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My mother is in the open coffin. Her hair is soft and brown. I am a child so I don’t understand. Parts of me are already lost in the corridors and antechambers of pain. Pain has rented a space in me in exchange for a piece of myself. Sometimes pieces simply break away. It’s the way of things. Feelings are too brittle, like branches breaking off in an ice storm. The economy of loss measures what goes and what remains. 

My mother had explained the approximate dimensions of her own coffin to me: “I’ll have a really small coffin won’t I?” She was lying on the brown settee in the sitting room. I felt myself going numb. Eyes wide. Before she died, she must have known she was dying, growing smaller before disappearing altogether. After three years, cancer had won. She was vanquished.

When I see my child-self looking at my mother in the coffin, I notice I am not fully present in the moment. I am thirteen years old. In death, my mother is more committed to being present than when she was alive. She is composed. Compared to my mother in the coffin, I am absent. It’s only the beginning. I am learning the art of detachment.

My father takes my sister and me to the funeral home on the edge of town. For some reason, my mother is tucked inside a pale pink body-bag, zipped up to the edge of her face. I want to unzip the bag to see if she is wearing clothes. I think of undressing her as if she is a doll. 

I stand there numb in the small room. I look at the floor as that’s a safe place. A patch of sunlight dances there for a moment. I look to the window that’s covered in a dark heavy velvet curtain. I wonder why the curtains are drawn since surely the dead wouldn’t mind the sun in their eyes. 

My father has cut a tea rose from the front garden for me to give to my dead mother. It was shocking to watch him cut such a beautiful flower like that. After all, a flower dies the moment it is picked. It has a predetermined lifespan from budding to wilting via a slow collapse. I watch a single petal fall off when I place it on my mother’s inert and frozen chest. 

I look to my father for direction on how to proceed from this moment to the next since words have not been exchanged. The tea rose has been placed on my mother’s body. Seeds have fallen. His face is stark, stricken. A single tear travels slowly down his face, taking its time. I watch the expression that gives nothing away. I wonder what emotion he is feeling. Guilt or sorrow. Perhaps he feels  both – in the form of regret –  like the sparrow song my mother would sing on stage. 

Pain and grief – regret – had prevented my mother from being able to love me. Her lack of attention felt life threatening. I tried to atone for the event, the rape, that predicated my ill-fated existence. But, instead, I am involuntarily attached to the thing that no-one talks about. At the earliest age, I try to carry my mother’s pain for her. I try to carry her difficult emotions, her reality, of not wanting me at all. 

At some point, my mother loses the will to live. She lowers her sails for good.

Days repeat themselves in arguments between my mother and father. Scene and rows get orchestrated. Fits of rage and incrimination get staged. At all costs. My mother throws things that break and shatter: glass bowls, pictures, wine bottles, plates of food. The house shakes with the slamming of doors. My sister and I hide under the stairs. One or both of them shuts down, leaves, gets locked out, or sleeps outside in the garden. I was always going outside while I was asleep looking for them. I’m stuck in a rehearsal. 

I tried to live as if dead, to be loved a bit more. I imagined I could resemble the dead because I sensed my mother loved them more than the living. Perhaps I could be like the still-born twins. 

In an alternate narrative, other than the one given, my mother would have lived her life as an artist. Drawing by day; singing by night in low-lit lounges and cafes. She lives in equal measure of diligence and recklessness. She lives by the river, where the narrow brightly colored houseboats are docked. I can see her twirling, in a dark blue raincoat, cinched at the waist over the bright flash of her favorite dress. She twirls along the cobbled stones that line the edge of the harbor. Hazy flickering orbs of colored lights swing and sway; their reflections are cast out over the water. My mother holds her breath.

In this life I articulate for my mother, she returns to a turreted room with a worn wooden floor and high lead-paned windows covered with soft pink velvet curtains. A light breeze carries the gentle evening light through the curtain. She is next to a cathedral. It’s not a matter of faith, it’s just aesthetics. She wakes to the chime of bells and a burning need to create something other than this. 

In this reflection, I discover the parallels of our shared existence: lost childhoods and lost mothers within them, unto them. The lesson I learn – in the deepest pain  – is this:  I cannot be my son’s mother until I can learn to be my mother’s daughter. I must find my way back to her to heal us both. The way back to my mother is littered with resentments. Actions and words of undue harm. I have to undo all the hurt. It’s up to me. I must forgive. Without forgiveness, I remain abandoned in the past that recreates itself in the present. I pass forward the legacy of loss.

Back in time, back in the funeral parlor where my mother lies still in the coffin, grief is parsing out time in painful disconnected increments. There’s no flow to time;  it’s just jagged. I feel the burden of trying to direct the moment. My sister is hunched over my mother’s body, quietly sobbing. She holds the cold hand with requisite tenderness. I notice how the grief gracefully washes over her. After all, my sister is grieving a mother who loved her. She is grieving the loss of love. I don’t have access to anything like this because my mother could not love me. Still, I’m going to grieve this down the line, down the track. The grief will find me when I am out at sea. 

Nonetheless, I return to this moment as if it just happened. Grief accordions time, folding it like a piece of paper. I wake up from a dream in which I am trying to remember something I have written. There are two versions: one for me, one for my mother. I don’t know if we have exactly the same scripts or if we have different versions altogether. 

Grief gets extended – passed forward. Things are never linear as we imagine them. 

I worry that my mother will disappear altogether even though she is already gone. The coffin is closed.

Originally from the U.K., Sarah Harley works with refugee students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As an ESL teacher, at Milwaukee High School of the Arts,  she is devoted to helping her students tell their own stories. Sarah holds a BA in Comparative Literature and French, as well as an MA in Foreign Language and Literature. Graduate School allowed her to explore neuroscience and architecture in addition to writing a thesis about the idea of hysterical space. Having worked briefly as a translator, her passion is connecting with her students and writing by night. She loves to cook, work in the garden, and find new places to go camping. 

© 2022, Sarah Harley

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