Sunday, 4 January 2015

that one day when i was about three

his english name was lawrence. i always thought lawrence was an impossible name for a baby, the kind of name that people grow into and receive as a mark of adulthood when they reach the age of eighteen. like maybe when they're born they're really just 'law' and when they get older they get to add the 'rence' and become lawrence.

it was a name my little brother never got to grow into, because he died when he was one, leaving my parents with one short year's worth of memories of gurgly laughter and chubby hands grabbing, and me with only photographs and faint recollections of fleeting moments.

that one day, when i was about three -- i don't remember what season it was -- the doorbell rang and my parents' friends, the percys, were standing on the doorstep. they hugged my mother and then she looked down at me and told me i was going to go to their house to play with nicole and joe for the day. why mummy? because lawrence is feeling poorly and mummy and daddy have to take him to the hospital so you'll be a good girl and go with uncle simon and auntie helen, won't you?

and you can stay for tea, said auntie helen. we're having bangers and mash today, your favourite. okay.

when i arrived at the percys' house, nicole, who was two whole years older than me and went to school, let me use her red colouring pencil to draw a big heart on a sheet of paper to give to my mother. that's a really good heart, she said, and i felt very proud but i was too shy to say thank you.

we had the promised bangers and mash for dinner and then nicole and joe and i watched who wants to be a millionaire in the living room until auntie helen came in and told me she was going to take me home now. after i finished putting on my coat she looked at me sadly -- at least, i assume she looked sad, but i don't remember how her face looked just then -- and told me i would have to be a brave girl and comfort my mum and dad when i got home because they would be very sad. okay, i said.

when i got home, my mother was crying. auntie helen hugged her and said she was so sorry and i didn't understand what she had done to make my mother cry so much. and then my mother hugged me, so tight that i wanted to tell her mum you're squishing me but i didn't have the breath to say so.

i didn't understand the weight of that one day and how that one day would ripple forward and touch all the other days to come until i became much older. when, as a teenager, i began to understand this idea of putting yourself into another person's shoes. and when i tried on my mum's shoes for the first time, and thought about what it must be like to be a mother and to have your beautiful son, who you think is the most perfect little baby boy in the whole world, taken away from you.

that's when i began to understand. i asked her about it one day when i was in high school and she cried, and she immediately ran to her dresser drawer and brought back a picture of little lawrence. i think she was almost relieved to know that i still remembered him and thought of him too. and i had to soberly chastise myself for ever wondering if she did. i can never fully be healed from the scar that his death left as long as i live, she told me, but she said it in korean and in the fluidity of her first language it sounded even more painful, and that's when i began to understand not just what it means to be a mother who has lost her son but to be a mother.


you look back on that conversation, a few more years later, when you yourself have crossed over that threshold into adulthood - or you think you have, which may be an entirely different thing - and when you find yourself only a few years younger than your mother was when she married your father - -

you look back on that conversation from that moment in high school, and a whole host of other conversations and moments come to the very forefront of your mind, now under the almost fierce illumination of all of the meaning and intensity of emotion in your mother's voice, that one day when you were in high school. all of the times you walked out the door to meet a friend and your dad tells you have fun and watch out for cars and the times you smile and roll your eyes and say i will dad, see you later, and the other times when you just roll your eyes and say when have i ever not looked out for cars; all of the times when your younger sister was sick and your dad was somehow mad at your mum for it like it was her fault instead of being concerned and nice like a normal dad; all of the times your mum worried about how skinny your other younger sister was and how poorly she ate and how much she obsessed over her health. and that one time, that one time you haven't thought of for so long but now remember, when your mum told you in a quiet little, confiding voice, that when eugenie and izzie were little babies, appa would walk into their rooms at night and bend close to their beds and check that they were still breathing

all of these moments illuminated and all, now, comprehensible because of that one day when you were about three.

because this is what it means to be a mother and this is what it means to be a father and this is how it hurts to lose a child and how it hurts and hurts and hurts and some days it hurts less than others but it always hurts.

and umma and appa i'm sorry that it took me so long to walk in your shoes and to figure it out and to understand that you were never obsessive, or mad, or annoying -- you were always just remembering that one day and afraid that you would have to live it again.

i promise i will always watch out for cars, appa, and i'll always dress warmly when it's cold out, umma, because as much as it is in my power i don't want you to live that day ever again, for as long as you live.

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