Debbie Lynn Kellner Arnett

My mom would have been 55 years old today. She would have loved her three grandbabies. She would have drove me insane but also kept me whole. I honestly can’t imagine what she would have been like had she been given the gift of long life. I never imagined my mom as an old woman or as a grandma…even though I always knew I would be a mama.

My kids already know about AIDS, and oppression and poverty and sexism and racism and all of the factors (ok, most of the factors) that led to my parents dying of AIDS, but how to tell them who my mom really was? I never knew my mom before AIDS. She was diagnosed when I was only three months old. The mom that I grew to know and love was depressed, deeply anxious, paranoid and traumatized. She was in a constant confusing state of waiting to die and fighting for her life.

Today I sat my kids down with the blue plastic bin that I have carted around since my mom died. The “my old life before my mom died” bin. I fried up some summer squash and let my daughter share a cup of coffee with me, because her grandma Debbie would have loved that. I wiped clean every sticky jelly spot from our breakfast table and removed every glass of water. I reminded the kids that the photos we were about to take out and touch are sacred to me.

Slowly, I reached back in time and examined each picture with new eyes, just as my babies were. It is amazing how different they all look with a little perspective and an adult’s eye. Like I noticed medicine bottles lining our living room wall when we lived back in public housing. My eyes had never focused on that detail before. Why would a woman who was keeping her diagnosis a secret be so careless as to leave her med bottles out in the open where anyone could see them? Did she not realize people would be suspicious about a 22 year old mom needing so many meds? What was in those medicine bottles in the late 80’s? What medicine was my mom taking at a time when doctors did not have an effective treatment plan for even the most wealthy and privileged patients, let alone a poor rural woman?

Even after all these years, the pictures are still just crammed into the box, alongside childhood journals and funeral home guestbooks. Today as I touched each photo, I began putting them into a photo album that I picked up at Goodwill. Already, having some of the task done, I felt an ease. They felt a little safer. Why did I wait so long to do this simple task that I wanted so badly?

As I was deciding which pictures deserved a spot in the album, I was also pulling aside my favorite ones of my mom. The ones that show her as a full person. The one of her laughing her face off with her sister at my cousin’s birthday party. The one of her dancing with her father at her wedding. The one of her holding onto her parents and niece and nephew for dear life after her sister lost her youngest child in a car accident. The one of her getting skinny again at the end.

There is so much I don’t know about my mom. I dont know her birth story. She was one of eight children. She and her twin came right in the middle of my grandmother’s pregnancies. Was it dramatic because they were twins? These days, they would have most likely been a cesarean birth but 55 years ago…probably not. Did my mom tell me the story and I don’t remember? She told me my birth story a million times. (future blog post about that. Spoiler alert, I came into the world in the front seat of a pick-up truck!) I called my Aunt Brenda to wish her a happy birthday today and decided to ask her to tell me their birth story, but she wasn’t home. Makes sense, it was her birthday. She still uses a landline, so I just had to keep calling and keep hearing the endless ringing. I will try again tomorrow. How lucky I am that even though I don’t have my mom, I have her twin! If not, her birth story would almost definitely be lost along with my mom and grandparents.

I wish I could tell you what my mom was like before AIDS. I wish I could tell you what her dreams were. All I know is that she was spunky and rebellious and found a way to look cute even without a penny to her name. I only ever saw glimpses of that mom though. The mom that raised me was a born again Christian who wore cat sweaters that she bought second hand and a fanny pack (before it was trendy!)

Somehow I got the idea to listen to a song that I hadn’t heard in 15 years, My Immortal by Evanescence. It came out a month and a half before my mom died, but I don’t remember listening to the words until the day my mom died. Imagine being alone in the apartment that your mom just died in at 17 years old and that song comes on out of no where. I sobbed today in my kitchen still remembering every single word.

You used to captivate me by your resonating light

Now, I’m bound by the life you left behind

Your face it haunts my once pleasant dreams

Your voice it chased away all the sanity in me

These wounds won’t seem to heal, this pain is just too real

There’s just too much that time cannot erase

My Immortal by Evanescence

My children had been working on making yard sale signs while I was making a cherry cheesecake (my moms favorite!) and crying and singing in the kitchen. I hadn’t realized that my oldest was tuned in until I felt her arms wrap around my waist and felt her suddenly crying into my chest. I ran my fingers through her hair and reassured her that I was ok, only sad, but ok, and she said, “I know mom, I just wish I could have met her!” and just like that I saw myself pulling all three of my kids into a big snuggle and heard myself telling them that they have met her in a way! “You know how much I love you and you love me? That was the same with me and my mom and that is how she would have loved you. She was funny and loving and kind and fierce and….and…I guess I am a lot like my mom come to think of it, so knowing me, and if you can imagine a person who is like me and my aunt Brenda mixed together, that is like who your grandma was!”

and so I guess I do remember who my mama was. because I am her. I can still feel her deep in my chest. She is that achy spot, but she is also that well of love that I have for my kids, her grandbabies. She is the way I hold my lips when I am angry and the way my hips pop out when I am feeling sassy. She is most definitely my temper but also my joy. It is not the same. I miss her so much. I wish she was here tonight to hold me like I hold my kids and tell me I am safe. but this space and time that I created for her almost brought her to life for me. It almost made her memory real enough for me to hear and see and smell. It is enough for now. I will pull it all back out at the next big milestone. The anniversary of her death. World AIDS Day. but for now, mama. Good night. I love you. I won’t see you in the morning but that is ok. I will remember you and I will love you forever.

my mom and my cousin in the front and me and my step dad in the back.
I definitely make this face.
mom with her dad at her wedding to my step dad.
my mom, her twin and one of their little sisters.
my mom and I with some of my cousins and my grandparents
my mom looking happy and a rare photo showing her teeth before she got false teeth
The last picture of my mom and her twin about a week before she died. Happy Birthday Aunt Brenda. I cant imagine losing a twin. I love you.

2 thoughts on “Debbie Lynn Kellner Arnett

  1. I started following you after I saw your mom’s story on AIDSMemorial on Instagram. I’m a HS teacher who reached out to you one time after I saw that you had spoken about your mom as a young woman… “She was funny and loving and kind and fierce and….and…I guess I am a lot like my mom come to think of it, so knowing me, and if you can imagine a person who is like me and my aunt Brenda mixed together, that is like who your grandma was!” —this quote killed me… As a woman near your mom’s age, I’m just so proud of you, how you’re navigating this world and everything you’ve been through, and just being a mom yourself. ❤️ Your Mom is in many people’s thoughts❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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