In this tour-de-force debut essay, a daughter and mother circle each other, their grief unspoken. As pain creates wildly varying interpretations of reality, even the imaginary sound of a crying animal is cause for blame.
Mom says I’m a prostitute because I want to leave the house. She claims I want to meet up with a man in his car and do things. By things, she obviously means sex. But she never says the word. We don’t talk about a lot of things. I like to think she thinks I’m a virgin, although it’s hard sometimes because she constantly accuses me of meeting up with men.
We fight, and she assumes I hate her because of the look on my face. She doesn’t know that when I’m mad, a vertical one-inch line forms between my eyebrows. It’s been that way since I was a baby, and most people notice it. The line doesn’t form when I talk with her, and I repeatedly say, I’m calm, I don’t hate you, this is just my face. I know she wants to hit me because she throws her hands in the air. Her nose gets red and her eyes are as open as ever. She hits me once, twice. I bring my hands up to my face to protect myself and block her punches.
“Oh my God! You were going to hit me!” she says.
“No, Ma! I would never hurt you,” I reassure her.
I reassure her often.
Mom says she hears an animal cry every night. It sounds like it’s dying, unbalanced screeches wake her from a heavy sleep. By the time she gets out of bed to peek out the door, the sound is gone.
She wakes me up one night and says it is me; I am the crying animal. I look at my arms and there are a few long scratches. They’re barely red, but they’re there. It’s my ninth nightmare in a row and, at this point, I’d rather stay awake. She doesn’t ask about the nightmares or what’s triggering me, and it’s OK because I don’t feel comfortable enough to tell her. Instead, she brings me water and says she will stay in my room until the day the nightmares stop.
For months, I sleep with Mom and wait until she sleeps. By the time she wakes up, I have already checked at least three times if she’s still breathing. I cannot have her almost die for the third time, and definitely not on my watch. The second time she had a seizure in front of me, I was alone. I remember as a child she once told me that if she were to ever faint, I should grab a cloth and dab it in alcohol. She never told me what to do if I were to see her lying on my bed face-up in a paralyzed position, fists clenched and begging for alleviation. I was unarmed with healing instruments, and the alcohol was not in the bathroom like she said it’d be seven years ago; it was in a shelf on top of the washing machine. I took my shirt off and bathed it in the holy water, pressuring her nose, hoping it would do the trick. Her eyes were wide open looking at the ceiling and they wouldn’t blink. It was as if God paused life, but only left her frozen. I shouted my prayer as my trembling hands massaged her heart, hoping it would get the message to come back to me. Minutes later, her body let loose and her eyes shut. When she woke up, she asked to take a nap.
“Go to school. I’m fine,” she said. But I wasn’t. I’m not.
Mom says she doesn’t believe in death. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it, or what will happen when it comes. I try not to think about it, but how can I not when it has ruined the color yellow, and pillows and sweat? How can I not think about death if I have seen it, held it, craved it?
Mom wasn’t there when my aunt died, but she knows I was. She doesn’t know I can still taste the air in the room from that day, only that I healed from it. At least that’s what I said; it’s what she chooses to believe.
My aunt was sweating when she was dying in my arms. Her leaking liquid made my body cold like defrosted chicken, dripping onto the satin sheets. I brought my hands to her face and wiped off what I could. I leaned my lips onto the scabs on her knuckles and locked eyes with what was left of her fading gaze, as if promising to fix her. Her jaw slowly pigmented into a dark maroon while the rest of her face turned yellow like the sun and all the pretty things.
I’m not sure what would happen if I showed Mom all of me, my pain, my ugly. It’s too big of a risk to take, the consequences might leave one of us unable to survive. Not once in my life have I seen or heard her grieve or completely lose her mind the way I have.
I believe she chose to bury the sentimental, human part of her when she buried Emmanuel, her first-born child. Dad told me Emmanuel died two days after birth because he had heart problems. Mom instantly went into severe depression and isolation. Her worst nightmare was coming home to an empty nursery, a body producing milk for a child that wasn’t there, Dad watching over her trying to fix it while blaming himself.
I’m not sure if Mom avoids talking about a lot of things because I don’t talk about them either. Instead, when I try to leave the house for a walk when I’m upset, she implies I’m leaving to get picked up by a man in his car. She doesn’t know what I look like when I’m mad, or simply doesn’t want to accept that I could possibly be mad at her. I cannot vomit my feelings onto her hands and ask if she can mend me because she doesn’t want me to hurt. If I tell her I’m not mentally OK, she says I should pray more and ask God for guidance.
“Hold onto your faith,” she says. “That’s the only thing in life that can’t be taken from you.” It’s all she ever says.
I’m not sure if we avoid talking about the possibility of being broken because we’re afraid we can break, or because we already have voids we can’t fill.
I’m not sure if we avoid talking about dying because she doesn’t want to face death in any way, or because I don’t want her in the arms of death again—it might kill me.
Helen Cabrera is an incoming senior and creative writing major at Chapman University. She is a board member of her school’s art and literary magazine, Calliope. Raised in the hard-nosed Boyle Heights section of L.A. by immigrant parents, Cabrera was forced to gain extensive experience with survival, loss and blossoming. She is currently focusing on nonfiction stories, poetry and songwriting. This is her first published essay. She can be found on Instagram at helenjcabrera.