When I was 14 years old, my father took me fly-fishing. We got up early in the morning, loose t-shirt over shorts, two sizes too big fleece jacket, tall wobbly rain-boots, baseball hat on.
My mother was still sleeping when we left, not bothering me about my hair or boyish attire. My father couldn’t have cared less that I wasn’t pretty, or that I didn’t pay any heed whether my walk was graceful. I slouched in the passenger seat during the drive. A feeling of freedom flowing over my body with the fresh morning air breezing through the car from the open windows.
We silently stood in the river, maybe 10 or 12 feet apart. When my glance dreamily met his he pulled a goofy face. I suppressed a giggle, and returned my own version of a funny grimace. He laughed, boomingly, careless, I joined in. We stood there in the rushing water between the gently waving trees. Birds and insects serenading us.
My mother was sleeping on the couch when we returned home that noon. Face covered with a white silken scarf.
Looking back, I guess we always knew that something was a little bit off about her.
One day she started cooking, dressed up in her favourite summer dress, yellow with ruffled short sleeves, reaching just over her bony shoulders and covering the upper inches of her pale, freckled arms. This exuberantly pleated skirt swished with every movement, showing the ruffles of her white under skirt and petticoat.
Why the petticoat to begin with, mom, why were you always dressed up like a‘20s film star in those moods? Your makeup chosen to match the glamour. Blood red lipstick, the colour’s name was “burning passion”. That meticulously drawn dramatic lid-line, pitch black, thick lashes curled up to reach the sky. Eyebrows, filled in with powder, matching the colour of the roots of your hair. Honey waves, carefully restrained with sparkling pins on one side, above your right ear. You didn’t use rouge, though, you never did. “I’m not a doll” you exclaimed, laughing your silver-bell laugh. “That is your thing”, the emphasis always threw me off. What did you mean by that? The one time I summoned the strength to ask you, you just laughingly put your cold long fingers on each side of my jar and kissed my forehead, leaving a searing mark. I never quite got over the idea that it was an affront. The sweet little doll, your sweet little doll. You were supposed to be my role model! Instead you where the puppeteer. Holding the strings, pulling them, pushing me. I wanted to yell at your face, wipe the blatant lie of “burning desire” off of your face, slap the false lashes from that cold, painfully beautiful face of yours!
She was like that every once in a while. Without a warning. Nothing to prepare us for it in advance.
That day, she just got up, took hours to dress and prepare until she could have starred in a silent movie, and went into her pastel-dream kitchen. It was a regular day, no holiday, nothing to celebrate. Mid April. She prepared the turkey, the feast. Had it sizzling away in all those pans and pots and the stove.
She had baked two pies by the time I got home, and the third was in the second stove, the “pie stove” as she had singingly justified the day the kitchen renovation was finished and friends came over for cocktails and praise.
There were bowls of salads and sides covering the counters, puddings, all the variations of prepared potatoes I had ever seen, glasses and bottles polished and set aside on a lace covered tray, freshly squeezed lemonade in an iced pitcher.
There wasn’t a free space in the entire kitchen, all the surfaces were covered with painstaking perfectly prepared food. She was sitting in the middle of her self-made feast, her castle of dishes. Sitting on one of the ivory coloured stools by the white wood and marble kitchen island. Her chin rested on the palm of her hand, elbow on counter, in a twisted, broken thinker’s pose.
Her eyes were empty, her face as white as the billowing curtains behind her. She didn’t move, didn’t twitch as I walked in, talked to her, asked her who was coming over for dinner. She just sat there, the statue of salt.
When my father walked in and acted out the same routine with her as I had done before him, she let out an annoyed, exasperated breath. He was startled, I was confused, she was frozen. He took a step back, eyes so sad, they burned into my soul and to this day, they still are there.
His voice was broken when he spoke again, after a looming silence.
“What happened, love?”
This simple sentence, said with so much love and pain and care, broke my mother’s shield of salt and ice.
She turned slowly, gently, almost as if it took all her strength, summoning it from her thin, tiny, fragile body, as if she had to fight invisible forces, ropes tying her into her absence, keeping her out of life.
She looked at him, straight into those sorrow filled, loving eyes. Her red painted lips opened slowly, gaping, numbly. Muted.
She collapsed over the counter, arms on the equally white marble, framing the face that was buried in shiny golden waves, skin touching cold clean stone.
And she in cried inexplicable grief, wept, silently howled like a muted hurt animal. Her entire body shook with the force, trembled under the flood of tears. In inexplicable grief.
And then he died. Cancer. The only one who knew how to break the basilisk’s curse that was cast upon my mother. The only one who knew how to bring her back.
The doctors gave him six month. That night, he took me to our favourite ice-cream place. The mountain of skittles, Swedish fish, and Oreo crunch topping the vanilla flavoured cream stood before me on the clean wooden table. He sat across the surface from me. Staring into his own bowl. Caramel swirl ice cream, Reeses’s bites, Swedish fish (our favorite), pecans and rainbow sprinkles.
Our eyes met. “She didn’t take it all too well, did she?” his voice was supposed to sound casual, conversational. But it didn’t. It simply couldn’t be persuaded to sound these words without any sign of the strain, the pain, of how hard it was to him to address this.
After speaking with the doctors, my mother had asked to go home, wanted to go take a quick nap. On the drive home she had sat in the passenger seat, next to my father, cheerfully rambling on about the positive side of it all.
There are more doctors and hospitals with better ways of curing cancer, options and opportunities. The rapidly evolving sciences. Those doctors are probably not up-to-date anyway, they cannot possibly be. There surely is some better specialist we can talk to. You just wait and see. They tell you six months and in twenty years from now we’ll sit on our withered porch, you and I, love, old and shrivelled, and we’ll laugh about all this.
“Guess not.” I shrugged my right shoulder. The way I always did.
He shrugged his right shoulder in return, the way he used to do. Tilting his head slightly, paralleling the movement. Twisting his mouth in a downward half-grin.
He averted his eyes, looked down.
He lived for eight more weeks after that.
The alcohol only increased the effect on my mother, lengthened the apathy phases. Entire days passed without her being able to get out of bed. When I was about 18, in the one year of college experience I could bring myself to suffer through, news reached me that she had passed away, overdosed. Signed out of the life that had become too painful, too fast, too strong for her.
It was painful for me too, yet not as painful as it should have been. I felt guilty for the relief deep down in my chest, knowing that it was easier for everybody. It was bitter sweet. She left, but the abandonment had taken place years ago. When he left, when he was taken. The rock to our turreted souls. The only one holding the remedy, the secret knowledge that not even we could comprehend.
An excerpt of A Doll’s Face.