They say that absence makes the heart grow warmer. Then loss makes the heart enflamed. It makes the chest swollen and sunken, so that no breath can fill the lungs and no food can fill the stomach.
Enflamed is not the word I would use for it. No one would. And yet it is the only feeling that I can think of that comes close to the feeling in my chest. Every heartbeat aches and sears. Every word from my mouth tastes bitter and sour and dead.
All that brought happiness before cannot touch the unfathomable, intangible feeling of disconnect I feel now as I lay on the grass and watch the blue sky roll on above me. I watch it until I can see the furthest, thinnest clouds in the stratosphere, like shimmering light caught on the surface of a pool—except so far away I cannot be sure I’ve truly seen it.
It used to be weight that held me to the ground, gravity that pulled like a jealous burden and kept me here, but that’s gone now. Instead my heart anchors me now, so heavy and swollen, it seems to have sunk straight into the ground.
If I look farther and harder, I’m sure I can see back into the days when only physics earthed me. My dreams took flight each and every morning, blessed with the unknown of each and every day. One such time was here, in this park, you and I were playing astronauts on the roundabout. We would pretend that I was training, readying my body for the pressure of launch. After, we would venture to the playset and monkey bars, and pretend we were in another world, living some other life, one with aliens and lasers and heroes. We’d always return to earth though, to bring back a secret or an antidote, or anything remotely new.
In my pocket, warm from the sweat of my hands, is a meteorite I’d once found.
Inside is the secret of life.
It’s smooth now, from a youth of my fingers caressing its surface, and however many thousands of years it has travelled before me. I’d chosen it because it was round. Too perfect out of the many stones in the playground, and in the story I was going to present it to a machine and it would become a button I could press, and life would never end.
I sit up, stone in hand, blistered heart still rooted in mud, and stare at where the children play. If they weren’t there I’m sure I’d launch the stone so hard it would strike my past self from her childish whimsy. She’d see there are no such buttons to save life. It will end. One day indefinitely.
What would you say? There isn’t enough sugar to coat the world, or for the medicine I’d need. Maybe you’d agree with me. Not back then, but who you became. Maybe you were the one with childish dreams.
You were a princess to me. Regal, but not stern in the way I imagine queens. Golden hair and all. We lived in a world of animals, with foster pets left and right. No night was dark and empty, but filled with puppies and kittens, and hedgehogs that needed safekeeping. You would sing to me at night, read all the stories I wanted told, and I couldn’t live a better life, even in my dreams.
Then there was the car accident. We couldn’t keep the animals anymore. You couldn’t keep up. Your leg, you’d say, was hurting. It was always hurting. The doctors had said they’d fixed it as best they could, but they could not undo what time and space had done to it. The limp, pronounced and resentful, was but a small affectation in comparison to what you felt walking, sitting, sleeping, existing.
I rise from my spot in the park and brush the grass from myself. It’s a cool day. No worthy clouds to keep the heat in, but no wind to wash it away. I know this place well. Almost too well. Just a stone’s throw from here was where we found the box of kittens when I was still in primary school. Just beyond the eastern-most gate, over the road, was where we’d found the injured dog, Jenni.
I think she was our last. We had to move to a place without stairs, but the process took so long that you slept on the sofa for almost a year. You had go to the toilet in a pan under the stairs. The room we used to house hedgehogs in. I’d have to carry the pan up the stairs every day to flush it away, but my disgust was nothing in comparison to your shame.
Walking from my spot, my heart follows in the earth, dragging me and snagging on roots and weeds, labouring through concrete as I make my way back to the main streets. The only time it is at peace is when I’m flat on my back, staring up into voids and thinking of nothing.
The medicines were names I could barely recognise, but now I can recite with perfect pronunciation. Not that I will. I want them as gone from my mind as everything else that has ever dared to make you cry. And you did. So often, always at night. The sound of mewing kittens and yapping puppies were soon replaced by your sobs. Your private thoughts turned tangible on your skin, and yet I was too scared to go and comfort you. Too unsure of my place in your world now that the pain was taking up so much of your mind.
A horn blares, so near but so far. My heart palpitates, snapping back into my chest and bringing my mind’s eye to the present. My curt nod to the driver is swapped for glaring and a crude hand gesture. The sentiment slips from me as my thoughts begin to swim.
Swim. We’d gone swimming six years after your accident, at a hydrotherapy pool near the park. Down the hill. Turning to face it, the journey there looks the same now as it did back then. Overgrown and daunting to a woman with one and a half legs. I remember you didn’t want me to come, and it had hurt me not knowing why. You needed help though, and I thought I was so ready to be all you needed me to be.
I was wrong.
I turn from the hill and head back to my car. Swatting away memories is difficult when they form and waft like smoke. The lights had been dim. The water was warm. I was holding back horror as I watched you, my beautiful, strong, courageous, regal mother, descend into the pool like a wounded swan. Your body seemed like an imposter’s, grown with sedentary days and nights, grazed by time like it had struck you with a cane each and every morning. Your leg—
I’m at the lights now, unsure which way to turn. Another car honks and I take the left, following a route I haven’t used as an adult.
Your leg looked as though it had the muscles carved from it by an amateur butcher. The skin, veiny and blotched, shook and wobbled as you tried to lower yourself in the pool. All your concentration was in that moment, and mine was on trying not to imagine how much pain you must have been in, or whether other swimmers had seen you.
You cried that night too.
We never went again.
It took a while for you to look at me. When you did, finally, you said, “I need you to take me to the doctors. I have an appointment at noon.”
So simple and matter of fact, but there was a tremble to your lips and a redness in your eyes that would never leave you after that. My heart, back then, had been sinking for a very, very long time. Once a week, or once a month, there would be a lift. A momentary respite from the gruelling fright that left me awake at night. Then it would drop deeper and darker still.
“The painkillers aren’t working anymore,” you said.
The doctor’s face was incredulous. This hadn’t been the first time you’d sat at his desk and said this. It hadn’t been the first time I suspected this either. Yet the doctor’s face was immovable. What followed was that long, drawling conversation about drug-use, not-so-subtle assumptions you were an addict, and yet another appointment with the physiotherapist.
My hands sweat on the steering wheel, just as they had sweated during that appointment. I’ve never doubted that you were an addict, but that’s because it was promised to us as the medication got stronger. Though I also never doubted that the pain was unbearable. It had taken almost everything away but itself. There was barely a woman left, no matter how hard you tried to fill the void. You were skin and bones and agony and nothingness. And I watched you, mute, as tears ran down your cheeks under the sterile lights of the doctor’s office. Your blotched-red face a slipping veil, and exposed on the cracks you had tried for so long to hide from me.
“Then take it,” you said. “It is my life. Take it.”
My stomach drops at the memory, but back then, in that moment, it had risen as bile in my throat. That childish dream of mine, where Mum got better, could not happen in this future you imagined. What sickened me more is how I’d found myself wanting you whole, as though your pain was worth it if it meant you kept your treacherous limb. Superficial, aesthetically pleasing, sickening longings. As though you couldn’t be a princess without it. As though you would love me less without it.
I park the car and take a long, sharp, intake of breath. Holding it, the ache is euphoric. My heart, wherever it lay in the ground, is still beating.
It didn’t matter at all. None of it did. You were gone by the end of the month. Rather than waiting to reach a list of names, pass more tests and prove yourself to more and more suspicious doctors, you said, “It’s my life.”
So you took it.
My face is hot, swelling while I’m failing to hold back the tears. They’re blisters. Infected with memories that are sickening now. A childhood ruined by hindsight. That dream of saving life, how did it go again? What kind of parent would teach their child such an impossible thing? What kind of hero lets their own mother fall so far that not even the earth’s core is deep enough?
I launch the stone as far and high as I can, imagining it reaching escape velocity and breaking through the atmosphere with a shattering scream. My scream. Every last one. I held them in for you, Mum. I can’t even imagine the pain you were in, but I also can’t imagine how things would have been if you’d waited. That deepest, most infantile part of me wishes you had waited. I tell myself every day that it wouldn’t have been enough, and that your choice was the best, because it has to be. I tell myself that the pain you felt every day since that accident was all consuming, with no room for love for or from me. And that wasn’t anyone’s fault but the drunk behind the wheel. I tell myself that he killed you, over and over every day until—
Why am I here?
You left me. A soft thank you for everything I’d done and then — and then silence. An empty house with empty nights and no purpose or respite or —
What am I doing here?
I haven’t been here on my own before, yet driving here seems to be built on muscle memory. A tug from my swollen heart. The yips and yowls of animals. The familiar smell of wood shavings, straw and hay. I wonder if the cats are still housed where they used to be. If they’re still finding kittens in the bins near the arcades.
Someone’s talking to me, but I can’t hear a word they’re saying. I’m time travelling, caught between childhood and now, walking the same routes we used to and pointing into the same kennels and pens and enclosures. The dogs are loud, as always, pawing and fussing, eager to be taken to a real home.
I’m nodding to words I’m not taking in, looking into the eyes of animals deserving of a better life. How could I ever leave them behind?
How could you ever leave me behind?
Then I see you, limping forward in a three-legged, golden-retriever puppy, tail wagging as though you’ve missed me from a lifetime ago. You’re at the kennel fence, whimpering, calling to me. My bulbous heart lifting, stretched with helium up and up, caught in a breeze that leads towards you. You smell like my childhood, just how I’d left you before it all went so wrong. Like Jenni with her big eyes and her even bigger heart.
Not a whisper of pain, only playfulness and a future so big and bright it shines like a new star.
I’m at your kennel, breathless.
“This is — ”
“I know who this is,” I say. At your feet, I shrink into your fur, and your head buries into my chest. You’re so happy, as if you know that I’m here now and I’m finally bringing you home.
© 2020 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.