I lost my mom when I was twelve. It happened the day before I got my first period and when I saw the blood on the sheet in the morning, I thought I killed her. What a stupid idea. But how would I have known, I was just a kid with no mother who could have told me it wasn’t my fault.
She didn’t suffer, they say. The bullet hit her head right in between the eyes and went straight through her brain. It was a quick death, an accident, they say. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could have happened to anybody. That’s what they say. Like this would make it more acceptable or less painful.
Well, it didn’t. Because it hasn’t happened to anybody. It happened to my mom. And I didn’t know for a long time how to forgive her for leaving me behind. And I didn’t know how to be a kid anymore because it felt like I wasn’t one and I had to grow up overnight, but nobody taught me how to be an adult.
Nobody told me what to do when I awoke at night in cold sweat, gasping for air, with my heart wanting to burst out of my chest, and feeling not only sad but with an emptiness of a hangar inside. So I cried as long as there were tears in my eyes and when they ran out, I just lay like a piece of dead wood, staring at the ceiling and praying that I could fall asleep at some point to not have to see my mother’s face in front of my eyes.
When the crying didn’t want to stop, I took one of Dad’s leather belts and wrapped it around my neck. I buckled it and pulled it tighter and tighter until I couldn’t breathe and when I started to choke, I couldn’t cry anymore.
There weren’t always tears, though. Most of the time, it was just pain. It hurt in a way I never experienced before. Not like when you fall and scrape your knee or like a wasp sting. More like as if someone took a pair of scissors and cut out tiny bits of the paper-thin skin under your eyes.
But pain wasn’t always a bad thing. There were times when it hurt so much inside that I couldn’t bear it. I thought of dying. A lot. I needed a distraction. I dug out Mom’s tweezers from the drawer of her bedside table and started to pull out my armpit hair one by one. It’d just begun to grow, a few months maybe, so I didn’t have much. On bad days when that wasn’t enough to numb the pain, I plucked the hair in my genital area. And when it hurt so much I got tears in my eyes, I suddenly felt better.
Dad and I hardly spoke to each other. He stopped talking to me. He barely even looked at me, but when he did, I could see the same pallid sadness in his eyes I saw when I looked in the mirror.
Not that I felt like talking, mostly, I didn’t. But there were days when I wanted to say things and would have needed him to listen. But he didn’t. He couldn’t, I guess. I heard him crying at nights when I was awake.
I started talking to the doll Mom gave me to my sixth birthday. Her name was Lola. She became my friend. She listened to me when I wanted to talk and gave me company on my sleepless nights and when I felt lonely. But she couldn’t answer my questions and I got frustrated, so I locked her in the closet and didn’t let her out, not even when she was crying. And I cut all her hair off because she reminded me of Mom too much.
One morning, I woke up to some unusual noise. Actually, it wasn’t unusual at all, I very much knew it, it was just unusual since… you know. It was humming. Mom always used to hum and sing in the mornings while she was preparing breakfast. I sat up in bed and listened carefully. It was the same French song she always sang when she was in a good mood.
Mom was French. Classy and beautiful. Dad fell in love with her when he studied in Paris, on the stairs to the Sacré Cœur. “À la claire fontaine,” she started singing. I walked to the door and listened. Loud clinking shattered her peaceful voice like someone would have dropped a metal container on the tile floor. The smell of cinnamon and pancakes floated in the air. I ran down to the kitchen, and there she was.
When I walked in, she turned and smiled at me. “Good morning, sweetheart. Are you hungry?” she asked and put a plate and my favorite mug, the one with the rainbow, on the table. “I’m making pancakes,” she chirped and showed me a tray full of steaming hot, golden brown pancakes. I sat down and just stared at her. She was more lively than ever.
“What are you doing here?” I finally asked. “What do you mean?” she asked back smiling and poured tea into my mug. I kept goggling at her confused. “I live here, remember?” she mocked. “Not anymore,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on my empty plate.
She pretended not to hear what I said, but I knew she did because her hands were shaking as she slid a pancake onto my plate. And then she started gushing about the decoration she was planning for Christmas and a new recipe she discovered in a long-forgotten cookbook she found underneath her bed, and a lot of other nonsense while I could only focus on one thing: what the hell is my dead mother doing in our kitchen?
I looked up from my plate and waited until she was facing me. “Mom,” I addressed her with unexpected authority in my voice. She winced and almost dropped the syrup she was holding in her hand. We stared at each other for a few seconds; it felt like hours. My heart was pounding in my throat.
“What are you doing here?” I questioned her again, and this time she could hear in my voice that I wasn’t going to take a bullshit answer.
I was watching her face. I could tell she was trying to smile but the muscles around her mouth refused to make the effort. Tears appeared in her eyes. “My clever girl,” she said in a choked voice and stroked my head. “You never believed any silly things adults tell their children, did you?” Now she smiled. She pulled up a chair and sat down opposite me.
“Do you remember when you were little and Dad and I tried to make you believe that they built the tunnel by the river to protect the bridge from rain?” I nodded and tried to smile a bit. “We told you that they would push the bridge into the tunnel when it rained, and you were protesting so vehemently that you moved to the other side of the bus and didn’t talk to us for the rest of the ride,” she recounted.
“I remember,” I mumbled and my face became serious. We stared at each other again. A thousand words were trying to escape my lips but I couldn’t say a word. She was still smiling but her eyes were the saddest I’ve ever seen. I was about to pin her down again, but she put her fingers on my lips and looked deep into my eyes.
“I’m here to answer,” she said softly.
“Answer what?” I asked.
“Anything,” she murmured.
My eyes welled up with tears and I felt dizzy. “Why did you leave me?” I muttered and wiped off a teardrop that rolled down on my face.
She cast her eyes down for a second but then looked at me again and grabbed my hand. She squeezed it so strong, I hissed. “I never wanted to leave you. Do you understand?” I closed my eyes. I couldn’t bear seeing her face. “Please look at me,” she said calmly and stroked my face. I obeyed but could barely see her, everything was blurry. “I’ll always be with you… Here,” she whispered and placed her other hand on my heart.
“It’s not the same,” I snapped.
“I know, darling,” she cooed and was touching me all over my face and my hair. Her eyes became wet. “But this is all I can offer.” She was fighting with her tears. “Leaving you was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but every time, I watch you tossing in your bed at nights or hurting yourself, I want to die again.” She couldn’t hold her tears back anymore, they were flowing down her cheeks relentlessly.
“You can see me?” I asked in awe. She nodded and wiped her tears off with the back of her hand. We stopped crying, but our faces were all wet and we were biting our lips not to start again.
“It’s not fair,” I objected and looked away. She took my face in her hands. “Look at me, honey,” she said and wiped the remainders of my tears with her thumbs. “Life is not fair. And sometimes people – even good people – get hurt. Life can be mean and let bad things happen to good people. Things they don’t deserve, things that don’t make sense, things that make them suffer and cry.”
I wanted to run away. Or die. But every word that left Mom’s lips felt like a warm cuddle for my soul.
I missed her voice so much. And her hands. Her laugh. Her beef stew and even the chewy but delicious escargots. And the way she pronounced “ratatouille.” She’d left France when she was five and spoke perfect English, but her accent came out when she said certain words. And she was so beautiful. All the boys in my class were in love with her. And I think some of their dads, too.
“You are strong. And smart. And you need to keep going with your head held high. You need to push through this, honey.”
She sounded so confident and I believed her; I wanted to believe her, but I still struggled to understand. “Why do I need to carry on?” I questioned her.
“Because life is worth it. Because there’s so much you are yet to experience and learn. There’s so much beauty out there. And I want you to see it all. You have to travel. You have to see the world. You have to fall in love, get your heart broken, and fall in love again. And you have to find your passion, and follow your dreams.” She paused for a moment, gave a heavy sigh, and continued, “And because you have to teach all the things I wanted to teach you to your daughter one day.”
She smoothed her dress down over her hips. “Do you understand now?” she asked. I was hesitating for a second and then nodded. “What do I do with Dad?” I wanted to know.
“Be patient with him. Give him time. He needs you more than ever. And he loves you, he is just a little lost now. Hold his hand and remind him of the beautiful things. You.” She smiled and for a blink of an eye, I did, too. “You can help him,” she added.
“And who helps me?” I asked sheepishly. She took both my hands in hers. “I will,” she said in that soft tone I remembered from when she was singing me lullabies when I was little.
“I’ll lie next to you when you can’t sleep at night and put my arms around you when you feel cold. I’ll wipe your tears when you cry and laugh with you when something joyful happens. I’ll hold your hands when you are scared of doing something and tell you that it’s okay to fail sometimes because that’s how you grow.”
She gazed at me as if she was trying to memorize every single detail of my face and continued, “I’ll be the warmth in the sunshine that strokes your face and the light breeze that catches your hair. I’ll be in your heart and you can always speak to me when you need my advice or just want to share something. I’ll always be with you. And even if you won’t see me and can’t touch me, know that I’ll always be there, watching and protecting you.”
She kissed me on the forehead and squeezed her eyes shut for a second. When she opened them again, there was no sadness in them anymore. They were clear and green and happy. And I could see my reflection in them. It was a happy reflection.
I woke up in my bed and Dad was standing in the door. “Are you OK?” he asked. I pushed myself up and my head felt a little hazy. “I think so,” I replied. “What time is it?”
“Nine in the morning. You must have been exhausted,” he answered. I looked at him puzzled, so he added, “I found you sleeping hunched on the kitchen table.” I was looking around one more time to see if I was really in my room and when Dad saw my perplexed face, he added, “I didn’t want to wake you, so I carried you upstairs.”
Then he stared at the floor. “This was the first time you slept through the night since…” He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t need to. We both knew. And we both wished we didn’t understand each other without words so easily when it came to Mom’s death. But pain was a language we shared. “I should get back to work,” he murmured and off he went. “Daddy!” I shouted after him. He turned back to face me. “Thank you,” I said. He gave a brief nod and dashed off.
I stretched my arms and rubbed my eyes. Something has changed. I felt differently. Lighter. I wriggled out from under my blanket and sat on the edge of the bed. As I slid my feet into my slippers, one of my toes got caught in something. I took off the shoe and shook it out. A gold necklace with a pendant fell on the floor. I picked it up and had a look. I’ve never seen it before. It was engraved and said, “Always with you.”