March 14, 2012 by The Citron Review
My father calls me a woman now, a burden I must have somehow inherited from you. The truth—even strangers can look at me and tell: Certainly a girl without a mother will never be a woman. Still. Sometimes it feels like it must have come at the very beginning, that day in October when I stood at your bedside and tried not to think about where the heat went after leaving your body. Eleven years old, my ponytail falling out around my face in wispy strings you would have told me to brush, too proud to tell you goodbye. In those stretched minutes of uneasy waiting (how long before the coroner is called; how long before we tell the two youngest?) I wondered what I was missing that afternoon in math class, oblivious to what future had just unfolded itself before me—the delicate negotiation between have and have not.
Your whole existence is a jigsaw puzzle I’ve spent a decade laying pieces for. There is too much shifting, in memory, to ever see the whole as an anchor. I cannot find my way back. Often, I dream of you. Dream that you are home again, as if the entire loss of you was a mistake. An accident, simple. With this oversight corrected, I can ask every question that has haunted the years.
But I do not ask. Instead, I wake up like I’m breaking the surface of water for air, a single loud gasp in the darkness. I seek comfort in a lingering echo of that desperation, but there is only silence closing around the sudden noise. Gripped with the panic of near drowning, my body strains against the want of one more minute of sleep, the unlocking of that hollow space beneath my sternum before grief rushes back in to fill it. A familiar pressure builds behind my eyes, and already, at the fading, my chest has begun to constrict with the awareness of what my mind has not yet sorted—there is no mother.
After, I will lie awake in bed, for a few minutes allowing myself to believe in ghosts, hoping that your lingering presence means more than my own need to trace our brief time back to the untelling. When at last I am returned to sleep, I dream of our childhood cat, now blind and furless, wandering the empty aisles of the grocery store. I stand near a shelf that holds row after row of canned peas and can’t make myself look away from the raw, pink skin of the tail under the fluorescent lights. There is never a meow. I know enough to understand that I do not want to unpack this metaphor, and this time when I wake, my ribs will hold only the slow bloom of disappointment—or maybe relief.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in fiction from George Mason University. Her work has been published most recently in The Iowa Review, Brevity, The Del Sol Review, I Am Modern, and Narrative Magazine, where she was awarded second place in the 2012 30 Below contest. She currently lives and writes in Indiana.