During one of the visits in the quarantine room, the doctor turned to me and asked,
“You’re the oldest daughter in this family?”
He cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Ah, well, now would be a time to say something to your mother. Last words. A final ‘I love you’. She won’t respond but she might hear you and receive your message.”
I choked on the sob that burst out of me. I knelt by Mom’s hospital bed as thoughts flashed through my head. My last ‘I love you’? We had never said “I love you”. Ever. This would be my first time.
My breathing quickened to rapid bursts, my cheeks were flushed, I couldn’t wipe the tears off fast enough, and the room felt like it was closing in.
Oh. My. God.
I looked at Mom’s face. Her eyes were closed, and she looked quite peaceful. Her dark brown hair was in a messy bun, and a few strands escaped to make swirls across the pillow. “Mama, I, uh, um, I don’t know if you can hear me,” I whispered. This felt so unnatural. “I want you to know that I think you were the best mom out there. I, um, I love you. Very much. I don’t want you to die! Who will take care of us? I’m so sorry for being a brat so many times! Please forgive me.”
I didn’t think I could cry any harder, but a new wave of uncontrollable sobs erupted.
The doctor said, “OK, times up.”
I whispered a last desperate “I love you!” and stepped out of the room.
An overwhelming feeling of remorse filled me. Mom probably thought I didn’t even like her. I’d been so self-centered so often. Always thinking of myself, whatever is best for me, not being aware of how other people are feeling. My dad had been right; I was selfish. And here was Mom, dying, and it was too late for me to show my appreciation of all she did for the family. It was too late to say that I loved her. What good was it saying to somebody who was barely alive?
Two days later I got off the school bus and saw my aunt, who I’ll call Aunt Jenny, standing by the driveway. She motioned for me to come closer. I had a sneaky suspicion I knew what it was about.
I came closer and waited for her to say something. Her eyes were darting all over the place and finally landed on mine.
“I have to tell you something,” she paused, then took a shaky breath. “Your mom. She’s gone.”
Then she opened her arms and caught me as I fell on her and wept.
A blurry filter took over. Everything went hazy.
Life shifted out-of-focus.
The next thing I was aware of was having a conversation with my grandma. It didn’t seem real, because her voice seemed far away, as if in a tunnel. It felt like I was watching the scene, like I wasn’t even there. It was a discussion about where each sibling was going to live. For some reason, Dad’s relatives were out of the question. Some relatives could take one sibling; some two or three. Some families who had cousins close to my age wanted me to live with them. I had to think of which sibling got along best with whom. Where would each sibling go? Did that family have similar aged kids? Which family could handle a particular brother or sister? The ten of us were split up amongst six families, from the west coast all the way to the east coast.
I was terrified of moving somewhere unfamiliar. Plus, the coolest aunt and uncle were the ones who lived locally, Aunt Jenny and her husband, who I’ll call Uncle John. Uncle John played in a band once, and still performed with a group at certain events. I convinced Grandma that the best fit for me would be to live locally, because of school and the complications of moving and making friends at the high school age level. Tickets were purchased. Everybody would pack a bag of belongings and head out the day after the funeral.
We sat on the front row during the memorial service. Story after story was told about what a nice lady Mom was. Wow. She helped out when a metal flagpole fell on somebody’s head, assisted folks with meals, helped out financially, gave good advice, and prayed for needs. I wasn’t familiar with all the stories. My perspective had been one-sided, a negative one at that, because I disliked my role at home and because Mom never let me go to sleepovers.
I thought of the pleasant things she’d done. She took me shopping for a zip-up sweatshirt. She bought a real camera for me. She even allowed me to order a refurbished laptop from an ad that we got in the mail. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the laptop to work, but it was still the most expensive purchase she’d ever made for me. I wondered if all those items she bought for me had anything to do with my annoying remarks about her spending so much time working. Quite often I reminded Mom that I could be doing so many other things besides taking care of the house and kids. This was her way of calming me down, by buying me gifts. But now, seeing her lifeless body in front of me, I could care less about those things. I wished for more time with her. I wished I didn’t complain during the thrift store shopping trips. I wished I cherished the time I worked at the Dollar Store with her. I wished I smiled during the photos with her, where she found similar looking outfits and wanted pictures of us together. I had disliked all things that bonded us together. I regretted that with all my might. Oh what I would give to go back and relive those years. The uncomfortable knot in my stomach became painful. What a lousy daughter I had been.
During the funeral service, I alternated between sobbing and cracking jokes. My friends joined me in the nervous giggling after hearing the punch lines but then would look at me with wide eyes and ask,
“What’s wrong with you?”
I had no idea. The jokes were coming out by themselves. Something probably was wrong with me.
There were countless hugs going around, especially between my brothers and sisters. We clutched each other tightly until we couldn’t breathe and apologized for all the sibling rivalry we’d ever had. I apologized to each sibling who wasn’t allowed into my room because he or she was considered too young. I apologized to my brother who was tricked into getting paid by a fake five-dollar bill after tidying up the living room.
Out on the burial site, things got even more exciting. A tall, old man, one of the highest-ranking elders in fact, dared say something unspeakable, loud enough for everybody to hear:
“Crying won’t help any of you. Calm down. It’s not going to bring your mother back. I didn’t cry when my wife passed away.”
There was an audible gasp from the crowd. How dare he say something like that? An awkward pause followed. What now? Nobody talks back to an elder. Then, to my great astonishment, a friend who was a few years older than me, raised her voice and challenged him:
“Are you out of your mind? That is not nice! These kids just lost the most important person in the world to them!”
She instantly earned a hero status in my mind.
After several commotion-filled days, we began to settle in. I shared a room and a bed with my sister who came right after me in sibling order. We whispered late into the nights about what the future held for us. How can we go to school and act normal and happy? Now that everything was completely different, was there anything good that we could look forward to?
I sat up abruptly. “Yes! I’ve got it!”
My sister looked at me with puffy eyes. “Oh really? What?”
“We can wear pants! Even jeans!”
“No way. Parents never let us, why would Aunt and Uncle allow it?” Why was my sister being so sensible?
“Because they’re the awesome relatives! Aunt Jenny is really pretty, she can wear pants, and they have a fancy house…” my voice trailed off.
I asked both Uncle and Aunt about it. Aunt Jenny was hesitant, “Well, I don’t know. Your mother was pretty firm about the no pants policy. I’m not sure how she’d feel if we began to allow you something that was against her principles.”
I grimaced. It was mostly Dad who had cared about the pants, with Deuteronomy 22:5 being the driving force. Gym class was the only exception. Once in a while some of us sisters would sneak pants under the traditional skirt or dress outfit, and change while hiding cleverly between the seats of the school bus. Of course we’d have to switch back before arriving at home.
Uncle John came to the rescue. “Who cares if they wear pants? What difference does it make now?”
Aunt Jenny took us clothes shopping at the mall. Nobody had ever purchased so many things all in one go for us. We got sweatshirts, shirts, leather jackets, and last but not least, actual blue jeans. What a gift!
Right away I wore the jeans to school. I felt slightly more normal than when I wore my bright old-fashioned skirts with white sneakers. A popular sophomore girl came up immediately and exclaimed, “Galina! You’re wearing jeans? Wow! I’ve never seen you wear pants before!”
My excellent social skills came in handy. “Um, yeah well, you see, my mom never let me wear pants and she died last week so I guess I can wear pants now.”
She looked visibly shocked. She quickly mumbled an “I’m so sorry!” then rushed to talk to somebody else.
At that moment I realized that even though I was now wearing jeans, I wasn’t going to ever fit in.