The Flowers in My Mother’s Lungs
by Gisella Gianina
(“He told me he loved me,” she draws in a shuddering breath, “and I believed him.”)
Mom’s barely the same person ever since dad left.
She was a beautiful woman. Her eyes were never marred with gloom and she’s so full of life and excitement like the first dashes of spring. How her smile bloomed and her body reverberated with warmth, it’s really as if she breathed spring. One would believe she had lungs full of cherry blossoms.
Now her lungs are full of ashes, the flowers being long dead.
On the first week after his leave, she was on autopilot mode. Her eyes were vacant, and she didn’t sing like she used to when doing the dishes. She’d sit by the window and stare outside lifelessly after she’s done with the chores, only humming when I acknowledged her presence as I arrived home.
She started leaving the house on the second week, only coming home late at night smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. In her drunken state, she would slur how she just had the best time of her life—because when she drinks and dances the night away the seconds seem to stop. Time pauses and the only thing moving is someone’s hands on her, slipping under her shirt. The endearments and sweet nothings, the endless stream of husky ‘i love you’s whispered to her ear. The ecstasy-like sensation that heals the dull pain in her heart.
I listen to her until she loses consciousness, always.
Every time I tuck her into bed, brushing her hair away from his face, I count the new hickeys littering down her neck. Reds and purples, glaring me down in the dark.
Mom seems to think they’re flowers, those hickeys of hers.
For when time picks up from where it left off and the bruises wilt, fading from her skin, she seeks for anyone that can plant them back on.
As if her body was a canvas and she couldn’t leave it blank and cold, she seeks for anyone who can paint all over her.
And I watch from the sidelines as mom breaks herself to pieces over and over again.
When mom begins smiling genuinely, it’s been months since that man’s departure from our lives, our little family. The singing comes back, and our house lights up along with her. The loneliness that previously curtained the windows melt under the streaming sunlight.
When I ask what got her so happy, color rises to her cheek. Like a teenage girl’s first time experiencing romance, she answers bashfully, “I found love.”
How did she know? What sets him apart from all the men who held her through the brief, passionate nights? Before I can voice these thoughts, mom cuts in (she can always tell what I’m thinking. It’s like our souls are connected). Her eyes harden, and I can see she’s grasping tight to what hope she has left. Hope to bloom once more.
“It’s different this time,” she declares. “He’s serious about me.”
The man turns out to be a serial conman. He disappears one day with mom’s purse and jewelries, after a night spent together.
The next few days are filled with endless bustling. Mom files a report to the police and takes care of her credit cards. For a woman who just got her heart broken, she’s handling it quite well. While she does stab her food with more force than usual, and curses directed to her ex-lover bounce off the walls every now and then, she doesn’t let one tear fall. That’s when I realize:
Not once—not when she found out she had been conned, when she came home reeking of smoke or woke up with a head-splitting hangover in a cold bed, not even when her ex-husband walked out the door with long strides—has she cried.
“He told me he loved me.”
Mom tells me one quiet afternoon as I arrive home, sitting at the exact same spot by the window. Her eyelashes, fluttering, cast shadows on her cheek.
“He told me he loved me,” she draws in a shuddering breath, “and I believed him.”
I stare at her, unsure of what to say. I can’t even tell who she’s talking about anymore. She lets out a bitter laugh and shakes her head.
“I’m sorry. You must think I’m a failure of a mother.” She looks me in the eye and all I see is a broken soul, stripped naked and painfully vulnerable. “I’m sorry.”
Mom locks herself in her room after that, and the next day, and the day after. She only comes out about twice a day to get some food and water. She eats little, talks little, sleeps mostly,
and lives barely.
I decide I’ve had enough and gather all my courage one night, knocking on her door softly. When there’s no answer, I tell her I’m coming in, before unlocking the door with my spare key.
Mom’s lying on the bed, eyes closed, the blanket still folded neatly at her feet. To any other person, she might appear like she’s sleeping, but I know better. It’s impossible that mom sleeps without being all bundled up. The message is clear: leave me alone.
But I’m not going to. Not anymore.
The bed creaks under my weight as I sit down, shifting closer to her body. Stroking her hair softly, I can feel her relax under my fingertips. I wonder if any of the men who had been with her ever touched her lovingly like she deserves.
I wonder why, why does she seek affection from people she doesn’t even know? From people far away, from people who could only give it momentarily, when she can find what she’s deprived of right here.
At home. With me.
It takes a sudden gasp for breath and the cold touch of my own teardrop against my forearm for me to realize I’ve been voicing all these thoughts, all these raw emotions that I’ve never directly conveyed. And it’s overwhelming, dizzying, my chest is aching and something inside feels like it’s going to explode. I think of mom, trapped alone in this cobweb of jumbled feelings and how she has no one to talk about it to. Because she has to put a front when it comes to me. Because she loves me.
As soon as it hits me, a whimper escapes my lips and it’s like all the strength has left my body. I blink back the tears and swallow down the lump in my throat. I can’t cry now. Not in her presence.
I settle with covering her frail body with the blanket. Then, I lean down to plant a kiss on her forehead.
“I love you,” I whisper in her ear.
Giving her one last look over my shoulder, I turn off the lights and close the door behind me. Only then, I let my tears fall. It’s so quiet in the hallway, you could have heard a pin drop.
That’s when my ears make out a strangled sound. My whole body stops, alerted.
It’s coming from her bedroom.
In the silence of our home, I hear mom’s breath hitch, all emotions that she kept bottled up until this time burst and hit her like a tsunami. For the first time in forever, mom weeps quietly, heartbreakingly.
Strange may it seem, the sound of her sobs leaves something warm and hopeful in my chest, like the first dashes of spring—and I’d like to think the reason she’s all choked up is because I’ve brought the flowers in mom’s lungs
back to life.
Like what she’s done to mine.