He’d seen his mother in dreams before, but never like this. In his dreams she’d been a wispy thing, shifting and impermanent. Sometimes she was a fragment — a glimpse of auburn, a full laugh in a crowded room, a distant whistling.
But now he could see all of her. Not just her auburn hair and green eyes, but her little imperfections, too — the wrinkles and freckles that are so easily forgotten. The whisper of her breath filled the space between them. It was as though she’d never died.
“Gosh, you’ve grown up, haven’t you?” she said.
He opened his mouth, but the words refused to come, and so he stood there, staring at her.
She smiled, and he could see the glint in her eyes that everyone said they shared. She approached him and took his cheeks in her hands. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for you.”
He studied her, savouring the warmth of her hands, the faint beating of her pulse.
Then, she pulled back and took his arm. “Come on.”
She led him across the room to a familiar grey sofa. He sunk into it and it felt like the embrace of an old friend. As his mother retreated to the turntable in the corner, he examined the room. It seemed lifted from a foggy childhood memory. The books, the old furniture, the floral wallpaper — it was all exactly as he remembered. Beyond the open window, he could see the little birdhouse hanging from the roof. He used to sit in this sofa and watch the chickadees picking seeds when he was just a boy. The memory filled him with an aching warmth.
Rock and roll erupted into the room. He turned as his mother backed away from the turntable, snapping her fingers along to Johnny B Goode.
“I’d forgotten this song!” Her smile did nothing to hide the wistfulness in her eyes. She snapped out of it and winked at him. “It’s coming back to me now. Dance with me.”
He didn’t feel like dancing, but she pulled him up and wrapped her hands around his neck. “I used to dance with you when you were a little boy, do you remember? You were a good little dancer, too.” She dropped her arms and backed away from him. “Let’s see if you still got it.”
“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
Her smile faded. A silence fell between them and even Chuck Berry’s guitar couldn’t ease the tension.
“No.” She said. “Not yet.”
He paused, absorbing her answer. She took the moment to stop the record. The stillness that filled the room was more jarring than the music had been.
Not yet. Then there was still time.
He glanced around the room, taking in the rips in the wallpaper, the scuffs on the wooden shelves, the musty scent of the air. A breeze swept through the open window and he could feel the goosebumps rise on his arms. Somewhere his broken body was struggling for air, beating its last faint heartbeats. But here and now he had never felt more alive.
His mother laughed, a false laugh.
“Let’s not dwell on the negative, shall we?” She took his hand and squeezed it.
He looked down at her. Her green eyes — the eyes she’d given him — glowed with the love he’d dreamt of as a boy.
She smiled even wider and leaned towards him as if she had a secret, something for just the two of them.
“After all these years we can finally be together,” she said, beaming.
In that moment he was a boy again, sitting in front of his mother, his hands in hers. And when she wrapped her arms around him, he felt a familiar ache — a deep grief and a longing at last being fulfilled. After all these years. All those years that he had waited for her. All those years that she’d taken from him. After all these years he was finally enough.
She parted from him, smiling.
“Well?” she said.
He savoured the silence as she waited for an answer. He tried to recall a time he’d ever felt this happy, this at peace. How easy it would be to give in to the bliss of this place, to stay here in his childhood home in the embrace of his mother’s love.
He dropped his head and shook it, dreading what he knew he had to do. “How do I go back?”
Without looking he could feel her smile drop, that glint disappearing from her eyes. “Why would you want to go back?”
A good question. He wracked his brain trying to pinpoint the exact reason and found he couldn’t hold onto anything. Thinking back to his life was like analyzing a half-remembered dream. He could feel the memories slipping away even as he tried to grasp them. And yet, something was pulling him back to that broken body. Faces flashed before his eyes, a woman, a young boy.
“I have a family.”
She squeezed his hand. “You have family here, too.”
As he gazed into her affectionate eyes, he felt that familiar ache turn into a sharp. After all these years.
“You had your chance.” He said, surprising both of them with the venom in his voice. “Back…back there I have a family that wants me. That needs me. I don’t plan on giving up on them like you did.”
For a moment she was confused, then slowly the recognition washed over her.
She dropped her eyes, “I made a lot of mistakes with my time.”
He let out a spiteful laughed. Wounded, she looked up through the glimmer of her tears.
“But, I always loved you.”
“You can’t talk down to me like I’m a kid anymore,” he snapped. “I’m grown now, remember? I know love. You don’t abandon….”
But before he could finish, the fragment of a memory shook him. A little boy, no more than five years old, looked at him through a window, tears on his cheeks. The familiar weight of guilt lay heavy in his chest. You don’t abandon your kid.
“It’s funny,” his mother said, snapping him out of the memory. “When you’re alive there are so many things that seem important. Then, when it’s all over, you realize that none of it mattered. All the details slip away, all the memories and judgements and justifications, and all you have left is the feelings.”
Their eyes met and for the first time he saw a human. “I don’t remember much, but I never forgot how much I loved you, and….” her voice choked and she paused, a tear rolling down her cheek. “And I never stopped wishing I’d had more time. And to think of all the time I wasted.”
She turned away, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. He was still mad, but it was less sharp, less defined. The longer he brandished this old anger the weaker it became. Holding on to it was quickly becoming an effort.
He glanced out the window. A robin had landed on the birdfeeder and was chirping happily as it picked at the seeds.
“What happened?” he said finally.
She paused, before glancing back at him. Even as she did, her eyes shifted uncomfortably. “I find it’s best not to dwell on it.”
She hesitated. “Yes.”
He tried to remember, but all he could recall was the darkness, a heaviness in his chest and the screaming around him. He shuddered.
“Try not to think of it.” She laid a delicate hand on his back.
That face floated to the top of his mind again. “My son….”
“He’s all right,” she said. “He’s with his mother.”
“I can’t leave him,” he replied. “Not again.”
She gave him a sympathetic look, but her worry was apparent just under the surface.
“You’re not really leaving him,” she said. “Once you make the decision to let go, you’ll be bound to him in a way you could never have imagined on earth.”
“I’ll see him graduate and get married and all that?”
She paused, searching for the right words. “It’s not exactly like that.”
He thought back to all the moments his mother had missed. The specifics were fading but the longing remained, painful as ever. “I don’t want to miss those things.”
“You don’t miss them; you just see them differently,” she said. “You just don’t get all the details.”
But that’s what life is, isn’t it? Details. He shook his head.
“I can’t go yet,” he said. “There’s too much I need to do.”
He raised his arms, exasperated. “Like…lots of things…. I’m not that old. I’ve got the whole world ahead of me.”
She frowned. “Name one thing you’d still like to do.”
He went to speak but stopped short. There must be something. So, why couldn’t he think of a single thing? He could feel them somewhere in the back of his mind — all those big dreams he’d never accomplished. But he couldn’t reach them. All that was left were faces and moments and feelings and even they were slipping away like water through his fingers.
He stiffened his jaw. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“Please,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “There’s nothing more for you to do. The only thing you need to do now is rest.”
Rest. He was suddenly aware of an old weariness that seemed to creep up on him from the depths of his being.
“No,” he pushed it down and walked past her, looking around the room as if there would be some cosmic door back to reality. “There’s still time, right? How do I get back?”
She stilled him with a touch on the shoulder. “Let’s just think about this.”
“I don’t want to think about it,” he said, pulling himself away. He rushed into the hallway, but there was nothing there but beige walls and framed photos. He looked back at her. “I want to go back!”
She sighed. “It’s…it’s not that easy.”
“I never said it was going to be easy,” he said. “How do I do it?”
“Please!” she said, more desperate this time. “All these years…I just want to talk to you….”
“Well, I don’t want to talk!” he said. “I don’t want to forget! I don’t want….”
It caught in his throat before he could say it. I don’t want to die.
He barely felt her place her hand on his back. “It’s already started,” she said. “You must feel it. You can’t hold onto the details forever.”
“I can try, can’t I?” he said.
She threw him a piteous look. “Can you even remember your son’s name?”
He wracked his memory, but it was gone. A heavy wave of grief and fear swept over him and tears pricked his eyes.
“It’s not true,” he said. “This can’t be the end.”
She rubbed his back the same way she had occasionally when he was sick with the flu. “It’s your time.”
She was right. He had nothing left to do. Nothing left to hold onto. It was time he admitted the real reason he was resisting. He was a coward.
His voice trembled when he spoke. “What if I’m not ready?”
“You are ready,” she said. “You need to let go.”
But how could he? He held on desperately to his memories and even as he did, he could feel them falling away one by one. He grasped for them, but the effort was nearly unbearable. He could keep fighting, sure, but he was tired. Tired of effort and pain and disappointment. He’d been tired his whole life and never noticed until now.
She smiled at him, that same smile he’d dreamt so many times. “Rest, darling,” she said.
The tears came suddenly. Tears he’d been holding back for a long time. Tears of grief and anger and fear and a million other feelings he couldn’t name. She pulled him to her and he buried himself in the crook of her neck. There in her arms, feeling her warmth and smelling the perfume he’d forgotten she’d worn, he let go.
All his old pains faded away. Every worry, every regret, every discomfort. All of it trickling out of him like sand in an hourglass. Then the memories came. An avalanche of images, sounds, smells. Everything he’d ever experienced. Every birthday gift. Every cigarette. Every song he’d ever sung. Suddenly he was standing at his mother’s funeral. He was buying his first guitar. He was telling his first wife he didn’t love her anymore. He was holding his newborn son in his arms. They came and they went, and he felt lighter for it. But the love stayed. The life stayed.
He parted from his mother’s arms. She smiled at him and the glint in her eyes sparkled.
She looked over to the wall and he followed her glance. Where once there had been only wallpaper and a few framed photographs, there was now a shining white door. Grasping his hand, she turned back to him.
“Ready?” she asked.
He realized then he was looking up at her. He tightened his grasp on her hand, noticing how small his had become. His mind felt fresh and untouched, how he imagined a child must feel. He nodded to her and she smiled.
The door opened and he was bathed in the peace of the other side. With his mother by him, he stepped forward, ready to begin his second childhood.
Brogan Chaput is a writer and actor with a passionate interest in all things Shakespeare. She recently finished a diploma in acting from George Brown College and is currently working towards a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Queens University. When not writing, she can be found playing guitar, watching films, and engaging in whatever strange hobby she’s decided to take up this week.