by Lina Lau
My daughters, two and four, twirl and prance, all tutus and wisping hair, soft voices humming and chittering. Mom croaks their names, drooping facial muscles twisting her smile into a wide grimace. She reaches out a shaky, jerky hand, pats their shoulders. I wonder if this is how they’ll remember their yiayia, as an afterimage.
I slice apples and grapes for all three of them. Mom can only ingest small bites, the disease weakening her muscles, her swallows. I’m grateful the kids never ask why yiayia spends her days slumped and coiled in the maroon electric armchair, why she can no longer stand or walk, why she forgets. Mom’s memories slither out of reach. She asks when she’ll get better. I dam my tears as my throat constricts. I refill her water glass, lay out her medication. Pat her hand, cooler than my own. When I do speak, I avoid the question, plucking my words, slow and exaggerated, like the looping bubble letters I wrote in as a child.
My two-year-old covers stuffed bears and bunnies with mismatched hand towels and fraying placemats, the same ones I dined on when I was a kid. My job was to set the table and Mom showed me how to carry the folded placemats to the sink and shake off crumbs before putting them away. My four-year-old crouches by Mom’s feet, arms deep in a musty box pulled from the basement, scavenging through old toys. A Fischer Price Sesame Street Clubhouse, My Little Ponies with braided rainbow tails. She yanks out a green stuffed snake, my high school Home Ec project, the fuzzy fabric matted. She charges the snake, hissing. Mom flinches and shrinks.
I imagine Mom would have leapt up if she could. The way she did once in the backyard when raking wet clumped leaves that had been buried under the snow. Flinging the rake and tumbling over a lawn chair, she darted into the house. The garden snake scurried behind golden marigolds. It writhed and undulated when I picked it up with the rake tines and dropped it in an empty garbage can. It thrashed as I carried it past her in the window, her hands clasped in prayer, fingers wringing. Down to the ravine. When I returned, she ran out and I wrapped my arms around her, squeezing. She relaxed into my body, and I could feel her trembling.
Growing up, I heard the stories, how mom as a baby was placed in a basket and pulled along the rows in the village fields in northern Greece, as my own yiayia tilled the soil, planted seeds. How the black and yellow snakes followed. Hissing, striking, retreating. How my yiayia once turned to see one standing as tall as a man! over the basket. “SMOK!” she screamed, an avalanche of village men rushing to beat it down with shovels and hoes.
As my daughter wiggles the stuffed snake in the air, a strangled gurgle escapes Mom’s throat. She’s unable to find words. I want to pull the snake away, bury it under a pillow, carry it off in a garbage can. I want to beat it down. Wrap my own arms around her. Make it let go of her.
Lina Lau is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. Her work can be found in X-R-A-Y, The Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, carte blanche, and others. She writes during the in-between moments of parenthood.