This title of this essay was adapted from a poem by Melissa’s mother, Deborah Adams.
In September of 2012 my mom was rushed to the emergency room. The nurses explained that she had gone at least three days with her appendix ruptured… her doctor told me she was lucky to be alive. This scenario really wasn’t surprising. That same doctor had previously told me, “Well your mom must have nine lives.” At the time, I was in graduate school working on my MFA in photography but felt I needed to go home and be with my mom while she recovered. She agreed and I started flying to St. Louis, Missouri from Savannah, Georgia almost every other weekend. I bought her new clothes and sheets that were free of burn holes. Cleared out the fridge and made her healthy food. I prepped the house for her recovery and did everything I could to make her feel better.
But I was missing classes and feedback from professors on the project I had been making for the past three years. I asked a professor to arrange a meeting with the head of a prominent university’s art program near my mom’s house and got a portfolio review. I was so excited. This was a school that I would have never even had the confidence to dream of, so it was really important to me. I had the review and came home to show my mom. She knew that my project focused on her and that I kept getting positive feedback. So, after this review I thought I could really show her these pictures. I handed her the portfolio and grabbed my camera. She started flipping through them one by one. Eventually she stopped on a portrait of herself and said, “How could you make me look like this!? I look so ugly!” I argued that I hadn’t made her look anyway, I had only been documenting how she had been toward me and what I was seeing. She started yelling more and kicked me out.
Our relationship has always been skewed. The lines between parent, child and caregiver are blurred and this moment however unique it seems, is not. She’d used to get mad, kick me out and then beg for forgiveness, within the span of three hours almost daily. She would threaten to take her own life if I left her, even if she was acting abusive. My role as a child was manipulated often, my responsibilities as a child were unfair. Her behavior pushed me away, it made me mean and encouraged me to live a reckless lifestyle. I was expelled from a private school for drinking when I was 14 and continued to party a lot in high school. I flunked out of college twice. I was in my sorority’s probation program and had a general unwillingness to try at all. I just felt like things would always be this way. Photography changed that. It was the first time that I felt like my perspective and voice was acknowledged. It was the first time that my life and all of the chaos could be paused and analyzed.
Mom called a few hours later and asked me to come home. She told me the photographs felt like looking in a mirror. They scared her but ultimately showed her a reality she was unable to see through her own eyes. So, every time I came home to take care of her we made pictures. I let mom decide where she wanted to be photographed and how. She took me to an old park and sat on some bleachers. She started screaming. At first it felt so fake but then I could hear real pain in her voice. It was the same pain I felt from our relationship and I realized how much these photos allowed us to communicate and collaborate. The project has helped us both heal. It’s provided her with self-reflection and me with stability. In hindsight, it saved me from traveling down the same road as her. My mom may never be who I want her to be but through creative expression I’ve found a purpose and reason to value myself despite what I was shown as a child. My hope is that the story can continue to provide solace for those affected by a tumultuous relationship with a parent. Some of us have to grow up faster than we want too, but (almost) all of us will have to care for our parents sooner than later.