like [my] mother, like me

By Katie Lee Ellison

If the bath is a womb, the shower is a river, a rain. Distance between droplets makes a better clean, not deep, but a clearing.

The hiss and scream of my apartment’s water heater soothed me; familiar, it was evidence that something worked. I’d stopped working the way I should since my mother committed suicide months earlier.


The day I learned my mother died, I stopped going back to my apartment; I was afraid to stay there alone. Having lived most of my life single and luxuriating in solitude, I suddenly became a person who couldn’t face being or sleeping anywhere but next to my love in her south Seattle home. Now, when I remember my one-bedroom farther north — soaking in the deep porcelain tub from 1926, listening to birds out the tiny window above the sink while I washed dishes, watching winter light through my growing bird of paradise — memories crack into details from the coroner’s report. Among those details, sparse and inaccurate descriptions recorded of my mother’s Los Angeles apartment, a place I’d never been: a recliner, west-facing windows, the position of her body, the placement and model of the gun. The last time I left my old apartment, it was clean but for a large water stain on the wood floors from that bird of paradise, and an old bottle of scotch, nearly empty and a little sticky-dusty, forgotten on the kitchen counter. During the final walk-through after I’d chosen to move out of my apartment for good, the property manager called and asked if the bottle was for him, a joke. I laughed for a moment before remembering another detail from the coroner’s report: a green bottle left next to where my mother had last sat on the floor of her living room, leaning against that recliner. My bottle and her bottle, my apartment and her apartment, my leaving and her leaving.

This is how my mother enters spaces she’s never been, or, how my mind puts her there, keeps her here, with me.

My mother had been gone since November. Three weeks after the county removed her body from the apartment in Los Angeles, family friends had ventured from the valley into the city to collect all they thought I might want from her vacated but unemptied one-bedroom. It was December when they’d driven away; it was January when I’d flown to Los Angeles to look through all they’d been able to fit into two cars. In a stranger’s house in the valley where my friend was house-sitting, I asked and learned: it was not Tanqueray but Jameson my mother drank that last day; the bottle wasn’t empty and it wasn’t full; and it was still on the floor when my friends entered the apartment. Sometime between when my friends had been to her place and when I’d gone back to LA, my mother’s property manager had found someone, another stranger, to collect, clean, and dispose of what remained of my mother’s life. With no will to refer to, my mother had become arbitrary piles of abandoned things, including that Jameson bottle. No one called to make a joke about it.

Before her death, my mother hadn’t had a drink in a long time. The bottle beside her body was a white flag from a woman whom I’d once watched rip out another woman’s hair on the court of my fifth grade basketball championship game. But no matter her degree of violence, loving her saddled me with the belief that I could not know right from wrong better than she did. Her physical and public fight against another grown woman also presented the question of what she might do to me if I inadvertently found myself on the “wrong” side, the one she wasn’t on. Everything shifted subjectively with my mother, issue to issue, moment to moment, depending on her quick and untraceable mind, and whether she was on drugs or not — though it was always worse when she was.

Likewise, my mother tainted the good with the bad. She spoiled me, living vicariously through me and buying the right to rip at me later if I did anything she didn’t like, screaming in my face until I was hollowed out, erased, not allowed to cry. For my eighteenth birthday, she and my father bought me a diamond tennis bracelet because I’d wanted something from them that would last forever. Having worn the bracelet to my public high school only once, I fought the urge to hide it under my sleeve for its absurd gaudiness, an object entirely mismatched to my life. I left it with them when I went to college, releasing my desire to wear it in front of her in order to remind her of this promise of forever, of the unconditional love I craved. Since leaving, I’ve never seen it again, and I imagine my mother took it, maybe sold it, and used the money for things she didn’t tell me about.

As I got older, supported by twelve-step programs and therapists and friends, I spent decades teasing out what had been wrong to her but just fine to me. Physical distance provided the space I’d needed to get even just a little free of her — despite her pleading, chastising, and screaming, I made my holiday visits optional, and my regular visits shortened to mere hours at a time even when I’d flown in from three thousand miles away. I limited phone calls to twenty minutes without making it seem intentional because that’s how long it took for her to start soaking into me, digging for more than I could give.

After my mother died, I dared to stay one single day in my apartment alone, and cried in my shower, not like a woman, but as a child in warm water. As I became clean from all those droplets, their speed and gravity washing away time, I felt ripples of her run through me, always leading back to the empty center of her, my love for her a sourceless and infinite body of water. Her pain in living without an axis, without a self, as I imagine she did, echoed through me. I recalled all I’d given of myself that I could not afford to give: the hours spent into the early morning listening to her sad stories, her losses, her fears, while I was only a child myself; the days strapped into her passenger seat, begging some unknowable force for the relief of an accident to stop her rage burning through bright Los Angeles streets. In my apartment shower, I sobbed, loud, crying for her, knowing that my mother would not hear me, that my neighbors might, but unable to hold it in. Embarrassed and afraid of all I held being released, I was unable to stop.

What do you call the distance of a mother who has never been all the way there, and is now gone? Blame alcoholism, mental illness, or America’s fucked relationship with guns and power and money, but my child self only ever understood that I needed to keep her alive. Without realizing it, I’d lived with a constant fear that a woman impervious to pain or ending was a dangerous and unstable one. Once, she sliced her finger open on a piece of metal under the fridge, chasing the cat. At the kitchen counter, she stood silently, staring at the blood pulsing out of her. I was five, then, watching and terrified. Her sudden quiet, so rare, so encompassing; I don’t know what she saw. The quiet panic in me then, without choice or decision, from very early on, became a mantra: She’s angry, keep her alive. She’s sad, keep her alive. She’s happy, keep her alive.

In seeking to counter the sting of these details, I try to make sweetness stay in the company of this grief. I remember my littleness with her gone, perhaps because her being gone is familiar, perhaps because the pain of her death’s proximity, the ways I felt it close when I was little, is familiar. With as much tenderness as I can hold, I seek to understand the ways we are alike. I want to know myself, to salvage some memory of her, and to calculate my danger to myself: to understand just how near I am to what killed her.


If the shower is a rain, water is a time machine: in crying out for my mother, I heard my voice from long ago, a self I’d forgotten. In this tenderness, I remembered my younger self at a local museum, wearing turquoise sweatpants and a blue T-shirt, purple and white L.A. Gear sneakers from Kmart. My young self spun around a stair banister in this memory, and I saw her, smiling up at me, resilient. We played together in a nowhere space, and I watched her, a survivor, withstanding more than she knew. The pain of what I survived then, the pain in the shower: these bring me closer to myself.

Whether she meant to or not, my mother gave me this.


If water is a time machine, memory is a hallucination. I am anchored to a death that I didn’t witness, anxious to wipe away a mess I’ve never seen: my mother’s blood on hardwood, pooled, on the sixth floor of a building I’ve never been to. In the coroner’s report, they recorded: “purple nail polish” and “blue pants,” but the five bottles of her trademark dark red Revlon left behind in her bathroom suggested otherwise. That “purple” was actually red on pale blue toes, and the “pants” would have been jeans, Levi’s. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead or alive in purple nail polish, and the only “pants” she ever wore were jeans or slacks. The things I clung to, all that was left to know of her, were recorded without regard for final distinguishing details. This incomplete picture of my mother’s last moments grows the pile of what’s lost.

In her last days, my mother had three guns: an AR-15 (she purchased this just after the 45th American president was elected), a Glock (the top performer in reliability and safety tests, according to Wikipedia), and a revolver. In one of the few phone conversations we had after her death, my father told me that she kept the AR-15 in the trunk of her small black Jetta, which she totaled, drunk and high in her last few months, and left in the garage of her building, where the gun was found after her death. I think: what if the gun had gone off in the accident, what was she planning to use it for, was it loaded, had she ever shot it? Where, why? Two months before she turned the revolver on herself, my father told me the story of how she had recently forced him out of their shared apartment and her life with the Glock. Through each instance, with each gun, her madness was portrayed in increasingly frightening anecdotes, well beyond my understanding of her years spent in an apartment without pleasant distraction, only the news and pills and the threat of a virus outside her door. I also credit her darkness to an illness left unchecked, though she was never diagnosed.

My mother did whatever she wanted. For example, she wanted her own solution to the problem of her mind, so she’d hit her head, again and again. She rode horses and flung herself off of them, head first, for years. She totaled four or five cars and trucks, sober and not, the other cars and places she hit be damned. She gave herself so many concussions that she mostly stopped going to the hospital because she knew she could avoid the cost and find the drugs she needed elsewhere. Eventually, I learned begging her to stop was foolish because she’d get the pills every time, and do it all again soon. But sometimes, for reasons I could never predict, she chose painting over violence. Her last canvas was a copy and a commission for an old friend of hers: two seated women, one possibly pregnant, both their legs open, feet nearly touching as their calves crossed, faces turned to each other, but their small black eyes staring at the viewer, as if caught. She made progress and shared it in texts with me and on Facebook, but in a photo our family friend took of the apartment when they collected a few of her things, I saw in the background, the large canvas with recognizable colors of the painting still in the corners. My mother had taken a wide brush and, with visible fury, ruined it with big white strokes, then red over that; it dried dripping. She never lacked in drama.

I reclaimed my mother’s paint brushes from the rescue piles I sifted through. Today, I keep them in a tall silver chalice on a side table near my work desk, where I mostly avoid noticing them, but that elevator drop feeling hits me every time I do, that sudden terrifying fall without the crash, again and again, the snap back of breathing, of still living without her, untethered. Still, I don’t put them away. They are delicate, most too worn out to be useful, and they are expensive; they have paint on them in mixtures she chose, her hands all over them, her precious artist’s hands. I have her fingers, her fingernails.

My love also paints. Once, she asked if she could use one of the brushes. I said yes because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to let her except the instinctive panic in my gut: one more piece of my mother would be muddled and erased. I said none of this, but my love didn’t use the brush. I know she sensed these rough waters within me.

In the years I dried out, keeping my physical distance from her, my small, quiet hope for her to be well haunted me like a soft, slow, maddening drip in the sink. Now that she’s gone, she doesn’t occupy my days without me knowing. I can feel distinctly when my mother is near, a ghost uninvited or unexpected. She comes from some old place inside me or she comes from elsewhere entirely. Before she died, I never had this clarity of what feelings and actions were hers and what was mine, sponged as I was with her. I carried her in my body always, along with the building tension of waiting for her to do something new: see a doctor, get sober for real, find the right medication, say something I believed and could trust. The fact that she was alive meant anything was still possible, even as my quiet hope dwindled into something very small, nothing more.

I like the distinction that’s come from my mother being gone: I can tell more clearly what inclinations I have are actually hers, and which are solely mine. Right after she died, she came to me as a harmless ghost, foolish, childlike, and small, and she followed me, wanting. No sensation struck as more natural; we spent time quietly without looking at one another, me and her young spirit. She lingered especially when I spent time in our backyard, letting our two rabbits eat grass on a rare warm and sunny day. She blended with the dying trees and dropping leaves, but felt lighter to me than she’d ever been. Her appearance was simple, no artifice or persona, harmless, unwhole, still needing so much. I let her follow me around the yard and the kitchen before seeking to reclaim my solitude — but after a few weeks, her sporadic appearances became taxing. She needed direction, instruction, attention. The self of her still needed what a child did, and I became annoyed, so deeply tired of this long-held job. More than annoyed, I was angry, but my grief and tears kept me from rage. I started to ignore her the moment I realized she was taking from me again, and eventually, she left me. I don’t know much about ghosts, but I know this about my mother’s.


If memory is a hallucination, distance was what I needed to form a self. I’d grieved our distance over and over, and in her death, in the shower, I grieved my mother’s emptiness, which had occupied me without my knowing. I can’t help but wonder if she’s been repurposed in my body, reborn, proximal.

Grief creates such acute pain. In it, I float, my center of gravity the only force, like a star, a planet, a universe, spinning in liminal, terrible, perfect darkness.

Sometimes, I crave an impact, too, a physical crash, so as to stop this floating.

So I know that her death is real, close.

So I know she is gone, even as her blood runs in my veins; even as I still carry her.

Sometimes my love says, You seem so far away. She says, I’m afraid. I ask myself, Whose depths are these?


It’s winter again, the first anniversary of my mother’s rippling deaths: the day she died, the week she was dead and I didn’t know, the days members of my family slowly found out, and the day I learned she’d been gone, and was finally, suddenly, gone from me, too. The anniversary of learning the difference between distance and death. The difference between death and choosing to die.

Lately, at this one year mark, the liminal fog passes. Now I seek ways to be like my mother when she was at her best. Sometimes I’m seeking, misadvised and to my detriment, to keep her alive. Still, always. If I could have saved her, I would have, desperately. I wish I still could. In anger, which is to say in terrible sadness, I reach for her occasionally in private ways — I wear her soft blonde leather work gloves, which she made look expensive and elegant, and her coat, carrying her scent through its brown and black wool, a men’s coat with huge shoulders that she wore wrapped around her like a star, a legend. I ache at the smell of her in that heavy coat, the weight of it, of her, and put my hands in those gloves as if she is holding mine. I get compliments when I wear them, and tell no one they were hers, keeping her greatness and her goneness for myself. I don’t drink Hershey’s syrup from the can in bed like she did, but I do eat Halloween-sized bags of candy corn, milk duds, or nonpareils to get through the afternoon. I don’t drown myself in gin or Jameson, but I make a strong sweet cocktail or have a beer or wine most nights, so I’m up and then down most days. I shop, buying obnoxiously bright clothes and shoes, and playful costume jewelry and expensive cosmetics she’d never allow me to indulge in. Boxes arrive at my door marked with my name, and I can hardly remember what I paid for. This is how I cope with the crash she craved, with the impact she claimed for herself in the end. The shot in her head rings like some violent, echoing concept, a story told, no evidence of it seen by my eyes or felt by my body anywhere, no note, no sign of her, as if she might still be totaling cars in Los Angeles without my knowing.

I modeled my life in small ways after hers because I’m proud of how deep, how hard, how relentlessly I loved her, how big and powerfully I can love, perhaps because of her, because of how she stretched me past where love should go, where healthy love ends.

Though I want to emulate the very best parts of my mother, I know they have that dark side, so I’m closest to her when I’m screaming, embodying her dark as well as her light. Alone in the car, or in the midst of an argument with someone who loves me and can’t bear to leave me, like I didn’t want to leave her. I scream at the smallest discomfort these days because it adds too much weight to what I walk with. In these furious moments, I am thinking too much, manufacturing my own misery to reclaim her in some small way, however unintentionally.

This is to say: I’m relieved my mother is dead. From the rot of her death, I feel something different coming, all of it wormy and necessary, the living and the dying.


When my mother died, I waited nearly two months to rifle through her things in a home unfinished and under construction, in a neighborhood I didn’t know. My friend expressed relief that I didn’t go to her apartment then, because everything was dirty, and she felt I didn’t need to be there to see all that. Instead, I got to sort through her collected things with everyone just around the corner, walking in and out of the room with my dead mother’s things, chit-chatting, laughing. In looking at it all, the horse and elephant statuettes, the books and paintings, the fake and plated gold chains, the frames and wrinkled paperwork: it was not enough. It was not all of her, and it never would be. The stains and pieces I didn’t know or recognize called up the cumulative days, the years I didn’t see her; they highlighted my desire to be with her, to be buried in the pieces that made her, that made me. The smell of her in her oldest coats didn’t fill the distance but carved those distances wider, deeper.

This is to say: despite everything, I miss my dead mother. I say goodbye to her again and again in a million ways, and call her back a million times more. I’m still searching for ways to honor her life and memory and cannot think of a single thing that doesn’t help me remember her, which brings back that elevator drop in my chest. Help me reach the bottom or set me free, I demand from her abandoned ghost. Break me or release me.


If distance was what I needed, then my mother and I are two droplets, so far from each other now, clearing history, part of some larger story we’ve never known. What named ancestor or unnamed descendant, human or otherwise, benefits from our battle, from my mother’s ruthless closeness, from my need for her? What will come from this death, how will I water her memory now, keep it alive?

After moving in with my love, I’d driven the bird of paradise plant from my old apartment to our new home in south Seattle. I had cherished it, once, watched sunlight through the gaps in its leaves, given it the most prized position in my home, and starved my space of the best light so the plant’s leaves could have it. It grew in my care from two feet to eight, from two small leaves to seven that flapped open like wings. I don’t think of my mother every time I look at it, but I know that I have one because she loved them and grew them in our backyard next to a tangerine tree when I was small. That plant can die, and I can buy another, and there she’ll be, honored by me, honoring myself. In my love’s small home, she is too tall, too wanting of light and warmth that isn’t there in winter, but I’ve given her the best windows again, let her adjust herself to the ceilings much shorter than in my apartment, and she has, bending to her new limits.

Since moving in, she’s sprouted a bright new leaf — relentless, like my mother, like me.

Headshot of Katie Lee Ellison

Katie Lee Ellison is working on a memoir tentatively titled Everything We Wanted, pieces of which are forthcoming or published in Shenandoah, Moss, J Journal, Crab Creek Review, Arcadia, and elsewhere. She was a 2016-2017 Hugo House Fellow, a 2018 fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and a 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop attendee. She holds a BA in English Literature from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Idaho.

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