Photo: Ashleigh Pinnell
Worldwide, Multiple Sclerosis is thought to affect more than 2.1 million people. In May 2011, Nadine Friedman set out to meet some of them. She traveled the US with a camera, a bus pass and the questions that her mother left unanswered. Her book chronicling that journey will be published next year, but Nadine agreed to share a piece of it with us early. We’re thrilled to provide all of you with a sneak peek.
A certain person finds a 16-year-old Ziplock bag of M&Ms and asks not ‘Why the hell do I have these?’ but ‘Will we want these later?’ It’s not a debate whether to eat them, but if the M&Ms will still hold meaning in another dozen years. My brother is that person; I am the person who asks, sincerely, for fifty dollars in exchange for eating one.
We were helping our father clean out his apartment in preparation for a North Carolina retirement a year after our mother died. He was moving out of the apartment they moved to after her 20-year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis ended in 2010, when I was 29. Now, it served little purpose besides shelving for Precious Moments figurines (‘Love is With You Everywhere You Go’ $14.99 on Ebay; $62.50 on Nancy’s Collectibles) and for my brother to store our grandmother’s M&M’s, still full of significance and, alarmingly, color.
For years, she kept a full glass of the candy on an end table in her senior complex one-bedroom, constantly refreshing a new bag on top of the last batch with quirky old-woman hospitality. When she died, Bret zipped the glass and the patterned coaster she kept on top as a lid into the plastic bag and into storage at my parents’. 15 years later he found it in a box filled with stuffed animals and posters from a teen soap cancelled in 2002. Unearthing the M&M’s on this dig, he poured the fossilized candy into the garbage but struggled with throwing out the coaster and glass. Those were, he said, “for another day to decide”. I…see.
It was an afternoon of blowing dust off things that once mattered and purging everything that didn’t. Dad was buoyant, like a college freshman packing to go out of state. A fresh start, away from memories and sad responsibilities in the place she died.
We went through boxes of ancient photos, read our report cards from elementary school- our teachers’ scrawled assessments included ‘Nadine works too rapidly and needs to think carefully’; ‘She counts on her fingers at an advanced age, which worries us’; and the frank ‘Bret can’t read’. We gathered that we were idiots.
Dad ruminated on his and my mother’s early suspicion of Bret’s sexuality because of his hysterical reaction to ‘dungarees’ at four, and he and Bret argued the principles of his DNR (Bret’s singular platform: ‘Whatever, just don’t let your daughter touch anything if I’m in a coma’ ). We unhooked framed photos down the wall, leaving tanlines of stark white rectangles against yellowing walls and went through her drawers, neat rows of gloves, costume jewelry and ungentle medical supplies.
Assessing value- monetary or emotional- the path on which our family is headed came to me with clarity. My general philosophy on stuff is that I just don’t care to have a lot of it. Heirloom rings and letters from a dead person are one thing, but I have to hunt for an emotional connection when presented with a bowl of plastic fruit from my grandfather’s living room. This, in contrast to my brother’s hand-wringing indecision.
This divergence in attitudes will resolve in me setting fire to all the wicker frogs there in order to save Bret from becoming a more fashionable Collyer brother. Everything must go. But facing a gay sentimentalist and a man who watches American Pickers leads to me begging Bret to throw out a hat/t-shirt combo from a Broadway show that closed after three weeks, his reluctant agreement, then my father taking it out of the box because ‘it’ll be worth something!’ Restarting the cycle.
And so on. But as my father comes closer to claiming a new, unknown identity down South, the time has come for these conversations. Now I can toss a tangled marionette from a family friend (who we can’t remember the name of) down the incinerator. My brother is the problem. He has sharp eyes and a soft heart. The clothes in her closet, not her, really; those were sick people clothes.
But there is that one drawer of hers. I dig my hands in, aching to feel her warmth, her style, her smell and history, to understand a woman I didn’t bother knowing because she was just an illness to me. One that, by the end, I was too agonized to even look at because it might destroy me.
Home in Brooklyn, I dug into a box of kitchen appliances I had taken. A small jewelry box had been tucked into it- my father, I suppose. It creaked open and inside were their wedding rings- his slim, bright gold, hers textured with tiny diamonds flickering. I slipped it on, this symbol, invaluable to just two people, but that was enough.
Holes of matter, or holes where people once were- the best we can hope for is a quiet, onyx peace with them. I was throwing things out and preparing my mother’s hole for a long time, a grave before she was dead. I made it rocky, dusty, leaving only a few places to dig my fingers into to feel hope. Powder. I want to smooth out her hole into something peaceful, somewhere I can forgive myself. And I drain a 30 year old bottle of wine shaped like a fish down the kitchen sink, because Ask.com said this particular brand isn’t worth much more than kitsch.