Loss

“Her suffering is over.” That was the phrase Jeanne’s doctor had used, when Jeanne finally passed. Violette ran her hand over her mother’s gravestone. It was simple, especially when compared to some of the others in the graveyard, which Violette would have labelled monuments rather than mere grave markers. Jeanne Martin, it read. 1952-2018. Sister, Mother, Daughter. Ironic, that in death Jeanne was defined by her relationships to others as a woman, when in life she would have decried such associations. Part of the reason the inscription was so simple was because Jeanne had made few arrangements or requests for what should be done in the event of her death. Jeanne had been one of those people who was certain she would never die.

 

With Jeanne’s death, Violette had come to understand something important, something she wished she had known much earlier in life. Loss was not always equivalent to sadness. She had lost her mother, yes, as the euphemism goes. Yet Jeanne had been suffering dearly for the last year and a half. The first round of cancer was painful, humiliating, and debilitating for her, so her relief was palpable when it went into remission. When it surfaced again, having spread to her brain, Jeanne wept openly in front of Violette for the first time in Violette’s memory.

As the doctor said, her suffering was over. Jeanne could no longer feel any pain. She no longer had to worry about the mounting cost of the medical bills eating into her inheritance and the money from the life insurance policy she had taken out on Violette’s father, Loïc. Violette had yet to settle on a firm view of what happened to a person after death, but whether Jeanne had passed on to a better place, whether her consciousness had simply ceased existing entirely, or whether— and this was Violette’s preferred option— Jeanne now burned forever in the fiery pits of hell, at least Jeanne’s suffering and the suffering she had caused by existing no longer took place here on Earth.

Violette did not attend her mother’s funeral. In fact, had Violette’s aunt not taken charge of the planning, Jeanne wouldn’t have had a memorial at all. The only hand Violette took was in ensuring that the inscription on Jeanne’s tombstone was a subtle insult. Violette told her aunt her mother’s passing was too painful, that she couldn’t bear to deal with all of the trials involved in organizing a memorial for the woman who had brought her into this world. Whether or not her aunt believed her, Violette did not know or care. What she said was at least half true: Violette couldn’t bear to spend another minute in service to her mother.

The long months of Jeanne’s demands after she was diagnosed with breast cancer had worn on Violette’s sanity. She had been at her mother’s house every day, often for several hours. If she wasn’t there for a long enough stretch Jeanne would call her back later in the day. Violette had prepared meals and cleaned the house and her mother. She combed her mother’s hair and did her mother’s makeup when Jeanne’s friend visited, so that they couldn’t tell how sick her mother was feeling.

Sitting beside Jeanne’s bed, with the doctor asking her what she wanted to do now that all that was left alive of Jeanne was her withering body, with no mind left to speak of, Violette had asked herself a question. Why had she done all of that? She hadn’t wanted to do any of it. She would gladly had done it for a person that she loved, but she did not love Jeanne. She hadn’t loved Jeanne since, well, before she had begun to form memories. She hadn’t begun to hate Jeanne until she was a teenager. For most of her life, Violette’s strongest emotion toward her mother was fear.

Violette had heard other people talk about the ways their parents punished them. Spanking, hitting, slapping; it was always different variants on physical abuse. Jeanne had never physically struck Violette, yet Violette — and Loïc, she realized later in life — had feared Jeanne all the same. Jeanne would casually drop subtle insults into every conversation she had with her daughter, criticizing her appearance, her intelligence, even her choice of friends and romantic partners. She was so subtle that, on the rare times she put Jeanne down in the presence of others, no one else even took notice.

Jeanne’s anger descended quickly and unexpectedly. Violette had vivid memories of her father, head bowed and back hunched, sitting at at the small table in  the corner of the kitchen, as Jeanne berated him for some small misstep or lapse of memory. Violette watched from the doorway, fearing that her mother would see her and that cold, hard anger that cut deeper than any sword would be be turned on her; while simultaneously wishing she could go to her father and hold him, as he did for her when she wept after one of her mother’s tirades. Violette would go to him, after, but she never had the strength to intentionally bring her mother’s anger on herself.

When Loïc took his own life just after Violette’s eight birthday, she felt abandoned. She hadn’t understood why he had left her, or how he could leave her alone when they had been there for each other her entire life. She cried every night for months, not just because she felt the pain of his loss, but because she had felt betrayed. The only blessing born from Loïc’s death was that, for about a year, her mother’s outright cruelty decreased. She was less insulting. When she grew angry during that time, she stormed out of the room and ignored Violette, rather than beat her down verbally into a weak, quivering mess.

As with any good that ever came from Jeanne except for her death, this year of respite ended in a dramatic fashion. Violette was playing with her two-year-old puppy, Pascale, when she accidentally threw his ball too close to a vase full of flowers. When Jeanne came into the room to find out what the shattering crash had been, she was livid. Yet, after sternly telling Violette to clean up the mess, she left the room. Violette thought nothing more would come of the incident until she returned home the next day to find that Pascale was gone.

“If you can’t control an animal, you have no right to have one,” Jeanne told her. Jeanne never told Violette what she had done with Pascale, though of course Violette thought of him as dead. She hit Jeanne that day, a solid punch to her thigh which Jeanne would bring up weekly for the rest of her life as a reminder to Violette of how horrible and disrespectful she was. It was worth it. Pascale had been a gift from her father, and until Jeanne had purged him, too, he was the last physical way Violette had to remember Loïc.

In high school, when Jeanne shaved Violette’s head as a punishment and told her teachers it was because Violette had lice, Violette went from simply fearing Jeanne to hating her in tandem. That year, she managed to find the location of her father’s grave — which Jeanne had hidden from her — so that she could go to him and apologize. She felt guilty for blaming him for abandoning her. She felt responsible, because she hadn’t been as strong for him as he had been for her. She knew, rationally, that it  wasn’t her fault. It was Jeanne’s. Knowing that, even on the best day of her life, hadn’t ever assuaged her guilt.

When the doctor asked Jeanne what she wanted to do, she knew the answer. She pulled the plug. It was the moment in her life that had brought her the most joy up to that time. Now she could go forward, try to forget, and attempt to find something that made her happier than holding her mother’s life in her hands. Now, her suffering was over.

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