I can’t breathe.
Smoke danced and bounced against the windshield and slithered into my lungs.
In the driver’s seat of our maroon Chevrolet, my mother ashed her cigarette, aiming for the ashtray but dribbling embers to the floorboard.
“Look what you made me do!”
“Mom, please,” I wheezed, “let me roll down a window.”
I had made her angry. She had been trying to quit smoking—for expenses, rather than for health—and I had said something that drove her to smoke again. So she let the smoke fill the car, knowing exactly how it would affect my asthma.
Now I find myself sitting in my own car. Rain fogs the windshield, not smoke, and dances over the headlights, veiling a two-lane, unlit street. My childhood memory fades, but still I can’t breathe. I gasp for air.
My grandfather had contacted me through my half-sister, Caitlyn. He needed to see me as soon as possible “so he could rest in peace.” Great, I thought. I knew this would happen eventually, death being inevitable. But I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this right now.
Four years had passed since I had last spoken to my grandfather, my “Papa.” I had invited him to my high school graduation, but he declined to attend and not explained why. Afterwards he had interpreted my disappointment as desertion and refused to answer any of my calls.
My family just worked that way.
If one family member pissed off another, the one offended would just wash their hands of the perceived offender. My uncle Richie had severed contact with my mother and me for about six years because my mother had tried to have him forcibly admitted into a mental hospital because she imagined he wanted to kill one of her 14 cats. A few years ago he had returned to us filled with an unprecedented desire to forgive.
I had continued the family tradition, cutting ties with my mother just a few months before. Afterwards, I found that stitching myself back together required all of my focus. I didn’t have time for Papa’s sudden demand for attention. But I didn’t really have a choice. He had just turned 81; I couldn’t waste any time.
So instead of studying for my biology exam, after leaving my office and trading slacks for jeans I found myself driving to the middle of nowhere in a downpour, like some horror film, to visit someone I didn’t even want to see.
I had considered bringing my partner, Courtney, because she made me feel safe. But I wondered how my grandfather might react. Even if I didn’t introduce her as my lover, I didn’t think he would have a hard time figuring it out. Courtney wore her hair short, buzzed on the sides, and dressed in men’s suits. I didn’t think he would see what I saw: a woman with beautiful blue-green eyes, a kind smile that scrunched her nose—a woman who exuded confidence and compassion. Papa told me when I was 13 that if I ever dated a “colored” man, he would tolerate it on one condition: I must sterilize myself so that I couldn’t bear abominable mixed children. Wanting to avoid his prejudice, I opted to leave Courtney at home.
I found his driveway down a black-velvet country road and pulled in slowly, the gravel crunching under my white 1991 Honda Accord. Papa had heard me pull up and opened the front door. Light from the living room caught me like a spotlight. It was too late to change my mind.
“Hidey-ho, Calico!” he howled over the rain. I had forgotten he used to call me that. He beckoned me into his rickety trailer-home.
My memory should have prepared me, but the trailer’s condition appalled me: Dark mystery stains covered loose carpet squares. Dingy, amber linoleum peeked between the patches. Crumbs littered every surface — counters, stove, the collapsible side table. The stink of urine permeated the living room. Channeling a habit from childhood, I immediately went on Bug Patrol. My eyes scanned the room for cockroaches or flies.
Before my grandmother passed away, my mother, uncle, two cousins and I had lived with my grandparents. I was 11. The three-bedroom single-wide we shared then was filthier than what surrounded me now. We had a pride of cats that refused to be house-trained. My mother blamed the perpetual mess on me, but I always secretly blamed her for our living conditions. Her constant smoking yellowed the plastic mini-blinds and coated everything in a thick layer of dust.
Now, standing in my grandfather’s living room, I saw who had taught my mother her hygiene habits.
Papa hugged me. He smelled like he hadn’t bathed in months. Long white curls poked out of his shirt, tickling my face. As a child I would run my petite arm through his unruly chest hair and pretend it was a snake moving through the grass. The memory made me stiffen, and I was grateful when he released me.
He was hunched much more than I remembered as he shuffled to his recliner. He gestured for me to sit in the tattered chair opposite. Crossed at the ankles, his bare feet were yellowed with calluses. His toenails curled over the edges of his toes. I shifted my gaze to his eyes, cloudy with cataracts. When did he get so old? When had he stopped taking care of himself?
Papa’s eyes swept over me, taking me in. The last time he saw me I had been a petite five feet, 109 pounds. My long, curly hair had become unruly. Now I sat before him weighing nearly twenty pounds more, my hair chin-length and straight.
His caterpillar brow crinkled. “Did you see my new collection?”
I peered past him and spotted a DVD player, a Blu-Ray player and two flat-screen TVs, one hooked up to each system. Beside his recliner he had stacked hundreds of movies. I imagined him sitting in front of his TVs all day, losing himself in the allure of stories where everything worked out in the end. Life with my mother had familiarized me with this lifestyle.
“Mm. It’s lovely,” I said, not knowing what to say.
“Yeah. I got everything set up just how I like it now. I don’t need help from no body. Why, the other day, I had me a heart attack, and I didn’t need to call no one.”
He stunned me into silence.
“Yeah,” he insisted, “I was sittin’ in my chair, and I had a real bad pain in my chest. I thought, I’m havin’ a heart attack. You know other S-O-Bs woulda gone crazy if they knew that, but not me. I walked real slow to my room, and I just laid down on my bed—”
“You laid down?!” His tranquility amazed me, like dying was the most natural thing in the world. And I supposed it was. But that didn’t mean he should just lie down and let it happen to him.
“Oh, yeah. I knew I just needed to stay calm, and it would pass. Or it wouldn’t, and I’d go right up to heaven—if the good Lord lets me in, anyway.”
I recalled vaguely that my grandfather had once called himself a Protestant, but I had never seen him go to church, pray or read the Bible. The nonchalant nature of his beliefs caused me to forget them. I wanted to comfort him, somehow, certain that his courage in the face of death had been a facade. I was an atheist, but I would have liked to believe that we “go to a better place,” that this magical land was waiting for us when the time came. My grandfather would do anything to get there, it seemed.
As I pondered the afterlife, he continued: “Now I’ve got this little squiggly guy that moves in front of my eye ball, and that’s kinda irritatin’, but I don’t think the heart attack hurt me too bad, other ’n that.”
I had scoffed at the simplicity of his life, a man with nothing but loneliness to keep him company. But I envied him, too. I admired his bravery. In spite of myself, I was starting to like him.
“Anyway, don’t tell Libby about it. The heart attack. It’d just upset her.”
My stomach turned. “Mom and I aren’t speaking anymore, Papa.”
I glanced at my left forearm where the scratch marks had finally faded. Her words had haunted me for weeks: “When you wake up and realize what you’ve done, don’t bother trying to find me or any of the rest of the family!” The night of my twenty-first birthday, in a drunken stupor, it all came crashing in. I had sobbed inconsolably, screaming like a 5-year-old, “I WANT MY MOMMY!” I dragged my own fingernails over my skin because I needed to hurt something. Courtney had wrapped her arms around me and held me until morning. She had stayed with me, even with things got hard. I had never known that kind of love before.
I didn’t think this would surprise Papa too much; after all, he was also estranged from my mother. Still, his concern for her feelings annoyed me.
Then he started to cry, his fuzzy, liver-spotted head bobbing as he shook with grief. I didn’t know what to do. When my mother cried, usually as some kind of manipulation tactic, I would just roll my eyes. Now my indifference kept me from feeling compassion for my grandfather.
I stared at my hands and waited for him to finish.
“Yer mama...” His raspy voice cracked. “She died once. When she was two and had the measles. She stopped breathin’, and they took her away. She was gone a long time.”
“Who took her away?”
“The doctors,” he answered impatiently. “She was gone for hours and hours. And we didn’t think she was gonna come back. But then she did. She was OK. But now I think...” He sat up, suddenly dry-eyed and serious. “I think she had a blood clot in her brain from when she died. And then when she had the car accident—remember the one she had?”
I shook my head. “Oh, wait,”I said. He had jumped forward about thirty or forty years. “Maybe. Was I really little?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, she had the car accident, and I think it dislodged her blood clot, and that’s how come she has her sleepin’ problem. That blood clot must have moved right over, and now she can’t hardly breathe when she’s sleepin’.”
My mouth hung open. “Um … did the doctors tell you she had a blood clot?”
“Well, no,” he pouted. Clearly, he had worked on this theory for a long time, and I had spoiled his big discovery. “I didn’t ask ’em nothin’ like that. When yer baby comes out of the ER like that, alive when she was dead, you don’t ask questions. You just thank God for givin’ you a second chance. A father just knows.”
“Oh,” I said. If he wanted to believe he knew the answer, why should I take that away from him?
“Anyway,” he sighed. “I wanted you to do something for me.”
This was it: The moment I had been waiting for. The real reason I was here.
“You know I can’t hardly see computer buttons no more, and I couldn’t do it justice. You’ve always been the writer in the family. I want you to write a book about my life.”
I processed what he said in stages. I was confused. Then I got angry. He hadn’t bothered to ask me about my life. How incredibly selfish to just assume that not only would I have all this time to put together his entire memoir, but that I would even be interested.
But then I saw the silver lining. He would tell me everything.
In my last conversation with my mother, I had asked her to explain some things about my childhood that I didn’t understand: Why did she keep me but send my half-sisters away—Caitlyn to a foster home and Kaylee to live with her own father? How could she blame me for “letting” her get evicted from her apartment—again? Why couldn’t she accept responsibility for any of her issues?
My mother answered my questions with her own questions. How could I be so disrespectful and ungrateful? What in the world had she done to deserve this?
“You are not the child I raised,” she spat. “I was the one who put a roof over your head and food in your mouth and kept you safe as much as I could. But I suppose that just wasn’t good enough for you.”
The pretentiousness of it made me shaky and sick. I had been homeless several times during my childhood, sleeping in our car and couch-surfing for most of high school. I had begged my mother to get a “real” job so our home wouldn’t be threatened every month. As a teenager, I started working so I could help pay the bills. If anything, I kept a roof over her head and food in her mouth. The illusion of her parenthood had been shattered. She turned her back on me.
But here was the key. Papa’s life story. He would explain to me all the things I didn’t understand. Finally someone would tell me the truth. Through Papa’s eyes I would see what my mother had been like as a child, how she grew to be a self-made victim, unable to see past her own problems.
Above all else, I understood my true role here—my frightening, morbid, exhilarating role: I would play Papa’s priest and he would confess to me all his sins. He would make amends with me. And then it would finally be all right for him die.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
I was eager to start. During my next visit I brought my leather-bound journal. Perched before him, I opened it to a blank page, my ballpoint in hand.
My subject, Ronald A. Hamer, reached a withered hand beside his recliner and pulled out a black and white notebook. His fingers shook as he turned the pages. I jotted down his words as quickly as I could.
“I began basic training for the Army in Fort Knox Kentucky, 1948,’ he began, glancing up. “I was 17 years old. I was stationed there for a while, and then in the Christmas of 1949, I took the train to visit my brother, Warren.”
I had no idea he had a brother. It occurred to me just how little I knew about his life.
“I met a man on the train. We exchanged pleasantries, and we went on our merry little ways. No big deal. Well, after the visit, I go to the airport to get back to base, and who’s at the airport? So-and-so from the train, and he’s not just some Joe-Blow-Schmo—He’s a general!”
I made a small sound of awe, which seemed to appease him. “So I walk up to him, and say, ‘Hey, I met you on the train!’—but as I’m walkin’ up on him, three of his guys are ready to jump me. But he calls ‘em off. Well, he invites me to ride beside him on the plane. He took me to his barracks and let me sleep in a cot there for the whole night.”
He stopped, grinning smugly. I waited.
“And then what?”
Papa frowned. “And then nothin’. That’s it. The general picked me to come stay with him at his barracks. Two guys from my station were there watching the whole thing happen. They knew he picked me.” He paused here with an air of finality. The story was over.
I worried my lack of enthusiasm would deter him from continuing. But he found his next note and pressed on.
“Not much longer after that, I was stationed in Seoul, Korea as a prison guard. I was in charge of guardin’ 232 prisoners. There was this little boy — prob’ly ’bout six years old — and we had caught him puttin’ poison in a well—hopin’ to kill some of us off, see? We had to lock him up so the enemy couldn’t use him as a weapon again.” He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow.
“We had about maybe 200,000 prisoners in all, and at a certain time, they would all start doin’ this religious chant. It was really somethin’. It didn’t matter what you were doin’ when it happened, you just stopped and listened.
“Anyway. After work one night, I was walkin’ around in the rubble or what-have-you, and I found these two Korean children. They were twins, one boy and one girl, and they were six years old. The boy’s name was Chung Su, and the girl was named Chung He. Ain’t that a kick? Boy named Su, and a girl named He.” He snickered at the absurdity. What a topsy-turvy world we lived in.
“I would take ’em out to eat and take little He to go get her hair done and—”
“Wait,” I interjected. “You just, like, found some kids? Just wandering around? Where were their parents?”
Papa pierced me with sorrowful, knowing eyes. “Well, they were orphans. People could barely take care of themselves, let alone their children.”
I remembered something my therapist, Joan, had told me during one of our sessions, right after my mother and I parted ways:
“Your mother is like a vending machine,” she said. “You go to a vending machine and try to get something out of it—like love—but when it doesn’t give you what you want you get mad, like you’re mad now. But if no love was ever put into it, how can you get mad when it can’t give you what you want?”
Now I felt I understood her analogy for the first time.
“When I had to go back to America,” Papa continued, “little Chung He and Chung Su asked me, ‘Why you no stay here?’ I told ’em, ‘It’s just my time to go.’” He had tricked them into loving him, and now he was abandoning them, just like everyone else in our family. I knew how they felt. When I was four, I had this recurring nightmare: I had wanted to leave our trailer with my Mom. On my way to the car though, I realized I left my blankie behind, so I rushed back to retrieve it. When I went back to the car, she was gone.
“There was nothin’ I could do,” Papa said. “That was the last time I ever saw ’em.” He spoke with an even voice, watching me.
Then he was off again.
“When I was 12, I found out my Aunt Ruby had ESP.”
I arched an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” he insisted. “One evenin’, Ruby came and picked us up in her car ’cause we were goin’ to her place for supper. Well, on the way to her house, Ruby says, ‘Hattie, stop the car!’”
“Well, my mother, of course.” He pressed his paper-thin eye lids shut, retrieving his train of thought.
“Right. So she says, ‘Stop the car! Go in there and find Chester.’ He was her eldest son.” Although he hadn’t said it, I assumed they had stopped in front of Chester’s house. “So, Ruby’s carryin’ on like Chester’s been kill’t or somethin’.” He stopped again, looking off into the distance, probably envisioning the horrors that had befallen poor Chester. I didn’t believe in clairvoyance or any of that stuff, but his story had my attention.
“And then what happened?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothin’,” he said. “I’m just illustratin’ her ESP.”
I stifled a sigh. No way I could ever transform these anti-climactic stories into a book.
“I’m just sayin’,” Papa resumed, “that it runs in the family. I had me some spells I couldn’t ‘splain. You sit there and you’re thinkin’, ‘This poor ole bastard,’ but I’m tellin’ you. It’ll happen to you one day.”
Over the course of our next few sessions, the threat of death started to seem distant to my grandfather. He spoke about it less and less; his crumpled, worried brow gradually relaxed.
One evening, I gathered the courage to ask him about his family. He seemed irritated. The details of his family seemed minor in the grand scheme of his book. But he indulged me. Hamer.” He pronounced the name slowly, a pause between each part as though just to utter it disgusted him. “His mother had been a prostitute. He had been a bastard.”
The term stung because it described me. The product of a one-night stand, I had never known my father.
“Well, did you have any siblings? I mean, other than, um...” I scanned my journal for the name. “Warren?”
“Mmhmm. I had two sisters. Roberta and...” He hesitated, searching his memory for her name. It astonished me that he could still recall his military ID, but couldn’t remember the name of his own sister. “Berla,” he whispered through tears. “I never knew her. She died before I was born, a victim of parental abuse. Not my mother,” he added bitterly.
My heart fell into my stomach. “Did your dad ever hit you?”
Papa barked a sharp laugh. “Which time?”
My mother had punished me in creative ways, but she had never hit me. She had never even spanked me.
I heard my mother’s voice again. I found myself back inside our old maroon Chevrolet, McDonald’s bags piled to the edge of my seat.
“Manny, look at that one,” Mom would say, pointing at a green, wooden house. It had a white picket fence and a spacious back yard. I had never seen anything more beautiful.
“If we lived there, we could get ourselves a puppy!”
We imagined ourselves in this house or that—our favorite game. “One day, maybe God’ll send us a miracle, and we can live in a house just like that.” We drove around creating new lives in a world we could never touch. This was one of the happiest memories I had of my mother. I didn’t understand why it made me so sad.
As the night went on Papa recalled Roberta’s promiscuity, how she had borne many “illegitimate children.” A pattern beginning with my great-great-grandmother and ending with me. The women in my family had looked for love in the faces of strangers when we couldn’t find it at home. We decorated our bodies to lure suitors, hoping maybe—just maybe—the next one would stay.
I couldn’t handle any more stories like this. “Um. Can you tell me … how you met Grandma?” I hoped to bring a little romance into this tragedy.
“Well,” he said, wetting his cracked lips with his tongue, “I was workin’ at the AC comp’ny when I met Grandma. Her family didn’t approve of me … but we went an’ got married anyway in 1960.”
I calculated with irrational jealousy: they had conceived my mother inside of wedlock.
“My favorite thing to do with yer Grandma,” Papa continued, his cloudy eyes twinkling, “was gamble. We would go whenever we could. Sometimes we’d spend our electric bill money gamblin’, and we’d just sit in the dark and not even care.”
During my childhood Grandma and Papa would go to Shreveport occasionally, sometimes taking my mother or uncle with them. I didn’t know what “gambling” meant but I knew it cost money. It confused me that they had money to gamble and buy cigarettes, but not candy or new toys or real fruit. I pictured my mother as a child, hungrily peering into a powerless refrigerator, her dinner spoiling before her eyes. I had never before considered her childhood struggles.
“Papa,” I began cautiously, “do you think maybe you were addicted to gambling?”
“Oh, yes,” he admitted. “I was addicted for sure.”
His casual tone revealed his blindness to the repercussions of his actions, to their effect on my mother. I might have hated him for damaging her, for causing her to damage me. But the hate dissipated. Without meaning to, Papa had answered all my great “whys.” I understood my family’s history, and that understanding made it harder for me to hate it. I felt sorry for this man, who had felt important only a handful of times. But I also felt something else, something new.
I had grown to love him.
I brushed my teeth with such intensity that I peppered my bathroom mirror with toothpaste. I was running late for work, a weekly ritual. Make-up tubes and contact supplies cluttered my side of the counter. As the dreaded Finals Week crept closer, my desire for relaxation overruled cleanliness. For the same reason, several weeks had passed since I had last visited Papa.
Courtney stumbled over my dirty laundry, looking for a tie to match her suit. A knock came at our bedroom door.
“Come in!” I gurgled.
Cecilia, our roommate, walked in cautiously, phone first. It displayed a message from Leighton, my high school boyfriend. Weirdly he had befriended my mother. After our final farewells, my mother had posted on Facebook: “Amanda needs prayer. For healing … Her past, her lack of having the parent she wanted. Her anger issues. We are no longer going to associate with each other again. My friends, I will need prayer for the loss of a child.”
Ceci had commented, “She’s obviously way better off without you. You were never a mother to her.” Leighton loudly disagreed. I told him to mind his own fucking business, just before blocking him on Facebook and severing all ties.
His message to Ceci said, “Sorry to bother you, but St. David’s Hospital in Austin just called me and told me Amanda’s mom had a respiratory arrest. She’s in ICU right now. Just thought someone should know.”
Ceci’s face registered concern. I felt empty. “Thanks for showing me that,” I muttered and continued my morning routine with shaking hands.
At work I couldn’t stop myself from sneaking away from my desk to call the hospital. Between rings I considered hanging up the phone. This was stupid. Mom was going to be fine. But I thought of the journal entry I had written after our last exchange. In a hurricane of raw betrayal and rage, I had said things I didn’t mean: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but … I want her to die in her fucking car. I want her to be homeless, with nothing but that shiny money-pit to keep her company, because it will mean that everyone will have finally stopped enabling her.”
A cheery voice interrupted my thoughts. “St. David’s North. This is Megan.”
“Hi, um, are you Elizabeth Hamer’s doctor?”
“I’m her nurse. Who’s this?”
I felt sick. “I’m her daughter. Amanda.”
“Oh, hi!” she squealed. “She’ll be so happy to know you’re on the phone. Would you like me to transfer you to—?”
“NO!” I shouted. “Sorry. No. Actually, could you not even tell her that I called? We’re not really that close. I just wanted to see how she was doing.”
“Oh,” Megan nearly whispered. “OK, sure. Well, Miss Hamer had been trying to fall asleep in her car two nights ago—because she’s been living in her car for the last few months—and she wasn’t able to breathe properly. She called 911, but she couldn’t give an exact address. The EMTs found her unconscious in her vehicle in front of a gas station and brought her in from there.”
My heart hammered against my chest; sweat beaded on my forehead. It was as though this nurse had read my journal entry back to me. Papa’s warning ran through my mind: It’ll happen to you one day. Had I prophesied my mother’s episode? Or worse: Had I caused it to happen with my thoughtless ill-intentions?
No, that was ridiculous. This was how our relationship worked. Mom would always manipulate me into thinking I had somehow caused her problems. But her respiratory arrest wasn’t my fault. I didn’t put those goddamn cigarettes in her mouth.
“She’s OK now, for the most part,” Megan was saying. “We had her hooked up to a ventilator, but she’s breathing on her own right now. I’m really glad you called because I need your permission to give her a PICC line. She’s resisting, but this is really what’s best for her.”
I wasn’t equipped for this. I didn’t know how to take care of myself, really, let alone my mother. “Um. Like, what is it though? Why does she need it?”
“Well, it’s something we put in her upper arm that feeds to her heart. It will help it pump her blood better.”
“Wait a second. I thought the problem was with her lungs?”
“We think that the main reason for her respiratory arrest was that blood wasn’t able to flow to her lungs properly, which is a heart issue. We’re not sure yet, but judging by the severe swelling in her legs, we’re fairly certain she has heart failure.”
The air conditioning whirred, vibrating my body. The walls, the tile, the windows—everything breathed except me. In another room Josie, my boss, laughed obnoxiously, oblivious to my problems. Her biggest problem was deciding which pair of shoes to buy online.
My mouth was dry.
“Yeah,” I croaked. “Sure. If that’s what she needs.”
“OK, thank you. You’re doing the right thing.” She paused, deciding whether she should say something else. “Would you like me to call you? To update you on how she’s doing after the procedure.”
“Hmm? Oh. Yeah, please, do that.” I gave her my number and hung up.
I trudged back to my desk in a daze. A crazy idea popped into my mind: Maybe I should go see her…
No way. I couldn’t talk about her without feeling ill, let alone see her. Just because she had a near-death experience I had to drop everything and tend to her needs? Typical Mom, playing the victim. Typical Amanda, playing the parent.
But this time she wasn’t pretending. She hadn’t faked her respiratory arrest. I updated Courtney, Ceci and my sisters on Mom’s condition. As if reading my mind, Courtney texted, “Do you need to go see her?”
“I don’t think so,” I answered. “The doctors are taking care of her. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Yeah, but what if something happens?” came her reply. “You know you’ll never forgive yourself if you’re not there with her.”
I left her text unanswered.
Paperwork piled on my desk. Josie called me into her office and inquired about my work ethic. “My mom is in the hospital,” I explained flatly. “It’s OK,” I murmured. “They’re taking care of her.”
“Well, do you need to go see her?” Josie asked, ready to grant this favor then later hold it over my head. I realized then that I hated her so much because she reminded me of my mom.
“Maybe,” I heard myself say, and I started to panic. A few moments ago, I had been assuring myself my mother was definitely going to live. No need to drive the three hours to Austin.
“I’ll let you know by the end of the day,” I said.
Back at my desk, I realized I hadn’t told my grandfather yet. The few people who had his number would not think to call him. It had to be me. I pulled out my phone and dialed his number.
“It’s me, Papa.”
“Hey there, kiddo. To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?”
“Mom is in the hospital. She had a respiratory arrest, but they said she’s doing better now…”
“The doctors,” I answered irritably. “They’re supposed to update me in a little bit, so I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
“Calico,” Papa said sternly, “I need you to give me the hospital’s phone number. I need to call ‘em and tell ‘em about Libby’s blood clot. They gotta know about it ‘fore they do any operatin’.” I blinked at the computer monitor before me. Four years had passed since they last spoke. What was I supposed to do?
“Fine,” I murmured.
The day inched onward. Ritually, I glanced at my cell phone. Mom couldn’t die, not after all the horrible things I had said to her. Not after the terrible things I had written. I stared at my hands, useless in my lap. Crossed at my wrists, they looked like a spider, a monster.
“It’s gonna getcha!” I heard my mother say. I was a small child, snickering and hiding under my blanket. “Oh, no,” Mommy said, “a blankie can’t save you from … THE TICKLE MONSTER!” I shrieked delightedly as her scurrying fingers wandered over my stomach. “Manny, shh!” she hissed, stopping suddenly. “You can’t be screamin’ like that. You’re gonna make people think I’m hurtin’ you.”
My phone vibrated against my desk. I snatched it up before the first ring finished. “Thanks for calling.”
“I said I would,” Megan chirped. “First of all, um, your grandfather called us—”
“I know, I know.” I shut my eyes. “Just—how did it go?”
“We finished the procedure and it was successful. But I just wanted to let you know there’s a good possibility that we’ll have to perform open-heart bypass surgery. We’ll have to run a few more tests before we’ll know for sure.”
“When will you know?” Today, I willed her to say. I needed this to be over.
“The earliest will be tomorrow,” Megan answered. “If you wanted to come see her, she’s stable enough to receive visitors. Just in case.”
Silence reverberated between us.
I stared at my feet and found myself wearing my favorite Esmeralda tennis shoes. I was six years old, queasy from telling Mommy the secret her boyfriend had asked me to keep. She had gritted her rotten teeth, fighting back tears. She glanced at me sideways, looking into my eyes. “We’re never gonna see him again, OK? That’s never gonna happen to you again. I promise.”
“Well,” Megan sighed, dragging me back to the present, “I’ll just let you go—”
“Wait.” My insides burned, but now from anxiety and fear. Only weeks before the cause had been hate.
Despite everything I realized I needed my mom: the woman who cried every Christmas because she couldn’t buy me what she thought I deserved, the woman who treasured everything I ever wrote—even a piece I scribbled in the third grade explaining that for Christmas what I really wanted was a new mommy.
For all my efforts to prove that I could live without her, I couldn’t. She made me. Not just in body, but in mind. I was who I was—stubborn and smart, crude and creative, guarded and giving—because of her. And she was who she was because of Papa.
I thought about how brave Papa had been to reach out to me after all these years, about how humble Uncle Richie had been to forgive my mom. Our family’s first instinct in the face of conflict was to abandon those closest to us. But now, a new cycle was forming.
I knew that understanding the past wouldn’t change it; it wouldn’t change her. I was sure she would always blame me for her troubles, expect me to come to her rescue. But she was more than just my mom. She was human. She had a past that had shaped her life, a past that influenced her greatest triumphs and her biggest mistakes, just like I did. Just like everyone else.
My perception of my memories had shifted in a way that made me glimpse a brighter future. I realized I didn’t need her to change because I was different. Maybe that was enough.
“Is she awake now?” I asked.
Megan paused. “Yes.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but the words hesitated on my lips. My mother’s last words to me still ran through my mind, and insecurities still swarmed around them: “When you wake up and realize what you’ve done, don’t bother trying to find me!”
What if she doesn’t want to see me?
What if she can never forgive me?
What if she can’t love me back?
I knew the answer. I just needed to love her anyway. That’s what “unconditional” meant.
“Could you transfer me to her? I need to tell her I’ll be there tomorrow when she wakes up.”