The summer my mother fell through the sky, she appeared deceptively earthbound. She had always floated just slightly above the surface of things, so that sometimes I wanted to wrap my arms around her waist and hold on, to be her anchor. But for those final weeks of summer, my mother had walked leaving footprints wherever she went. I was reassured by the dirt beneath her fingernails, the way her muscles flexed animal-like beneath her tanned skin. She left the scent of roses and dandelions in any room she passed through. It filled the emptiness where my father’s pine aftershave and gasoline-sweat presence should have been.
She spent her time out in the yard from dawn to sunset, stabbing holes in the earth with a spade, mixing buckets of blood and bone, and ignoring my questions about when my father would be coming home. I didn’t mind the unanswered question. My father always came back eventually. The question wasn’t a question so much as a reminder that it was just the two of us — mother and daughter.
Sometimes she sang as she worked, sometimes she was silent and the silence created a cool space in the heat. I liked to wander into those spots and allow them to wash over me. For a few moments, I would find myself no longer occupied by the boys who grabbed me blindly in the local swimming pool. I wasn’t the girl whose heart pounded when I slipped candy bars down my bra in the supermarket or practiced open-mouthed kissing techniques with my best friend. I was simply me. Those moments of my mother’s silence acted as a salve to the rash of noise and movement that had invaded my world that late August when I turned 12.
Things changed when she woke up on a Saturday and circled the following Monday on the calendar in red. The garden had been hot and ripe with the scent of pig and chicken manure, of fish blood and marigolds. New plants rested in the shadows of familiar trees and bushes, their leaves waving at the air as though blind and confused. On that Saturday, my mother let the garden rest and turned her energy to the house. She twisted her dark hair into a nest at the back of her head, securing it with a ballpoint pen. She turned on the stereo and let the music shiver up the walls. The scent of pine and lemon swelled in the kitchen and bathroom. Freshly cut herbs and wildflowers appeared in vases on windowsills.
And then just as dusk started to settle the heat, a phone call came. It lasted late into the night. I huddled next to the bedroom door listening but my mother’s voice was a murmur. The next morning my mother was no longer secured by gravity. I could see it, the gap between the back of her heels and her shadow. She was no longer attached. She handed me a bowl of dry cereal and said, “Your father will be back on Monday, make sure your room is clean.”
She went into her bedroom and closed the door. The cutting board was left out on the countertop. A mop soaking in gray water remained in the kitchen sink. A bucket of blood meal sat in the garden attracting ants and stray cats. A single garden glove wilted over an empty hole in the flowerbed. Everything held its breath until the Monday circled in red.
I came home on that Monday soaked in chlorine and suntan lotion. My mother’s car was not in the driveway. There was something in the oil stain left on the concrete, the tire tracks that I hadn’t noticed before, as if my mother had left with one foot on the brake and one on the gas.
I went into my mother’s bedroom because it was cool and I liked to lie on the bedspread. It was still store-bought white, even though it had been on the bed for years. In the middle of the bed I found the note. A breeze lifted its corner, as if curious and suspicious, and then dropped it. When I opened it, I wanted to drop it too. Unlike the breeze, I could not let go. The note was written to my father. The words traveled in graceful lines of black ink. Words about failure, darkness, paralysis — words I didn’t understand. Then, I saw my own name, and the words stood still.
“. . . a mother wants to protect her daughter from the world. I couldn’t even protect Aisha from myself. Please make her understand that I tried, I fought as hard as I could. Tell her that I did this because I loved her, because I wanted her to be free.”
When my mother described her plan for freedom, I could see it in my mind as if I had dreamed it before. I could see my mother at the Golden Gate Bridge standing on the wrong side of the safety rail. I imagined that in the stillness of the bedroom, I could feel the wind as it whipped my mother’s hair, threatening to tangle it in the suspension cables that she held on to as she leaned forward. I could hear my mother’s silver bracelets rattling like angry wind chimes.
Before my mother stepped out, away from the edge, I imagined that the clouds grew whiter than a new snow beneath the full moon. And then my mother spread her arms, welcoming the raging pacific beneath her. The smile on her face was the smile that once belonged to me. And then she stepped away, leaving me behind.
That day I folded the note into a square so small it disappeared in my fist. I walked out of my mother’s room, shutting the door as if afraid of waking someone. I sat on the couch with my hands on my knees and waited. I took a breath, inhaling the scent of earth, blood, lemon, and pine. I closed my eyes and felt myself tumble through the silence of my mother’s blue sky. I held all of that air inside of me for as long as I could and when I could hold it no longer, I exhaled. I fell back to earth. I landed with a weight that would never leave me.
I still have the note tucked away in a jewelry box lined with velvet. It sits quietly next to my daughter’s baby teeth and all of the other small treasures my child has given me since she was born. It is a reminder of my own safety rail, the edge that I never have to step off. My feet remain earthbound and my shadow is sewn tightly on my heels.