Human Story by Mary Pembleton

Photo by Olga Tutunaru

A week after my mother died, my boyfriend and I entered her apartment so we could fuck for the second time. The electricity was off, or maybe it wasn’t, but it was January and we could see our breath. I hadn’t been back since her death because I wanted to expunge what happened here: the mound of damp tissues I’d found by her bed, the teenaged transgressions I’d committed within these walls, the thought of how very sad she must’ve been.

We went into my old room and he fucked me from behind because we’d watched porn and because the Bloodhound Gang was on the radio that year and because it was on our list of things to try now that we were no longer virgins. I faced the full-length mirror my mother bought at Walmart and stared at myself crouched low. My mother had been everything until she wasn’t.

In the mirror, my jaw braced against the gravity of her despair which was everywhere. And then the mirror unstuck from the wall and fell forward and shattered.

“My mom’s pissed,” I said as I squirmed away. “She’s pissed she killed herself and she’s pissed we did this.”

But my mother no longer felt anything at all. The truth was that the adhesive holding the mirror failed in the unconditioned cold of the newly vacated apartment.


Two years after my mother died, I stood on a dark balcony with one leg draped over the railing. There would be flight, I thought, a glorious absence of gravity before an assault of pain followed by darkness like black velvet. A car crept by below my dangling foot and I pulled myself to safety, embarrassed, returning inside to where my boyfriend was sitting on the couch talking to my roommate. I burrowed into his belly and pulsed with the kind of crying that makes no noise, the kind of crying that happens at the end of a sob that won’t release its grip and let you breathe in again.

Accustomed to shepherding me through a grief I tried so hard to spurn, he rose and guided me to my bedroom, trying to administer comfort while guttural things clawed their way from my mouth and my nose poured crimson onto the white pillow. My boyfriend grabbed a handful of tissues, and I thought of the way the pillow in my mother’s hotel room bloomed with her blood, and I thought the red blooms on my own pillow were her way of telling me not to jump, a blood-blotted message from beyond, and I screamed and screamed.

In truth, my blood was thinned with cheap vodka I swallowed like a sacrament, in truth the capillaries inside my nostril burst from the heaving out of emotion, in truth the blood was from an exorcism of bereavement I’d crammed with such force into the pockets of myself.

The truth is that when you die, you die, forever and ever amen. Period at the end of a sentence.


Seven years after my mother died, I stood under a red gazebo next to a green lake in a white dress, across from a young man in a black suit. The weather report said rain all day, but I said my mother would see to it that it would cease. And the rain stopped just before I walked down the aisle into an outpouring of sun.

I do not believe in god. I’m not foolish enough to think that my mother’s spirit called in a favor when horrible things befall people everywhere all the time, when death comes to us so callus and arbitrary, or at the calculated hands of others’ malice, or even our own.

In truth the rain simply stopped because there were no more clouds.


Sixteen years after my mother died, I was sitting on my therapist’s couch telling her about my mother, about how my mother would be proud of the mother I am today, when a panel from my therapist’s art deco mirror came unstuck and shattered on the floor. And I sat stunned for a moment before telling her the story of the mirror in my mother’s apartment after she died and how I’d thought my mother was angry that she’d gone.

And my therapist sat stunned for a moment and laughed uncomfortably with wide eyes, the fourth wall of her professionalism breached.

She’s still pissed, I thought to myself.

The truth is, there will always be coincidences, and when you fancy yourself a nihilist, it’s nice to pretend you might be wrong.


Eighteen years after my mother died, I sat cross-legged on my bed in quarantine and panicked as I watched my country founder in the wake of a contagion, as I lost the scaffolding of normalcy that guards against the melancholy scripted into my DNA. The southern summer was relentless hot breath inside the house we’d purchased without air conditioner, my sole moments of serenity focused on thoughts of the cool reprieve of a gun barrel pressed to my forehead. An antidote to my own irreconcilable fallibility, and the heat. Because when you don’t have a god or a heaven or a spirit from beyond, because when you believe in nothing beyond humanity and humanity fails on a spectacular scale, it’s easy to slip into the undertow of despair treading in your periphery.

But then my mother’s favorite flowers bloomed and it felt like she was rubbing my back the way she used to at bedtime, it felt like she’d set the blooms herself, the clumps of black-eyed Susans and the roses and especially the lavender, and the flowers meant something like hope.

And so, instead of the gun, I called my therapist who teaches me over and over that instead of trying to escape myself, to go deep inside my body and feel what is real and solid and alive within it. It’s something inexplicable and true and exerts a gravity all its own. And it’s resilient enough to withstand most anything.

I don’t believe in assigning things a deeper meaning, but the fact is I’m so goddamn human.

The flowers bloom every year. It’s what flowers do.

Mary Pembleton is a writer and mother in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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