Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I visit my mother sometimes in the home that she’s in. She’s not actually old, she’s only in her fifties. But she hasn’t been able to take care of herself since we lost my sister. It’s difficult visiting her because I have a separate family now. I was raised by a nice childless couple after my mother became ill. I think of them as my parents now. But still, sometimes I do feel as though I should spend time with the woman who raised me till I was ten.
It makes me glad to see her looking clean and put-together in the home. It’s the closest she’ll ever come to being healthy and normal. They give her daily showers and dress her carefully in her own clothes. But somehow wisps of hair always escape from the bun they put her hair in and form floating tendrils around her head. She lets me hold her hand but she never makes eye contact with me. Instead, her eyes roam around the room, almost as though she’s looking at something. Sometimes she smiles and mutters at the thing she’s looking at. And sometimes she giggles helplessly. It’s difficult to watch. But I visit her because a part of me still remembers the woman she used to be, and I did love that woman. I remember what it felt like to be her son.
She used to dote on me because she had a hard time getting pregnant before she had me. I still remember the early years before my sister was born. My mother would spend hours playing with me while my dad was at work. We would build Lego houses and pillow forts. She would let me help her when she cooked. But everything started to go wrong when my sister, Rose, was born. She had a spinal defect that paralyzed her from the neck down. My mother’s life began to revolve around taking care of Rose. Rose couldn’t sit up or move on her own. She could only crane her little neck back and forth. My mother used to fret about her choking to death. This worry was so constant, and so all-consuming it even trickled down to me. I remember sitting next to Rose and just watching her tiny chest rise and fall with each precarious breath. I was only seven at the time.
It was gradual at first, but my parents started fighting more and more. And one day when I was 9 I woke up to a different life. My dad had packed everything he owned and left in the night. Just like that, he was gone from my life. It was just me, my mom and my disabled sister. It was difficult for my mother to find work. I don’t think we had much in the way of savings. And Rose was a helpless two year old who couldn’t even sit up on her own. She couldn’t be left alone and we couldn’t afford care for her. I remember my mother crying a lot during that time. She would sit slumped on our threadbare sofa and cry. I didn’t know what I could do to help. So I tried to take care of Rose as much as I could. I would wheel her around the apartment in her pram and have long, silly conversations about her dolls. Sometimes my mom would sit and watch us, dry-eyed and wooden. I knew not to bother her no matter how badly her expressionless face frightened me. It was a difficult time but Rose and I were too young to realize quite how bleak our situation was. We still had our old toys. We still had a roof over our heads. We didn’t know about bills and rent.
But then things appeared to take a turn for the better. My mom finally managed to find a job. And miraculously, it was a job that would allow her to stay at home and take care of Rose. There was a grand old hotel in the town we lived in. It had been really popular a few decades ago but its popularity had waned over time till it had been turned into a kind of bed-sit that was quickly falling into disrepair. My mother’s new job was to take care of the dilapidated old building. She was glad to take the job and even more grateful to take on the free lodging that came with it.
It’s difficult to describe the excitement I felt when we moved into Fairmont Hotel. It was so much bigger than our cramped three-room apartment. The hotel was four stories high and every story stretched out into long carpeted corridors. The hotel’s sheer size was a kind of unfathomable mystery to me. I was awed by its moldy, moth-eaten grandeur. I loved the peeling cream wallpaper and the stained rust-coloured carpeting. And I loved the dusty old chandeliers that tinkled ominously every time a truck drove by. I felt as though I had wandered into a fairytale, like I was the prince of a forsaken castle like the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. Most of the units were unoccupied so the third and fourth floors were kept shut up. But I could roam freely on the second floor and that’s where I used to play whenever I was home from school. My favourite activity involved wheeling Rose in a mad dash along the corridors. She loved the feeling of moving at speed and she would shriek her little lungs out. My mother would tell us to be quiet but she would smile as she said it. For the first time, in years, there were no frown-lines on her forehead.
But the hotel did have an odd effect on Rose. She had always been a happy child, in spite of the many discomforts associated with her illness. But she became cranky and restive. She could prattle on quite fluently by then but whenever we asked her about what was bothering her she would become silent and cry or mutter incoherently about some old lady. She was also having trouble sleeping at night. The two of us shared a room and she would wake me up at night sometimes. It was invariably the same thing. I’d wake to find her whispering furiously, her head craned to the side as though she was looking at something. I learned from experience not to ask her about it because that would always make her cry about the “mean old lady”. She also started getting odd bruises on her legs. It was hard to imagine where she got the bruises since we were always with her. When we asked her about it she’d say the old lady pinched her.
Still, we were happier than we’d been in a long time. And even though Rose was often pale and quiet, she was happy when I played with her.
But that’s how everything went wrong again. I have trouble talking about this. I can’t quite remember the exact details of what happened. It comes to me in flashes. But some of the images are etched in my mind. And I still see them over and over again whenever I close my eyes.
Rose and I were playing our favourite game. I was wheeling her along the corridor on the second floor. The second floor corridor curves lightly and then it leads into a spiral staircase that opens out to the lobby. Rose loved the thrill of it when I pretended to wheel her headlong into the curved wall at the end of the corridor, but of course at the last second I would pull her out to the side and we’d come to a halt in the landing of the staircase. We had been doing just that for around half an hour. I was starting to get tired from the running. But Rose begged for one last go. So I got behind the little pram and started wheeling her to the wall. Everything goes fuzzy from that point. I remember feeling exhausted. My arms felt like lead. But all the while my legs were pumping and pumping, and I was running faster and faster. The wall was rushing up at us like a blank white fist. I remember imagining us slamming into it. But of course I would pull out at the last moment. I always did. But something went wrong. Somehow I just couldn’t. I think it felt as though I had lost all control over my limbs. I think everything was foggy. The only thing I remember is that blank white wall rushing at us.
And I also remember the sound the pram made when it crumpled against the wall. There was a crack of broken plastic and then Rose was hurtling through the air like a rag doll. And she was falling down the stairs. When I close my eyes I still see her little neck coming into contact with the stairs and her body folding over her head. There was screaming everywhere. I think I was screaming. But my mother was too. She was sitting at the base of the spiral staircase with Rose’s crumpled little body in her arms and just screaming and screaming. It took everything I had to climb down to where my mother was sobbing over Rose’s body. She looked up at me but there was no recognition on her face. It was almost like she couldn’t see me through her tears.
And then the most incredible thing happened. There was a cough from the midst of my mother’s arms. And then another one. And then Rose’s lisping, toddler voice calling out for mom. But in the throes of her grief my mom was insensible to what was happening.
“Mom, mom! Rose is ok!” I had to yell it a few times before she would look at me.
“I think she’s ok…” I pulled my mother’s arms loose and sure enough, Rose was blinking up at us, and amazingly she was smiling even though there was blood smeared on her face.
“How…” But another smile from Rose and she had forgotten everything. She was hugging Rose through her tears. I tried to hug Rose too but my mother wouldn’t let her go. I noticed there was blood dribbling down from Rose’s mouth and nose.
“Mom, there’s blood…”
“It’s nothing,” she said and rubbed the blood out with her sleeves. Rose’s neck turned oddly to the side as she did so.
“Mom, I think we should take her to a hospital.”
“Nonsense!” She bundled Rose up in her arms and carried her up. She was cooing to her like she was a little baby and Rose was chortling back happily.
I don’t quite like to think about the period that followed after. A part of me thinks I imagined it. But a part of me is terrified it really did happen. Rose was never the same after that day. There was something wrong with her. It’s possible she suffered some sort of internal damage from the fall. But somehow, I could never convince my mother to take her to the hospital. Her skin grew mottled and grey. And she started giving off a terrible smell. I had only ever smelled something like that once before. We had a dead skunk in the basement of my school and the smell filled our classroom with foulness before the cleaner removed the carcass. That’s what Rose smelled like. I don’t know if my mother realized it. But I think a part of her knew something was wrong. We used to live on the second floor near the few tenants the hotel had. But after Rose’s fall she moved us up to the fourth floor.
It was terrible living up on the fourth floor with my mother and Rose. The whole level was dusty and dark. Mom would only turn on the lights at the end where we lived. The rest of the corridor used to stretch out in complete darkness. It was like being buried alive, a sensation only compounded by the stench that clung to Rose’s tiny body. Rose scared me too. Her personality had changed. She hated me. I don’t know how I knew this. But I could sense it. Thankfully we no longer shared a room. Mother couldn’t bear to leave her alone at night so Rose slept with her in a tiny cot. I don’t know how my mother could ignore the smell that came off Rose in cloying waves.
I missed the old Rose. I missed her so much I even dreamed of her once. I was nodding off to sleep when it happened. She was sitting next to my bed like she never could when she was alive. And she was glowing and happy. But tears appeared in her eyes as she looked at me. And she reached out and touched my face. I felt a kind of peace I hadn’t known in a while but then she looked around in fright like she’d heard something.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“She’s here,” she said. And then she disappeared. I must have woken up at that point because I heard something too then, the sound of the door slowly creaking close. And I swear I heard the patter of a child’s tiny feet disappearing into my mother’s room. The sound filled me with a clammy kind of horror. I don’t know what I was imagining. But it wasn’t what I saw when I snuck over to peek into my mother’s room.
The room was completely dark, except for the street light streaming in through the window. My mother was sitting on the floor and playing with Rose. And Rose was sitting up and laughing. There was a cloth tied tightly round her throat, but her head still wobbled on her neck as she moved. They are batting at a tiny mouse together. And then Rose looked up and saw me. She went very still and a kind of hiss escaped from her blue, mottled lips. Mother looked up too.
“What are you doing out of bed?” she said.
“Mom why is Rose walking?”
“She’s cured. Can’t you see? She’s completely fine.” I couldn’t see my mother’s face in the darkness of the room but I could see Rose’s grey, sunken face. She didn’t look fine.
“Mom, can we take her to the doctor please? Please mom” I was whimpering and begging but I couldn’t help myself.
“Tell that thing to go away,” said Rose.
“Go!” Mom yelled at me.
My life was a kind of living hell after that. Rose would only walk about at night. She never left the room. No one saw her. No one knew what she looked like. During the day I had to go to school and pretend everything was fine at home. I knew Rose was too little to hurt me, but she worried me. I felt as though she was following me sometimes. I would hear that soft patter of tiny feet behind me but when I turned around there would be no one there.
And then one day, it finally happened. I was just about to run down the stairway when I heard a kind of gasp behind me. I spun around and came face to face with my mother. She was carrying Rose in her arms. Her face was pale and drawn. And her lips were drawn in a kind of grimace.
“No. I am not your mother.” She shoved at me as she spoke. I grabbed at her, but all I managed to grip was Rose’s grey, rotten body. I felt myself losing my balance and as I fell, Rose tumbled down with me. Mom screamed for Rose as we fell. But it was too late. Rose’s little body broke my fall and was crushed in the process.
Mother has never been the same since. I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell the police that she pushed me. But they still took her away and put her in a home. Everyone assumed Rose had been dead for weeks. I was forced to see a psychologist. But they managed to find me a good new home.
Still, I try to visit mother as much as I can. But I think a part of her still hates me for causing Rose’s first accident. I think she pinches me sometimes, though I’ve never caught her doing it. I feel sharp pangs of pain sometimes when I sit with her. And she always laughs when it happens and mutters and coos at something only she can see. I try not to mind, though my arms and thighs are always blue and black with bruises after I visit her.
Credit To – Monica