I remember watching bumblebees fly by for hours angled in the crook of my mother’s arm, waiting for the sun to stop shining. She was 32 and dying, her womb assaulted by blooming cancer that spread like dandelions on a summer lawn. I’d wait for her to come out of the kitchen, leave the bathroom, and would scare her as if I could scare the cancer out of her, like it was nothing more than a bad case of the hiccups. It never worked.
She took me with on trips to the hospital, and I’d watch chemo drugs drip like morning dew off the petal of a flower. I’d sit patiently with my hands in my lap as she pulled over and vomited, hold what was left of her hair back if she made it home and got to the toilet. It was hard for her to keep food down, but she cooked prodigiously, made great banquets though we were the only two eating. I ate everything that was put on my plate, even the peas. Even when it was just okay, I thanked my mom as if this was The Best Dish of All Time.
I held out hope for the R word–remission. Mom knew it wasn’t likely, but I believed the way only children believe: with a fervor that had no time for chance or likelihood. We made a game of counting off the weeks she’d stayed alive, a morbid game of pattycake with my head in her lap, looking up at her as if she were a goddess sending her golden light of love my way.
It got so she couldn’t do much other than cook and get back to bed. When she was in bed, I’d sneak out the old photo album, the one I wasn’t allowed to see, and look at the shots of Mom wearing short shorts and riding on the back of a motorcycle. It was like looking into an alternate reality. I’d make up games where I was an adventurer come to save my sleeping queen. I got bonus points if I could enter the lair where the dragon kept the queen without waking her up. When I got to the bedside of my queen, I’d stab an invisible sword into her womb and vanquish the dragon once and for all.
When I got older, I’d question whether she would’ve gotten the cancer in the first place if she’d never had me. That I was complicit in it somehow. I’d pore over medical statistics and scholarly journals looking for the proof I so desperately wanted (or didn’t want) to find. It wasn’t conclusive either way.
When Mom’s hair got thin enough, she gave me the clippers and let me have the honor of shaving her bald. Mom laughed when I got started. The laughter turned to tears soon enough, and I asked her if I should stop. All she could say was, “Keep going, keep going.” The hair collected at our feet in golden wisps like sunlight pouring in off the horizon, tendrils of it blinding you even as it gives you life.
Mom would take me outside when she could and make a game of picking me up by my hands, spinning around till I could only see a blur of color and her at center, always still, always calm, like this was all the world was, just spinning, and how I laughed and laughed and laughed. She’d let me down gently and all around me everything was a blur except for her. I’d jump up and down and say, “Again! Again!” and if she had enough energy, we’d go for another round.
I was eight years old when my mother passed away. Eight and tiny and clinging to the hem of her shirt as if to cling was to keep her alive. I dialed 911 just like she taught me to do, but there was nothing left to be done. I was put into the care of my grandparents, who came and collected me right away.
The funeral was peaceful, calm. The sun shone into the parlor and lit up the tiles on the floor till you couldn’t be sure if the sun was inside. Outside the window, I watched as bumblebees flew lazily by in dipping swirls and zigzags, making their way the only way they knew how.