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Notes from an Incarcerated Mother

September 1, 2023

This piece is the third installment in our new series of contributions from currently incarcerated writers and artists. Spectre wishes to thank Empowerment Avenue for making it possible. The inaugural piece is available here.

“Come out of there Heather!” My dad would yell from the opposite side of the bathroom door, scratching his salt and pepper hair frantically. He could hear the sounds of water splashing against the green and pearl patterned tile floor.

My mother left me with my father, a calloused construction worker named Dave when she went to prison. To this day I have no idea what crimes she committed to land herself there, let alone why she committed them. I do know, however, that my dad had no idea what to do with a little girl.

I was living in the dreamworld of all five year-olds. I had been left to my own devices in the bathtub. I emptied a whole bottle of V05 shampoo into my bathwater. I couldn’t see my legs through the bubbles; the tub was almost overflowing. The spout had been running so long it was spitting out cold water. I was boogying around, pretending that a soggy washcloth was my shirt. My dad hooted and hollered from the outside of the door for me to come out.

The bathroom was the only sign of femininity in our house. Before my mom had gone away, she plastered the walls with thick, deep-colored wallpaper. It was burgundy, marked with different shades of green and purple flowers in a metallic finish. As a little girl, for obvious reasons, it was my favorite place.

My dad did know one thing: grown men and naked little girls don’t mix. He was terrified that I would get taken from him if allegations were ever made. I was on my own navigating the tub and navigating what it meant to be a girl. I would eventually get tired, so with wrinkled fingers I would exit the bathroom. My shirt would be inside out, but I wouldn’t even notice. I would just continue to go about my life as the little woman of the house. I thought I had to figure things out on my own. I didn’t know he was doing his best to figure them out with me. I didn’t remember what it was like to have a mom. I still longed for her. I wanted her to braid my hair and dress me up on picture days.

Then one, night my dad casually mentiond to me, “Your mom might get out tomorrow.”

She was coming up for parole. I went to my room and looked around: it was a disaster. I stuffed everything I could under my bed to get ready for her return. She didn’t get out that next day. When she was finally released a few years later, I ran to her. I ran toward all the dreams I had of her. And I looked a social worker in the eyes, and I lied.

“He got mad and put me in the top of the closet and made me stay there for a long time!” I told her. Then again, I told the judge and anyone else who asked me. I was ensuring I would be going home with my mother. My dad just sat there with no understanding of why I was doing it, why I was choosing her over him.

But my mother was nothing like I imagined. Soon enough, she was barking orders and completely fought everything I knew as normal. No more kid’s meals, no more Boys and Girls Club.

“You get lice every time you go!” she would yell when I would cry and beg.

When I did eventually talk her into it, I was only allowed there for short periods–not from open to close like I was used to.

My mom would get mad, and so she wouldn’t allow me to see my father. She would use me to punish him–or else, him to punish me.

At around twelve years old, my teen rebellion started early for this reason. It was sparked by my mom’s attempts to discipline me and my dad’s efforts to enable me. I ended up resenting her and doing everything I could to piss her off. My dad was just like me: he loved to piss her off. He was a crazy fucker.

“Feed my fucking daughter, Lorinda!” he yelled running off the porch. His butt crack peeked out from the pants that he could barely hold up.

He had left the engine running.

He knew the risk he was taking. There was a restraining order in place from their constant fighting.

“Get out of here, Dave!” she yelled from the porch.

He flipped her off, tucking in his thumb, yelling, “Fuck you pig!” The truck kept swerving. He hurried to straighten it out, but he couldn’t fight his impulse to rub his head frantically like a maniac with both hands instead of keeping them on the wheel. It swerved back and forth down the whole street until he hit the corner. I’m sure he was thinking about what he should have said, things he should have called her, getting himself riled up all over again.

My mom opened the Wendy’s bag and inspected the contents. It looked like a cheeseburger, fries, and some sweet and sour sauce.

“Here you go Davetta!” she said, handing me the bag with attitude.

I was grounded for something or another. It was typical that my dad and I would undermine my mom and pull something like this. He would sneak me food or whatever I asked for, hence the name “Davetta,” as if I were just an extention of my dad (Dave).

I anxiously took the bag to my room and closed the door. I sat the bag on the unmade bed, and then I unwrapped the cheeseburger. Tucked underneath the thick burger was a soft pack of Marlboro reds covered in grease. Mission accomplished. I let out a sigh of relief and headed to the bathroom.

I hit the pack of cigarettes off my palm as quietly as I could. The packaging was slick. I was trying to grip the tab but it was tricky; it wanted to slide out of my hand. Luckily the cellophane was only strong when intact. The little tab let me rip through the grease trap easily. I opened the window, sat on the edge of the tub, and inhaled deeply. I chuckled at the image of my dad barely able to keep his pants up running to the truck.

When she was finally released a few years later, I ran to her. I ran toward all the dreams I had of her. And I looked a social worker in the eyes, and I lied.

Normally I could get away for just a second in the bathroom. I could be independent, grown, the woman of the house again. I didn’t even exhale yet and she was already banging on the door.

“Heather, are you in there smoking?” her voice boomed.

My mom’s hair was frosted and feathered, cut short. Her tan looked like the crispy side of a cookie, and she was the type who is always right.

Some days I would sit staring at myself in the full-length mirror wondering what was so wrong with me. I could hear her voice in my head: “Fat rolls look better tan.” As if her calling me “biggums” didn’t attack my body image enough.

“You need to drink more water and your face wouldn’t break out!” Puberty apparently had nothing to do with it.

“You need to cut your ends!” she would bark anytime my hair was down. I had inherited dark, long locks from my dad.

“If you would quit sneaking and smoking, your teeth would be white!”

I didn’t consider my mom any type of woman I wanted to be. She certainly wasn’t the perfect picture I had painted of her while she was gone. She was short and had a zest to her that would eventually turn sour and bitter.

She was good at feeding my insecurities. I couldn’t like myself; she wouldn’t allow it. I tried to figure out what I thought it meant to be a woman in all the wrong ways. I experimented with my sexuality. I manipulated people around me like a siren. I ended up dating a seventeen year-old fresh from juvie named Shawn. He wore baggy camo shorts and flicked his tongue when he talked. We sat at his mom’s house smoking weed and listening to Gucci Mane and Bone Thugs in Harmony. We drank cheap half gallons of Vladimir vodka with Juicy Juice till we puked.

His mom brought us home KFC, which is where she worked when we were munching. If it wasn’t for KFC, Shawn would have never eaten. Their kitchen literally had nothing in it but mice and cat poop. His mom liked me, she didn’t like most people who came over. Shawn ran the house. She was passive and stayed in her room playing “Jewel Quest” on her Rent-A-Center computer. I think she thought I could save him. But I couldn’t even save myself.

My mom hated Shawn, and that made me love him even more. She gave up when I started wearing thong underwear. I wouldn’t quit sneaking out and skipping school, and she had enough of my antics. So back to my dad’s house I went.

Shawn and I first had sex in the bathroom there. It had been redone and was painted blue with white trim. I had gotten everything rubber ducky-themed that Walmart had to offer; yellow ducks were printed on the shower curtains, towels, and toothbrush holder. My dad, like always, was out gambling. Lots of people were there rooting us on. As experienced as I tried to portray myself, I was terrified. My heart was beating fast. He sat on the toilet and pulled me into his lap and lifted my jean skirt. I pretended it didn’t hurt. I pretended to know what a woman should do.

“‘You ready?” my dad yelled up the stairs.

“No, daddy, I’m not!” I yelled back down the stairs. To this day I still call him daddy rather than dad, and I draw out the y. I heard him cackle, and I knew he was rubbing his head.

Over the last nine months he had asked me that question about a million times. He was driving me crazy. At that very moment I knew the baby was not ready to come. I was scheduled to be induced at 6 am the next morning. That’s when the baby in my belly would come. I was fourteen and scared shitless. I only showed him my strong face.

My dad had cabin fever from being cooped up in the house every night for the last month. He loved to gamble and was a regular at the casino. In between his casino visits he spent a lot of time at the local city perk, a shabby gambling hole in our small town. He was there so much he should have had his own parking spot. He even hit so big at one little spot that he put them out of business. The little girl growing inside me had put a damper on his midnight trips to the machines. He was too scared to leave me at home alone.

I had to reassure him about ten times and promise I would call if I felt anything. We showed him how to use the flip phone. Flip it open when it rings, flip it closed to hang up. My Aunt Tammy had been staying at our house for the last few months. She had helped me through my pregnancy. My mom popped up here and there, but it was my Aunt Tammy’s soft soul who helped me through it. She had her own demons, but as long as she helped me, my dad let her stay with us in the extra room.

I called the cell phone a couple times from the house phone so he could practice answering. The ringtone was an obnoxiously loud tone that couldn’t be missed. He was excited to hit the machines that night even if he wouldn’t admit that it had been awhile. We figured he was in the clear till morning.

I was fourteen and scared shitless. I only showed him my strong face.

“Heather, you sure you will be alright?’ he asked from the doorway to my nursery, startling me.

“Yes, daddy, shit! Just be back by morning!” I yelled back.

He shrieked with laughter, rubbing his hands together as if he were trying to start a fire. Then he rubbed his head. His voice was always followed by this kind of gargled labored breath from his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Lord, I could hear his smile as he walked away.

I hung out in my beautiful nursery for hours. It was everything a new mom could ever want. It was painted lilac purple with white trim. Everything was butterflies. The bedding, the lamp, the diaper stacker, the dresser knobs, and even the diaper bag: all butterflies. There was a light purple canopy over the crib. I wasn’t going to be the princess anymore.

I folded her little clothes and organized my delivery bag, over and over again. I was so nervous about the morning to come. This was the last night of my childhood. The weight of that smacked me in the face harder than Shawn ever had. He had become abusive and controlling, quick to belittle me. I sat on the floor unsure of what was to come.

I imagined myself as a kick-ass teen mom, but would I be? I couldn’t pretend anymore; I had to make it my truth. Tomorrow I would be a woman.

I finally decided to take a nice bubble bath and clear my head. No bubbles! Bubbles can cause infection when you’re pregnant: that’s what my books said. The bathroom smelled like Irish Spring. There were whiskers and clogged razors all over the vanity sink. The floor was soaked. My dad never closed the curtain when he “cleaned up.” Lucky me! The bathroom was a mess.

I walked through little basins of water and threw a towel on the floor and moved it around with my foot to soak up the water. My stomach was cramping and my back throbbed. I thought nothing of it, brushing it off to Braxton Hicks, until the water made it worse. Every few minutes another pain shot through me.

“Aunt Tammy, what time is it?” I asked through the door.

Then I yelled the same question again five minutes later. I just sat in the tub, doubtful. Then one more cramp interrupted my thoughts and I rinsed the denial right off of me before I stepped out of the tub.

“Come here!” I told Tammy. I stayed calm. The book told me to stay calm.

“Don’t say anything. I need you to just go call my dad and tell him I’m ready.”

“OH MY GOD! HEATHER IS IN LABOR!” my aunt screamed and ran down the hallway. She didn’t heed my request one bit. Before I knew, it my boyfriend, his friends, and my cousins came rushing down the stairs. I just shook my head and got dressed. Shawn got my bags.

I sat on the chilly porch that January night and waited for my dad. I was too anxious to wait inside. Shawn had been up for at least twenty-four hours playing Xbox. He was pissed at me for being in labor.

I heard my dad coming before I actually saw him. He hit the corner, and the back end of the truck had to catch up with him he turned so fast. I realized then that the baby might be ready, but we most certainly were not.

Going into labor with Adessa was the first time I truly needed my mom. I refused to let her leave my side. She held my legs while I pushed and cried out in pain.

It didn’t matter that for the last two months she had relapsed and was off somewhere smoking crack. It just mattered that she was there. This was something my dad couldn’t teach me. At first she denied me pain meds. She wanted to punish me, wanted me to feel it. “MOM!” I cried out when she took a second to splash her sweaty face with water as a contraction hit. My lips started to quiver, and she gave in: I got my epidural.

My dad took his place on the other side of the door. He refused to move, but he didn’t want to come in. He didn’t care how many times the nurses kicked him out, shooing him to the waiting room. As soon as they perched back at the station, he was right back at the door. He managed to almost get kicked out of the hospital. By the time he made it into the delivery room, his hair was sticking every which way like he had been electrocuted, and his cheeks were a faint pink from relief. He smiled, held her, and placed a little crown on her head.

What we hadn’t counted on was my desire to keep being a teenager and my mother’s eagerness to have another chance at parenting.

It’s not that I didn’t wish to be a good mom–because I did. I wanted to have Adessa. But I also wanted to be a normal teenager, I wanted to party and hang out with friends. I was too young to realize I had made a person and not just a little doll I could dress up and play with when I wanted.

At sixteen, I ended up getting myself in trouble for shoplifting. I was to be sent to a home for teen moms.

I imagined myself as a kick-ass teen mom, but would I be? I couldn’t pretend anymore; I had to make it my truth. Tomorrow I would be a woman.

My mother almost didn’t let Adessa come with me. She had her the better half of the last two years. My grandmother told me years later she had pleaded with her at the kitchen table that we needed to bond. She managed to get through to her: my baby girl came.

We got to know each other there. It was there that I became a real mom. It was there that Adessa became mine.

My typical laziness transformed into the most intimate moments between us. Wanting to save time, I no longer showered alone. I put her in there right with me. I would lift the stopper so the water collected at bottom. She would sit splashing and playing while I washed my hair; then I’d wash her little bit of hair, and she would paint on my back with Avon roll-on bath paints for kids. The bathroom bonded us.

After I turned eighteen and we left, it didn’t take long for the bathroom to tear us apart.

“MOMMY!” Adessa shouted from the other side of the door.

“Hold on, baby!” I replied, brushing her off.

She knew better than to just come in. I continued to sit on the toilet, greedily sucking up the smoke that rolled off the foil. The heroin bubbled and boiled, sliding down the foil and leaving a trail of ash in its place. I followed it like a savage with the straw. Careful not to get too close–just like me the straw was frolicking with fire. With every inhale, I grew more devoted to dope. My hands had remnants of soot all over them. My bathroom smelled burnt like molten metal. I took just a second to run them under the sink to wash off my sins. I tucked the foil in the towel closet and headed out the door.

“Here I come baby!” I yelled.

She was playful in response as we walked to her room. She was happy that I didn’t put her off. I didn’t tell her to hold on. I paid attention: right then I was her mom. I was the woman she needed me to be. I spent a lot of my life in bathrooms preparing to face the world or hiding from it. I no longer have a door for somebody to yell through or a bathroom to hide in. I’m in prison; nowhere offers me escape. The toilets are steel and cold. The scent is warm piss and moldy seafood.

There are remnants of toilet paper and sanitary napkins sprawled on the floor in the stalls that are separated by a short brick wall. The whole scene is disgusting. Anybody can peek at you in your vulnerable state on the toilet just by glancing over. There is a thin curtain you can never fully close on both sides. If the girls beside you are defecating, trust that they will invade your relief with their atrocious scents. It is the biggest reminder of where you are.

I wish I had a bathroom to hide from the realities my life has become. I wish my little girl was just on the other side or I could walk in a bathroom and almost slip in a puddle because until the day he died, my dad refused to close the damn curtain.

My biggest regret in life is that I wasn’t there to take him to the bathroom. I can picture my dad’s belly bulging over his jeans as he lays on the couch watching football. I can’t picture him at 80 pounds, withering away from cancer. I can picture him catcalling girls while I turn red from embarrassment in the front seat. I can’t picture him yelling for help in the nursing home as he gasps to catch his breath. I can picture him smiling at the hibachi grill when he misses the cooks’ attempts to land a piece of egg in his mouth. I can’t picture him forcing Ensure down his throat so he can get some type of nourishment in his frail body. I can picture him care-free, driving down the highway to Patsy Cline or Akon’s “Mr. Lonely”. I can’t picture him in a hospital bed being neglected, unable to be mobile.

I’ve learned that cancer doesn’t care who a person is. It doesn’t care who loves them, who needs them to hold on, who just wants to see them one more time. It just cares about one thing: destroying lives. It made him forget things, made the strongest man I know weak.

“I really don’t know what I’d do without Anna!” he said one day toward the end with such a genuine appreciation for his second granddaughter. Anna was birthed from lust and infatuation. Born from addiction and laughter. She was my beautiful hope baby. I could see everything I wanted to be in her eyes. I left her when she was six months old. I never got to know her.

I imagine she is the little girl who swings as high as she can but is still too scared to jump. Hopefully I will make it home before she makes that leap.

I imagine she finds pleasure in puddles and enjoys getting wet in the rain. I bet she sneaks shampoo out of the house and washes her hair in the drains.

But I don’t really know anything about her.

“She pooped in my potty chair today,” he said, voice cackling with laughter and pride. Up until that point he had been forcing himself to make the trek to the bathroom, but it was becoming impossible. Anna was three at the time. She had done more than just use the potty.

She had broken it in, made light of it, made him feel comfortable enough to use it.

“That’s me and pappy’s potty!” she told me on the phone.

If he can face life without bathrooms, so can I.



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