I attempt to swallow. My heart is in my throat. I hold back tears. The woman who stands before me is 36 and looks a lot like me, but is not me. I squeeze my arms, pinch my thigh to make sure. I don’t wake up.
Her voice is soprano and nasally like mine. Her black, Farrah Fawcett hair frames her round face. We are the same height. We share the same eyes. The same smile. The same white teeth. The same nose. The same long legs. She wears a baggy t-shirt with white-washed jeans, the kind that are tight at the waist and loose down the legs, but make your butt look wider than it is.
“Mom?” I squeak, the only word I can muster.
She flashes her infectious smile.
“It’s me. Your daughter, Kayci.” I want to leap into her arms as I did as a child. I’ve waited over 30 years for this moment. I’ve wanted to feel her arms around me. Hear her tell me she loves me.
What did Dad say about seeing her again someday in Heaven? Was I dead? Were we in Heaven?
“I know who you are.” She is still smiling.
“Mommy,” I whisper, a complete child now. “Where are we?”
“We are here, at home. Our home. See?”
She beckons behind her and suddenly there’s the house. It looks like the current version, not the version she knew before Dad did the additions. I don’t dare take my eyes off of her. I won’t let her leave me again.
“I can’t believe how much you’ve grown. You are a beautiful young woman.”
My face reddens hearing these words from someone I had on a pedestal all my life.
“Am I in Heaven with you?”
I flashback to that morning when I woke up to strange voices in the house. I slid out of bed and padded out to the hallway to see men swarming from the kitchen to the living room. I didn’t see either of my parents.
A man told me to go into my bedroom for a few minutes. I shut my bedroom door and sat on my bed in my Little Mermaid nightie. When I left my room again, the house was still. Mom and Dad were gone. Grandma stayed.
Before Mom answers, cars pull into the driveway. Aunt Jan. Nanny. Pap F. Pappy R. and Gram. I must be dreaming. They are all dead.
“They must be here for the barbecue. Come in and help me bring the stuff out to the pavilion.” She hustles off toward the house.
I’m either dead or dreaming, I tell myself. But I don’t care. I follow her, keeping in step with her. I’m with my mother. I’m helping her with one of her extravagant parties as an adult, putting my hands where she puts hers, planning the food, the entertainment, the seating arrangements.
I feel her energy transmit to me. My hands move with a flourish, grabbing plates, napkins, cups, and plastic utensils. I remember watching her when I was a child and now, I am participating.
I remember Daddy’s face when he pulled into the driveway, bloated and eyes red.
“She’s gone. Mommy’s gone,” he croaked, scooping me up in his arms.
Now I can’t stop watching her. Each movement, every step is extraordinary. I had forgotten what she looked like. I had forgotten the energy she put into planning her parties. She knows exactly where everything is and where everything should go.
“Mommy,” I mutter. Hoping she stops her business for a moment. “I need to know. Were you ashamed of me because I couldn’t twirl the baton like you? Because I couldn’t march in the parade with the other majorettes?”
She stops rummaging with the plastic cutlery. “Oh, sweetie. Why would you think that?”
She steps closer. The tears are a river of salt down my face now.
“Because I couldn’t be as good as you.”
She reaches for me. I melt in her arms.
“You were so young. I never expected you to be perfect. You had just started. It takes years of practice to be good at anything.”
I cling to her as my tears soak her t-shirt. I’m heaving great gulps of air through waterfalls of tears and snot. I squeeze my eyes shut.
I can’t say anything, even though I want to say so much.
I want to tell her I’m sorry for every bad thing I ever did as a child. I want to tell her I’m sorry for being a spoiled brat sometimes.
I want to tell her how much I needed her in my life growing up. She missed seeing me go to prom. She missed my high school, college, and graduate school graduations. She wasn’t there to help plan my wedding. And she wasn’t there to help me through my divorce.
My heart aches for her. I want nothing more than to go back in time to that day. The day the strange men took her away and never brought her back.
I want to tell her I’m glad she wasn’t disappointed in me.
I want to tell her how much I missed her and how much I loved her.
“It’s OK, honey. It’s OK. I’m right here.”
After what might have been minutes or hours, I loosen my vice-grip and look into her youthful face.
“Don’t leave again. Please. Stay with me. I’ll do anything.”
For the first time, I see tears in her eyes now. One seeps out and rolls down her cheek. I burrow my face back in her chest, taking in her sweet scent.
“I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
“Forever. Forever and ever and ever and ever.”