MY MOTHER IN THE BLUE HOUR
Dale Megan Healey
Roni Horn painted the words, the limit of the twilight is 49 miles in gray lowercase letters only slightly lighter than their black background. Pieces of white shine through the curves of the letters, as if a light is shining through holes. Whenever I see text-based visual art, I wonder what it is about the words in front of me that make them worthy of color and space. I'm not certain why I couldn't have simply read them typed among other black sentences on a white page. It seems natural to focus on the appearance of text if the phrase is a catchy ad slogan, a name in graffiti, or a political statement on a protest sign, but this phrase isn't meant to persuade. What happens when you change the substance of poetry? What happens to a fact, or a memory?
Her painting takes up an entire page, and when I look at it in the private space of her book, I feel as if I'm meant to pause on the shapes without reading for a moment. I let the gray, white, and black interrupt before I begin to consider the sentence. This is a picture, like a picture of a black frying pan that has been smashed hard enough to crack, with a white stove peaking through underneath. A frying pan has nothing to do with twilight though, except for its darkness, and for everything the color of night could possibly mean to someone.
It's hard to look at words without reading them. I'm wondering when I have ever seen a frying pan cracked like that, what a frying pan has to do with twilight, and how the shapes help to demonstrate the meaning of the sentence. I can't help but react to the conversation it has instigated. How far is 49 miles?
The longer I look at the sentence, the more precious and necessary Horn's presentation of it feels. I looked further outside of the phrase and it's true. Twilight happens 49 miles away from us because this is the distance at which light scatters between the upper and lower atmosphere when the sun sets. The limit of the twilight is 49 miles, is part of a series of painted phrases in Horn's book, Gurgles, Sucks, Echoes. It reads like a book of poetry in pictures, but the images act as decorations of the letters more than visualizations of the content of the sentences. "It was pretty arbitrary in a way," Horn said in an interview with Art 21 in 2005. "But a little bit about holding onto a phrase in my life. Every time I used that phrase it was like eating, like savoring something."
When my mother was dying I wanted to savor her sentences. It was only weeks after her leukemia diagnosis that she developed a lung infection and was put on a breathing tube in an isolated room in the ICU. She communicated only when she felt strong enough to hold a pen, often writing words like, "Pain" and "Want to die" on her dry erase board. She couldn't respond when she saw her own blood in the tubes of the respirator, couldn't comment when she lost her hair. My twin sister and I had just turned twenty-one and we knew no way of dealing with suffering other than to be playful in the face of it. Our playful mother had taught us to be this way. We modeled hats and scarves for her that we'd bought at a specialty store for chemotherapy patients, prancing carefully around the machines in her room. When we asked her to point out her favorites, she only looked away from us towards the window. When one of us placed a green cap or a lavender scarf on our mother's bald head, she used all the strength she had to shake it off.
Once, my sister lifted the catheter from the foot of the bed and said, "Look mom, your pee's not pink anymore!" meaning her internal bleeding had abated. My mother only turned her head away in disbelief. Her oncologists said that they were pleased by her improving platelet counts, but I can't imagine "getting better," could've meant anything to her if she couldn't even breathe on her own. Every breath from the machine looked like a shove, like a surprise. We tried to convince her that the tube would be removed soon, but she would only sigh silently into her respirator, blowing more red vapor into the stained plastic tubes.
On days that weren't much better, just different, I would lie on her bed among the slithering machines and read to her. I read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about lovers who meet each other in a dream. They promise to find each other in their waking lives using the phrase, Eyes of a Blue Dog like a code. The sentence itself never opens up, is never entered. There's no blue dog in the story. Eyes of a Blue Dog is more like a flashlight used to find someone in obscurity than a phrase for communicating something about a color or an animal. The story considers the meaning of those words only once, when the woman says, "Eyes of a Blue Dog," to a pharmacist and he responds, "As a matter of fact, Miss, you do have eyes like that." The woman writes, Eyes of a Blue Dog on walls all over the city. She writes it in bright red lipstick on tiles in a restaurant, but her lover never remembers her. He only walks by and stares with the rest of the crowd as she scrubs the walls clean.
"What did you think?" I asked my mother. I realized I should have known better as she slowly wrote, "Too sad."
Nurses asked her to measure her pain on a scale of zero to ten, using the charts of smiling and frowning faces to illustrate the meanings between comfort and a severe limit. My mother ignored the charts whenever they were around in the ICU. After the breathing tube was removed she'd use her reborn voice to make fun of it. "Look at those poor guys," she'd say, or, "That one kind of looks like my phlebotomist," pointing at the grumpy face of number eight. There were pain charts everywhere we went. When she became strong enough to move to oncology and then when she came home as an outpatient, the ten faces of pain would greet us in her doctor's office. They had varieties: I once saw a particularly creative scale that measured pain by the weather. Sunny meant no pain and the worst pain was Snowed In, accompanied by a picture of a woman shivering in a forest, and the harsh description, All activities are cancelled today. My mother was in a good enough mood to play along that day when she said, "Partly cloudy, some showers."
The problem with pain scales, of course, is that the descriptive words are so subjective. What is severe to one person might be intolerable to another. Most of the pain scales we saw used "moderate" to describe the fourth or fifth level of pain. The higher the numbers got, the more the words varied, especially when it came to the tearful face above number ten. I'd seen ten described as "unbearable," "excruciating," and the most appropriate, "unimaginable." I never saw my mother point to ten on the chart. Once her pain reached the tenth level, I assumed there was no need. "Unimaginable," is simply whatever is beyond ten. She could use the same word for ten, or a hundred, or a thousand, or no words at all.
She got to come home for a few months, but soon was back in oncology for a bone marrow biopsy. I was circling the UCLA Medical Center in my car for about twenty minutes before I found a parking spot ten blocks away and I ran to the hospital through the stiff Los Angeles heat. When I arrived, she was face down on the bed and the anesthesiologist was painting a circle of iodine on her right lower back. I caught my breath as her oncologist, Dr. Kappelle asked me if I'd be okay.
"Me? Sure," I tried to sound mature and calm, but I had to take my fingernails out of my mouth to speak. "I've seen a lot." My mother abruptly turned away from me towards Dr. Kappelle's side of the bed.
"Your shoes are so cute," she said to the lower half of the room. Dr. Kappelle's shoes were red and white striped platforms and I was charmed by this cheerful doctor for breaking dress code. She doesn't care about silly rules, she's just so dedicated to her patients. I was even more impressed with my mother for setting aside her very present pain to make small talk about shoes.
"Oh you've been through so much," the cheerful doctor said at some point. I nodded and smiled, then realized she was talking to my mother and not to me.
The needle they were unwrapping behind her back was the size of a ballpoint pen. Dr. Kappelle began to pierce it into my mother's freckled skin under the lingering circle of iodine. It looked nothing like the needles I had become used to seeing. The blood tests and transfusions looked like tiny pinpricks compared to this. This was more like a screw digging a hole. Dr. Kappelle was twisting and grinding to get past the bone. I thought for a moment that she must be doing it wrong. Perhaps her platforms were just white, and the red was the blood spilled from her mistakes. I shrugged this thought away. We liked her.
Our palms were sweating against each other and I squeezed my mother's hand tighter. "Take deep breaths. Look at my face," I told her, but I was having trouble looking back. My own eyes were failing to focus. I thought it must be a head rush since I hadn't eaten anything all day. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a drink of water. My eyes were filling up with black and gray spots and I scolded myself, You should have eaten something, you should have drunk water. I could feel my mother wince. A nurse asked if I was okay. "I'm fine!" I said loudly and awkwardly. Now the black and gray spots had completely filled my vision. I tried to make it look like I could see by staring straight ahead at the place in that bed where I thought I had left my mother. I heard her suck air in through her teeth. I heard Dr. Kappelle say, "Almost done," and then I heard my mother whimper.
She interrupted herself. It was like she was interrupting her body, her pain, interrupting the whole terrible hospital to command a pause in the most impossible moment. "You have beautiful eyes," she suddenly said to me in a surprisingly sturdy tone, between two sharp breaths. The phrase seemed to have come from somewhere far away, and then it became too big for the room. She hung those words from the ceiling. They became every word in the room. They were on the doctor's name tags, typed out on labels of anesthetics; they were the very paint on the walls. I've savored this phrase since then, worshipped it in my memory. I repeat it over and over and still, the words can rearrange themselves and they still hold the same weight. Eyes beautiful have you, have eyes beautiful you. You beautiful have eyes. I could type it, paint it on a wall, write it in lipstick, and it would still be the same. I could laugh while I say it, scream it, say it through sobs, whisper it.
"I can't see," I finally said. Someone brought me a chair and I collapsed into it. My mother later told me that my distress helped to distract her from the pain. "I went into mother mode," she'd say. That was the only time I've ever fainted in my life, and today I tempt myself to think that it was more than the heat, or the vision of the needle and the blood, or my hunger that overwhelmed me. My mother's words had sucked the air out of the room.
Four years later I live in Brooklyn, only a few miles from the neighborhood in Jackson Heights where she grew up. I've never visited, perhaps because I don't want to be disappointed. My boyfriend, Tom, wants to get me out of the city. He says it'll help me relax. "Look at how different the light is," I say in his car on a road through the Hudson Valley, "and we haven't even gone very far." I contradict myself so much, I am so sick of listening to myself. I worry that four years is too much time to spend mourning and that everyone around me is sick of hearing about my mother. Then again, it's not only Tom who asks me why I never mention her.
Are these the most appropriate ways to measure the immeasurable: twilight in miles, pain on faces, grief in language? "I feel so different out here. I feel safe." It's like I am being held, I want to say. Then I hear myself say that it's colder than the city out here, and how can I feel colder if I also feel like something is holding me? Without the city, I feel more alone. I want to welcome this new room to breathe but doubt that I could ever learn to breathe deep enough to fill this place. I worry about the fact that things aren't born with their size, that they have to learn to take up room. Tom starts talking about agoraphobia. He grew up in the Bronx, and says he's used to feeling a little disoriented when he leaves the city. I don't know what it is about these trees and these open spaces that make me think about my mother. Agoraphobia seems not much different from grief; a spatial separation from a secure base rather than temporal. My fingers rest on the back of Tom's neck along his hairline. I try to keep them on that line as we bounce along the bumpy road. He leans into my hand like a cat, like he always does.
The limit of the twilight is 49 miles. I hate twilight. There's a field of melancholy that creeps up on me at the end of so many afternoons. I'm sure that seeing so much activity in the sky is the very thing that appeals to people about it. For me, the sun seems to be on the edge of something it might regret and every moment counts. It is the time of day when light make its decision process incredibly visible. I'm fine at nightfall, after the decision has been made. I just can't stand the transition. My twilight-depression in part comes from growing up in Los Angeles, where people say the horizon is wider, where the sunsets are redder and bigger because of the light reflecting off the smog. This gloom comes out of nowhere, as if I'm coming down with a cold, or have a headache for an hour. It leaves just as abruptly. Any leftover daylight is so sad, so unstable. Tom thinks it's funny that I don't find the idea of watching the sunset or looking at the sky during the blue hour, at all romantic. We've left the valley behind us and I tell him about the twilight painting as we drive up Storm King Mountain. "Do you think if we go faster than 49 miles per hour we can avoid it?"
I realize that the decision of day moving into night that I have so much anxiety towards, has already been made by the time I see it begin. Light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach the surface of the earth. If the sun were to suddenly be extinguished, we wouldn't know until eight minutes later. Even light has its limits.
Measurements begin to splinter. A measurement is unclear, refracts in a prism. One structure has already been ruptured, a family structure has collapsed. The limit of the wound is past the bone. I want to convert pain measured in faces into pain measured in miles. The limit of her pain becomes the same as the distance between Jackson Heights and Brooklyn, which on a good day takes nine months and on a bad day takes twenty-two years. When I spoke at her funeral, I told the crowd that I was lucky to have had even twenty-two years of my mother's love, that the quality of her love was so strong it was like fuel. Twenty-two years worth would last my entire life.
Memory has its limits. Love has its limits. Mourning on a straight line is a kind of sclerosis, stuck on the surface, a totality measured in months, while mourning in layers, like loving in layers, is measured in units of years, miles, faces, sounds. Tom stops the car at a lookout point where we can see the entire valley. We've gone as high as we can go. I can hear her voice from here. I can see her old house from here. I can see her bald head from here. I can remember her from here.
"In a 'Conceptual Art and Writing' class, I gave each student a copy of a painting from Roni Horn's Gurgles, Sucks, Echoes and asked them to write a reaction. I ended up sitting quietly and staring at the limit of twilight is 49 miles, while they wrote. Other works that came to mind while writing this essay (besides Horn's painting and Garcia Marquez' Eyes of a Blue Dog) were Eula Biss' The Pain Scale, and Magdalena Abakanowicz's Sarcophagi in Glass Houses at the Storm King Art Center.