When I lost my father, I gained my mother. I’d convinced myself since I was a child that I didn’t need her. My father was enough. There weren’t any epiphanies, just a gradual relinquishing of hope for us. The night she called to tell me he’d died from a sudden heart attack, I lowered my phone to the counter without saying anything. I picked it back up a second later, but she’d already hung up.
I stood in my studio apartment in North Berkeley, circling a wooden spoon in a pot of red sauce. I wanted to retreat into one second ago. My father had been a phone call away, and I’d tasted the sauce at intervals the way he liked to do if my mother let him in the kitchen long enough to make what she called a ridiculous mess. I’d been holding the spoon to my lips and blowing first, even though I’d only poured it from a jar. This would have made my father laugh and my mother roll her eyes.
I stirred and tasted, but it was impossible to erase the knowledge that she’d given me, a lesson in mortality so brutal that I wanted to blame her for it. She used to comb the knots out of my curly hair with a force that made me run for my father, who pulled them out gently with his large fingers. She’d stand over us and say that he’d never get them all out that way. Then, she’d walk away, and I would lean in closer to my father.
I turned off the burner. I’d have to go home to Manhattan and face my mother in a place drained of my father who had always stood so tall between us that I’d never tried to see around him. I couldn’t decide if I should spill the sauce out and clean the pot, or just go. But it didn’t matter which I chose. What mattered was that I’d thought about it at all, a disturbing calculation of action that connected me more to my mother than I would have liked.
“You’re your father’s daughter.”
She’d say it when I came home from dance practice with a tear in my leotard or when I would laugh so loudly at dinner that I forgot to cover my mouth full of food. Her voice would echo with disapproval, but I didn’t care. It was the greatest compliment she could give. Being like him meant being able to toss aside mundane concerns, like hanging up our coats, in favor of the things that he and I thought were more important, like playing a song that we knew the other would love. He would leap at a moment without hesitation. But his unassailable buoyancy hadn’t prepared me for anything like this.
It was late when I got there, and the cab sailed over the highways from the airport to the city. I tensed and leaned forward to tell the driver to slow down. I wasn’t ready yet. His dark eyes met mine in the rearview mirror, and I imagined rebuke in them. I slumped back and remembered the time when I was seven and had arranged the hair of all my dolls in pigtails as an appeasement for the fact that I never let my mother do my hair that way. I’d left the door to my room open all day, but she’d never said a word.
An unconditional mother-daughter bond was a figment of society’s imagination. That’s what I’d said in college to ward off questions from friends about why my mother wasn’t the one to help me put sheets on the bed in my new dorm room or fly to see me just because she was off on a Wednesday. But I allowed a part of me to hope now that it could be different between us.
We drove into Manhattan, and I squirmed restlessly every time the driver hit the brakes at a red light. I tapped the plastic that separated us. “Just let me off here.”
I got out on the corner of 74th and Amsterdam, even though I was still six blocks from their apartment. I gasped for air in the cold, not reaching for my gloves or hat. I let the cold own my skin from the tips of my ears to my fingers.
I made it to their building and stumbled, struck by a whiff of snow in the icy stillness. My father was from upstate New York, and on a crisp winter night, he would often pause outside, claiming he could smell snow coming. My mother would already be half a block away, her high heels clicking against the sidewalk as she stepped expertly around patches of ice.
Far down on the next block, the yellow sign glowed from the Chinese restaurant where my father used to give me his pep talks after break-ups or fights with friends or lost dance competitions. I’d always assumed my mother hated it there, but I couldn’t remember either of us ever inviting her either. He used to tell me his version of life’s wisdom, and it was all I needed to know.
I patted my icy cheeks. I didn’t know how to feel this sad. I looked to the dense black sky and willed him to appear, to tell me how to make things better when I went inside. I regretted every minute I’d spent in my life dismissing God or heaven or anything supernatural.
I waited, but I was alone with the rapid snapping of awnings in the wind and the slosh of wheels in forgotten slush—none of it a sign of anything, except that a sudden desire for faith wasn’t enough. So I nodded to the doorman and rode up the elevator to the eleventh floor. I stood outside the door, holding the key that I’d kept on my key ring throughout college and my last year of graduate school. I pictured her placing his clothes and shoes in bags, cleaning him out of her life the way I believed she always wanted.
Finally, I turned the key in the lock. As I opened the door, a shaft of light swept the dark hallway and dimly lit the living room where my mother sat in an armchair that faced the door, kneading a tattered tissue in her hand and sniffling. She looked utterly dejected, all the stiffness in her gone, as if a hole had been unplugged and her entire being had slackened. She looked up at me and then to the side. She didn’t have make-up on. Usually her polished face and styled blonde hair lent her an air of invincibility. Now, there were places I could penetrate, but I didn’t want to anymore.
“Mom,” I said, as if trying out the word. I was still holding the keys and standing in the doorway.
“Well, it’s not like you need an invitation.”
I clutched the keys, the grooves digging into my palms.
“Theresa, for heaven’s sake, close that door.” She then burst into sobs so wracking that she didn’t move any part of her body to cover her face or wipe her tears.
I was so afraid of her unabashed sadness. Still, I closed the door and went over to the couch next to the chair. I sat and knotted my fingers. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Until then, I’d assumed she merely tolerated my father, his exuberance a form of clutter to her.
I’d grown up seeing her wipe her mouth with a napkin when my father walked in the door as if wiping away a kiss that he hadn’t yet given her. She would watch his feet to make sure he took off his shoes and then turn back to whatever she was doing—straightening an already straightened kitchen or organizing seating for another charity event.
She gulped in a breath and sniffed it out. As she looked at me, there was an unfamiliar pleading in her eyes that made me long to look away. But I swallowed over and over, letting her look.
“He was eating a cookie like he always does on Saturday afternoons. I was in the bedroom, and I heard a thud. I came out, and he was on the floor, right there.” She pointed to the wood floor next to the island in the kitchen until I looked over, following the path of her shaking finger.
“Just there, right there exactly. You can see the crumbs.” Her hands cut the air. “I can’t pick up those crumbs.”
We hadn’t turned on a light, so I couldn’t see them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to either.
“I called 911, and then they were here, pulling him onto a stretcher, and I was crying and telling them that I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t feel like I was really there. They pulled a mask over his nose, and I followed them out the door. I was a little ashamed later that I remembered my coat and purse. I shouldn’t have, right?”
I ducked my head, not ready to tell her that I got what she meant. I tried not to imagine the bulk of my father, powerless on a stretcher, heading to a place where he’d be poked and prodded by his colleagues. He used to make me promise, half-jokingly, that I wouldn’t let him be treated by anyone but himself.
“We got to the hospital, and they rushed him into a room, and they wouldn’t let me in, but I imagined them pounding his chest with those damn paddles. They came out and said they’d done what they could, but—”
“But it wasn’t enough, and you came here,” I said, as if in recounting this story together, I could figure out where my idea of her had ended and the mother sitting next to me had begun.
“Then I came here, and I sat in this chair, and this is where I’ve been. It’s the only place I want to be.”
I kneeled down and cried myself, releasing my cheek to her thigh. Her hand dropped to my hair. She touched my ears. Her fingers were cold, and her nails were sharp and tentative, unaccustomed to giving comfort. Even so, I liked the feel of them on my skin. I longed for the things that I’d told myself I didn’t need.
Perhaps she’d only pretended not to notice my dolls that day, and there was some reason that she didn’t want to comment on it, or let it be the peace offering that I’d meant it to be. Maybe it just wasn’t enough to make up for a daughter who preferred her father.
I wanted to stay with her there. But I was scared of what would happen if she changed her mind—if she stood up and shook her head at me, reminding me as she had in the past that it was uncivilized, not to mention awfully messy, to cry in front of other people. Really, she used to say, before telling me to go to my room if I was going to carry on like that, you don’t need to make others feel responsible for your pain.
Anger flamed in a way that was so familiar, it was a relief. My knees cracked as I stood up. We would back into our usual corners, where it was sometimes lonely, but where I understood the parameters of the space. “We should go to bed now. We need to rest.”
“I’d like to just sleep here.” She stretched out her legs and leaned her head against the back of the chair.
Her head rolled from side to side, and then she was asleep. I had never seen her asleep. Falling asleep with others watching was a breach akin to crying in front of them. I took off her expensive leather loafers. She let out a shuddering snore, an unruly sound she would have been mortified to know I’d heard. I lined the loafers up neatly next to her limp feet.
I walked down the hallway, and I wondered how she would live alone with this silence that I’d always assumed she craved. I flipped on the light in my old bedroom that she had miraculously left intact, down to the smell of hairspray, and the rose perfume that we both wore. I loved the smell of it as the mist seeped into my skin, despite all the other ways I tried to do the opposite of what she did. In the morning, I decided, I would talk to her and face up to what I might have missed by believing in my assumptions for so long.
Inside my room, I picked up a doctor statue my father had given me from his collection. It was my favorite because it looked like him with its black glasses, moustache, and mischievous grin. I lay down on my bed and cradled it next to my pinched and aching heart. I wanted to tell him about how strange it was seeing her so broken and show him what she looked like asleep, though he must have known that.
When I woke up, I went to the kitchen. My mother was clicking around on the floor in black high heels. She was cutting the crusts off sandwiches and then quartering them, before arranging them on glass plates. Her hair framed her face, which was carefully drawn in now with dark burgundy lips and black eyeliner, a caricature of a grieving woman rather than the real thing I’d seen last night.
Now that sunlight stretched across the tiled floor, I could see the brown crumbs. She hadn’t cleared them, and I couldn’t reconcile what this meant with this woman who had spruced and decorated her grief.
“Don’t just stand there.” She handed me a knife.
I took it. My hand dangled next to my hip holding it in a loose grip. It could fall if I let go just enough, and I wouldn’t be able to catch it.
She pursed her lips. “No matter. Martha will be here later to help.” She continued cutting off even slices of crust.
I didn’t want to be there as more sandwiches got cut into smaller and smaller pieces until there was nothing left for her to do. I would miss the funeral if it meant I could leave and be far from the sharp disappointments she could still ignite. I would mourn my father in the sacred and private way our relationship had always thrived—immune to my mother’s presence. She’d never deserved to be included.
“I’m going back.” I placed the knife on the counter with a trembling hand.
Her lips formed the line they often had when my father spoke to her. She put her hands on the counter. She breathed out a whisper of disgust and turned toward the sink, but there was nothing there to wash.
“If that’s what you need to do.” She faced me again.
I wished for a moment that she’d beg me to stay.
When I came out to leave an hour later, she was standing still, holding the counter and staring at the tiny square sandwiches. Seeing the genuine desolation that had crept back into her features, I put my bags down, thinking I should do or say something. When her eyes darkened with intense alarm, I moved the bags over, realizing I’d dropped them on the space where my father had fallen.
She was intent on preserving this spot, with its scattering of crumbs. It was the last vestige of vulnerability that my mother was allowing herself to expose. The repercussions could be enormous if I walked out that door. She might sweep up those crumbs, and I would have lost my only chance to find out about the ways she had loved us both all along.
And so I sat on the floor, careful that I didn’t disturb a single crumb and beckoned for her to sit too.
Her mouth puckered. “What are you doing?”
I pointed to the floor.
She shook her head and smoothed her hands over her dress. “I don’t think so.”
Her upper lip trembled.
“Mom, please sit with me.”
She let out a protest sigh that was cut off before it was fully exhaled. Then, she lifted her heels out of her shoes and stepped her toes hesitantly onto the floor before laying her feet flat. She lowered her body, tucking her legs underneath her. She turned to me. “What now?”
I took a tissue out of my pocket and gently wiped off her lipstick. I blotted the eyeliner from underneath her eyes. Her tears dampened the tissue.
She stilled my arm. “Let me keep some of it on.”
I nodded. She wound her arms around me, clasping me against the bones in her chest and leaving no room for barriers to inch their way between us.