Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look
by Emily T. Wierenga
Canada: Blyth, Ontario
Behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.
The smell of my hands reminds me of Africa.
Of mangoes mashed, of Mum feeding me, and my brother too. And now I’m feeding her, and she doesn’t open her mouth when I ask her to.
The sunrise sky is pretty, like Mum’s pink silk scarf, the one hanging in her closet, and the windows are dirty; maybe I’ll clean them today. Mum thinks today is Sunday—funny, because yesterday was Sunday too, she thought—“And there’s church and I will need to take my blue purse with my Bible and where are my glasses?”
This is what she would normally say, but suddenly she can’t speak. Kind of like me until age four because we moved so much, and Dad says I just watched people. Just stood at the fence in Congo and watched our neighbors.
Mum is trying to ask me something, but her mouth won’t work. I busy myself with the spoon and the mashed fruit. I might as well be buying baby food for the way Mum can’t chew. I don’t have children of my own and this is something Trent, my husband, wants. “Maybe one day,” I tell him.
I didn’t used to want children at all, and now I’m bathing Mum, who’s had brain cancer for five years, and I’m changing her and cutting her toenails and my womb is too full of grief and wonder to make room for a baby.
Funny how the two go together, grief and wonder, kind of like when Jesus died and his murderers realized he was God even as the sky tore.
The sky is bleeding red, and in a month it will blaze cerulean with late August heat. Combines whirring and the air thick with the meaty smell of harvest.
And Mum’s still fumbling for words, and when she does talk she has a British accent, but now she has nothing and I wish, I wish she knew how much I loved her.
“Bigger,” Mum says finally, and I know she’s trying to say, “I love you bigger.”
“I love you biggest,” I tell her, wiping drool and mango from her chin with a cloth. It’s not supposed to be this way.
I’m helping her stand now, and she’s light. She hasn’t been this small since Africa, where she knit afghans with local women while Dad taught blind men how to plant and Keith and I played in the mud, him in his cloth diaper and me in my underwear.
I read somewhere that stress can trigger brain tumors. Perhaps Mum’s grew when she found Nanny in the bathtub, dead. Or maybe this tumor is my fault. Maybe it’s from when I got anorexia, Mum holding me at night when she thought I was asleep, and her crying. Or maybe it’s from all of those pots and pans flying across the room when she and I would fight. Or maybe it’s from when I left the house at eighteen and didn’t look back.
Mum’s diaper is poking out of her stretchy pants, the ones she always wears because they’re the easiest to pull up if she’s unconscious, and there’s someone at the door and I’m helping her across the floor toward her blue recliner.
And Mum is asleep in her chair even before I answer the door.