Tell me how it feels to be light and have so much time. I know only heaviness. I know only not enough. Not enough time and too few words. I am being crushed. I am being
That was what I found in my mother’s notebook after her suicide. I won’t call it a letter—it wasn’t addressed to anyone, it wasn’t signed. She didn’t even finish it. But still I ripped the page out and kept it. It’s in my desk drawer and before I go to bed, I read it; try to read between the lines, to understand. But I can’t even imagine her saying the words. Tell me how it feels to be light.
I have started writing back to her: there is no such thing as lightness. I am choking on time. I am choking on the smell of you burning.
We cremated her. It was what she wanted: her ashes joined with the Earth, somewhere to be re-grown. In a field of flowers. In the roots of a willow tree. How it feels to be light.
It’s been three months since the funeral and my father hasn’t spoken. My sister and I call him, he doesn’t answer. We stop by, he watches us in silence. Last time I was there, I pulled out a notebook. ‘Are you ok?’ I wrote. He took the notebook. ‘Yes,’ he wrote back. ‘I simply don’t wish to speak.’ So here I was, communicating with both of my parents—one dead, one voluntarily mute—through a pen, trying to understand them: Mother, I am forgetting your voice. Father, do you want pork or fish for dinner?
My sister Bethany doesn’t understand my father’s muteness.
“He can’t just treat us like this. I went over there yesterday, to make him dinner, and he just stares at me the whole time. What am I, his cook? He could at least do me the courtesy—”
“Bethany,” I interrupt, “this isn’t about you. Have you tried using the notebook?”
“Please, like I’ve got time to sit there and write dialogue with him. I’ve got a family of my own to take care of, you know. I don’t have all day like you do.”
“I was thinking,” it was Bethany’s turn to interrupt, “we should get him help. Maybe there’s something really wrong with him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s grieving, that’s all.”
“It’s been three months, Ana. It’s time for him to grow up.”
“Well you tell him that, then.”
“Sure, because I always have to be the bitch, right? Listen, I’ve got to go. Roy is playing with the cat litter again.”
The line goes dead. A few miles away, Bethany is yelling at her kid. Bethany will continue life as usual. For Bethany, life has always had the same weight; she finds nothing to be remarkable and nothing to be devastating. Sometimes I admire it. Sometimes I don’t.
When I was younger, we had a study. There was a huge bookshelf, a carved wooden writing desk, and a large ornate mirror. I wasn’t supposed to go in there—that was my mother’s private place, where she went to work.
One day when I was seven years old, the door to the study was left open, and on the desk lay a Chinese hair stick. It was bright red, with gold dragons painted on it, and I wanted to hold it, to see how it would look in my hair. As soon as I picked it up, I heard my mother’s voice and her footsteps outside the door. I left the hair stick, and hid behind the lounge chair, not wanting to get caught.
“I’ve got a headache, Horace. I’m going to lie down.”
She was dressed in a light blue silk robe, and her long dark hair lay across the middle of her back. Instead of lying down, she sat at the mirror, and looked at herself, pale and unsmiling. She drew her fingers across her brow, her sharp jaw, the outline of her lips. Slowly, she lit a cigarette. Her eyes never left her own face. I even thought she might not notice if I just got up and left, but I was rarely this close to her, and I wasn’t ready to leave her yet.
After a few minutes, I saw she was crying. She made no noise, no movement to wipe away her tears, just continued to watch herself: crying, smoking, silent.
She sat there until the sun went down. The room slowly getting darker and darker, until my mother couldn’t see her reflection anymore. Then she turned on the desk lamp. She cocked her head to the side slightly and lit another cigarette.
She began to pull her robe up, above her knees, above her hips. She spread her legs. Clustered between her thighs were little wounds—circular burns, constellations of them. With her pinkie finger, she traced them, connected them. Her pinkie finger stopped on a part of skin that was fleshy and smooth; she brought the cigarette down, and pressed the lit, burning end into her thigh. She made no sound. She held it there. She breathed deep breaths. After a minute or two, she put the now-dead cigarette on the desk. She got up, slid down her robe, smoothed it out. She swung her hair back and walked out.
Once again, the door was ajar, and I ran out. I never did go back to the study.
She comes to me in dreams, smoking and wearing silk.
“Why are you crying?” she asks me. “I’m here. I’ve been here this whole time.”
But I can’t reach her because she is floating, and I am sinking.
“I can’t reach you,” I tell her. “You’re too light.”
“I’m here,” she says. “I’m here.”
I wake up frustrated. I wake up heavy.
My drawer is filled with my responses to my mother: I said you were never really there, did you hear me? Why did you jump? Dad has lost his tongue. It was you, the whole time. Is there such a thing as infinity. Did you know I was there, that day in the study? Did you let me watch? Is there such a thing as knowledge. How many burns did you have by the time you sat whole and burning in a box in the basement of the funeral home? How many burns?
Bethany stopped going over to our father’s house. She left, crying, a few weeks ago. She was begging him to talk. Screaming at his silence. And still he wouldn’t say a word. I was in the kitchen, pouring wine.
“I can’t take this anymore,” she shouted. “It’s like I lost both parents that day.” And she left.
I came out of the kitchen. With the notebook, I wrote, ‘Tacos for dinner?’ and he wrote ‘Yes.’
We sit in the dining room, eating our tacos in silence.
A few years after the incident in the study, I had woken up early, before the sunrise. There was something about the darkness that was especially pregnant; there was a thin horizon of light, and it smelled like the freshness of spring. And so anything was possible. And so the world opened.
I had to go outside to watch the sunrise—not to do so would be pale, lifeless. To do so was a claiming of color.
When I slipped outside in a heavy sweater, I saw I wasn’t alone. My mother, too, must have been possessed by the same urge to claim the color. I wondered if she would send me back inside so she could be alone, as she often wanted. But when she saw me her face broke into a rare smile.
“Ana, my dear heart. Come, sit.”
My dear heart. I came. I sat. I breathed in her perfume, the lingering smell of cigarette smoke. We watched as the sun rose.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” my mother asked. “Like it was made just for us. For you and me.”
What a wonderful thought that was. It seemed possible, in that moment, that we were the only two people in the world, and if the sunrise was for us, then the rest of it was, too. All the fields and all the oceans. The possibility of it all rose up like a tightness in my chest. I felt dangerously light—like I could float up and away. But what fun that would be—to fly. To fly. The sunrise was for me and I could fly.
“Sometimes things are so beautiful it hurts to look at them,” my mother said. But she wasn’t looking at the sunrise anymore—she was looking at me. “You have my face,” she said, cradling my chin. With that, she got up and left, all the possibility crashing down around me: the sun was up, and everything already was.
It’s been six months since the funeral, and I have three drawers full of my one-way correspondence: Lightness is to not be beautiful. You were heavy. You were so heavy we had to scrape you off the driveway. Tell me how it feels to decide to die. Tell me about relief. Tell me about closed eyes.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I re-trace her words. Over and over again, I write, Tell me how it feels to be light and have so much time. Tell me how it feels to be light. Tell me how it feels.
I’ve stopped leaving the house except to make dinner for my father. I don’t eat unless I’m with him. It’s less grief I feel than a sort of dread. A coming on of a storm. Tell me how it feels.
Sometimes I think I’m becoming her. At the market yesterday I bought cigarettes—the long thin ones she used to smoke—even though I haven’t smoked since high school. I didn’t make the decision to do it; I only realized after I finished putting the groceries away in my father’s house and saw them at the bottom of the bag.
When I got home that night, I sat in front of my mirror. My mother was right—I do have her face. Her pale face, her pointed face. I smoked cigarette after cigarette, my mouth heavy with smoke, my mind lost in fog. I looked at my thighs—soft and unblemished. The smoothness of the skin was like cruel laughter: look at how whole you are. Look how fine.
And yet I was broken. I brought the lit cigarette down and held it against my skin.
I have started to think about death more and more; my death. How would it feel to jump—to be falling.
After dinner with my father, I went up to the roof. To get there, you have to crawl out of a window in my parent’s bedroom and pull yourself up onto the highest part of the roof top. I sit with my legs dangling over the ledge. Right below me is where the paramedics came to pull my mother off the driveway. It was gravel, then, and since paved over. I had gotten there before the ambulance, and I saw the sharp little stones piercing her face, stuck in her arms and legs.
I imagined that if I jumped, there might be a split-second of weightlessness before gravity pulled me down. Maybe that’s why she did it, for the weightlessness.
I stood up, leaned over the edge. I could do it. I could jump. I held my arms wide. I breathed the night in. If I just took one little step.
But then I felt something—something sharper than the dull dread that’d been covering me. It was a beating of the heart; it was the breathing. It was fear.
I ran back out of the house. I drove home. I took my drawers full of letters, I took my cigarettes. I dumped them on my cement lawn.
I burned them. The fire was hungry for it all.
When my father answered the door, I burst into tears. After the fire had died down, I drove back. I couldn’t keep the silence anymore. My crying was loud and gasping.
My father took me, he held me, he sat with me. After a while the tears, like the fire, had quieted.
“How about some cake,” my father said. “For dessert.”
His voice was like a steady hand. Like a familiar friend.
“Yes,” I said. “I’d like that.”