey.” In “A Commie à la Colombiana,” 14-year-old Adriana and a group of friends decide to become communist revolutionaries, not at all prepared for what that entails. Páramo is convinced that she is a “hardcore leftwing radical,” without a clue what her comrades’ communist argument actually is. She carries around copies of The Little Red Book and The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in the original German, even though she doesn’t speak a word of German.
“With death comes honesty,” wrote Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. Yet so much of what happens, so much of we read and write when a loved one dies is sentimental or aggrandizing. Páramo avoids both; does not mythologize Carmen, portraying her honestly, as a woman who is strong and weak in equal measure. And her mother’s death, like her life, is something Páramo envisions rather than reports. In a terrifying scene, before Carmen’s heart stops beating, she tells her live-in nurse, “Don’t let me die.”
But readers already know she will die — we’ve been to her funeral, after all — why break our hearts this way? Because when we are face to face with the hour of Carmen’s death, we are offered a glimpse of something Adriana has been unable to avoid: the need to bear witness even though she wasn’t there — to imagine her mother’s last moments, the nurse her only companion, her only love gone, her children and grandchildren living their own lives, the author herself thousands of miles away.
Later, Páramo imagines her mother’s last fantasy: “She is in his arms. She is safe. Every concavity of his dark body fits nicely into the corresponding convexities of hers. Perfection.” And with this, what we are left with as the story comes to a close is, rather than sadness, closure.
My mother is dying, and so I also imagine. I imagine that after my Titi Sandi’s phone call I raced to my mother’s apartment. She saw me, and collapsed into my arms and wept. After all these years, she accepted my offer to clean out her apartment and check her into rehab.
Or I imagine that when she opened the door, there was no collapsing or weeping, no shame or guilt or anything of the sort. Only two women, a mother and her daughter, finally cleaning out an apartment after years and years of hoarding. As we threw out garbage bag after garbage bag of clothes, broken televisions, lamps without lampshades, men’s shoes, women’s shoes, teddy bears, 14 different clock radios and three toaster ovens and two microwaves and the muffler of a 1993 Honda Civic, we didn’t cry or fight or hurl words at each other like weapons. We simply marveled at how much stuff one could fit in a studio apartment in Miami Beach.
Or I imagine the next phone call.