Why? Why did you leave me, leave us?
I stared up at the ceiling, a ceiling that used to be covered in flowers mixed with stars. Now it was just white nothingness. Some days I felt like this, like a blanket was suffocating me, like I was underwater and couldn’t come up. Calm on the surface, but inside swirling and whirling.
I agonised over that question, day in, day out.
Nobody could answer it, except for her. And she was gone.
“Claire! It’s time for school,” my little brother said, standing in the doorway to my small room.
Jackson was the only one among us who had any semblance of life left. He had this optimistic outlook on life which really, really bugged me. Why didn’t he feel miserable like the rest of us? Why wasn’t he mad that she had left us?
“Sure,” I said, dismissing him. I looked at him long enough to see him shrug his shoulders to keep his bag upright and to see the disappointed look on his face.
“We need to walk to the bus together,” he said.
“Get dad to do it,” I said, lamenting over the loss of my ceiling, of my old life.
“He’s asleep,” he said shortly. “I can’t wake him. He just grumbles and rolls over.”
Just like usual, I thought to myself. Anger started to break its way through my suffocating numbness.
“Have you eaten?” I asked him. He nodded.
“I had some cereal. I think the milk is nearly off though,” he said, wrinkling his little 9-year-old nose in distaste.
I inwardly sighed and heaved myself upright.
“Alright, let me get dressed and pack my bags. Then we’ll go,” I said.
He nodded and left.
I dragged myself to the closet, glad that I didn’t have to worry about picking everyday clothes to wear. All of my old clothes didn’t fit properly anymore. I had grown taller, and thinner, and my dad never seemed to want to help me shop for more. I guess dads didn’t usually do that sort of thing.
I put on my school uniform which I had gotten second-hand, and for free, from the uniform lady. Dad had forgotten to pay for it, or didn’t care, and the lady was kind. Jackson would run into the same problem too. He was growing fast.
Once I was dressed, I looked in my bedroom mirror.
Long, wavy dark hair stared at me, hair that perfectly hid my palish face and watery brown eyes that always seemed on the verge of crying. They never used to look like that. I always loved to tie my hair back so I could see the world clearly and so everybody could hear me and see me when I spoke or did something. Now, I just felt like fading into the shadows.
I felt great! I was a 13-year-old halfway through the first year of high school and missing one parent.
I packed my stuff and headed downstairs. I skipped the kitchen, as I often did nowadays. The kitchen held too many memories.
My brother was waiting by the door and he held up a mandarin.
“Eat,” was all he said.
I felt a surge of annoyance at him then I managed a small smile and took it.
“Does dad know we’ve gone?” I asked quietly.
“Yeah, I told him. I think he heard me.”
I pursed my lips, that anger bubbling underneath.
“Let’s go then.”
I arrived to school late, having escorted my brother to the lower campus then walking slowly back to the upper campus. I took my time, as I always did. Once I’d enjoyed school. Now, it was just a place where people stared and there was noise and stupidness.
I got a stern frown from my first teacher, a far cry from her sympathetic looks from a few months before. I slunk into the class and rested my chin on my folded arms.
Sometimes during my classes, emotions would swirl in me, chopping and changing and churning like an ocean, or my thoughts would be mercifully silent, consumed by the cloud of dark despair. Other times, a million thoughts raced around in my head, crashing against each other like motorcars in a crash until I couldn’t take it anymore. Most of time it was just a numb nothingness that made me want to sleep.
Today it was the thoughts and the emotions swirling around my head through every class. I couldn’t keep track of them all but three stood out in my head: first and foremost that question echoing in my mind of why and the doubts that came with it; second, a simmering anger at my dad for doing nothing; third, waves of sadness, confusion and loneliness that threatened to drown me.
When lunch finally came, I sat in the furthest corner of the school yard. Talking to people was exhausting. Even my best friends. They still came over and tried to talk to me. I rarely responded. Often we - they - ate in silence. Honestly, I enjoyed their company and I knew that ignoring them was wrong but I also didn’t care.
Nothing really mattered anymore.
Today they were attempting to draw me into conversation.
“There are a few sales on at the mall today?” Charlotte said hopefully. “There are heaps of clothes you can buy.”
“Yeah, shopping was always fun!” my other friend Amber said.
I remained silent. I mean, shopping would be fun but I had no money and I don’t think dad would give me any, even if he could hear me asking.
“Or the movies. The movies are fun. There is that one about the pets!” Charlotte crowed.
“Oooh I saw that with my family the other day! My mum found it so funny. She said that the cat reminded her of our cat,” Amber said.
There was a sudden silence and I caught Charlotte glaring at Amber.
“Don’t say the ‘M’ word,” she hissed. Amber clapped her hand over her mouth dramatically.
For some reason, that small motion and those few words made that simmering volcano of anger explode.
“You don’t have to tiptoe around me! You can say the word. You can say ‘Mum.’ You have mums so you can talk about them all you want. I don’t have a mum. Everybody knows that. My mum is gone. She left me. STOP REMINDING ME!” I shouted at them at the top of my lungs.
I wasn’t even entirely sure what I was saying, nor did it make sense for me to be so upset over essentially nothing. But the anger was there and it wasn’t going away.
My friends were staring wide-eyed at me, their faces masks of shock and then hurt.
I couldn’t take it anymore and got up and walked past them, shoving them roughly aside, kicking hard at one of the round, green bins the school had in the eating area, making it spill its contents everywhere.
I found a hiding spot in the library for the rest of the school day, not really knowing what to do about anything about or anyone. I was like a ship without a rudder, a hot air balloon that didn’t work properly.
I snuck out after the final bell rang, avoiding teachers or anyone who knew me, to go get my brother.
He was standing by the gates waiting for me. As soon as he saw me he gave me a hug.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Those three little words coming from his bright, open face nearly made me burst into tears.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, my voice cracking slightly.
“Everything will work out fine so long as you keep on breathing,” he said sagely.
“Who told you that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
I almost burst into tears again.
We arrived home from the bus to the smell of freshly cooking food, something long absent in our house.
I walked straight to the kitchen and…my heart beat faster and the tears welled up in my eyes. Black hair, tall frame, in the kitchen surround by the smell of delicious food cooking.
It was her! She’d come back! She was here! She was back! I started to run towards her, arms open for a hug, when she turned around.
It wasn’t her. The same black hair, the same tall frame, even a similar shaped face. But the eyes were not the same, they were not a warm chocolate brown but a darker, deeper brown instead.
“Aunty!” Jackson crowed from behind me and launched himself at her. I stayed in the doorway as she laughed and hugged him back.
I simply struggled with the crushing, angry disappointment.
“It’s good to see you, Jackson,” she said warmly.
I’d always loved my aunt and uncle and my cousins. My aunt was a good woman, similar to how mum had been but a little bit harsher and more straight forward. She said things as she saw it and that was that. I had admired her, when I was younger.
“Why didn’t you come earlier?” I asked sharply, those emotions seeping through.
Aunt Denise stood up and walked over to me. I backed away, not wanting her to hug me. I couldn’t deal with that just now.
She took a deep breath.
“I wanted to, my dear. But I had my own family to look after. And my own grief to deal with,” she said pointedly at me.
I remained silent.
“Are you hungry?” she asked to change the subject.
“No,” I replied, even though all I had eaten today was Jackson’s mandarin.
“Okay. Well, I’ve nearly finished cooking and I’ve managed to get your father sitting up so hopefully I can get him to walk down here too and eat,” she said, unperturbed.
“Good luck with that. Dad doesn’t care about anything or anyone. He’s useless. He should’ve died instead,” I said in a scathing tone.
Jackson looked at me, shocked and hurt, and my aunt simply stared at me calmly.
“Jackson, go and help your dad get dressed,” she said.
He bolted up the stairs.
Denise and I stood in silence. I knew what I had said was horrible, but I couldn’t seem to care about it. I was angry and it had felt good to say that to let some of the anger out. Anger was better than tears.
“How are you coping?” she asked.
Denise moved closer and I shifted from the doorway.
“I heard you skipped some of your classes today and damaged school property,” she said, looking at me questioningly.
“They called you?” I asked incredulously.
“After your father, I’m next of kin. If anything happened to your father or…mother, I was to look after both you and Jackson,” she said. “So here I am.”
“Well, we don’t need you. We’re fine. I’m fine,” I said, my anger brewing again.
“No, you’re not fine, Claire. Annie died. She’s gone. It hurts, it hurts so bad some days you can’t even stand it. You have to accept it, accept it and move on. Your mother wouldn’t have wanted you to stop living, to start doing badly at school. She would want you to carry on, always,” she said to me.
“Well I don’t care what she wants!” I shouted. “She’s dead. She’s nothing to me now!”
“I can understand why you feel that way. Yes, she left, but she didn’t leave you. She loved you and your brother and your father more than anything. You know that,” she said.
“No, no I don’t know that. If she loved me, she wouldn’t have left! She would’ve fought! She would’ve kept fighting! For us! Like she always told us to do!” I began shouting now.
“Honey, she fought. She fought till the bitter end. But cancer…it eats away at you. You can fight it and sometimes you will win, sometimes it will win. It doesn’t mean she didn’t love you enough to stay. She tried!”
“Well, she didn’t try hard enough!” I yelled, tears starting to stream down my face.
I angrily tried to wipe them away.
“You know, deep down inside, she did,” Denise said, her voice still calm albeit trembling a little too.
My chest heaved as I tried to deal with the tempest inside me. I remembered what she had looked like in the end. Bald and frail, her skin like paper, her eyes not vibrant and warm anymore but dull and full of pain. Still, she could have fought and won. Why couldn’t she win.
Why, why, why, why!
“I miss her,” I said in a small, tremulous voice.
Denise now gave a small sob and reached out to hug me again.
This time I let her sweep me into her arms and hug me. My tears gave way to giant sobs that wracked my whole body.
“I know sweetie, I know. I miss her too, so much,” she whispered in my ear.
My Aunt Denise saved what was left of my family that day. I’ve never forgotten it, her kindness, her steadfastness. She dragged my father out of his drugged, depressed state, helped me through my tumultuous teenage years of boys, exams and womanhood and made sure my brother retained his bright optimism I so admire him for.
She was there for my 18th, helping me to throw a huge birthday bash and she was there to help me with University to get the degree my mother and I had always talked about. She became Jackson and I’s pseudo mother and our cousins became like our brothers and sisters.
Time passed along even further until, one day, it happened.
I met the love of my life, John.
John was the most amazing person I had ever met. He was smart, kind and funny and he and my father got along like they were old pals and he taught my brother about woodwork as he worked part-time as a carpenter.
Wherever he went, the sun shone.
Mother would have loved him.
I almost swore I felt her there on my wedding day, watching me walk down the aisle, my father grinning from ear to ear – the happiest I think he had ever been in his life, until my brother’s wedding of course.
I had two children with John, Sarah and Jack, and we were the happiest of families. Life was perfect and the sting of mother’s loss slowly began to finally ebb away.
Until one day I received a call from my doctor’s office.
“Mrs. Bronson, your test results are back. You should book an appointment with us immediately…”
“I remember the last time I was here. It was just after I’d met John and I was so happy I just had to tell you about it. I was hoping desperately that hearing I’d found the love of my life would somehow make you return from the grave,” I chuckled, staring at the cold, grey headstone that bore my mother’s name.
I sat there, trying to voice my thoughts in the silence of the graveyard.
“I used to feel so, so angry at you. I hated you,” I gave a small chuckle. “I still kind of do. I got so sick of crying, of the anger, of the despair, the hate, the blame. You left us and I never understood why.”
Silence, aside from the wind whistling through the trees. I wondered if she was here, listening. I hoped she was.
“We needed you still, so much, mother. But you left us. You left father, you killed him for a while. He lost all hope, mother. He almost forgot about Jackson and I. Denise helped to bring him back, helped us all get through it. I hope you were the one who sent her, our angel.”
I broke off as I thought of those dark times, of my family drowning in anger and grief and falling apart.
“That’s why I’m here. You see…” I broke off again, my voice breaking. “I’m hoping for a miracle, mother. Maybe you didn’t get one but I’m hoping I will. Either that or you’ll need to help me find an angel for my family. Because, because I finally got the answer to my question and I... I understand. I’m not angry at you anymore, or sad. I realise now that you really didn’t chose to leave us. I realise that, given the choice, you would have stayed and watched my brother and I grow up, get married and have our own families, and ended up growing old and grey with father. But,” I took a deep breath, “it was your time. Maybe you were needed somewhere else, either up there in Heaven or maybe in another life. I don’t know. All I know is that you had to answer the call of whatever dictates our fates and destinies. But what I do know is that you loved us, so very much. And you taught me everything you could in the short time we had and I am so thankful I got to know you even a little bit.”
I smiled through the tears that were pouring down my smooth yet sunken face.
“I’ll be joining you soon, mother,” I whispered to her.
I wrapped my scarf tighter around my bald head, trying to keep my now thin, frail body from catching a chill in the brisk autumn air.
As I turned to leave, I swore I heard a whisper upon the wind and caught a whiff of the apple shampoo mother used to use in her hair.
I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply as the wind danced around me, filling me with a comforting warmth.
Everything would be alright in the end.