Three times I flew from San Francisco to Dublin and visited my mother inside
the nursing home, kept vigil by her deathbed, hung on her every breath. Three
times—skeletal, mindless—she pulled through and I got back on a
plane, left her again.
She won’t go easy,” my father says through the phone, his voice
edged with pride.
I can picture him inside the dark, narrow hall of our family home. A house
where, even after fifteen years abroad, some part of me still lives.
On my last flight back from Dublin, I watched a CNN exposé on girls’ circumcision:
In a Ugandan village, the mothers brought their little girls to the witch doctor,
the old woman’s eyes the brown-brown of deepwater fish.
She tied the girls with ropes to a wooden table and cut off each clitoris
with a rusted knife. After, the naked girls were confined to a dark hut for
sometimes weeks, and returned to their parents only when their mutilated
vaginas stopped bleeding, or they died.
The grim-faced journalist spoke into the camera, her voice thick, quavering.
From behind her, the girls’ wails rose from the hut, calling Mammy, Mammy,
I tensed and scanned the other passengers, put my hand to my mouth, to make
sure the cries weren’t coming from me.
Each time, Mother was drowning in her own fluids. She would choke and the
nurses would force tubes down her throat and suction her out while she gagged,
out for her mother.
I shushed her, held her moist hand. “I’m here, Mammy’s here.”
“Mammy,” she said over and over, squeezing my fingers till they hurt,
startling me with her strength.
She slept, her mouth open, like she was calling out. I rested my head by
her stick arm.
I dozed, and imagined I was a girl again, that I found a baby bird under
a tree, beneath its nest. The bird cried, tears almost as fat as its head.
was afraid to touch the bird, like its hurt was contagious. Yet I couldn’t
leave it to die. I picked up the brown clump, and tried to climb the tree with
my free hand. The bird called, Maw, Maw.
I couldn’t get a good grip on the rough trunk, its bark falling away.
The bird lay on its side inside my palm, its beak open but nothing coming out.
Its chest barely rising. I cupped the bird in both hands and threw it up at
The baby landed by my feet with a thud.
I awoke, breathless. The blue vein in Mother’s left temple had disappeared.
The nurse confirmed her pulse was fading. My chair erupted in shards of glass.
I told Mother that she had done her best and now it was time for her to go,
to rest. I whispered into her ear, repeated that I forgave her.
I phoned my father. He arrived, his hair mussed, still wearing the old clothes
he wore to tend his garden, buttons missing from his stained shirt, his pale
skin peeking through the gaps. He sat next to Mother, leaned in close, his
gray head trembling. His liver-spotted hand covered hers—I pictured that
My brother appeared, also summoned by the nurse. He looked at Dad and me,
at Mother, and settled onto the chair at the foot of her bed, read a newspaper.
Just past forty, he was completely bald now. Every now and then he shook
newspaper and looked up, his dry-eyed expression puzzled.
In my mind, I wandered the nursing home’s corridors and the cold streets
outside—searching for a complaints window, a hole in the sky.
I grabbed at memories, at evidence of our mother’s love, of our love
for her. I smelled again her Yardley face powder, replayed her hugs and kisses.
Those earliest embraces came only when she was drunk, sitting on my bed,
apologizing for beating me, for the things she’d said. The later affection came when
she’d turned fat and dependent, encased in her armchair and wanting only
to eat, smoke, and drink brandy, any alcohol. As long as we catered to those
three needs, she was as pettish as a baby.
A third time, Mother defied the odds and I found myself back in a taxi, back
in Dublin’s departure terminal, security threat orange. Fifteen years
earlier, when I first emigrated to America, Mother had stood in much the same
spot and cried hard, trembled like a spider web in a breeze. Guilt still tugged
at the bottom of my stomach; I still felt like I’d abandoned her. I heard
again those girls’ cries from that hut in Uganda, in everywhere. Cries
that stabbed me, that should have cracked the earth.
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