Bangkok Patana School Winner, Neilson Hays Young Writers Awards
Mama always told me that the past is not a linear sequence pulled out like a line behind us; that it is an indiscriminate collection of memories that we have grabbed in our fists, and decided to remember as being complete. The New parts, so New that they are only granted recognition at the end of a pointed finger; the Happy parts, wrapped in yellow velvet to keepfor other days; the Angry parts, the Sad parts, to pick out from under our skin and learn from. ‘It is futile,’ She said, ‘to remember everything’.
‘Life is never what you want it to be.’ And life truly is never what you want it to be. Because Mama is gone, and all I want to do is remember every part of her. Her laugh; the way She held me; the last colour She painted the thin moon crescents of her fingernails. The French name of Her perfume: Le Sillage – the five o’clock smell of syrup and oranges. Ovarian cancer, They said. Spread like melted butter, They said. I’m so sorry, They said.
And then They unhooked Her from all the machines and the poles and the needles and the pipes that had buried Her for so long, burrowed under Her skin and jammed down Her throat and Breathing and Eating and Living for her, so much so that She didn’t look like Mama anymore because She was half made of metal. Except when they dug Her up again, She wasn’t Mama either, not really, not anymore. Someone had kicked open the door of Her soul and switched off all the lighting.
The kid’s in the chapel again. He’s been there all day – russet curls fallen to the sides of his face, milky skin on the nape of his neck. He looks so small. Funerals are hard on kids: it’s as if they aren’t allowed any space to grieve, because the room is filled to the brim with the sadness of strangers who have a sense of entitlement to more grief than children do. Adults haemorrhage their heartstrings: as if we suddenly feel the need announce our loss, our suffering.
“Hey, kiddo.” I slide in the pew, lightly touching the side of his shoulder because I need some sort of reassurance that he isn’t made of glass, isn’t going to crumble as soon as something touches him. Nothing. No motion – just the bowed head, and his fingers shredding a hangnail on one thumb. He doesn’t cry; a 12 year old, who has watched his entire world slowly decay, doesn’t cry. “I want to be with Mama,” he whispers, and a bit breaks inside of me to hear him so quiet. It’s as if he’s folded his skin inside out and zipped himself shut – some self-imposed penitentiary. “Kiddo,” I tell him, “There is so much left in the world for you to see.”“But I want to see them with Mama.”
I gaze over the pews, and see the white casket he’s refusing but also yearning to look at. She still looks like a painting, even reluctantly pushed into the silk lining and pale confetti dress. But she looks like a Klimt now – half here, half there, as if I could just reach out and gently press my fingers onto her forehead, only to have a film of dust come off on my skin. A layer of the dead on top of the living: the gritty and pervasive reality of a humanity that ceaselessly forgets and moves on. A gust of wind runs through the chapel across the floor; through the polished oak, devoid of mourners; through the thick layer of lingering regret.
It runs through the lavender folds of her dress, and the frosted waves flutter momentarily, but her chest made of cancer never moves, her lungs made of cancer don’t inhale, and her ribs made of cancer stay stubbornly closed. It makes me want to strangle the life out of Death – I want to beat him up, I want to holler into his face and tell him he’s got the wrong person, that he can’t just do this, can’t just pluck perfectly healthy people of out our lives and make them sick, can’t just – “Do you think she’s an angel now, Uncle Bobby?”
Kid’s looking at me, and in that moment I feel as though I am looking at her again, 20 years ago. The anger bubbling inside of me recedes. Fists unclench. And suddenly I am laughing, so hard that the emptiness in my stomach keels over with the light such a short, sweet sound can bring. The kid looks confused, hurt, but I can’t help it; the laugh squeezes its way out of my lungs, out of my throat.
“Why are you laughing?” “I don’t think she’s an angel, kiddo.” “What? Why?” He’s looking at me fully now, his brown eyes drilling holes through me, the same eyes that she had, shaded by the lashes so thick God must have scythed down a forest just to create them. “Because she told me so.” This is it: the legendary Sistine Madonna – Raphael’s greatest artwork, looming over the both of us, as if to judge our worthiness to look upon it. We aren’t.
There’s Sixtus and Barbara; the two cherubs peering up from the altar; the baby Jesus in the warm arms of Mary. Everything glows with etherealness, as if Raphael had taken a brush and dipped it into a vat of light, and simply pulled darkness off the canvas. The malachite and the vermilion seem to fold and flutter, and if I just reached out with a fingertip, maybe I’d touch fabric instead of paint: velvet, satin, si-“Isn’t it great that we all become angels when we die?” Un. Believable.
Here I am, silently ingesting one of the greatest artworks known to mankind, only to have my train of thought suddenly derailed by another Crusader of The Faith (Amen). I turn to look at the perpetrator, and don’t have to cast my gaze far. He’s right next to me: hunter green sweater, no more than 5’4’’. And suddenly I can’t help but laugh, short and abrupt, managing to catch and stuff it back into my mouth before it expands to fill the room.
But he’s heard it, he’s heard me laugh, and he looks as though I’ve just announced that he’s the largest idiot in the world. “Why are you laughing?” he frowns. Skin puckers on his brow. “Why do you say that?” I muse. He doesn’t really look like a bible thumper. A scholar. An artist. But not a Purveyor of Faith. “If you’ve led a good life, everyone knows you become an Angel. Do you think that we just stop being as soon as we’re dead?” I pause. What happens to an atheist when they die? Do we simply cease to exist – wiped off like a chalk drawing? No, it can’t be – there has to be a place for everyone. We are more than just flesh and bones; we transcend those boundaries. “It’s not that I think we cease to exist,” I say after a pause, “I just don’t think I’d ever be an Angel.”“And why is that?”“Angels are so overrated.” I get a faint tug on the right side of his face for that.
“Then what would you want to be?” I tilt my head, perusing through all the options: picking a name, discarding it, seeing how it fits onto my tongue. “When I die, I reckon I’ll be a rock star.”Now it’s his turn to stare. “Can you even sing?” As soon as it comes out of his mouth, he blanches at the bluntness of the comment, but it’s hilarious, and I only laugh more. “I can’t.”“Then why a rock star?” “Because I never got to be one in this life.”
I rivet my attention back to him, only to find him smiling, genuinely smiling. His face is even lovelier when he does. “Life is never what you want it to be, is it.” He chuckles. So God-fearing sinners do have a sense of humour. And suddenly, he holds out his hand. “I’m Robert” he grins, “but you can call me Bobby.” I laugh, and take his hand into my own. “Anna.” “You can call me Anna.”
There are many things I do not know in Life: Mama actually loved to sing; She just wasn’t any good at it. She wanted to perform on a stage. But, there are also many things I do know in Life: Mama wears French perfume called ‘Le Sillage’. She colours her nails deep, deep Blue. That when Uncle Bobby takes me by the hand, and we are walking down the aisle together, I know that there are pieces of Her in Everything, and Everyone. Because Life is never what you want it to be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it Yours. “Adieu, Mama,” I kiss Her, one Last Time.“See you.”