My father had decided it was time for a family vacation. School was out for the summer, and my brother and I were already growing listless with boredom. We had played every game we could think of, and our favorite ones we played again and again, but we had run out of steam. My father knew exactly what to do to perk us up; he knew just the trick. We spent two days preparing, and then we piled into his yellow Datsun and left.
My mother died when I was four. She died giving birth to my brother. It was either her or the baby. She screamed and screamed, and something important was ruptured, and then she died. My brother doesn’t know. We’re adults now, and he still doesn’t know. He thinks our mother had cancer. I don’t know why my father told me the truth. Maybe so he could share the burden. Every year, my father and I go out for coffee and talk about finally telling Daniel the truth. We’ll sit him down and explain. But at the end of the day, we are scared of his reaction, so we never tell him. He’s working in cancer research now, inspired by our late mother. Sometimes when I think about it, I get sick to my stomach.
We made it through an entire rendition of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. At a rest stop in
I remember more about my mother than I think I should. Her flawless skin, her dainty hands, the way she sang into my ear to bring me to sleep, the time she carried me, soaked to the bone and filthy from playing in the mud, into the house and up the stairs to set me directly in the bathtub, clothes and all. The way she looked at my father when I wanted something she didn’t think I needed. The long, flowy skirts she always wore that I liked to hide under, then jump out and scare the dog. He was never scared, he always smelled me behind the cottony fabric, but he pretended not to, and covered me in sloppy wet kisses whenever I emerged. I would giggle and giggle, and my mother would pick me up and fly me through the air, and I knew she would never drop me. Maybe I don’t really remember these things at all. Maybe I only remember what my father and grandmother have told me. Maybe I have invented memories to go along with photographs. I have a framed photograph of her that gets placed in a prominent position wherever I go. I look at it sometimes and wonder what she was really like. I only knew her as a mother, I did not know her as a woman. My father has described her personality to me countless times, but I still can’t get a grip on who she was. My brother has our mother’s bright green eyes, and sometimes when I look at my photograph of her, I see him. I see him, and I see the lie that my father and I have perpetrated hiding behind him, a shadow of a shadow. I pick up the phone and I dial his number and I decide, this is it. I will tell him now. And then he picks up, and we talk about our days, and I ask him about his Italian wife, and he asks me about my German shepherd, and we hang up after making dinner plans for next weekend, and I don’t tell him. I never, ever tell him.
We are at a beach in
I sit in my dark apartment and nurse a gin and tonic. It is my third of the night. I am alone, and I am lonely. I wonder what my father is doing. He finally remarried in his early sixties, to a lovely woman his own age that my brother and I have both fallen in love with. Her heart is the size of the world, and she carries herself with dignity and grace. I can see in my father’s eyes that she makes him feel alive and young again, and I am happy for him. She knows the truth about my mother’s death, and while she thinks Daniel has every right to know, she maintains that is neither her business nor responsibility to be the one to tell him. I wonder if my father ever thinks about our family vacation the summer I was ten and Daniel was six, and if he does, how often. Once every few years, maybe?
I wake up one Sunday morning to the sound of the door bell. It rings once, twice, three times. I stumble out of bed, wrap my night gown around me, and rub the sleep from my eyes. When I answer the door, I am greeted by a man who appears to be around my age. I have never seen him before in my life, but he has bright green eyes. I think it was the eyes, the reason I believed him and let him in. A complete stranger arrived at my door early on a Sunday morning, and claimed to be my half-brother.
He turns out to be six years older than me, the product of a one-night-stand before my mother met my father. His father wanted nothing to do with them, and my mother was not prepared to raise a child on her own, so Steven was given up for adoption. He never made it into a family, and instead bounced from foster home to foster home. At the age of 19, he finally found his father, who still wanted nothing to do with him. Discouraged, he gave up the search for his mother, but recently he had become curious about possible siblings he might have, and then he found me. He had my mother’s eyes, and her nose, and I knew it was all true. This was the mother I was looking for, the woman I never knew, the woman my father didn’t even know. I called Daniel and told him he needed to come to my apartment immediately, but I did not tell him why. As we waited for him, I gently explained to Steven that our mother was dead, had been dead for years, but I could show him pictures and tell him stories. He smiled sadly, and gratefully accepted anything I had to offer. He pressed for details. He wanted to know how our mother had died. I told him the truth. There was no reason to lie to him.
Fifteen minutes later, Daniel was there. He had left his Italian wife at home. I had not asked him to, but something in my voice must have told him this was a private moment. He glanced at me out of curiosity, and as I made an introduction I could never have even imagined, I saw Daniel’s eyes widen at the realization that he was meeting an older version of himself. I left the room to make coffee and give them a chance to get to know one another. I came back just in time to catch Steven express his sadness for Daniel because of the way our mother had died. My heart leapt into my throat, and I dropped the coffee tray I was holding. All three cups capsized, and a puddle formed on the polished wood floor.
Daniel turned to look at me, confusion in his eyes, and Steven immediately grasped that something had just gone terribly wrong. I collapsed in the armchair facing Daniel, sobbing uncontrollably. I thought about the ocean, and the sand castles, and our father’s yellow Datsun, and the vending machines, and I heaved out apology after apology, followed by a muted, half-assed attempt at an explanation. Steven disappeared into the kitchen, and Daniel continued to look at me. He did not speak, and he did not cry, and he made no attempt to connect with me. I thought about the mountains we had missed, and the story Steven had just told me, and my mother’s flowy skirt. Daniel never said a word.