My mother would scrunch her nose and her forehead would crinkle. Her blue eyes would slant and her barely visible eyebrows would almost touch. “I don’t like fish,” she’d say as she’d either push the plate away if my grandfather placed it in front of her, or wave her hand in front of her nose and back away as he opened the oven with his navy blue mittens.
“You ready for some swordfish, Casey?” my grandfather raised his voice above the hum of the stove’s fan. He had his eyes on the fish as he carefully placed it on the long plate on the counter. He removed the mittens and grabbed bottles of green seasonings to cover the peach flesh with.
He pointed his sweaty nose to the kitchen table as he made his way over with the dish.
I clutched the back of the kitchen chair that I always sat at (it used to be my mother’s spot at the table when she was a kid) and shook my head no. My hair flopped back and forth over my shoulders and I bit my bottom lip with my buck teeth.
“No? What do you mean, no?” My grandfather looked at me, eyes squinted. “This is good fish. It’s home cooked. I thought you liked it.”
“I’m not hungry.” I looked at the blue tiles on the kitchen floor. Little particles of dirt clogged the once white cracks.
My grandfather eyed my face, but I pretended not to notice.
“How can you deny Grandpa’s swordfish?” my chubby brother, Karl, who was older than me by one year said as he raced down the hall. The picture frames in the hallway rattled against the walls and the china in the dining room cabinet shook. His bare feet stomped across the kitchen floor. He pushed his way in front of me to take a look at the plate of swordfish on the table.
“Don’t push me,” I said. I sat down and spun side to side in my chair as I watched him turn to my grandfather who was digging through a drawer for silverware.
“Learn how to eat,” Karl said. He tied his hands behind his back as he watched my grandfather rip a few paper towels off of the roll that hung above the sink. Karl followed him to the table—his eyes followed the plate as he spoke to me. “Actually, don’t. More for us.”
My grandfather placed the silverware in the middle of the table and gave us each a folded paper towel. He looked down at Karl.
“What was the matter?”
Karl plopped down in the chair he always sat in. The one below the phone, so if it rang, he could answer it.
“Casey doesn’t know what good food is.”
I glared at Karl as I folded my arms on the table. I gripped my elbows. His head was slightly turned and he stared at my grandfather as he cut up the swordfish on a small yellow plate. He looked up at Karl and handed the plate to him. Then he licked his fingers and cut up some for himself.
“You’re missing out, Casey.”
“Yeah, it’s so good!” Karl turned towards me and opened his mouth.
“Ew!” I kicked up my feet and spun the chair around so that my back faced the table.
My grandfather placed his hand with the fork in it down on the table and stopped chewing. “Quit horsing around and eat, will yas?” He shook his head. “Christ Almighty.”
He was an impatient man—especially around food.
After some silence, Karl stirred his fork around his plate. “This is so good.” He shook his head as if in disbelief. “Can I have some more?” He shoved a big slab of fish in his mouth. I knew he was trying to get a reaction out of me.
“Finish what you have first,” my grandfather said, eyes on his plate as he quickly chewed. His fork was raised above his next piece of fish.
My grandfather got a helping of fish for Karl, whose cheeks were stuffed, then some more for himself.
“I don’t understand how you don’t want any.” Karl looked at me as he swallowed, then took another bite. “You just don’t want swordfish because Mom didn’t like it.”
I clenched my jaw as I stared out the window behind the table. My grandfather stopped chewing and looked from me to Karl, who stabbed multiple chunks of fish onto his fork and stuffed it in his mouth. His teeth scraped the fork when he pulled it out.
Mother’s Day was a week away, and in home economics class in middle school that day, my class began talking about making candles as gifts for our mothers. My mother died of lung cancer the year before.
I placed my palms on the table and looked at Karl.
“Karl…” I paused. I wasn’t sure what to say to him.
I inhaled and bit my bottom lip.
“What?” Karl pointed his fork to the plate of fish at the center of the table. “Don’t waste the fish.”
As I quickly got to my feet, the chair beneath me rolled back and slammed into the refrigerator.
“Knock it off!” my grandfather’s voice echoed in the kitchen. Karl and I froze.
“Not at the table.” He looked from Karl to me. “God Almighty.” He shook his head as he continued to chew.
I stood still, feeling warm and breathing heavily as my moist fingers gripped the edge of the table.
My grandfather’s gray eyes glared into mine and he pointed at my chair. “Casey, sit at the table.”
“Mother’s Day is coming up,” I said, still standing as I looked out the window, looking at nothing in particular.
Then I heard Karl chewing—he was trying to chew quietly, but that was impossible—he looked like a cow wearing some sort of invisible muzzle.
My grandfather placed his big, callused hand on top of mine.
I stared out the window as my eyes teared up.
“Casey.” My grandfather pushed his plate to the center of the table and rolled his chair close to mine.
“What?” I sniffled, still looking out the window. My bottom lip felt heavy.
I thought about my mother every single day. My thoughts went around in circles; the same thoughts surfaced. I wondered what her last thoughts were, I wondered if she was proud of who I grew into. I wondered what she saw in my father, who was years older than her and in jail for selling drugs. I knew Karl and I weren’t planned, and I wondered if she’d ever regretted bringing us into this world. I wondered if there was a heaven. I wondered if she heard me when I sat up in bed and spoke to her. I prayed that she was free of all of her pain, and all of her stress. She worked two jobs and she smoked way too much. Far too much for her small body to handle. Karl and I spent more time with our grandfather than we did with our mother, ever since we were infants. For some reason, it made me feel sad—a guilty kind of sad—it made me feel like I could have done something about it so that we would have had more time to spend with her. I could have gone out of my way; I could have talked to her about it.
After her funeral, I refused to visit her grave. I thought of her tired, decaying body, cold and stiff underneath the yellow grass. That wasn’t her. My mother was animated and she tried to remain positive beneath her stressful life. She didn’t want to cave in, she didn’t want to back down. She would never want to waste away.
When my grandfather and Karl would go, I’d sit in the station wagon and play with the staticky radio. After the first time, a few days after the funeral, Karl tried to force me out of the back seat. He pulled at my jacket, then grabbed me by the shoulders. He kept asking if I loved Mom. My grandfather turned around and his earth-quaking holler was horrifying. He ripped Karl off me. I pulled up my knees and pressed my mittens against my ears, rocked back and forth and cried.
On their walk back to the car, I heard my grandfather tell Karl that I’d come around, that I needed more time.
Nobody bothered me when we went to the cemetery after that. I’d stay silent and sit in the back seat. I tried to ignore the fact that my mother was dead, that she was the one in the ground, lifeless. That wasn’t who she was.
“Casey,” my grandfather repeated.
I looked at him. His face softened. His scrunched eyebrows lifted and his narrow eyes widened. His mouth opened a bit.
“You know I’m here for you, I’m here for you always,” he said.
Hot tears came rushing from the corners of my eyes. I pushed my wet face into my folded arms.
“Case.” I heard the wheels beneath Karl’s chair roll as he stood up, and he rubbed my back. “Case, it’s going to be alright.” I could tell what his face looked like by the softness in his voice. His thick cheeks hung down, pulling down his bottom lip. His eyebrows were slightly raised and his big eyes were glistening.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. I really don’t.” I slightly raised my head and placed a cheek in the curve of my arm. “I thought I’d be over this by now.” I looked into my grandfather’s cloudy eyes. “How do I do it?” I swallowed the salty taste in my mouth. “How do you do it?” I looked at Karl. “How do you do it?”
“Casey,” said my grandfather. “We all still love your mother, very much. Very, very much.” A tear from my grandfather’s chin hit the table. “She was the greatest daughter I could ever ask for, she was a magnificent mother. She did so much for you two kids, so much, even when she thought she couldn’t handle the pressure she had herself under. She loved the both of you, much more than I can explain. We all miss her. I miss her every day.” My grandfather looked to the ceiling. “I cry from time to time, and that’s okay.” He swallowed. “There’s nothing wrong with that, with those emotions. She was my daughter, she was your mother. We love her, and god damn it do we miss her.” My grandfather dropped a fist to the table. “Of course we’d love to have her back. I’d never let her out of my sight if she were to come back.” He sighed and looked from Karl to me. “But she’s not coming back. We have to accept that.”
I buried my head in my arms and I felt my body shake as I cried.
My grandfather squeezed my hand. “She wouldn’t want us suffering, or hanging onto anything we can’t change. She would not want that at all.”
Karl kept telling me that I’d be okay in time, and said that my grandfather was right—that my mother wouldn’t want me to suffer, or to hurt. He said that it might help if the three of us went to see her at the cemetery on Mother’s Day. He said she’d like that very much. I didn’t say anything, and I eventually fell asleep at the kitchen table, exhausted from crying.
In home economics class, I made a candle for my mother. It was orange, her favorite color, and in the shape of a star, her favorite shape. While pouring the wax into the star-shaped glass, I smiled. This was a gift my mother would cherish. It reminded me of when Karl and I were younger. My mother would save all of the snowflakes we shaped out of paper, the strings of orange beads we tied into bracelets or necklaces for her, all of the unevenly folded paper cards that we scribbled in with crayons, even the pinecones sprinkled with glitter.
My mother would squat down in her work clothes—her navy blue Friendly Drug Pharmacy polo tucked into khaki pants, or a neutral colored blouse beneath a vest, with dark, pin striped pants that she wore when she sat behind the desk at the dentist’s office— and open her mouth, wide. She’d tilt her head to the side, her curly hair would cover her shoulder and she’d stare at whatever it was in my small hands before she’d reach out to hold it and twirl it around to look at every angle. She’d say things like, “Casey, honey, this is beautiful!” or “This is gorgeous! Look at this! Thank you!” and wrap her arms around me to rock me back and forth.
The tires squeaked as the station wagon braked on the one-way road in the cemetery. The car rolled beside a bush that was decorated in pink ribbons and the car squeaked again as it came to a stop. My grandfather turned the key, and all was silent. I twirled the candle’s wick, and my other hand made its way down the candle, which was wrapped in light orange, crinkled tissue paper. A darker shade of orange ribbon was tied around it.
Karl sat in front of me, and I could tell he was watching me through the side mirror. My grandfather smiled at me through the rear view mirror when I glanced up. I smiled back and clutched the handle.
“Let’s go see Mom,” I said, and opened the door.
I walked between Karl and my grandfather. Our sneakers sunk a bit in the damp grass. I knew which grave was my mother’s and I didn’t take my eyes off of it from the moment I stepped out of the car.
Your Spirit Will Live On
I cried, I cried so much that I couldn’t see.
“Here, Mom.” I placed the candle on the top of her grave, and got down on my knees beside it.
“I love you, Mom. I love you so much.” I tried to catch my breath but I began coughing.
“Happy Mother’s Day.”
I wrapped my arms around her grave, imagining myself in her embrace. I shut my eyes and remembered the way I’d feel protected and proud as her wrists would cross over one another behind my back and her fingers would grip my sides.
But her grave was cold. Her grave was stiff.
I raised my head and looked at the grave between my arms. My mother was no longer living.
Karl placed a basket of orange petunias in front of her grave and kneeled across from me. He wrapped his arms around the other side of the grave, and held my shoulders. He rested his forehead on the side of the grave.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.”
My grandfather knelt down beside me and ran his fingers through my hair.
He looked at Karl, then back at me.
“We’re all here, Chiara, we’re all here.” He grabbed his handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and wiped his nose.
My mother, she had us. She wasn’t gone. She was in our hearts, she was in our memories.
I came to visit her all the time after that. I’d sit down and talk to her, bring her gifts. Knowing that I loved her so much, no matter what, made me feel so alive.
She’d live on, through me.