Mother//Daughter, a Variation
Mira, Cicily, my mother says. You need to come up with a story. It will help you remember.
My story starts with a girl, I whisper. My voice is fragile, squeaky—always ready to crack and fissure. I clear my throat: There once was a girl who loved the world so deeply that she sacrificed her own heart, allowing the world to twist it into an instrument for its own use, fixing into it pegs and fingerboards, a soundpost, a tailpiece, stretching strings taut between the outermost ribs. She did not die. Instead, she became immobilized in the absence of her heart, and over time, she forgot that which she once understood to be love. She reassured herself that she did, in fact, love this world—until her skin wilted against her atrophied muscles and eroding bones, and her blood nearly ceased its course. She realized that she was a hollow vessel before a grand mirror that reflected a girl who was anything but young, beautiful, and in love with the world. Behind her, Earth’s reflection was grey and muddied. And the world, she realized, turned out to be nothing deserving of love. So the girl yielded to the mirror, collapsing onto the floor, and exhaling her last breaths into the seams of the earth, arousing music as she calcified into eternal ruin.
My mother doesn’t like my story.
The First Movement
My mother told me stories about a time that she was pregnant. Pregnant with me. The doctors’ tests claimed that I didn’t exist. They told her I was a tumor, a nonexistent product of her anxious longing for a daughter. They treated her with antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety medication—every anti they could think of. I was the ultimate anti—the anti-existence that she believed in, even if no one else would. Inside her body, I grew in spite of the medication and the doctor-induced stress, which required more medication to treat her already splintering sanity. My mother alone understood that I was a part of her: I could feel you learning how to breathe and feel and fear. I knew you were getting far too early an introduction to the ways of this world.
I find myself thinking of this story often now. As the inkblots of dementia disperse throughout my mother’s brain, as her memory perishes like watermarked ripples enclosing on the center (unnatural regression), I cannot help but think about a time when we were one. My mother and her anti. Was it the antis that caused it? Fitting, isn’t it? How her memory exculpates the doctors who refused to acknowledge that I could be real—the doctors who treated her with medication that could have (should have) left me permanently deformed; who treated her with remedies that might abandon me with mere dust mites to connect my memories too? I learned somewhere that the word “exculpate” comes from the Latin root “culpa.” Culpa. I’m Catholic, you see, and the culpa, I learned early in life, is never dormant in me. Mea culpa, Mama. I’m sorry for my existence; perhaps you would recognize the people in your picture frames right now if I didn’t wage my own war against your reality. Against your body.
And now, as I caress the papery-thinness of my mother’s forearm, I think of the question that I have never dared to ask: What about my father? Did he stay quiet because he didn’t want to believe in me either? Why couldn’t he fight the doctors? Demand new ones? Where was he?
The anti, I know, always questioning; always antagonizing.
“What was that song you used to love to play?” My mother’s voice cracks through the discordant heaviness of my thoughts. I remember to breathe; she saved me.
I am sure that my thoughts no longer belong to me, or me to them; yet, somehow, words always swell just as they do now: Her memory must be good today. She might even know who I am.
“The adagio?” It’s a delicate question, and I want to shelter the words, hold them longer: fragile, unformed shapes of glass escaping me.
“Yes, yes. The adagio. You know, I played that one in Paris once. I was just a girl then, and he…well, he was just a boy. With clear skin and a clear conscience, waiting for me. We fell in love. Right there beneath the first snowstorm that I ever witnessed in Paris, he held me to his chest, and we fell in love.”
As it always is now, her words obscure everything I intend to say. When he was alive, my father always swore that he and my mother never traveled, but her stories sometimes convince me that she had a life that he never knew about. Impossible, I know. They married when she was nineteen. Still, I choose to believe in the myths my mother weaves into our new reality.
“Mama? When were you in Paris?”
She smiles. She looks at me with such clarity. For a moment, I think we have traveled back in time to a Christmas when we sat together in our pajamas on the floor of her basement, wrapping presents and laughing at how the rough carpet made our bare legs itch; laughing at anything that we could cling to long enough to find humor. I remember that evening—the pink sky outside swelled with the promise of snow. I could feel the tension before its release, the illusion of warmth before the storm. She must have felt it too: mid-laugh, she smiled at me, almost the same smile as right now—corners lifted upward, but her chin quivering slightly below—and caressed my bangs away from my eyes. She whispered: You have made me fearless. Giving life to you has taught me that I have nothing to fear, not even death. Sitting upright and crossing her legs, she retold the story of my birth: Apologetic eyes. That’s what those doctors had. Apologetic eyes. And then. Her abrupt pause overwhelmed the room, and for some reason, I peeked at the sky through the window. Flakes whirled in the dark. In your voice, so small, chimed a new hymn that silenced the entire room. It vibrated right through the walls and rang into the night sky. When I looked outside, there were new stars that burst to life at the sound of your cry.
I am trying to slip back into this memory: to sense familiarity in my mother’s expressions, to feel the safety of a room illuminated by our history as mother and daughter. I was a careless child, but she was a careful mother who etched a new map into the Earth’s surface just for me.
She places her hand on mine. Like a billowing tidal wave, my mother’s touch wrenches the fine granules and pebbles of memory back into obscure blue. She’s touching me, yet I can feel her drifting, plummeting, tumbling—sinking away from me. She lifts my hand from her forearm, tenderly pushing it back to me. Acid in my stomach ripples and scalds: to be my mother’s daughter, if only for a short time, again.
“Child,” she whispers to me, “I know that you may be alone and afraid, but I am not your mother.”
And the scene fades.
There once was a girl who imagined she could replace the moon. She believed she could share light with the stars, nurture the night sky. She felt a luminosity within, even brighter than the radiance that flushed her cheeks. She did not resent the moon, but a voice within told her that she was meant to replace her, perhaps even relieve her. She climbed to the utmost peaks of the highest mountains and leapt. She came so close that she was able to reach out and caress the disappointment of the roughened, dried planes of the lunar mare before earth’s gravity drew her back into the depths of consequence and solid matter.
Right as she crashed into the earth’s surface, she shattered into colorful shards of glass. Young girls from all around felt the percussion of crystallized particles pounding against the Earth, a staccato rhythm thrashing through dreams. A young boy found her remains and, with his father, gathered her fragments to fashion a brilliant stained-glass saint child for their church. When the moon was at its most slender phase, the church’s flock marveled at the relic of Mother Mary that never stopped shining with unparalleled luminosity.
The Second Movement
I’m thinking about oblivion. (Entrapped in pregnant pause: oblivion.) I’m thinking of oblivion, for when I glimpse the dusk beneath my closed eyelids, the darkness is enmeshed with spun silken patterns, glistening and attracting me into this web, enticing me even when I know better. Eyes open. I’m becoming oblivion’s prey.
When I was old enough to ask her how she could bear the thought of giving birth to my younger brother after me, she told me that some decisions are not hers to make. My mother told stories about how much she hungered for my grandma’s red chili and tortillas; she told us about the time that the doctor (a new one, of course) challenged her with riddles during her ultrasounds and made house-calls in fear that she would lapse into anxiety. She told us stories about my father forcing her to drink blue atole because his mother told him that it would keep her healthy. I remember the fullness of my mother’s body when she was pregnant with my brother—even her arms were softer, her face felt plush beneath my palm. I loved to poke my fingers into her swollen feet and ankles and watch as skin swallowed the marks I made. Even after his birth, her midsection remained full. Her embrace was warmer, each hug encompassing me like never before. I remember loving the fullness of my new mother, envying my new baby brother nesting between her limbs and chest, and wondering at the secrets that they already shared apart from me.
Now the crinkles of her skin reveal webs of greenish-blue veins in their valleys—papery thin planes barely concealing muscle and bones. I’m afraid that one thoughtless touch might tear the gossamer veil of her skin. The softened lines of her body smear into the sponginess of her identity, her memory. Her fingers are twisted bones hidden beneath weary flesh. She is on her back, knitting in her sleep, fingers moving so quickly that I wonder if she’s awake. Still asleep, she mutters, “You were a beautiful baby, Luna. So bright. Full of life. Always laughing…giggling.” She falls silent again; her fingers never rest.
I wonder if my mother had an entire life that I knew nothing about. Like a threshold, I’m tiptoeing into her illusions. Cicily. I am Cicily. Luna does not exist. Yet she speaks to her (not me), claiming her as a daughter while I’m drowning in abandonment, bearing witness as she undoes each loop woven into our shared history, redistributing the threads of our identities into two separate cords.
My mother taught me how to play. How to tell stories with my violin and bow. Nearly every lesson she ever taught occurred when we played together. Cicily, if you ruin the ending, you ruin the entire piece. Mira (taking the violin from me), do you hear it? The most important parts of any performance are the beginning and the end. Now, we can’t always control things at first (setting down the violin on the piano and holding both my hands), but we are judged the moment horsehair hits the instrument. That’s why it is so important, no matter how much we recover from a weak beginning, to always remember that we have full control of our end. It’s the end, after all, that everyone will leave thinking about. It’s the end that defines us.
I wonder why she never taught me how to knit.
I wish that I could scrub away this guilt. I’m losing count of days as I dissolve into the obscurity that she is fastening with her stitches. But I cannot hospitalize her. I will not. I look forward to her nurse’s visits. I like to feel that I am not alone in this slow trek into blotted reality. They tell me that I will need to hospitalize her eventually—that she will become more violent. More lost. More afraid. But they don’t know the obligation I feel after thriving in her body when the doctors tried to force me away. I cannot leave her. So I stay, tearing down every cobweb from the corners of this house—scrubbing every surface clean.
There’s no need for a set change.
The Third Movement
My brother visits: “I know it’s been a while, Cicily. It’s so hard. I mean, I can’t bring the kids. They don’t need to see this. It will just scare them. Besides, after the way dad died, I just…I can’t watch mom disappear too.”
I tell him that I spend my days fearing the next time that I have to coax her into the car for a doctor’s visit. I tell him that I’m sometimes afraid of the stranger that was once our mother.
“I wish I could help, Cicily, but I’m just so busy. Is it that hard?”
I’m hunched over the kitchen table. My face is pressed into my arms so he can’t see my tears. I stay like this until I hear his footsteps, the click of the door closing.
My grandmother finally visits. I await her company shamelessly. As she prepares fresh tortillas and serves them to me with butter, I realize that she will outlive my mother. We sit across from one another, and she tells me: “When I was pregnant with your Mama, I was just a child. I was seventeen, can you imagine? It didn’t matter though. I knew that she had already saved me, mija. Como un angel. She was special. I prayed and prayed for a girl. Your abuelo, he didn’t want a girl. But I prayed, no matter. I knew she’d be special.”
I’m cynical; I don’t like to think of my mother as mystical, as celestial, so I ask: “Doesn’t every parent say their child is special?”
My grandmother looks at me, and I see worry, judgment, and a slight glint of pity that traces a frown from the point of her chin to her eyes. She looks down as soon as I start to cry.
My grandmother tells me that she did not see a doctor during her pregnancy; instead, she was treated by a midwife who was also her best friend. She tells me about my mother’s birth: the warm tubs of water and soiled towels that covered the room. “That smell. It’s not easy to forget. Like blood and heat and…anticipation. I worried that I would not be able to deliver her into this world. I felt too young, too afraid. I started to think maybe I was the nothing that they told me I was. I was afraid, Cicily, that I had already wronged your mother somehow. I didn’t eat the right foods. I didn’t say the right prayers.” She stops abruptly, and her eyes and nose redden. “I have never felt worthy of her.”
My grandmother stands and picks up the butter, taking it to the refrigerator. She turns around and studies me. “But your Mama still found her way into my world that night. That’s what she does, Cicily. Tu mamá encuentra la luz. She finds the light.”
She told me about nursing my mother—a ravenous, greedy baby. The next day the local priest visited to bless my mother. He prayed over her, using his thumb to make the sign of the cross on her forehead with holy water. “The priest looked at me, Cicily, and said, ‘Alma, you have a special girl here.’ So! It wasn’t just me.”
My grandmother tells me my mother loved puzzles and word games. She laughs about how much time she spent trying to beat my mother at Scrabble and chess. It was my mother’s elementary teacher that convinced my grandmother that she needed to play an instrument, so my grandmother asked a woman from their church to give her piano lessons. My mother eventually begged to learn how to play the cello but settled for a chipped, weathered viola that my grandmother found at a garage sale. In high school, she learned how to play both the cello and the violin too. “Your Mama was truly talented. She performed alongside the students studying music at university when she was just a child!” But she gradually let music melt into the backdrop of her life, my grandmother explained, and didn’t really reunite with music until I was old enough to learn how to play.
“She dedicated her life to you, Cicily. And to your brother. You two were her greatest achievements.”
Were. She’s already becoming part of the past, a character in stories. I shrink—inside and out—and cannot explain my desire to skim my toes across the glossy veneer until I sink into the pool of my mother’s dementia, just to relieve the weight of my grandmother’s words.
From the room where my mother is sleeping, I hear her call out. I cannot decipher her words.
One day during my sophomore year of high school, my mom forgot to pick me up from school. She had never forgotten before, and I was furious. I shrieked my accusations at her when she arrived, calling her names and labeling her the worst mother ever. I cannot control the present, so I let this memory anchor me. I tell my grandmother about it: “I think she was in the first stages of cognitive impairment even then.”
My grandmother moves closer to me. She stands over my collapsed head and shoulders, running her fingers through my hair. She begins to braid my hair, lifting my chin until I cannot look down. She does not need to speak, but I know that she has given me permission to say it all aloud:
“On the day I graduated from high school, my mom hugged me and mumbled, ‘I’m so cloud—’ She pulled away from me, and her eyes revealed what she would not admit: she could not remember the word that she was looking for. She hesitated and mumbled through more gibberish before laughing the moment away. But then, the forgetting truly started. She’d forget her keys, her purse, and always her phone. The only time she seemed to remember was when she was playing. I swear, she never forgot a note.
“When I would call her from my dorm, she sometimes sounded different—detached, uninterested. I was so mad at her, Abuela. How could she no longer miss me? Then one day, I got a phone call from Dad. It was four in the morning. Mamá was missing. She’d left to pick up some groceries for dinner the night before and had not returned. I cried and called her phone repeatedly, driving home as quickly as I could, turning the defrost up all the way because my windows were foggy. I remember that. The condensation on my windows. I don’t know why. But I always think of that. Just before I got home, Dad called to say they found her. She had been driving all night, searching for her home. She drove to another town before she stopped at a stranger’s house to ask for help.”
I only returned to my dorm once more—to pack up my independent life before moving back to my old one. A few months later, my father went on a fishing trip alone and didn’t return. He was never found. The guilt of neglecting him was not nearly as sharp as I imagined it should be. All I could comprehend was my life of service to my mother. Now, I spend my days helping the nurse bathe and dress my mom. I feed her one bite at a time, and I listen to her stories. My mother hasn’t recognized me for nearly five months now—probably longer if I’m honest with myself. Her words are rarely coherent, and the nurse has all but forced me to complete the paperwork to place her in a full-time facility. Mea culpa, a whisper. Even though my mother doesn’t know me anymore, she must hate me.
In the smallest voice I think my grandmother can hear: “Sometimes I think I’m forgetting her. The real her.”
She is almost done with my hair when I hear my mom shouting again. She’s awake. I touch my grandmother’s hand: I need to go. I walk into my mother’s bedroom. She’s upright, crying. She looks at me and sobs—gurgled, butchered sounds that do not form recognizable words. Fear, followed by guilt, lances through me.
“Mom?” It’s a tiny sound; I’m cornering a wild horse. I can smell hesitation. I can smell her soiled diaper. I want to flee. For a moment, I cannot even remember how to clean her. Everything the nurse has taught me seeps into the fuzzy gossamer-laden stage on which we’re performing. My grandmother is standing in the doorway, and she speaks softly (a flutter, a flute): “I’ll call the nurse.”
In the bathroom, I find the plastic, rose-colored tub and fill it with warm water and lavender soap. Use the lavender soap tonight, Cicily. You’re practicing hard, and your muscles are tense. It will relax you so you can practice more later. You need to memorize this piece. Memory is power. There are no boundaries when you master your memory. I grab two diapers off the shelf and a disposable pad. I take my time.
Mom, I don’t want to practice more. I’m tired! I’m never going to be a musician like you. Stop trying to live your dreams through me. I’m not your puppet! When I walk back into the bedroom, my mother’s body is balled like a fetus, and she is trembling, sobbing.
I can’t see her face. She hums: “I’m sorry. I. Didn’t. Know.” And that final word tapers, fades.
How dare you, Cicily?!? How dare you accuse me of such things! Music is all I know! It’s all I have to give you! We are no different from these notes, these chords, except that we can manipulate how they sound. We get to control this fate, even when we can’t control anything else. Dammit! Why can’t you understand that?
I hear the nurse at the door. I kneel before my mom and whisper, “It’s me who should be sorry. Please forgive me.”
I remember learning about Shakespearean and Greek plays in college—about the five acts that make a tragedy. I remember hubris and hamartia. I remember Medea taking her children’s lives; Hamlet snuffing out the spirit of the girl he loves. But I can’t remember the last movement of the adagio I played with my mother. I can’t even picture the music when I close my eyes.
The final act is coming; no intermission for mom. For me.
The Fourth Movement
Father Frances baptized me when I was a baby. He’s told me stories—how he baptized me in the hospital; how he performed the anointing of the sick and prayed my last rites. The doctors were sure I was going to die.
I survived. (Tu mamá encuentra la luz.)
Father Frances visited me every week while I was in the hospital, giving my parents communion and praying over me. He told me he saw something in my smile, in the dimple in my right cheek, that made him think I was special, like my mother. He’s always been a part of our family—having dinners with us, discussing God with me whenever I had questions, and even interviewing me before my Confirmation into the church. As I grew older, I resisted him more and more until he simply became a memory.
Now, he sits cautiously at my mother’s bedside in this clinical room. It is early morning, and she has been sedated. I’m not convinced that she knows he is here. He assures me she can hear us. He anointed her months ago. Now, he is praying, chanting: her last rites. I sit on her other side, leaning forward, clasping my hands, and trying to pray too. Tears drip onto my chest, my lap. My nails carve crescents into the backs of my hands. It is a curious yearning, I now realize—to want my mother both dead and alive. I want relief, for her. (For me.) I am not allowed to sleep here, so I have been granted nights alone. But those nights haunt me. I cannot sleep. I have been praying for God to take her, to alleviate us both of this never-ending performance. I hate myself for wanting to be absolved of this duty; for even existing in the first place.
I clasp her hand between my sweaty palms, something I have not been able to do in so long because she will no longer let me touch her. Her skin is cold. The woman before me does not even look like my mother. I have to focus on the fact that she is, the same way I once reminded myself of the sureness of gravity before leaping into the swimming pool as a child. The same way I once focused on intonation to please my mother. Otherwise, my thoughts slant, and I feel like a stranger visiting another stranger.
Something inside of me whispers that if I can play the adagio from memory, she will hear it and remember me. I do not like to play solos. I have never loved music in the way that my mother did—does. I mean does. She sacrificed music to have a family. I want to sacrifice my life to her in return, but it’s too late. Like two instruments playing their own parts, I am starting to realize that my mother and I are still playing together. For she is here. And so am I. Her anti.
Like one violin, Cicily. Two violinists, one sound. My fingers are quivering. I keep playing. I can feel the tears pooling in my chinrest. The violin trembles along with me—I think I understand my pain now that I hear it aloud.
I don’t know what comes next.
It’s okay, Cicily. Close your eyes…focus… Here it comes. Fourth finger. You can do this.
The chasm between us collapses; I am no longer stumbling. My fingers are moving with less effort. And then I realize: the silken web woven so densely, distorting the light. I cannot remember my mother’s face.
My bow slips, and my violin crashes to the floor. I collapse too, ignoring Father Frances as he tries to lift me off the ground. My body plummets and it does not stop until after my fingers curl around the rosary beads that are meant to guide her soul; after her final mass; after Father Frances prays before her grave; after I sink beneath her blankets, alone in her house wondering who I am without the only person who ever believed I deserved to exist. After I realize that I wronged her in every way—from my conception to the final beats of her heart. In the beginning and in the end. Alpha//Omega.
Mea culpa, Mamá. The fault? Me.
There once was a girl who was really a woman who scoured the earth in search of her daughter. A daughter whom everyone said was not real. But a wise curandera whispered into the woman’s ear that she had to find her daughter. She searched. She journeyed beyond her place and beyond her means, entering into the deepest depths, unthinkable to humankind. She tried to swim to the bottom of the seas and to soar to unclaimed realms and galaxies. She never once lost her way.
One day, when she was about to surrender to exhaustion, the woman revisited the curandera, who gave the woman tea to rest. She fell asleep counting the steamy rhythm rising from the tea. In her dream, she found her daughter to the beat of a metronome—she was no more formed than the wisps of steam emanating from her tea, no larger than a single mustard seed, floating along on an eighth note as the song played inside the woman. She found her, and she followed her, waiting for the song to end. But it never did. So the woman, in all her desperation, clawed her way into the song, holding onto the notes that enveloped her daughter, teetering above a white abyss. Right before her dream ended, she saw her daughter’s face and felt her daughter’s laughter in the breeze. Cicily. Then the notes fused into ribbons, binding her to her daughter—into the permanence that not even time, death, or memory could untwine.
When the woman woke, she wrote the ribbons into a song and titled it Mother and Daughter. She weaved and wove; plaited and braided. She played and played until each and every note swirled into a vortex that vitalized: her daughter.
There once was a girl who was a woman who loved her daughter so much that she gave her everything, even her memory.
There once was a girl who forgot.
When I was a child, my mother made me create stories for every new song that I learned. She said it would help my memory; she said it would make the music personal. Notes are no different, really, from us. And now, all I have are incomplete stories. I never realized that the cadenza tarnishes before we can even turn to the last page.
I’m sorry, Mama.