When I was 4 years old, my mom died. I do not remember how I transitioned to the absence of her being, or the lack of a voice that shot me up with startling happiness. I do not even remember her voice. Most of what I have are pictures – square shaped, often peeled white around its edges- memories destroyed by wear and tear orchestrated by time.
Time is ruthless in the way it operates, and it does not permit me to remember my mother’s love as everyone else does. Other than the assumption that it was there, just in the right proportion, the validation of those months inside of her and the likelihood of the presence of a sheen quality in her eyes when she first held me. I know my mother loved me in the way that I know the skies will change in the morning. It is the only way I can tell you, the naturalness of a mother’s love for her offspring.
I can’t tell you of a time she fell asleep on the plastic chair next to me, in a narrow hospital ward, after she had watched the fan roll her eyes into dizziness.
I can’t tell you of how she held my wrist as we marched to the field, her feet pounding the soil that she would eventually return to, three or more steps ahead of me, where she would pull the ears of a boy who tried to bully me.
I can’t tell you of a time where I held out my plate to be served in our fluorescent lit kitchen inhabited by yellow cupboards, and on voicing my satisfaction, my mother would go ahead and add an extra spoon of rice, or another square-shaped stone quality of fried beef.
I can’t tell you of the sense of kinship in someone who would have known what my pain feels like just by looking at me, whose eyes were easily wet with worry.
I can’t speak of a time when I wrapped my hands around her waist so thin; they met each other at the back, and sobbed silently into her belly because I didn’t want her to leave the house.
I can only tell you that she gave birth to me, and after 4 years, she died.
My father was grief stricken in the way that I know that I could never survive if I was in his place. He lost a lot of weight and locked himself in his room and sang hymns. The love of his life was reduced to a 6 feet portion of soil between the shadowy ranks of trees in the backyard of his father’s house. He had to run away from the ghosts, the voices, and all the smells of a life that was imagined and planned. My father stayed with his sister several hours away from the place he had met and fallen in love with my mother. The place, on which, seeing her, said she looked like something that was carved from ivory. He ran away from those pictures that hung on the wall of the living room in Mbieri: my mother, in a white turtle neck wedding gown laced intricately by someone who didn’t know her but could understand that a beauty like hers existed and deserved to be wrapped in it; her white teeth escaped from lips coated in red.
Every time I went back to Mbieri, I would stare at the photo. I would force myself to remember something. A distinct quality that came with every human- whether it was a hiccup-sounding laugh, or hand gesticulations that accompanied conversations. Sometimes I made things up. I do not tell myself that I am doing just that. But I close my eyes and a reality that has no means of alteration presents itself to me.
It is peaceful, with the smell of wild flowers that blossom even in the presence of a delicate wind. I can see tufts of feathers falling and floating in the air like the laugh that travels into places that didn’t hold the joke that was just made. It always feels like short-lived kisses, and how they leave you with the possibility of a forever. In that space unbothered by noise, it is just us: my mother and I, as it was, those nine months I was inside of her. I can communicate with her, and she, like the time I kicked restlessly, is the only one that can understand me. Often times I forget that I am standing just by the door, until my sister calls me…or a visitor comes in. Or the sound of fireworks brings me back. That is when I leave that space where the TV my mother and I were watching was so big and colorful, you could see the writings on a football as it is being kicked.
The next time I go back is when I am watching a movie. Many people do not know, but I will have to get them to rewind that last scene, because I had gone to meet my mother. I could be with you, my eyes meeting the expanse of your forehead, but I would also be with my mother. And each time I returned to the present, it always feels like there is a gap hope in the middle of everything. The world I exist in, suddenly disoriented. I start to feel faint and it is as if the ground is too soft to hold me or I have forgotten how to stand.
One time my mother asked if I was happy, that I seemed to be moving through life like a flash of lightning. I tell my mother that I understand the world through loss. It is the one way I can put it- that I read books to find something I couldn’t name, but felt essential to my wholeness. That I move through life with the possibility of loss- the memory of loss and the inviting presence of loneliness. That sometimes loneliness tails me, even though she gave me the loveliest siblings in the world, it tugs me and pulls me from the back. It is as though it wheels me to fall.
Often times I feel as if my heart is outside my chest and hanging idly on a hook like a trophy, and I stare mindlessly at it, unable to understand how it got there, or how to put it back inside. Yet I am incapable of doing anything, and at the end of each day, it ends up looking nothing like it did the previous day. It was as if it shrinks.
Some nights I feel incredibly lonely without her. I cannot sleep, and do not ask me why, for I do not know. I stay awake and wait for her and the restlessness is like a line of ants crawling on my belly. It feels like I am under a black canopy of despair, and don’t have the slightest idea on how to get out of it. If I am lucky, I sleep at 2am but when it is fully morning, everything blurs into a distinct vagueness and I am clogged by a gush of disjointed thoughts and memories of what may have occurred in my short sleep, and then wait for the fog to clear. Sometimes it takes hours to get out of the bed. I have to make an effort to be nice to myself on those days. I would also wish to drag around big lamps with great eyes around, so that I could cover up all that darkness and make it through the circle once again- so I could go home to nothing but the apprehension of witnessing another day that I had survived become night, just to gaze at a million lonesome stars camp on a wide-open sky and wait for her to come.
Other days I feel proud of myself and ready to fight. I notice that as the years move on, I am either getting stronger or time is shifting its weight. Time is ruthless sometimes, but time can also be kind. I feel lightened up on those days, the relief of an uncomfortable knot slowly coming undone.
When I am at my desk, a bottle of wine opened and halved, my first sentences come in a voice that I know could only belong to her. I wonder if she knows that I write to find her. That I write about loss in the way that requests the acknowledgment of, sometimes, the beauty of it. If not something as generous as beauty, but something that passes with intent- gently, a reminder that it was meant to happen, and in return makes me, somehow, okay with the present. On those days I don’t feel a need to forgive myself of something.
I feel something like feathers. It is not happiness I feel but a peaceful emotion. And that eventually turns out to be what sustains me. I don’t go for happiness. Happiness is great but often so far away. In those quiet moments, it is as if a wound had healed itself but left a scar that was still willing to bleed, if it brushes against something.
It was a wound that didn’t want to be completely heal- the sheer finality of healing, too much a thought to bear. Memories shouldn’t float like feathers.
My mother died when I was 4 years old, and yet, many years after, I am still trying to find her beauty with the words I write. I know she is still there. She has never left. But I don’t have to go into that space with the big colored TV anymore. I can just write.