My Mother, Death Artist by Cassidy Schoenfelder (CW)

CW: death, suicide, loss, self harm

It all starts and maybe ends with this bag of medicine. Maroon fabric with a light beige handle— my dad’s. Did she know what she was looking for? Did she sift through the bag and grab a single bottle like a little kid in a candy store, beelining for her favorite cherry jelly beans? Or did she make herself a cocktail, grabbing pills from each bottle? Over the years she’s tried different things, a true artist. 

Her hands were cold when they reached out to touch my shoulder. I was sitting on the floor, maybe coloring or escaping in a children’s show with some dog as the protagonist. She had come out of the smoking room which normal families would have called a front porch. She started talking, but I remember looking past her and noticed that the front door was still open. Cigarette smoke started to come in. 

She told me she had taken some of daddy’s pills and that she was going to go to sleep. A seven-year-old has a rudimentary understanding of this “sleep.” We had a fish sleep forever. Our dog was hit by a car. If you get hit by a car, you’ll likely sleep forever, too. Some parents describe death as “going to sleep” but ourparents never had. She was trying to soften the blow now by describing it this way. Sometimes she could be kind.

Here, she picks up the grocery-store-bought phone and tells me to call grandma and grandpa. I’m not sure if this is when I started to cry or after I heard grandma say hello. Maybe it was when they told me to call 911. Mom left me alone with the phone so she could grab a few more final puffs from her cigarette. More smoke comes in. When she hears me say “911?” back to my grandma, mom angrily started to shake her head. I’m about to ruin her big day. Shucks. 

Usually, when a parent leaves for work, or so I imagine, the parent gives their kid a hug, then playfully messes up their hair. Sometimes I’d get a hug from my dad, and he would say something nice: “I’ll be back soon, Pickles.” But here’s my dad now handing me his medicine bag as he says goodbye before his night shift at the hospital. The maroon goodbye. The beige goodbye. I know I’m supposed to hide the medicine bag, usually in my bedroom, and if that’s not ok, then the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. My dad left for the hospital to save lives and I stayed home to save a life. Handing me his medicine bag was like passing the baton in a race. 

Maybe I like thinking of my mom as an artist so we can have more in common. Death-artist. Her process, suicide, and her materials, anything. Her first iteration was the pill-cocktail. As her seven-year- old critic, I considered her practice to be unsatisfactory. Hell, I even told her to quit making art. But she’s passionate. 

I don’t think she ever pursued knives in her work, but my dad and I hid them under the sink anyway. The EMT’s were her biggest fans, they showed up at almost every performance. They knew my name. I didn’t know theirs. Sometimes I didn’t give them tickets to the show. The truth was I was starting to learn her process, and I became her saving-grace. I was learning to watch her facial expressions, actions, and soon, I felt like I could read her mind. Her biggest tell was her left eye which closes slightly when she drinks. 

When she played Creed, Fiddler on the Roof on cassette, or God-forbid the song “City of Angels,” I knew to anticipate an active studio night. Or when she would make phone calls to people who never answered. Or when she would try to put up her hair in a ponytail but would give up to grab her can of Busch Light. 

One City-of-Angels-night, she incorporated water in her performance. The door knob to the bathroom was an awful false gold and it stood about eye-level to me. It was locked. But by fate, it seems my tiny thumb-nail was long enough to unlock it. Mommy dearest was perfecting her form in the bathtub. Her feet were firmly planted under the faucet to help hold down her body under the water. I found her. Trying to forget it all. Under the water. Under everything. Under years of guilt. Under any sort of will to live. I remember smelling green apple shampoo. Did she wash her hair before this? It would make sense, I guess, for the sake of the piece. Brilliant even. She’d tell me she fell asleep, “must’ve dozed off.” Her voice goes up an octave when she lies. 

Sometimes I wouldn’t interfere if dad was around. I had a small blue footstool that I’d sit on to watch TV. That night, I watched Fear Factor which meant it was Monday. My ramen noodles were from the orange packet which meant it was chicken flavored. My bowl was the one with the built-in straw on the side so I could drink the broth after the noodles were gone. During the show, my parents were arguing in the kitchen. I never cared to listen to this, but mom stopped yelling and started stomping up the stairs to their bedroom. She came down moments later with my dad’s shotgun. She stood on the right of the TV, aiming the gun at my dad, who stood on the left of the screen. An iconic family snapshot. Was my mom trying to do a collaborative piece? As my dad took the gun away, they went upstairs and the yelling continued. I grabbed the remote and turned up the volume. 

I regret to say that I wasn’t awake for my mom’s masterpiece performance. The house shook and books in my room fell off their shelves. Something earthquake victims probably describe. When the event woke me up, I knew the cause of the shaking was my mom. I’m not sure how. I decided that night that I didn’t want to leave my bed. So, instead, I waited until morning to figure it all out. 

Every morning, mom would pull the curtains in the living room up and let our dog, Bandit, a 12-year- old clusterfuck mix of a dog outside. The sound of these curtains and the sound of the door creaking open would always wake me. Her sober face would show me such a happy and warm smile accompanied by a delightful “good morning.” On this particular morning, she went into the kitchen to brew coffee. I stepped outside. What I saw was an installation piece that MOMA would’ve begged for. The framing device, the garage door, surrounded the silver car that had flown into it the night before. 

The car sprayed splinters of wood out around the yard and driveway. The piece would have lacked some kind of pop of color, yet the yellow “Save Our Troops” magnet hung for dear-life off of the car’s bumper. 

After this performance, the next baton my dad handed over to me were the car keys. I’d climb on top of the kitchen counter and stick them in the white vase my grandpa made. Hide the keys. Hide the pills. Hide the knives. She can’t shower. She can’t call anyone. 

When my mom calls now, it’s hard to answer. She’ll tell me she’s going to do it. For real this time. If I hang up, it’ll be my fault. It’s my fault I ruined her artwork then, and it’s my fault if she dies now. I suppose she’s won. 

Her creative practice has remained quite active over the years, but it seems like only I can see this. Every drink she’s had has been a part of a long-term art project. The drinking is the only material she uses in her work now. A few months ago, Mrs. Doctor confirmed her liver was “going to sleep.” “One year left until your final show,” Mrs. Doctor said. “It seems these infections are what’s causing your memory loss.” “You may have a chance if you quit drinking.” Did someone ever try to tell Pollock to stop using paint in his work? Was he an alcoholic too? 

My mom’s nervous for this final show, maybe even scared. Maybe it’s because she knows a lot of people won’t be there. Maybe it’s because most people don’t know about her earlier work. Will they know these stories that make up her work? Should they? I’ll know this is what she’s wanted all along. She tried so hard to forget everything. Now, she can’t remember what she’s wanted to forget. But she hasn’t forgotten to pick up her drink. Because she’s an artist at heart. 

What have you taught me, mom? 

Cassidy Schoenfelder is a practicing artist, writer, and art historian. Raised in the Midwest, she traveled to complete her undergraduate degree in art at the University of Montana and then further west where she recently graduated with her Master’s in the History of Art and Architecture from the University of Oregon.

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