Ginny was sleeping. It had been such a long night. Maybe it was more than one night; the days used to bleed together like that, day into night into day. Your dad was away — of course he was away — and it was just you and me. You running baths while I pleaded with her to hold still for the nebulizer. You singing to her while I ordered us dinner. We used to take turns sleeping in my bed so the other could sleep beside her in case she started coughing again. Not that it mattered. We both always came running anyway.
She was so sick that winter: respiratory viruses, pneumonia, colds. Winter was always the worst, you know that. The long dark days inside, the whole house smelling like medicine.
We were a well-oiled team, you and me, but I still felt like we were miles apart. We spoke in status reports and shift changes.
“It’s 5 o’clock, she needs her Tylenol.”
“Her fever’s dropped, you should get some sleep.”
“She’s coughing again. Can you run a bath?”
And then: “She’s asleep.”
I was tired. The kind of tired that hurts. The kind that makes the ground shift under your feet. But you needed me. You didn’t ask for anything, didn’t complain, but I could feel it. Like gravity pulling me to you, or maybe it was just guilt. I was giving everything to Ginny, I would damn well scrape together an ounce for you.
You were so happy when I said we could watch a movie together. Just you and me. When was the last time I put my arms around you? The way your face lit up when I said I’d even make us hot chocolate, it made me feel like a good mom. Everything I’d done for Ginny, but it was that moment that made me feel like maybe I was doing something right.
You were 8, maybe 9? You probably would have fine.
I put the kettle on the burner, the one you liked that whistled. I wanted you to feel special so I pulled out a couple of my china tea cups and filled them each with an extra scoop of hot chocolate.
She started to cough over the monitor.
Something clenched inside of me, like my ribs were trying to crush me, closing on my insides like a steel trap. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t give up this moment, I couldn’t find the strength to climb back up those stairs one more time not knowing when I’d escape again. Escape. See? What kind of mom wants to escape their child? All of that goodness I thought I’d found leaked out of me as I forced myself up those stairs and I got so lost in my own pity for myself that I forgot about you. Alone with the kettle, waiting for me to come back.
And then the crash.
You were so independent. For a moment I was terrified, terrified that you had tried to lift that stupid old kettle. That your sleeve had dragged through the flame. That boiling water…
And it was my fault.
You sitting there, alone, waiting for a mom that never had the time.
I left Ginny crying in bed and rushed down to save you. When I saw that you were fine, just the tea cup in pieces on the floor, that steel trap opened and everything inside of me fell apart. The tiredness, the fear, the guilt, and I laid it all on you.
I remember. But I really hoped you wouldn’t.
Claire thinks over her mother’s words: she can almost see them floating through her living room, mingling with the expensive perfume that is all that is left of her presence. She always seemed to vanish as quickly as she appeared. Had she really even been here?
Claire hadn’t expected much of an answer when she’d mentioned the dream. Maybe an offhand comment about how expensive those tea cups had been. Maybe a non-committal shrug. Certainly not a two-decade old confession.
You were a good mom, Claire had said and now she realizes the honesty in that statement. Were, she had said.
Claire’s mom had smiled her painted smile and thanked her all the same.
The rim of the mug across from Claire is stained a dusky purple — another shred of evidence. She reaches a hand out to the soft indentation on the couch cushion beside her and is reassured by its warmth.
She hadn’t told her mother about the egg, about the packages, and her mother hadn’t inquired further about the dream. There were so many things she wanted to tell her, so many places she wanted to show her — Le Chateau de Verre, the waterfront, Queen Bea’s Bakery — but time had slipped away, and with it went her mother.
Claire stands and follows the already fading scent of lilies to her room.
I’m glad you’re finally keeping it clean, her mother had said, glancing from her carefully-made bed to the well-organized trinkets and books lining the shelves.
Claire reaches out, touching a bare spot on a shelf between a jar of shattered egg shells and a silver jewellery box. Her mother had held the ocean-coloured glass to the light, smiling in a painful way that made Claire drop her eyes to the floor. You can keep it, Claire had told her.
I don’t have any change, she’d said, I owe you.
How much is that one worth? Claire had raised her eyes and was surprised to find her mother’s smile had vanished, but that the expression that remained was one of relief.
An ice cream date at least, she’d said, maybe even dinner.
Claire’s hand slides along the shelf to the jar, which she lifts and inspects the same way her mother had inspected the sea glass. Tiny shards tumble about, along with larger chunks held together with thick white glue; she had tried putting the pieces back together but the task had proved practically impossible. So she’d tried piecing the memories together, hoping her mother could fill in the gaps. Now she wonders if what was broken wasn’t something else altogether, and if it fixing it might prove even more challenging.
Claire carries the jar to the kitchen and opens a cupboard beneath the sink to reveal a small garbage bin mounted to the door. With only a moment’s hesitation she dumps the contents of the jar into the bin and places the jar in the sink. She retrieves the lipstick-stained mug from the living room and adds it to a small pile of dishes before filling the sink, the scent of grapefruit momentarily overwhelming the scent of lilies. She scrubs each dish deliberately, letting the warmth of the soapy water soak into her skin and wash away all of the things left unsaid, the questions left unasked.
Her mother had given up everything for them. Her mother had given up on them. Her mother had hated herself for her human limitations, for circumstances beyond her control. She had run away from those circumstances, from her children. She had given them everything, and when that didn’t work she had given them nothing. She had been invincible and fallible and strong and terrified and loving and distant and more things than Claire could count. For every memory Claire has of her childhood she knows there is another, a different side to the story that she has hardly ever considered. There are so many pieces here that Claire can’t imagine them ever fitting together, not that she doesn’t intend to try.
But not now. Her mother was here, and today that is enough.
The deadbolt on the apartment door turns with a click and Lucy shuffles into the entryway beside the kitchen, Beans jumping excitedly around her feet. Lucy unclasps the leash from his collar so he can run to Claire, but instead he pauses and sniffs the air.
“Is your mom still here?” Lucy asks, leaning a bundle of folded moving boxes against the wall.
“No, she had a client meeting and couldn’t stay long.”
“Oh,” Lucy says with a disappointed pout, “That’s too bad, I would have liked to meet her.”
“I’ll invite her once we settle into the new place,” Claire says, drying her hands on a dish towel so that she can reach down and pet Beans.
“You think she’ll come?” Lucy asks, gently but with a touch of skepticism.
“I really do,” Claire says, wrapping herself in the warmth of her own optimism. “Besides, she owes me ice cream.”