ART BY JENNIFER C. MAY
Other than the fruit flies that vow to buzz right through summer, the living room stays loyal to silence. The television sits abandoned, suffocating under a screen of ivory dust. The remote has been lost for months. The custom-made calendar Mom ordered on a whim of family portraits with Photoshopped backgrounds hangs crooked on the side wall, still stuck in February 2020. “She’s probably in there,” Mom says lightly, and we tread down the hallway hollowed by darkness.
Behind the closed door at the end of the hall, your murmurs can be vaguely heard, though missing articulation. Strands of the sun seep through the door’s bottom along with the voice. You had begun insisting on shutting the door at all times, as if attempting to preserve the sanctity of the room, pleading for it to stay.
A pause briefly extends, and Mom twists the door handle. Here you are, sitting in front of your makeshift altar, once a bookshelf lined with self-motivating, life-coaching nonfictions. Now, a golden miniature Buddha bathes in incense smoke above apples of tribute that sit until they bruise and deflate.
“We are back, Mom!” She calls out, exhaustion already in her throat. It takes you a few seconds to look over and smile. I bend down to hug you, as you reach up to touch my face. But a hesitation strikes you, leading your hand down my arm, following the limb’s now foreign contours. At last, it settles for my hand, holding on for a while.
“Give me a moment, please, I have to read this scripture a few more times.” You glance at us with soft eyes, before returning your gaze to the altar.
We retreat to the living room, where a plate of washed cherries has sat untouched. I wave away the resilient flies as Mom fills cups with water from the kettle to cool down. We sit and watch the steam rise, reminded of the feverish humidity of the room, our skin turning sticky. I look at the AC unit in the corner, likewise deserted, and don’t bother to look for the remote. The door finally opens, the movements of your wheelchair closely traced by the wooden floorboard, shrieking under every rotation. I stand up to greet you once more, suddenly struck by the pressure of a child desperate to behave.
One summer, I lost my balance on the playground swing while attempting to ride it on my belly, scraping my right cheek against the pavement. When I ran home—blood dripping down my face coated with dampened dust—I was craving grownup affection. You briefly looked up before fixing your gaze back onto the book you were reading. In your hushed voice, you told me I had been five minutes late for dinner before fetching a band-aid. I was shaken down from the pedestal built up by years of chronic coddling, lavishly offered by the rest of my family. Within your sinewy hands that flipped each passing page, your sure pupils glued behind reading glasses, I first learned a love that wasn’t so eager to please.
Now I’m submerged in an abyss I will later understand as loss while you hold the plate of cherries up to me, your hand trembling, “Have some.” You beckon in that same low voice, only now the sharpness has dulled, and the frailty is palpable. I take the plate from you and rest it on the table without eating any, my stomach churning after an oily lunch. But you notice immediately, and raise the cherries once more, “Come on, have some, don’t be so shy!” You smile like the moon, every wrinkle an opalescent scar of time, and press a few into my hand. The dew on the smooth surfaces wets my skin, and the fruits glisten in my palm, a cluster of bloody pearls. I place one on my tongue and bite, letting the rush of syrup overcome me. “Aren’t they sweet?” you ask as I spit out the pit.
You used to come visit us sometimes, but you never liked to stay in our apartment. After dinner, you would thank us for the meal, and quietly put your shoes on. Mom always offered to walk you back to your hotel, but you only let her reach the parking lot before turning her around. One time, she returned with open floodgates, tears darting down her cheeks like lightning. When I panicked, the worst disasters conceivable crammed in my imagination, she whispered from between my shoulder blades, “Just thinking about what I’ll do when my parents are gone—it’ll happen one day, you know?” I am the son of a mother, but until then I had never thought of her as someone’s daughter, too—yet here before me was a child.
Now I’m watching her stand beside you, a handful of pills cupped in her palm, capsules vibrant as emeralds and rubies. We wished for these jewels, the chemicals within we can’t pretend to understand, to save you, to keep you here with us. So it was not just grief, but crestfallen failure that we felt when your aching body started keeping you up throughout the night; when we’d just be downstairs for lunch, and you’d think we were continents away again. “At least it gives her joy,” Mom likes to say, “to think of us traveling this far for her every single day.” What she doesn’t say lies in the shadow of her words: that we’ve begun to rehearse a life without you. Until that moment comes, we’ll keep trying to save you, pretense or else. The water is cool enough now. Your slender hand tilts back the mug over and over. I watch you swallow each pill, imagining the blooming of orchids.