EVERYTHING FEELS FAR AWAY
EVERYTHING FEELS FAR AWAY
Her name was Juliet.
She was my mother. She is my mother. I still don’t know how to refer to her—in the past or present.
She was five feet tall, soft-spoken. Sometimes I had to lean in to hear her.
On my sixteenth birthday she threw me a surprise party. We had “dump” dinner.
She married my father on December 1, 1978. I was born five months and twelve days later, on May 12.
In the evenings, she wrote letters—pen to paper handwritten letters—to family members, most of whom still live in the Philippines.
In the hospital, ten days before she passed, I asked her: “Mom, why didn’t you ever talk to us about your childhood, about the Philippines?”
“It was just so hard after my dad died,” she said. “We were so close. I was only fourteen then. I met your father just a few years later.” Her voice was no more than a whisper. I turned my ear toward her. While she talked, I observed a “pain rating” scale fastened to the wall. The sign was yellow with the appropriate faces (smiley to sinister looking) and numbers: one being “no pain” while ten is “worst imaginable.”
On June 1, 2013, she died. That day, for the first time, goldfinches flew into my parents’ windows. Over and over, they tried to get in, tapping against the window persistently. I watched them—two, three at a time—over and over, tapping against the glass.
For the first five years she lived in the States, she cooked Filipino food every night.
She ate with her fingers, little pincers grasping for rice, fish, a variety of vegetables, a variety of fruit.
She liked it when I ate with my fingers.
Once, when I was in Kindergarten, she walked me to school when I was too scared to pass a house where a big Doberman Pinscher jumped up on the fence and barked. She held my hand. My siblings were at home, watching television. After we passed the house with the barking dog, she kissed my forehead and hurried home. It was only two blocks away, but it felt farther in the way everything feels far away when you’re five years old. I’d never felt so safe.
Once, she was eating a carrot and chipped her front tooth. I was scared to look at her. I think it hurt her feelings that I was scared to look at her.
She taught me how to read and write. I sat on her lap and we practiced. Once, she got frustrated with me for something—I don’t remember. I just remember feeling bad and saying, “I’m ready now, I won’t do that anymore.” But like I said, I don’t remember what I was doing.
She taught me how to ride a bike. For my fifth birthday, my parents bought me a fancy gold and black BMX. I wanted so badly to learn how to ride a bike that my mother—who never learned how to ride a bike—guided me up and down the driveway, while my dad was at work, trying to teach me.
Even at the age of five, I was aware of how my birthday present might have set them back financially.
The only bike she rode was a tandem, only with father, and no one else.
She babysat kids from all over Cedar Rapids. Parents loved her. Kids loved her even more. When parents came to pick up their kids, the kids didn’t want to leave.
She charged less to single mothers.
Almost every day after school, she set a washed apple on the counter so that I could grab it before heading downstairs to watch Dukes of Hazard, He-Man, or Scooby Doo.
She raised four kids. Me and my three sisters.
One night, when she was in her mid-thirties, about the age I am now, she was informed that her younger sister, who still lived in the Philippines, had died—health complications she’d had since she was a kid. All night, my mother stood in the kitchen, one hand on her skinny hip, the other holding a wooden spoon, stirring Menudo. She cried all night. I asked if there was anything I could do. She couldn’t even manage a word. She just cried and shook her head.
She asked me once—I think I was eleven or twelve—if I knew what the swear words meant. Then she went on to explain each one she could think of, the word and its reference or meaning, and then she stated afterward how much she disliked swearing.
She never swore.
Well, maybe a few times. Mostly when I made her upset or frustrated.
She referred to the Philippines as home.
She went home three times in thirty five years. Once, when she was home, by herself, my sisters and I convinced my dad to adopt a puppy. My mom flew back. She was not happy. We only had the puppy for six months. Too much work.
When my youngest sister started Kindergarten my mother stopped babysitting and found a job outside the home. She worked for Rockwell’s Rec-Center.
At her funeral, a few of the pall-bearers were men, physical trainers, from the Rec-Center. Big, solid men who wore blazers and ties. When they made their way over, to shake my hand and offer condolences, they couldn’t talk. They only cried.
When she was in the hospital, people brought us more food than we could eat. We ate it anyway. I gained weight.
Eight months after she died, I dreamed of her. In the dream, everything had been a mistake. My mother was still alive. She stood at the edge of the stairs, near the dining room. “Mom,” I said. I felt a surge of joy. I thought: where have you been this whole time? She was wearing an outfit: a white dress with something over it. I remember in the dream thinking that the outfit didn’t look right—an outfit she wouldn’t wear. I turned around, motioned to my family who were all gathered in the kitchen. “You guys,” I said. “It’s Mom, she’s here, she’s right there.” I motioned toward my mother, but my family—their faces, confused. I turned to identify her, to confirm what I’d already witnessed. But when I looked back, she was shrinking. I got up and stood over her. “Mom,” I said. “Don’t do that, mom. Stop it,” I said. But she kept shrinking smaller and smaller until she was gone.
One of my mother’s best friends, a woman who’d held her hand on those last days, said, “The goldfinches are trying to get in to escort her spirit out.
Out? I wondered. And as if she could hear me thinking, my mother’s friend said, “Out, out of the house and to another place.”
On vacations, she sat around reading while everyone else fished off docks or swam in the shallows or hiked on wooded trails. Later, when she got an iPad, she’d alternate between reading and playing scrabble.
She and my dad liked watching movies. And taking walks.
My mom and dad honeymooned in California. I was less than a year old. I stayed with my grandmother who chain-smoked Kools in the house. She toted me around the grocery store, showing me off to friends—the only dark skin, dark haired boy in the family. Apparently, everyone touched my full head of hair.
My hair was curly. Or wavy. When I was two, or maybe three, my uncle shaved it all off without my mother’s permission. When I was older, my mother used to tell the story, and I could tell by the look of disgust that she never forgave him for shaving my head.
On the phone, with other Filipinos, she’d talk in Tagalog. I used to imitate her. She thought it was funny.
When I was ten years old, my mother insisted that my great-grandmother come to live with us. A skinny, wide-nosed Filipina, her daily outfit was a robe that looked like a hospital gown. She followed the sun around the house, like a cat, sleeping on the floor, in the sun. She drank tea, of all varieties, and talked to my mother in Tagalog. I could tell my mother enjoyed talking to her in Tagalog. Eventually, my great-grandmother learned a few phrases of English from one of my sister’s speaking dolls. The only phrase I can remember: “I love you.” But when my great-grandmother said it, it sounded like this: “I lub you.”
I don’t remember the context of our conversation, but in the hospital, or maybe at home, just a few days before she died, she told me she married for love. Some Filipinas, she said, don’t do that.
In the spring, almost a year after she died, my birdfeeders attracted goldfinches. I watched for as long as they were there, flying from branch-to-branch, to birdfeeder. Prior to that, I’d never seen a goldfinch in my yard.
Once, she told me I looked nice. I was wearing a suit and tie.
Once, on a car ride home from school, she asked if I would rake the yard. I complained and complained until we got home. Then I got out of van and started raking. I didn’t stop until the entire front yard was finished. After I was finished, she came outside and smiled. Many years later, she would tell that story as if it were some source of pride. For what? I’m still not sure.
She hated driving. Especially in the winter. And at night.
When I was in college, my dad wrote letters. My mom wrote letters, too, and occasionally sent money.
Dump dinner is when you wrap the entire table in saran-wrap and toss out hunks of butter, chunks of warm crispy sourdough or French bread, and then dump a few pots of food—shrimp, sausage, vegetables, potatoes—in the middle. Everyone helps themselves. In the south, they call this something else. We called it a dump dinner. My friends loved it.
One of my neighbors, whose parents ended up divorced, once told me that her parents never loved each other like my parents loved each other. At the time, it was embarrassing for me to hear. I don’t know why.
We used to attend Filipino-American potlucks. All the food you could eat—rice, fish, chicken adobo, egg rolls. I remember my mother used to sit on a picnic bench and speak Tagalog for hours, her other Filipino friends all bunched together, smiling and laughing while the Caucasian men, some of them former military, like my father, stood around drinking Busch Light, grilling pork on a stick.
Once, we got in a fight. A bad fight. I don’t remember why we were fighting. I was twelve, I think, and I said: “Why don’t you just go back to the Philippines?” She didn’t say anything. She was distraught, shocked. I was shocked, too. I went to my room.
She avoided conflict. Most of the time.
I think I provided most of her conflict. Or stress. One of the two.
She sent money to her family in the Philippines—for housing, for education. She sent her nieces and nephews to school. Money was a source of stress for her, but not conflict.
My daughter was almost as tall as her when she died.
Whenever my kids came to visit, she bathed them every night, brushed their hair, and occasionally read to them.
When we found out about her breast cancer, my dad said, it’s pretty serious. He said, “We’re gonna need to get moving on this.”
They tried traditional methods: chemo, radiation, surgery. They tried alternative methods: nutrition, diet, acupuncture. My dad was more committed to the diet regimen than my mom.
Even when I turned thirty-three, she gave me money on my birthday. That was the last birthday she gave me money.
I turned thirty-four on Mother’s Day. We drove two hours to visit her. She complained about a sore hip and leg. The next day my dad drove her to Wichita for Vitamin C treatments. That Thursday she went to the hospital, complaining about pain. She left the hospital a week later, under hospice care.
That time when we fought—when I told her to go back to the Philippines—well, afterward, I went to my room. When I came back out, I apologized several times, and she said she forgave me, and then she held me. For a long time she held me.
She received a terminal diagnosis from a big guy—an uglier version of John Candy. He hemmed and hawed, staring at his clipboard, feigning remorse. The nurses had to cart her downstairs to see him. Apparently he didn’t want to come up to see her. Or it wasn’t protocol. I could’ve easily hurt the man. Not for delivering the news. But for pretending he cared. And for being too lazy to walk to the elevator that would’ve taken him up to the eighth floor.
My mother wouldn’t want me to hate, or hurt, him.
My mother wouldn’t want me to do a lot of the things I do.
I don’t typically believe in these kinds of things—birds sensing our spirits lifting—but when your mother dies, you start to find meaning in goldfinches flying into windows to escort your mother’s spirit. Or goldfinches arriving in spring to feed in your birdfeeders.
On the day I dreamed she was still alive, I had to travel to the Twin Cities, a three hour drive from my home. It was gray and raining. All day it was gray and raining, and all day I had a burning sensation in my neck and throat. In the car, I’d be driving along and then I’d start to cry—just erupt into tears. Shoulders, neck, convulsing. I thought about pulling over. I couldn’t help myself. I just cried and cried and cried.
When she died, she was bald.
At the funeral, she wore a wig. I could only glance at her.
We danced together at my wedding. I don’t remember the song. I could find it if I looked.
At home, in the hospice bed, she shared stories with me, told me things. I still remember what she told me, and I think about it often. The days leading up to her death, I cried in front of her every day, and she would smile at me, holding my face, touching my hair. When I cried—small whimpers, chin quivering—she brought her lips together and smiled softly.
Part of me knows the goldfinches were a coincidence—the ones at my house, the ones at her window. Another part of me wants so desperately to find meaning in all of this.
I still talk to my mother.
The other day she told me, in a voice so clear and unmistakably hers: “Son, don’t take yourself so seriously.”
Today, I watch intently as they flutter around the tubes of seed, pecking at the small slats just big enough for their beaks. Their ambition is undeniable, like they have something to say, like they have some secret to tell me. Two of them, three, four now, all hover and eat and settle on the birdfeeder, then the branches. They don’t sit for too long—small restless creatures, moving. Always moving.
Keith Lesmeister is the author of the story collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here (MG Press 2017). His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, North American Review, Redivider, Slice Magazine, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, The Good Men Project, Tin House Open Bar, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives and works in rural northeast Iowa.