Mommy in Four Acts

December 1, 2010
Act One
The hot air hits me full force, swallowing me whole in one big gulp. I squint in the light of West 84th Street, emerging onto the same pale grey square of sidewalk I always did on all the countless trips to Daddy’s Office. This trip was quick; we were just dropping something off. Mommy only puts one quarter in the meter, sure we’d be back in time. She’s good at stuff like that, estimations and guesses and knowing when everything would work out. I look up at Mommy, and, subsequently, the sky, since they look around the same level, at least from down here. Her sunglasses glint in the glare, and as I watch I see her body stiffen. I blink and suddenly she’s gone, the legs I know better than my own no longer at eye level. I freeze in the middle of the street, not sure what to do. All around me, people walk briskly by, finishing their lunch hour in a rush to escape the heat. Before I can even move, huge, strong, callused hands swoop me up, higher in the air than I’d ever known. Smiling at me is a large, friendly man with gray hair and a face I recognize and trust (instinctively, for some reason). We cross 84th street, passing Ollie’s and Coach, turning slightly to where Mommy stands in front of the meter, arguing with the stout, tight-haired parking lady about to place a ticket on our car. Mommy glances at us, then back to the woman, then suddenly back to us, her hands flying to her mouth. She grabs me from the man’s hands, horrified, apologetic, thankful, ashamed, pulling me tight tight tight against her chest. I put my arms around her neck, happy to be back in my place. She places me in my carseat and buckles me, double and triple checking the latch. The parking lady stands idly by, and Mommy accepts the ticket without a word, climbing into the driver’s seat. We ride home in silence, and I can see her face contorting, struggling with what just happened. When we get home, she grabs a phone and runs to the bathroom, closing the door and leaving me on the other side. I stand in the hallway, waiting, because maybe, probably, she’ll come out. When she doesn’t, I peek in and see her sitting on the toilet, phone cocked between her shoulder and ear, head in hands, tears streaming down her face. “I’m a bad mother!” she wails over and over again, and I know Daddy’s on the other line, sitting in his spinning chair with the speakerphone on, listening to her self-condemning protests. “No, but I am!” A fresh burst of tears follows. I know she doesn’t see me through the crack, the pale, yellowish bathroom light just visible. My stomach twists and tangles, over and under, as this strange sight presents itself: I have never seen Mommy cry. Mommies didn’t cry; I cried, and Mommy fixed it. Who was going to fix her? Something inside me pulls, and I desperately want to wrap my short little girl arms around her neck and assure her that I was fine, totally fine, please don’t cry, you’re the best Mommy anyone could have.

Act Two
The tears stream silently down my face, even though this isn’t new news. I stand behind the couch, champagne in one hand, the other resting lightly on the suede couch. Mommy stands next to me, hand close to mine, slightly longer and bonier. Her tears are silent too. We both listen to the man talk about the great times he had with my grandfather, her father, with heads cocked, wan smiles waiting to peek out. She glances down at me and strokes my hair, as I move almost imperceptibly closer to the crook of her body, folding my 13 year old body against hers. As the man finishes, choking back tears of his own, we all clap, appreciative of one more piece of insight into Bapa’s life. I glance towards DaiDai, watching her shoulders shake and her face crinkle with the attempted composure. Mommy looks too, and walks over, placing the hand unburdened with champagne on the small of her mother’s back. DaiDai leans in, resting her head on Mommy’s bony shoulder. Mommy reaches up and smoothes the wavy, salt-and-pepper hair. I see her whispering quietly in DaiDai’s ear, soothing her with words no one else can hear. I watch as Mommy plays mother to her own, embracing her and shouldering DaiDai’s pain along with her own. I think back to the countless late night phone calls; “I can’t talk right now, I’m on the phone with DaiDai.” Remember the spontaneous flights to DC and back; “I need to go down to Virginia for a few days, Bapa’s back in the hospital.” I watch as the hollow, not-quite-whole look that has spread throughout Mommy’s face recently is mirrored in her mother, the latter looking to Mommy for the same things I always did, and the same things I know Mommy once looked to DaiDai for.

Act Three
Her loose pajama pants swish around her legs and she moves briskly across our hideous, fluorescently-lit kitchen from counter to counter. The peeling linoleum tiles are freezing under my feet as I come in, hair tangled and bushy, in my flowered ruffled nightgown. Even at 9, it’s still my favorite. The sunporch window rattles with the winter wind, and I get that feeling I always do that our 200 year old farmhouse is about to have its last year. The clock on the microwave displays a green 9:10 and Mommy turns around as I come closer. She flashes me a big smile before turning back to Joy of Cooking, her bible, running a floury finger down the recipe, brow furrowed. I tippy-toe and look in the bowl: pancake mix. I slump back onto my heels with a huff, disappointed. I hate pancakes. Mommy gives me a sly look and points to the black piece of equipment I now see plugged in a little ways down the counter: Grom’s inherited waffle iron. Jacob runs into the kitchen with his plastic cars, excited to see I’m awake, and even more excited at the prospect of waffles for breakfast. We’ve never had homemade waffles. We pull the rickety wooden kitchen chairs over to where my mom is standing, hopping up on either side of her to watch as she pours the thick, creamy goop onto the black, ridged pan. She shuts the lid tight, smiling at us as she presses down. As we watch, a trickle of thick, black smoke starts to ease its way out of the back of the machine. More trickles follow until it becomes a thick, puffy mass of smelly smoke, billowing from what seems to be every opening in the iron. Mommy yanks the plug out of the wall, holding the waffle iron by its handle arm’s length from her and dashes into the mudroom. We feel a blast of cold air as she throws the door open and tosses the smoking contraption into the foot of snow at our doorstep. It lands with a hisssss, sinking to the bottom and leaving a hollow, pan-shaped dent in the dune. She comes back into the kitchen laughing, bemoaning the fact that we have all this waffle batter and no waffle maker. Suddenly, she jumps up and grabs a frying pan, turning our weak, electric stove on to high. The bright red circle flickers on, alerting us that yes, maybe sometime in the near future this burner will be getting very hot, but don’t worry, it’ll take a while. She places the pan on top and butters it, and then proceeds to pour an ample ladleful of waffle batter into the pan. Jacob and I watch, entranced. “Waffle pancakes!” she exclaims, fixing the near-disaster in a split second and turning it into something even better as only Mommy can.


Act Four
Walking in the door, I already know it isn’t good. Daddy’s standing over the kitchen table, his back to me as I walk in, turning around to face me. Mommy moves out from the kitchen and I see her red eyes and the tissue that is her most common accessory these days. I close the door behind me as Daddy says softly “Sean died.” “What?” I reply, reaching up to take the headphone out of my ear, although already knowing what the response is going to be. “Sean died,” he repeats. I stand there for a moment, iPod, phone and shopping bag in one hand, purse in the other, before feeling Mommy’s arms wrap around me. I feel mine reach up around her back, pulling her as tight as I can, as if by fusing our bodies, I can make her stop hurting. I feel her tears on my neck and hear myself wailing, loud, gasping, lung wrenching sobs; much louder than anything coming from Mommy. That isn’t fair I think. Why should your cries be louder than hers? He isn’t your twin. But I can’t help it as Daddy strokes my back, supporting both his girls from farther back. This is what we need, he knows. I think back to the conversation I had with Mommy, sitting on her bed as I showed her my photos. “What makes this so hard me,” she said through shaky sobs, “harder than when Bapa or Tante Francoise died, is that Sean’s always been there for me. There’s never been a time when we’ve been in the world without one another, and I just can’t imagine life without him.” She shuddered and her shoulders collapsed, her chin falling to her chest as I stroked her leg, my own silent tears making their way down my face. “And there are just so many things,” she began again, “that I regret, or that I wish I’d done differently now. And we’ve gotten so close these past years and I’m so thankful for that, but I just…” She couldn’t finish. Holding her now, feeling her body contort to mine, lean against mine as if she’d tumble over if I moved away, I suddenly realize how long ago I abandoned the sentiment that Mommy doesn’t cry. And all of a sudden, I am crying for her, for the heart-shattering, unimaginable pain that I know I can’t shield her from, no matter how tight I squeeze. But I want it to just be enough, to hold her there, suspended in all her pain and strength, and tell her that things wouldn’t be fine, but they’d be better, you can cry, I’m here this time, you were the best sister he could have had.





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