My mother died because she needed to.
It was in our bloodline, our tradition. A human tradition. She bore parasites under her skin, fed them and raised them better than she did her own daughter, loved and hated them more than she did her life. I learnt of the news from the same source that I learnt of everything in my life—anywhere but my parents’ mouths. In this case, it was my grandmother. She stared at me with those small eyes, those dumb eyes, of a life wasted on ordinary, material things, learning nothing even after fifty-four years. Your grandpa was the one who gave it to her, she said, boldly. With all that smoke in his system, it’s a surprise only one of us got it.
I’d like to think the only people one can ever truly love are strangers, those whose flaws you’ve never got to call out on, those whose demons matter the least. Humans don’t love humans, they love concepts. Images. Little toy things to dissect, think over, without ever encountering them. That’s the only way I ever loved my grandfather: as a concept. One of the headless dolls I used to play with when I was five. The most vivid memory I’ve ever had of him is as a dying man, waving carelessly at a little girl in Dora the Explorer nightgowns behind a surgical window. The rest was blurred, history. Immortalization. A grave was dug, a magnificent headstone made. With them, a story, a human being transcending into a deity. The only way my little brother will ever know about my grandfather is behind the glass frame of a portrait, hanging above his favourite antiques. And I’ll always look behind that frame, and think of it as a window into both death and eternal life. I’ll never think of him as a man. He’ll never be a man, to me. He’s always ever been a thought experiment.
I love you, mum, I told her, the day she was about to die. The day our college funds ran dry trying to keep her alive, to attach artificial lungs and electric life into her. I love you, so very much. Her eyes were the glass I’ve been looking through since my grandfather, broken and empty despite being whole. I stared into them for as long as the nurses allowed me to, and that’s how I knew; my mother was never going to be a woman again. She was never going to be a person or even a corpse. In my mind, in my brother’s mind, she’ll always be the heroine of a legend, fighting and dying valiantly against a parasite she’d nurtured just the same. A myth. A Hans Andersen fairy tale.
Her skin was cold, the night she died. I’d never seen a dead body before. I’d seen my grandfather’s closed casket, his body descending into the empty abyss where he’d fly upward into paradise, but I’d never seen his closed eyes. His grim demeanour. The gray of his complexion. The only thing I’ve ever learnt in Sunday school is that the Lord made man out of clay and there was no room to be human in the land of God, and the former was confirmed immediately after I’d met my first cadaver. I could almost feel His hands, shifting the material, planting coal and bits of earth into my mother’s eyes, her smile that stretched kilometres that the world so unfairly shamed, carving just a little bit in the chest to place a maggot in. A creature. A dragon to be slain.
Genetics never did anything wrong. They carried the little deaths, the mutated, indiscriminately, without thinking anything of it. It’s our fault, after all. We’ve birthed parasites into the earth, handed them crowns, fed them feasts. And we’ve passed it on, like an heir to the throne, monarchs of the sovereign nation blessed by the Lord. God save the queen. God save us all.
I will no longer stand for it. A year after my mother’s death, a year after a plague of thought, I’ve come, eye to eye, with the fact that I am going to die. I have faced the fact that I will, just like the generation before me, be a portrait behind glass frames, a woman waving at the reaper from the surgical room. I am going to die. Simultaneously, I am going to live forever. But I will make certain that the parasite never does.