I was perched on a wooden stool next to the kitchen island, gobbling a stack of waffles, eager to not miss the train for school. As soon as I was done, I placed the syrup-covered plate in the empty sink, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and headed for the door.
I threw my head back, internally groaning at the high-pitched sound of Ma’s voice. She was fully dressed to go out, in a black hijab covered with rainbow peace signs and a glittery blue abaya, despite not having plans that morning.
“Let me walk you to the train station so we can catch up!” she exclaimed.
I pursed my lips, not responding to her and simply walking out the door, hoping my silence was enough for her to not follow. Of course, she followed me.
Saying Ma and I weren’t close would be an understatement. Before my aunt’s death, our relationship was fractured, but after her death, it fell apart. And, though my tactic was to push Ma out of my life, hers was to get as close to me as possible. That’s why she was walking her 12-year-old to the subway station not even three blocks away, at 6:30 a.m. on a Monday.
I began walking faster, but Ma kept pace. She was rambling about what she saw in the news that morning, repeatedly asking me about my thoughts. I gave her a perfunctory “hmm” in return. She kept trying to make eye contact. I kept looking away, finding greater fascination in the tabby cat hiding under a gray SUV, or the orange leaves on the cement.
I sighed loudly, put in my air-pods and searched for a Taylor Swift song. I heard Ma’s rambling falter and eventually diminish. From there, we walked silently to the station, with her glancing at me from time to time. After we reached the station, she mumbled goodbye and tried to hug me. I didn’t hug her back, only nodding in return, before descending down the gum-covered steps of the station.
My Favorite Person
My relationship with Ma was imperfect from the moment I was born. Ma never wanted a second child. She couldn’t handle one, certainly not after her first son got diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Throughout my childhood, it wasn’t Ma who fulfilled that maternal role. It was her sister. My aunt.
My aunt was the one who pushed for Ma to have me in the first place: she adored children and had two of her own. From the moment I was born, my aunt made it her goal to become a constant presence in my life. Since she lived close by, she visited me every day, and never without a stuffed animal. I spent afternoons with her, telling her about my school day. At night, she read me bedtime stories.
Once, when I was 6, I was in the kitchen with Ma, begging her to take me to the park near our house. It was the middle of summer vacation and I wanted to play soccer outside.
“I keep telling you no. Don’t you see I have to watch your brother?” she said.
When I suggested that he could accompany us, she said she couldn’t watch the both of us at once. Just then, my aunt walked into the kitchen with a green stuffed frog. I ran to my aunt and hugged her legs. She handed me the frog before admitting that she had heard the argument. She offered to play soccer with me at the park and get ice cream afterwards.
My aunt was my favorite person. She was always there for me. Well, until she wasn’t.
A few days before my 8th birthday, I was waiting for my aunt to make her usual visit. She was half an hour late, which was unlike her.
An hour later, Ma came rushing into the living room with my brother, frantically putting both their shoes on.
“Get your shoes on, she’s in the hospital!” she said..
When we got to the hospital, a doctor told us that my aunt was hit by a motorcycle while crossing the road to our house and that she was currently in surgery. My entire body was trembling, filled with dread at the thought of losing the only person who was ever there for me; the only person who could’ve made me smile on my worst days.
After seven excruciating days, her doctor uttered the words that will forever haunt my family, “We’re deeply sorry to let you know…”
My aunt was the pillar in our family that everyone could lean on. When she died, a piece of our family bond died with her.
For the next six years, I shut myself off from the world. I barely spoke, I barely smiled, I barely laughed, I barely went outside. I didn’t want to get close to anyone else because, if I did, then they could hurt me the way my aunt’s death had hurt me. That wasn’t something I was willing to go through for a second time.
I had been shy before her death, but after, I became completely detached.
Ma started trying to strengthen the scarce bond between us. She offered to take me to the park, take me out for ice cream, and go to the movies with me.
She may have been trying, but I wasn’t letting her get close to me.
I hated the possibility of her getting close to me and then abandoning me, whether by chance or by choice. So I pushed her away. If I were in a room and she walked in, I walked out. If we were walking towards the same place, I’d walk 20 steps ahead of her. It was easy to keep Ma out of my life; I had school, I had soccer, I had homework, I had my friends. I kept myself busy, too busy to have any time for Ma.
I did anything to keep her at bay. I truly didn’t think she minded – she had her hands full with my brother anyway. Not until the day I overheard a phone call.
The Phone Call
I was curled up with my giant, paisley blue blanket on my bed, wearing my soccer hoodie and gray sweatpants. My laptop was perched on the pillow next to me as I binge-watched Friends. My stomach started to grumble and I went downstairs for a snack. As I neared the kitchen, my blanket still wrapped around me like a burrito, I heard sobbing and froze.
“Nothing I do is working.”
That was the wavering voice of Ma, on the phone. I was baffled; Ma is not someone who cries. In fact, she’s the most annoyingly upbeat person I’ve ever met. She had cried when we talked about my aunt, but other than that, she never showed signs of sorrow. I clutched my blanket tighter, hiding behind the hallway, trying to peek inside the kitchen. Her eyes were bloodshot, as she clutched her phone to her ear.
“She keeps ignoring me, no matter how hard I try to talk to her.”
My brown eyes widened enormously, realizing the “she” Ma was referring to was me. I knew Ma had noticed my cold behavior, but I never once suspected that it was hurting her. Especially not to the point where she felt a need to confide in someone else, because if there’s one thing Ma never did, was let others know that our family wasn’t okay. She wanted to maintain her reputation as a “perfect” mother and wife.
“I don’t know what to do, I feel like I can never do anything right by her…”
I tiptoed backwards out of the hallway. Once I was out of hearing distance, I ran back into my room and jumped onto my bed. The helpless tone in Ma’s voice brewed immense guilt inside of me.
My left leg started bouncing up and down on the bed, a sure sign of anxiety.
Was I being too harsh on Ma? Was I blaming her for something she couldn’t control?
Was I too caught up in my own emotions to realize I was hurting others? The theme song from Friends was still playing, and I slammed my laptop shut. Huffing, I flopped onto my back, staring at the white paint on the ceiling. My stomach churned as I realized how deeply my actions had cut Ma.
I closed my eyes, a deep urge to sleep overcoming me. I lulled myself into slumber, thinking about the complicated bond Ma and I shared, wondering if there even was still a bond left.
The Peace Offering
One week had gone by, and the phone call kept repeating in my head like a broken record. Over the past week, Ma had been less insistent on forcing conversations between us. It felt strange—she’d never given me space like this before. Meanwhile, I was debating about whether to start making an effort with her.
Would it be worth it to let Ma into my life? Or should I pretend like I never heard the phone call and continue my life as I had been living since my aunt’s death?
I was sitting criss-cross applesauce on top of the wooden kitchen counter. With a half-eaten oatmeal raisin cookie in my hand, I heard the TV in the living room, where Ma was sitting. I recognized the opening lines of The Jungle Book—one of Ma’s favorite movies.
Should I go and join her? That sudden thought morphed into others: Would she want me to join her? Is she fed up with the cold shoulder I’ve been giving her for so long? What if she wants to be alone? Is she waiting for me to take the first step? Maybe she gave up?
My left leg bounced up and down and I saw the pack of oatmeal-raisin cookies in front of me. They were my favorite. They were also Ma’s favorite. I got up, grabbed the cookies, and made my way towards the living room.
Here goes nothing.
The second I walked in, Ma’s eyes brightened. She was curled up on the brown leather couch, with a floral quilted blanket draped over her.
Okay, a good sign… I hope.
I held the cookies up with the smallest smile. “Want one?” I asked. Her eyes widened and her mouth stretched into a wide, toothy grin. She nodded her head and let out an overly cheerful “Thank you!” as she plucked a cookie from the packet. I nodded, a tight-lipped smile still on my face, standing there awkwardly. I glanced at the TV mounted on the wall and then at the archway, wondering if I should take this silence as my cue to leave.
Ma lifted one side of her quilt and asked “Do you want to watch the rest of The Jungle Book with me?” I hesitated for a moment before nodding, shocking both her and myself. I walked over to the side of the blanket she offered me and curled up in it.
Neither of us said anything for the rest of the movie. We sat there in silence, munching cookies, eyes fixed to the screen in front of us. When the movie finished, she put on another one, a Tinker Bell movie called Secret of the Wings. I stayed curled up under the blanket with her. We stayed up all night long watching movies until the morning, not saying a word to each other, but also not leaving each other’s presence.
The oatmeal-raisin cookies ended up being the peace offering that ended my cold silence. While we didn’t magically become best friends after that night, I stopped tiptoeing around her. I started greeting her back when we were in the same room. I started making small talk with her, which eventually bloomed into longer, more substantive conversation.
It was difficult to overcome my fear of getting close to Ma. But, I had to come to terms with the fact that if I didn’t rise above that fear, I’d be stuck grieving my aunt forever. Sometimes I still worry about Ma leaving the way my aunt did, but those thoughts are rare and I convince myself to be open to accepting what I have now, instead of worrying about what I may lose one day. Though there is no way to untaint our bond from my childhood resentment, we chose to rise above the tarnishment, and continue to strengthen our mother-daughter relationship.
S. I. is a junior at Midwood High School in New York City. She likes to write stories, read books, go on runs, and bake in her free time. She journals every night.