The River (III) by Michelle Blake

When I was a child, as soon as I came through the back door downstairs I could feel my mother’s need. Immense, bottomless. A looming shadow, a giant squid.

It is one thing to be broken. It is another to be missing a basic piece of foundation material. The house of the soul rests on nothing.

We call this many things, but in my mother it presented as a case of malignant narcissism. She could be concerned only about herself. The rest of the world was inchoate and terrifying. She drank and took drugs to manage her terror.

Narcissism is the opposite of love—the void, the black hole of the system.

Technically, it is defined as a profoundly distorted sense of one’s own importance, a deep need for excessive admiration and a crippling lack of compassion. The result is a life that trades only in lies.

All of that is true, but it’s useful to keep in mind that Hitler was a narcissist. In September, 2020, our current president is a malignant narcissist. Narcissism is not just a bothersome quirk. It is the stuff of destruction.

In the United States, narcissism is one cause of as many as 90% of the deaths by Covid-19—approximately 180,000 as of September, figured on what the US should have suffered in proportion to our world population.

Add in people who are starving, who have lost their jobs and homes, who have taken their own lives—we will never know the exact number of victims of this administration.

Fortunately, my mother had very little power and no political aspirations. Unfortunately, what power she did have was over my stepbrother Roy and me. Another set of narcissistic traits is a tendency to demean, intimidate, bully and belittle others.

I remember standing before the big glass window of a shoe store and watching a tornado very near my grandmother’s apartment, which was my haven. I thought, If she dies I will die.

My mother and I were supposed to grow up together. When I was born she was twenty years old and married to a man in his forties.

We would have grown up together if my mother had been able to grow up. She wasn’t.

So I grew up for two.

I cannot still, after many years, make sense of most of my family’s stories. Tragedies abounded—homicides, suicides, rapes, beatings, disappearances, but these were treated as a matter of course.

My family has broken my heart many times, and I’m sure I have broken theirs. I loved them all, every one of them—that is what children do—and some were able to love me back. My mother was not in that group.

It is easier to see love clearly when it is absent. We can sense the shape and heft of what could be filling the void around us.

I had angels all through my life—my grandmother, my great aunt, my godmother, Mrs., my best friend Evy Kay and her family, the woman next to me on the plane when I flew home for my stepbrother’s funeral.

I got a lot of love from a lot of different places. Love is love and it can fill us up no matter the source. But I also spent a lot of my life wishing my mother were different or wishing I were different so that she would hold me and fill the emptiness.

Now I think of the angels and feel grateful. Their love held me until I became a person able to love my friends, my husband, my children, and, eventually, my family members including myself.

Love is a tall order.

Love is three things in a row.

It cannot hide behind anything.

One time I asked a psychic what I should do to have a relationship with my mother. She closed her eyes and shook her head and said, “Looks like you’ve done everything you can. But you’ll have a chance in your next life.”

I’m not sure she’s right.

Michelle Blake has published three novels with Putnam Penguin, as well as poems and essays in Tin House, Ploughshares, NY Times, Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Mezzo Cammin, Cider Press Review and others. Her chapbook, Into the Wide and Startling World, was awarded publication in the New Women’s Voices contest at Finishing Line. She has also taught writing at Tufts, Stanford, Goddard, and at a GED program in Boston at Jobs For Youth. She was director of both the Goddard and the Warren Wilson MFA writing programs.