The beeping of the machine yelling to the nurses about the occluded IV snaps my mind back to the present. I stare down at the small, pale body that has seemed to age 30 years in one week. Her once tan skin, pale and lackluster. Her lips dry and blistered. She sleeps with the help of a cocktail of medicines we’re told are necessary.
I look around. The silent neutrals of the hospital walls, with their tight rooms and warm heavy blankets have always soothed me. Even when I found myself in one, cradling the dead infant in my arms that my body had just expelled angrily on its own, I found comfort. But now, as I look down at my mother’s sick and dying body, exhausted from her lopsided battle with cancer, I begin to question that comfort.
Staring out the window, I can almost see through the veil of reality into the reflection of the past. The light lying long on the floor reminds me of the summer days I spent as a girl on an endless quest to find the sunshine. On a dock. Under the big oak tree. Next to my favorite plum trees in the front yard. Sometimes I’d go further. The sunshine would find me in a hidden room only accessed on full moons through the door that only opens at midnight.
Grief is a funny thing. Grief can reflect through a prism and shine light on situations you thought you saw clearly.
My mom and I sit at the edge of the pier, our legs dangling perilously close to the water. The sunlight massaging our backs and warming our souls. My mom was always a mystery to me. I struggled daily to figure out if she loved me, if I was enough. But this rare morning, it was just us. The grief of the night before, the screaming and the yelling I tried to block out with the latest episode of Gilmore Girls, had been temporarily forgotten.
Her eyes swollen from tears, she quietly handed me a cup full of corn for us to throw at the catfish that swam around the dock in the early mornings. Before the speed boats stirred up the stillness of the water and they scurried back to their homes. Mornings were my favorite. I was always astounded by the size of the bass and catfish that swam along the dock in the shallows. At times I imagined I was one. The freedom and peace to go and explore and see the unknown.
Looking up at her, I wondered what she was really like. My naive youth romanticizing the transition from young girl to woman. What did she do while I was at school? Was being a mother something she put on at 4 p.m. when the bus pulled up?
She stirs in the bed. I sit there, hopeful she will wake fully and tell me all the words I hate to hear. “I love you. I’m proud of you. You’re going to be okay.” But they don’t come. The whites of her eyes show as her eyelids fight the medicine.
It’s raining. I am four. The gray gloom outside sets my cozy meter at full throttle. In the other room, my mother is making blueberry muffins. She sings while she cooks, and I know the storm from last night is over. My brother is gone, it’s just us. Carmen San Diego sends her agents out on missions, and I stare at the rain running down the window pane.
It is nighttime, and we are searching for nightcrawlers. My mother tapes orange construction paper on the end of my flashlight to trick the worms into coming up. I find the biggest, juiciest ones. Are you proud, Mom? “Put them in the worm box.”
It’s dawn, and I startle awake. Groggy from another nightmare, I stumble into the kitchen to see my mother at her computer that sits at the kitchen table. She is writing a story. “I will finish it for you,” I tell her. Anything to make her happy, and erase the memories of the night before. The broken glasses, the slammed doors.
It is winter. My mother sits on the couch, sobbing. I put on my invisible bravery cape and tiptoe to the living room. Her face is puffy, and she is loud. I whisper to her, “It’s okay, Mommy. When I have kids, I promise you can see them.” She tells me to go to my room. I have failed. If I do better in school, I will be enough. She will be proud of me then, when I am smart.
The doctor knocks on the door and squeaks in with his overpriced tennis shoes. He says more tests. More medicine. More sleep. The beeping starts again.
Don’t leave, I beg silently. You have to tell me that I made you happy.