That Shaft of Light
“ ,” said my mom. I sat on the couch, kitty-corner to the lounge chair she was in.
“ ,” she reiterated.
It’s not important for me or you to know the content of her monologue, what she’s saying because, unless you puncture my mom in some harming way, what comes from her mouth is a narcissistic hum, same notes, always. You could say something to her, perhaps: “That is something I’ve been grappling with in my art.”
“ ,” said my mom, because no matter how hard you plead your case for your personhood, her narcissism is an ocean big and an ocean powerful; sometimes a whale or dolphin will peek its head up close to the shore as if I’m at my parents’ vacation house in St. John U.S.V.I. (R.I.P.) peering out from the outdoor shower; I will think oh my goodness, my mom is actually giving me a clue about herself, showing the hurt child beneath the surface, but then I look closer—no, no, it was just a funny mirage made of constant waves. It’s infuriating. It’s also inherited.
“ ,” I always say.
Sure, those empty quotation marks are meant to signal this hum, but they also signal something good, that I am no longer cataloguing everything so furiously. In my youth, I believed that if I memorized the whole world (and I mean everything, and I mean with gusto, as if I would be all-or-nothing-Ivy-League tested on it) then I could keep anything bad from happening. This memorization would include picket fences in Pennsylvania, A.P. U.S. History, L’Hospital’s rule, the function of mitochondria in the system of a cell, and any and all dialogues with my mother.
And then, five months ago, my wife’s father died. John. Opa. He was diagnosed in March and dead by October. I saw him take his last breath, and I am a little stuck right there. Ever since, I have been forgetting more. Not forgetting him. Just other things. And that is God’s grace. I have been forgetting because you try so hard, so hard, so hard in your life to accrue accomplishments, to stockpile accolades and Followers, and then your breath goes out one time and doesn’t come back in. And then your body is on a hospital bed without you in it. And, honestly, all that mattered was that there were five sacred people who loved you, standing around you, praying. There was no test.
Nora, my wife and Myla, my daughter are both with me in the Berkshires, visiting my parents. Nora is nine months pregnant. My mother and I put our coats on and drive to go get pizza. My dad will be alive, of course I mean alive, alive, my dad will be alive, he’s alive, I keep trying to say alive, I keep trying to say home from work in fifteen minutes and he’ll want the pizza warm.
The wind is bitter. We go inside the bakery and order. We sit together on a small wooden bench like in synagogue. Once, in synagogue, my mother thought she saw a cockroach on the pew in front of her. She screamed so loud the service paused. “So-rry,” she said. That was how I learned my mother grew up poor in Washington Heights and that, when she turned the lights on in the morning to put the water on, they all skittered and scattered.
“Were you there when your father—” I begin. “Oh, no, of course not.”
“Dad and I were at a dress-up party,” she says. Reader, you can hear us talking, right? My mom and I, in the present tense, and you know the reason why, right? Because death is a harming puncture.
“No, mom,” I say. “You were at a military ball.”
“No, it was a party,” she says.
“No, remember, you went to a military ball with Dad and you were dressed up as a flower child.”
We argue over what she did the night her father died.
When I was depressed and non-functional after dropping out of Brown way back when, my mother finally opened up to me, because I was her. To be a rebel, she dressed as a hippie and went to a military ball with my Dad at a school. They had fun but left early. When they were leaving, they saw a shaft of light under those kind of doors with the metal bars that swing outward, and that shaft of light they saw was me. I was there in my mother. Before they went home, they went to a café to get cinnamon buns.
“What was that feeling again, when you ate the cinnamon bun?” I ask. We sit near each other, both wrapped in our jackets, the wind flicking the bakery window behind us with snowflakes.
“It was energy going through me, Bri. All the way through my body.”
“And you got nauseous, right?” Suddenly I felt very sad on the bench. The place I was stuck, watching John die, was alive and imperative and asking my mom questions. After we all left John’s room when it was over, I excused myself to the bathroom in the hospital and beat up a metal garbage can. It’s unfair to end big life so small.
“It was just energy,” she reiterated. You see we’re moving towards the past tense, reader? All punctures close up. “I knew he was gone.”
When they returned from the cafe, my mom’s roomates took my dad into another room and told him of her father’s death. My grandmother made it clear to them that my mother should not be told until she arrived home. My father put her on an airplane. She always says that was the only time she prayed for a flight to crash.
The pizza was ready. Gluten and dairy free for us, meat for my dad and Nora, Margherita for Myla. My mom carried them to the car. I drove.
“I’m feeling pretty upset about John still,” I said. The snowflakes coming towards the window created that Star Wars hyperdrive.
“ ,” said my mom. That was a mistake. You can’t show you are in need.
“Just a little stuck,” I said.
“ ,” said my mom.
The heat came up slowly. She balled her fists under the hot boxes to keep them off her legs. As I clicked on the four-wheel drive to crest Livingston Street, I felt that old old yearning to crawl into my mother’s lap and curl up there in place of the pizza, to be held by her, my mother, nursed and held and hugged to her. I needed to be comforted and protected. And let me be even a bit more honest—to be a slice, to be chewed and swallowed by her, to be in her, down in her stomach again, please, safe and warm.
“ ,” I said.
“ ,” she said. I turned right onto Pomeroy and left past the white picket fence onto Kenilworth, our street.
“ ,” I said.
“ ,” she said.
I brought the car to a stop at the end of the driveway and there we sat, parallel to each other in the dark.
is a writer, artist, and social worker living in Brooklyn with his family.