A mother leaves behind a note and a disruption to normalcy as it seemed. What follows is a long search for equilibrium, and at last, a reexamination of what normal means.

I grew up on the top of a gentle slope in the Hill Country of Texas. It was beautiful there. Our land seemed to stretch out forever. Summer felt endless, and Christmas was always an eternity away. Time moved slowly and everything good was possible.

We had six acres of land that were my kingdom and I knew it like the back of my hand. In middle school, I cataloged every single tree on that piece of property. From my favorite climbing tree to the natural grapevine swing in the back corner of our land, I had combed every inch.

During those summers, I would wake up and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’d pack it with my Boy Scout flashlight in a red bandana that I fashioned into a hobo bindle. With my Daisy BB gun in hand, I would head out for a full day of hopping through barbed wire fences. Following the sun in one direction until noon, I would stop to eat my lunch before turning around for home. Occasionally I’d run into a critter to chase or, at times, one that cared to chase me. On some days, I would cross paths with the neighboring goat rancher, who would scare me off with mumbled curse words and a blast of his shotgun into the air. But mostly, things were peaceful. I was sun-kissed and smelled of the earth, the way a kid should. I had a mom and a dad and a little sister. We had two dogs and two cats. Everything was normal. Whatever that means.

One Sunday, when I was still in middle school, we all went to church. My mother stayed home, saying that she wasn’t feeling well. After church service, we skipped playing with friends and returned home quickly, as promised. But she was gone. Instead of her warm smile, three envelopes greeted us on the kitchen counter. She had left a note for each of us: my father, my sister, and me. We opened them and read. My note said that she was leaving my father, but that she still loved us as much as ever. I don’t know what theirs said, but I looked up at my father and sister and they were both crying. I didn’t. They came over and clung to me. She had said we weren’t supposed to worry. But we did anyway. It seemed to be the end of normal.

I can trace veins of worry running through my life from that day. Everything in my world was redefined. She left home—escaping to or from something of her own, something beyond my reach or understanding—yet she didn’t leave me. We were two black sheep of sorts, whispering conspiratorially of love and art and my dreams. Even as she was coming undone, she was the glue that held me together as I continued to live at home where things were still broken in other ways.

Many years later, I’d found equilibrium. I had my wonderful wife, great friends, and a thriving business. I did what I loved for a living, commuting between the bustle of New York and the serenity of Santa Fe. Things finally seemed normal again.

On the weekends, I’d grab a backpack and head out for another unexplored trail. This day, lungs filled and legs burning, the climb was vigorous but rejuvenating. At the top, the endless future stretched before me.

Back down at the truck, I checked my phone and saw a message from my stepfather. My mom had fallen, but she was “fine” and he’d keep me posted. He didn’t. I finally discovered she was in the hospital.

Hearing this was worrisome. A few years earlier, she had tried to stop. Her body went into shock. I’m circling around the truth here, trying hard not to say it. She was an alcoholic. So was he.

I went to the hospital. I walked into her room. Belly so swollen, she looked pregnant. Her skin, unholy hues of purple, blue, and yellow. Her body was failing, and her mind, too. In an instant, our roles reversed. I had to break through the fog of alcoholism that enveloped my mom and stepfather. I didn’t just have to tell them she was dying; I had to convince them.

She did die shortly after leaving the hospital, yet inexplicably not in their suburban, white-picket-fence life where all seemed normal. Whatever that means. She died to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away” in the living room of a 1950s-era mobile home belonging to her occasional dog sitter—a tiny, loving, Cajun lesbian spiritualist preacher. Details too rich to be fiction. As she died, the agony on her face finally softened into a smile. My stepfather died shortly thereafter. Just like that, they were both gone.

In retrospect, we were all sick. We saw what we wanted to see. Heard what we wanted to hear. We unwittingly deceived ourselves into thinking that everything was normal. The heartbreak is that this is normal in the course of life. Something happened. It happened to all of us who loved her, too. Consequences have no pity, and though the future still seems to stretch out endlessly, still rich and ripe with hope, I’ll never be the same.

Duane king

Duane King runs the design innovation lab Huge/KingCoyle in Portland, Oregon, together with Ian Coyle. Duane is the founder of Thinking for a Living, a curation of original, thought-provoking design content, and he’s on the board of Designspeaks. Fast Company named him one of the fifty Most Influential Designers in America.

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