We hadn’t spoken since we returned from the hospital. Ma and I lay side by side on our backs on a narrow bed in the guest room of my sister’s house. There was no place to even hold hands in between. The ceiling fan spun above us, throwing down arid June air.
Her breathing was a faint whistle close to my ear. The skin on her arm, rough and patchy, touched mine. Her hands rested on her stomach, fingers locked. Like the claws of a sparrow. The rounds of chemo have sucked away the joy and the flesh.
Her hands were all over my life. Always in everything I tried. She ran them over my right cheek, always the right cheek, when she tucked me in. The jingle of those thin gold bangles on her wrists followed me throughout my adolescence and drove me mad. Her hands were inside my heart, rubbing, and healing when I broke it. Failed dreams, failed relationships, failed everything. Her hands folded my first business suit, laying it in a compact square in the suitcase.
Those hands were ready to crumble. The doctor squinted at the MRI of her liver this morning, blinked and said dreamily, ‘starry night.’ A congregation of tumors over a defeated organ. What a ghastly allusion to Van Gogh! I thought. I sat on the round metal stool and felt a thundering of blue clouds inside me. She smiled when the nurse came in with the gown. I saw her disrobed body; skin crinkled like parchment paper, and felt a searing rash of anger. How could a body get so rotten?
I turned on my side and put my right arm over her chest. I felt her heartbeat. She turned her face towards me and smiled like a child waking up from a good dream.
“There is something I have to tell you, sweetheart,” she paused. “It’s important, you need to know,” she stammered a little.
“I don’t have to know anything, Ma.”
“There would be no other time to tell.”
“Hush… Forget about it. Just rest.”
“Please, you ought to know the truth,” she pressed my hand.
“Well, tell me when you are better. You are not going anywhere,” I said emphatically.
The truth does not set you free.
I already knew what she and the others never told me. She wasn’t my mother — not biologically. I was adopted as an infant from a so-called shelter for abandoned children. I found out when I was about ten. The secret stayed with me and grew me into the kind of daughter I became. I blamed her for the failures my own want of self-worth produced. My bitterness had a pattern. I inflicted pain; she absorbed and held, her sorrows hidden in a place that saw no light. She understood everything, even my unspoken words, yet she never gathered the courage to tell me.
I started talking — about the high heels I bought, the tie-dye that went wrong. She laughed.
“You’ll get your strength back soon. Once the chemo is over, maybe we can go out for a movie,” I said without flinching at my lies. Slapping the truth cut through the darkness.
We lay like that all afternoon long. I didn’t let her finish what she tried to tell me. It was evening when I left. My nine-year-old son was waiting for me at home. Ma sat up, bent her head, folded her hands and prayed for me. I kissed her forehead, my lips messengering the fierce love I had for her. I told her I would be back the next weekend.
The winds tore as I got into the cab. An enormous drop landed on the windshield; summer’s first rain. The driver gathered speed; the rain etched murky lines on the window. I turned over in my mind things she had waited to tell me until now. Arcs of truth and lies, like tollgates through a life. Flesh and blood didn’t matter — not anymore. Or was I still punishing her?
The rain came down harder. A sticky vapor crept into the car. I closed my eyes and felt the blue clouds rolling inside me — thrashing, colliding, and tearing my heart.
Sree Sen Bhasin is an advocate of education technology and a writer with a fondness for cross-sutural stories. She lives in Austin, Texas.