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Unexpectedly vile, my mother was spoiled chocolate, the outside edible, the inside festering with a sordid mold. I hated her look, with auburn hair so curly that it never lengthened, and eyes emaciated, near concave, ebony, burnished like old copper and emaciated like her body. When no one was watching, she gulped battery acid like wine. If she wasn’t frenziedly drinking, then she was vomiting. I doubt she kept anything down, and I hated her for it.
Lena turned evil while convalescing in Bellevue, occupying a white-walled room for two hundred and seventeen days. She wrote me one letter, belligerent and aggravated by the medication the doctors prescribed. “Five large pills in the morning,” she alleged, “two smaller ones in the afternoon and an injection before bed.”
Dad said they strapped her down at night, confined her with short restraints that burned her wrists if she struggled. She told me another story. “They lock me with the fish a night. Down in the basement, they keep tanks of water where monstrous, tropical fish swim.” Lena swam with them, nearly drowned with them.
I replied to her letter, “You’re a pyromaniac, not a psychopath.” She never wrote me again.
My mother was ill, obvious to me, inexplicable to her. She loved every aspect of fire, from the way a stove belched hot flames, to the crackling sound of dying wood. The smell reminded her of birthday candles.
Lena burned all of her clothes once. I was eleven, and it was the middle of June, muggy and oppressive. She stood naked in the backyard, near the willow trees she planted the spring before, her clothes aflame in a putrid, glowing heap. She was naked for days. I bought her the most repugnant clothes at the local thrift store. She wore them, and I hated her for it.
I was never one of those eternally depressed teenagers, moping in the bathroom and burning myself with dying cigarette butts. I had my moments, but it was my mother who wanted to die. She relayed death scenarios at dinner most afternoons, the closest my mother ever came to telling me a bedtime story. Our most recent conversation went like this:
I don’t reply.
Lifeless, black spheres twittered under her rigid eyelids. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to slit your wrists in a bathtub and sink into the warm water and die?”
“No,” was always my answer.
Her thin lips parted again. “That is how the Senators of ancient Rome did it. Drew a bath and just slit their wrists! How glorious, and so full of honor.”
“Honor?” I questioned.
“No one should die just any old way. I don’t think you’re grasping my point, Winnie.” Grasping Lena’s point was like catching a fly in the woods, difficult and completely fruitless. “How about a car crash? They are so wonderfully tragic.”
She rambled on about soldiers falling on swords in Greece and carnage on the tracks of New York City Subways. Then, she stopped, her eyes turning hazy and wild. “Winnie, wouldn’t it be lovely to burn this house, right now?”
“Think of the smell, Winnie, like birthday candles.” Lena raised her arms high above her head, closing those deep, red eyes and licking her thin, dry lips. “We could sit here and let the flames take us. What a lovely sensation dying by fire would be.”
She then left me alone in the kitchen. I hated her for leaving me alone.
Dad left me alone too. For him, I made dream catchers from Mason jar lids, feathers, beads and string. After school, I would take the Metro to the hospital, where we would eat bundles of Ghirardelli chocolate and hang the dream catchers with tape from the nurse’s station.
I loved the way he looked, my Navajo father, with hair black and skin dark and eyes that knew and saw everything. He smelled clean, almost crisp, like mint or Carolina pine.
One day last June he phoned. “I’m having more nightmares,” he said, a side effect of the chemotherapy. The dream catchers weren’t working.
Lena and I visited St. Josephs the next day. Then, if Lena had posed for a portrait, she would have been painted in black, with little white. Solemn and almost exotic, she was a single black queen in a deck of red playing cards. Strangely, I held her hand.
Atop my father’s bed, the dream catcher dangled with his IV bags like Spanish moss on our Georgian trees. Smelling of anesthesia, he was cold and bald. His eyes filled with a sifting, gray fluid, staring attentively forward, as if a black widow dangled above his nose. The doctors drew his lips with graphite into an unwavering, silent line. His bronzed cheeks turned a sickening pale, rough like sandpaper and stretched as a cheap, rubber band. His nimble fingers were hollow, thin and unrecognizable.
That was not my Dad. Those were not the cavernous eyes in which I swam so deeply. I slowly drowned in the gray fluid, gulping in his pain and making it my own. Those were not the lips that entertained the voice textured like Georgian cotton, the lips that told stories of old times. Those fingers never made Navajo dream catchers from deer sinew and sycamore.
I tentatively held the hand that was no longer Dad’s, but a dying man’s with uncut finger nails and skin go rough leather.
At dusk, the hospital machinery beeped wildly, sirens and rifle backfires, an oddly symphonic cacophony. A young nurse and the night staff doctor rushed to save him, but the cancer won.
Lena huddled in the corner, pulling out her tight, curly hair, and crying on the icy linoleum with every ounce of her pathetic soul, drying her out so completely that she never cried again.
After shaking Dad’s hand with a fervent, “Daddy, Daddy come back to me,” I ripped the dream catchers from above his head. Plucking the feathers and unstringing the beads, I threw them at my mother.
She looked up at me innocently, her demon façade suddenly melting like a way candle burned at tremendous heat, with an absence of color in her sullen lips. For an ephemeral moment, although I hated her, I wanted to save her. But I couldn’t.
A month later the fire department surrounded our house, the porch and roof engulfed with an orange, crackling fiend. It was a giant birthday candle, just like Lena wanted. The firemen brought her screaming from the house, her hideous clothes aflame and auburn hair disheveled. They found her alive, hiding in the kitchen cupboard with the bone china and silver tea set.
I cried for Lena. Why didn’t they just let her die? That’s what she wanted. Dying by fire was her only wish. I understood her, the only one who ever could. We were family.
Within the day, she was strapped to a bed at Bellevue, frantic, the doctors injecting a clear fluid into her veins. I sent her white tulips, with a card that simply said: Mom.