Looking back, I could’ve stopped it. When my uncles, my mother’s brothers, the five-headed mass of them, cornered me at her funeral and said, “Irene was a saint,” I could’ve said no, she wasn’t. Could’ve said, you didn’t know her like I did.
I could’ve stopped it when I had nearly exorcised her smoker’s rasp from my memory, when I was forgetting what she’d taught me about myself. I could’ve stopped it when my uncles showed up at my door and stared at me with their matching codfish eyes and asked if I’d like to ride along while they gathered testimony of Irene’s goodness. I could’ve told that pasty blob of uncle exactly what my mother said about them when they weren’t around. I didn’t have to let them gnaw on me like termites and whisper “See? See?” as the neighbors described her as a woman who was kind, who helped out, who gave what little she had to people who had less. I could’ve said, this isn’t my mother. I could’ve said, these people are confused. I could’ve said there was nothing heroic about putting me on a diet when I was eight, nothing uplifting in how she told me it was nearly impossible to love a fat kid.
I could’ve stopped it when the man from Rome asked me if I believed my mother’s death was an act of Christian charity. I could’ve corrected that man in his tailored suit and Burberry scarf, could’ve said that my mother died because she didn’t eat. I could’ve said she was a mean anorexic, and if she were an evangelist for anything it was for starving oneself down to a double-zero. And when he asked to look at my mother’s writings for proof of her faith and morality, I could’ve shown him the text messages she sent me at three A.M. which reveal nothing so much as her lack of charity.
I could’ve stopped it at the miracles. Could’ve stopped Kathy Oliver, who claimed that she was sitting at my mother’s old station at the nail salon when the odor of lavender-scented acetone filled Kathy’s nostrils and my mother’s ghostly nails tickled Kathy’s lower back, and when she stood up, her sciatica, which had plagued her ever since she gave birth to her last baby, disappeared. I could’ve pointed out that if my mother had really performed that miracle, Kathy would have mentioned it when it happened, that it was a little convenient to wait until everyone was all whipped up about our hometown saint-to-be. I could’ve said Kathy hadn’t said a single pleasant word about my venerable bitch of a mother when she was alive. I could’ve said all nail salons smell like acetone, dummy.
Could’ve stopped ten-year-old Austin Czachowski, who claimed that when he was riding down the big hill on Union and his hand brakes crapped out, my mother’s skinny spirit landed on his handlebars and brought the bike to a gentle stop before he careered into the intersection. I could’ve said the Czachowskis were liars from way back. I could’ve said my mother wouldn’t have saved little Austin’s life. She hated kids, said having children was the unsexiest thing a woman could do to her body.
I could’ve called someone. Sent an email at least. I could’ve told the special committee that decided my mother was a servant of God that if anyone was a servant, it was me. I was a servant to her mood swings, her crash diets, her sins. I was the martyr.
I could’ve stopped it, but I didn’t.
I didn’t have to go to her mass at the Vatican. I didn’t have to listen to the pope declare that my mother is a saint, God’s earthly assistant, in eight different languages. I didn’t have to watch the uncles weep and cross themselves, watch the nuns click their rosary beads, watch the desperate, the chronically ill, and all the other believers in need of cures to ask my mother for them.
I didn’t have to go to the celebration of her feast day at St. Isidore’s, didn’t have to puke up the after-mass cookies into the church toilet because my mother’s voice was in my head, telling me that refined sugar wouldn’t help me meet my goal weight. I didn’t have to take extra copies of the liturgical calendar and pass them around the neighborhood. I didn’t have to tell my nephew to pray for his grandma’s holy intercession before his football games. I didn’t have to hug the mailman when he told me about the dream he had, where my mother was sitting between St. Francis and St. Anthony in heaven. I didn’t have to re-read her text messages like they were commandments. I didn’t have to kneel on the floor beside my bed, didn’t have to put my hands together on the bedspread and recite the prayers she taught me, recite them like I was eight years old again. I didn’t have to say, “Saint Irene, pray for me that I lose fifteen pounds. Pray for me that I never forget that you loved me when no one else could.”
I don’t have to believe in her, but I do.
Joanna Theiss (she/her) is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals such as LEON Literary Review, Bending Genres, Fictive Dream, and Best Microfiction 2022. In a previous life, Joanna worked as a lawyer, practicing criminal defense and international trade law. Links to her work are available at www.joannatheiss.com, on Twitter @joannavtheiss and Instagram @joannatheisswrites.