The first time my mother died, in May of 2009, I was about to finish grad school. Her new boyfriend called me to say her tracheotomy had fallen out. When it happened, she managed to call 911 and stay on the line a few minutes before her breathing ceased and her heart stopped. The paramedics were able to bring her back to life before brain death set in. I didn’t know about that part until weeks later. They told me she had merely lost consciousness, but in reality she’d been resuscitated. While I was graduating, she was recovering from near-death. I shook hands with the parents of other students, sneaking off to take her calls, listening to her whisper congratulations.
In August of 2009 she died for the second and final time. Due to my own self-absorption—the writing of my first book, trying to finish up grad school, a recent engagement, etc.—I’d taken her post-treatment condition for granted. I didn’t realize how difficult things had become until she was no longer around to express such for herself. And not until after I finished writing The Silent End, a novel that I can now identify, in its aftermath, as haunted, did I truly understand what she’d been through, and, by extension, how I’d been come to commune with what I can only describe as her ghost.
Throughout my mother’s treatment, I stood beside her, observing, and failing not to internalize, the trauma—emotional, physical, and familial—that had subsumed her life, and would end up leaving its mark on mine as well. During her first operation at a mega-hospital in Houston, the surgeon found that the cancer had spread further than he’d thought; a mere centimeter away from infiltrating her brainstem, she almost had a seizure on the table. A narrow incision staved off the worst. A nerve graft from her leg was attempted to restore what would certainly be a loss of movement and sensation in the left side of her face. It wouldn’t take, but the operation was still deemed a success. A success that resulted in partial facial paralysis. She’d eventually have a weight slipped under her eyelid that would allow her to close it. Made of gold, it functioned according to magnetism. A little square rise beneath the skin above her lashes, it helped her sleep at night.
A regimen of radiation followed, to which, along with chemo sessions, I drove her. Conducted with what I now feel to be criminal unprofessionalism, the radiologists succeeded in burning her left ear clean off. They inhibited her ability to swallow and breathe. Eventually, she’d have a feeding tube implanted so that she could process cans of Ensure for calories. And a tracheotomy so that she could continue respiration. This while undergoing a divorce from my father after an affair was unearthed. Their uncoupling would come as the culmination of months of exasperation combined with years of troubled marriage. The elementary admixture of cancer only increased the bile, my mother unable to carry on as before, with the agency and strength she was used to, as she proceeded to try and build a new life.
The doctors would eventually pronounce my mother cancer free in 2008. But by the time they did so her life had changed beyond recognition. Our family had crumbled, and she was down to nearly 96 pounds from a previous 130. Though my mother’s bravery knew no bounds, others turned cowardly in the face of hardship to the point of destructiveness. By the time my parents were divorced, my mother was in danger of losing her house, the business that had sustained the family for years had been sold off in a lawsuit, and options were dwindling. A woman surrounded by a massive network of friends and relatives, she continued to subsist, but with a fragile body and broken heart.
After she was pronounced cancer-free, I’d wanted things to return back to the way they’d been before so badly I thought I could do so by dint of sheer will, conducting mental gymnastics to convince myself normalcy was just around the corner. But I was deluded. This is why I will always regret that I didn’t come home to visit her in the hospital as she recovered from her first near-death. I thought I’d see her soon. She had already bought a dress for my recently scheduled wedding; I was calling her every day, and attempting to maneuver the fallout from my father’s affair, which was beginning to give way to catastrophe. I didn’t know that a couple months later her tracheotomy would fall out again when she tried to switch the one she had in for another, more comfortable model. That she’d call 911 again as her breath began to leave her, but that the paramedics would break down her neighbor’s door instead of hers. That due to a failure of circumstance, she’d lose brain activity in those vital seconds before they restarted her heart. That she’d be laid upon a hospital bed, trembling with myoclonus, bereft of brain activity, until the decision was made to remove her breathing tube and allow her to die, surrounded by much of her family, by me, my brother, my soon-to-be wife, all of us trembling, gagging with tears, as a hospital Rabbi said the Shema.
Five years later, I find myself still attempting to build a new existence upon the rubble of my former life. I still have regular dreams in which she’s alive; she’s always a younger version of herself, something representational, with eyes like ciphers. After those dreams I tend to lie in silence for a while, in blankness. It takes me time to recuperate from my idealization of the past. What I experience while sleeping is a return to a self I no longer understand, or even have the ability to access; I might as well be kicking at the ashes of what once was my family home, sifting through remainders of plush toys and photographs.
As much as it pains me to relate the two, I’ve found that my writing has come to increasingly overlap with the experience of my mother’s passing. For a long time I was somewhat dismissive of the idea that art should be used to exorcise personal demons or converse with the deceased. I found something solipsistic in this notion of self-exploration in art, particularly as it pertains to contemporary authors who already engage in quotidian preening on social media. Since writers are incumbent upon readers, self-obsession can encourage intellectual onanism, the equivalent of attempting to foist private diaries on uninterested parties. So when I finished writing my new novel and discovered that I had done exactly what I’d called into question, I felt distraught. I’d used literary conventions to attempt to retell the story of my mother’s passing in a way that I could process. And I hadn’t intended to do so.
The Silent End is the story of three kids in a small town overrun by a bestial menace. It involves afflicted fathers, outcast teenagers, hollow-eyed monsters, and missing mothers; a mishmash of literary fiction, horror, and YA, I can’t quite pinpoint its place on a shelf, though more interestingly to me, I can’t quite pinpoint how it took shape. While writing the book, I thought mostly about its function. I put everything I knew into the characters, while attempting to navigate the equation of plot. The main character, a boy named Eberstark, is a fat kid, much like I was, trying to rebuild his life after the disappearance of his mother, following her long battle with depression.
Though the parallels aren’t exact, enough are present to make me wonder at our ability to create stories that aren’t in some way filtered through our own experiences. And not only our own experiences as they manifest in our daily lives, but how they manifest in memory, where our shadow selves draw form. It was after I finished writing the book that I discovered that, in many ways, I was trying to bring my mother back to life. Not in a ritualistic sense, or in a way that she would have even appreciated, but in the only way I know how: in prose. Much like the dream creatures that populate the book, my own sense of my mother now is filtered through my unconscious experience of her, by notions auto-selected by my psyche and repurposed accordingly. My brain, in a sense, is inhabited by a phantom. A materialization of loss so strong, so vivid and complete, that it may as well be breaking dishes in my kitchen and frightening my cats.
Living with the ghost of my mother is both wonderful and maddening; anyone who has lost someone knows how important it is to grasp onto anything left behind by the deceased. But living with ghosts, while comforting in certain ways, can be frightening in others. Phantoms are capricious, uncompromising, cryptic. You can’t argue with them. You can’t understand or attempt to assign them human emotions. Trying to communicate with an apparition like the one I’m describing is like having a conversation with a film reel that answers your questions by playing of seemingly arbitrary scenes from different movies. Interpolation trumps translation, and dialogue becomes surreally forensic. Yet, no matter what I do with my life, the phantom has its say. Anyone who knows me understands that I am haunted, and that, for better or worse, I will always remain as such.
When it comes to how the dead carry on within us, I don’t think that writing is too unique of a practice. Conversations with loved ones exist throughout all vocations. An athlete might use the ghost of his father to push himself towards the finish line. A musician might channel a lost mother or grandparent to discover a vital melody. What makes writing particularly interesting to me is that the stories one tells can be filtered though someone other than the author. Someone whose presence is so pervasive in one’s development, so defining and indelible, that they might as well be sitting on your shoulder, imparting editorial guidance. When writing The Silent End, it might be said that I tried to bring my mother back from the dead for my own purposes—to better deal with the difficulties left behind by her departure. But it might be equally worthwhile to say that she entered the pages of the book herself, that she decided she would live on in the margins, and in turn insisted I become her vessel, her medium in which to communicate with the world of the living.
Samuel Sattin is a novelist and essayist. He is the author of the upcoming novel THE SILENT END and LEAGUE OF SOMEBODIES, described by Pop Matters as “One of the most important novels of 2013.” His work has appeared in TheAtlantic, Salon Magazine, io9, Kotaku, Fiction Advocate, Publishing Perspectives, The Weeklings, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, Litreactor, Buffalo Almanack, SF Signal, and elsewhere. Also an illustrator, he holds an MFA in Comics from California College of the Arts and has a creative writing MFA from Mills College. He’s the recipient of NYS and SLS Fellowships, and lives in Oakland, California.