Phantom Tears

Phantom Tears

October 30, 2018 4 Comments

By Leslie Lindsay 

My mother is alive. She’s floating toward me through the membranes of sleep.

I don’t know if she is cognizant of this, if Mom is in her own spiritual realm peering at me through jaded, tired eyes and desperately wanting to connect, or if it’s my own psychic energy trying to restore some sense of balance, who I am and where I’ve come from.  


They tell me she is coming. A wave of panic rocks my body. My fascination with my mother’s madness is dark and primitive, like looking through the slats of a plantation shutter; you want to see, but dear God, don’t reveal the whole thing.

The room dims. I lower the paintbrush from my hands. The fumes pierce my nasal cavity, a clean burning sensation creating ambiguous feelings. Lights flicker and the room narrows; an interior radiance transfixing the imagination.

She’s early. My project is not finished. The round kitchen table is to become black, a slip of fear and hate and decay composed of my own creativity.

The tinny ding-dong of the doorbell reverberates in my head. I close my eyes, mustering the courage to plaster a smile on my face, throw open the door and wrap my arms around my mother.

Two women stand on my front porch, the lines slightly altered from how it is in real-life, a trick of the eye, a shelter from my own fears. But these women are not my mother. I feel my body relax.

Instead, my aunts exchange coy glances. I’m mystified. Where’s my mother? A hum of electrical energy, the heat kicking on and off, lights illuminate and pulsate. Buzzhumbuzz. My mind puzzles out the implications. I go to speak, but my mouth simmers with an alphabet soup of words.

Relief. Disappointment.

Old, familiar feelings crowd my gut.

Anxiety. Guilt.

I turn back to the dark recesses of the house, a surreal nightmare of domesticity. My aunts push through the threshold, easing along a bumbling corpse.

I gasp and hold my hands to my face. The smell of acrid, decaying flesh, a stench so heavy I could hold it, chew on the dark morsels composed of the atoms that once shaped my mother’s body. Her head lolls backward and a scream pierces my ears. It won’t stop. The high-pitched sound goes on and on, louder and louder, and my aunts, they do nothing. The sound becomes muffled and guttural.

That’s when I realize it’s me; my throat raw from the effort.

My aunts tip her face so it looks alive, a bit saggy. I tell myself it’s from the cigarettes. A schmear of red lipstick, three shades of wrong, coat her dry lips. I stare in surprise, disgust.

They strain against her weight, their knees buckle, their knuckles white from gripping her grayed—and fleshy—upper arms.

I lead the way to the table I am refinishing, the black paint still wet, the bald legs still a blaze of stained walnut.

Why, they want to know would I cover up such a gorgeous table? I tell them what is buried within is dark and wordless, and requires a faux finish.

I hear their heckles, see their shared resistance of agreement. They heft my mother’s weight to a chair, position her feet so they are crossed at the ankles, stretch her curled hands so they appear poised and demure. She is wearing that diaphanous lingerie top from years ago. They fasten string to her hair, like a marionette.

“Your mother has come for a visit,” they coo.

When I wake, a dream within a dream, I find a large gash against the table top, as if someone took a machete to its surface, obliterating any semblance of pride, ripping out its heart, a subterranean urging of a tormented soul.

The room darkens again, like the vignettes in an old photograph, a tunneling of memory, and I awaken in my bed, in a home that is not comprised of the claustrophobic chambers of my childhood, but of one where my husband and I constructed an empire of love and stability. 


When someone asks why I write, I say: truth resides in fiction, deeper and darker and more explicit than the narratives we live day to day, even in darkness.

They say, “It must be cathartic to write this story.”

And I say, “No, it’s the story I was born to write.” 


I paint, too. The irony is not lost as I pore over paint chips selecting colors for my home. Chelsea Gray, Quaking Grass, Everard Blue. I dip the roller and into the paint well. It glides on in sticky streaks, covering the ache. I fuss over accessories and search artwork, placing and replacing, straightening.

I remember my mother’s lithe, lean body, the one starved with Melba toast and avocado and baked in the sun so it glowed bronze. I think of her in the house we lived as a family. I see her stooping over flowerbeds, her shoulders browning in the sun, as she pulled weeds and mulched covering the foundation, another layer, another mask.

I read an article about displaying family photos and memorabilia in the home ties one to past generations in a ‘we’re in this together,’ mentality, our lineage reaching back through the bones of our homes.


It’s been a year, and yet, no tears.

I imagine it sometimes, the frenetic rocking as my body shudders and shakes while tears course down my cheeks, intermingling with snot and dripping into my parched mouth, growing the seeds of forgiveness, tasting of salt and shame. I imagine crying until I am spent, limp and wasted. I imagine swollen eyes, red with remorse, the lids thick and puffy, the lashes black and listless. And my hair, it would be knotted and twisted, a tenuous rope stretching the length to her grave.

But they do not happen. It has now been three years and still, I do not cry.


“Mom,” the girls say, “Didn’t you see her in the coffin?”

“There was no coffin,” I shake my head. “I didn’t see her.”

“You saw the ashes, then?”

“They could have been ashes from a bonfire. Kitty litter--!” I wince. 

“They just poured them into the ground?” This is my oldest, her words sharp and unbelieving.

“They did.”

“But you saw. So…you know.”

Silently, I nod, pinching my eyes as the ashes pour from the undertaker’s rubber bag, from the metal box atop the alter. A mountain. More than expected and besieged with shards, bones. Teeth.

I wished it had been ground into a finer dust, like that of pixies and fairies. But, it’s raw and chiseled and the pieces are much too large. It isn’t right, that an entire life is condensed into silt.

My mother’s ashes are nestled next to my grandmother’s—she was buried whole—bones and all. But not my mother. She is dust returning to the earth because maybe, if she as infinitesimal as possible, she might not be as potent, she might not burrow into the next generation. And the one after that. Or the next one. But she will remain forever in the earth.

I find an old photograph. A tin-type made to look old. There’s my father, my mother, and a two-year old me. I take it to the frame store. I select a mat. At home, I add it—along with one of Cathy and Ronnie—to a wall collage. The frames slant. The mats slide.

I straighten. I reattach.

This is my story. It will always be askew.


At excruciating intervals still, there’s a letter or a call from a phantom hand. The phone rings and I pick it up, my nerves a smear of sweat on the device.

“Hello, Leslie,” she says.

I feel the thick shape of guilt lodge itself in my throat. I suck in a deep breath.

“Hi, Mom.”

She says nothing, but I hear her moist, snuffly breath on the end of the connection. I reach for my reading glasses. They are broken, the lens having recently popped from the frame. It’s a simple fix. I hold the glasses frame in my hand and wedge the phone between my shoulder and ear. Her breath is hot, I feel it pulsing, shuddering. I reach for the lens and a tube of super-glue.

“I’m thinking of killing myself. What do you think of that?” She says in her best, guilt-laced voice, eliciting a surge of pity and sympathy.

I uncap the glue and run a bead of the thin adherence around my eyeglass frames. “That’s awfully dramatic.”

“You think?”

“Yes.” I place the clear lens into place and press the dark frame around it.

I hear her breathing. The phone trembles. I’ve gotten a schmear of glue in the middle of my eyeglasses in the shape of a thumbprint. I see the swirls and ridges that compose my unique aspect. 

The phone goes dead. I hear the stretched vowels of a dial tone, the punctuated, staccato bursts of a busy signal.

I put my glasses back on and when I look out of them, I can see.


Leslie Lindsay has been published in Cleaver Magazine, Common Ground Review, Manifest-Station, The Mighty, Pithead Chapel, and is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA. She is at work on a memoir, MODEL HOME, about growing up with a mentally ill interior decorator mother and her eventual suicide. Leslie interviews bestselling authors at


Ready to read more? Check out Survival as Neighbor-Love.



Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash

4 Responses

Vicki Dilley
Vicki Dilley

June 19, 2021

Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. I had no idea we shared so much together….children with apraxia and now mothers whose mental illness flowed into and around each of us. Your words are so relatable to me, thank you for being so vulnerable to put them out there for us to read and relate to. One of the best advice I received from my own therapist was to hold, embrace and nurture that little girl inside that did not get those gifts as a child. Growing up with mental illness in the family can be a big, dark secret best kept hidden…..I am so glad you are bringing yours (mine) into the light. A gift….

Leslie Lindsay
Leslie Lindsay

November 07, 2018

Oh, thank you, thank you!! So grateful for your generous comments. My heart is full.

Madeline Twooney
Madeline Twooney

November 05, 2018

Leslie, you are a brilliant wordsmith. The description and the dialogue aroused so much emotion in me. This is so beautifully brave and raw of you. Thank you so much for sharing.

Evelyn Krieger
Evelyn Krieger

November 04, 2018

Amazing essay. Blew me away. Can’t wait to read your book, Leslie.

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