HOLDING UP THE SKY
As a child, I collected stories like shiny pennies. I held the words in my tiny fists, grasped them, and didn’t let go.
The words would usually come at night, whispering stories of chocolate factories and enchanted wardrobes. I would smile, and humming slightly, bury my head deeper into my pillow.
Every once in a while, however, one particular story would come crawling out under my bed, cracking the floorboards and marring my dreams of birds conversing with friendly giants.
The Titan’s story always came back to haunt my nights. Cursed by the gods, Atlas’ fate remained sealed under the giant dome he was condemned to carry for the rest of time, every passing second spent in a torment of which he will never know the end.
I often wondered why the Titan didn’t simply let go.
Shouldn’t death be a better alternative after all?
The smog settled on the city without a sound. Dad had brought six reusable masks, two for each of us so we could alternate them between days.
The cool kids at school didn’t wear masks because they squeezed your face, making it look oddly misshapen. Mom refused because she said she couldn’t breathe properly while wearing one.
“Mom, you’ve got to.” I rummaged through the bag and held out the disheveled mask for her. Mom was running late; her fingers frantically gathering up stacks of paper.
“No,” she said without looking up.
“Mom,” I pleaded, “the pollution’s really bad today. You’ll inhale all the pm particles if you don’t.”
When she didn’t say anything, I shoved the mask into her hands.
She pushed it back. “I can’t breathe in those.”
“And the alternative, being lung cancer, is just so much better.” I had a tendency to think in worst case scenarios.
Her hand bag clamped shut with a snap. “I’m going to work now,” she said as she grabbed her bag and headed towards the door.
I stood in the silence that remained long after the door slammed shut, wondering how long it would take lung cancer would kill a person.
A little girl with big messy hair had a big messy dream.
I gathered my parents in our living room, told them about wanting to study in the States for high school, and triumphantly awaited their approval. Dad’s face brimmed with a smile, bigger than any smile he has worn before. I focused on how the lines etched across his eyes and tried to carve the image in my mind.
“You’re not going to an American high school.”
The smile slid off dad’s face.
“Why not?” I perked up. Mom looked both angry and frightened, and I didn’t know whether those emotions were directed at me.
“Because you’re far too young. I mean, college sure, but 9th grade? I’m not going to send my daughter halfway across the world when she’s only 13.”
I shuffled my feet, “but mom, it’s my dream, and I would have a much better chance at getting into a good college if I go to high school there first.”
Both my mom and I turned to look at dad. Dad shrugged, “we can’t stop her if she really wants to go honey.”
I smiled at him, and while I was walking away, I saw the faintest of winks out of the corner of my eye.
Over the course of my eighth-grade year, my exceptional hearing paid off, earning me a couple of eavesdropping sessions between mom and dad. They argued with low voices in the morning, careful not to wake me.
“If you haven’t given half of our savings to your brother we wouldn’t have been in this situation.” Mom’s voice was the first to rise.
“I told you again and again, we’ll manage.”
“Manage how exactly? Have you even seen the tuition for those private schools? Have you seen the conversion rate of RMBs to dollars? We don’t have the money if your brother doesn’t pay this debt.”
A thudding noise.
“We’ll manage,” were his final words about the matter. “It’s her dream to go to America, Lil, we have to respect her making her own decisions.”
Mom was silent. When she finally spoke, her words were dry; her voice was cracked.
“But she’s my daughter.”
My mother was born one of four siblings. I have two aunts. Uncle died of diabetes four years ago. The funeral had been quiet except for the howls of auntie.
It was my last summer holiday before I left for the States. I was sitting in the back seat of the car as thoughts of uncle drifted through the stiff, silent air. I saw them floating near the backside of the driver’s seat, but nobody else seemed to have noticed.
Everyone was laughing but no one really knew why.
“Hey, Lil,” my great aunt said from behind the wheel. “Tell us about the time of your college entrance exam.” I kept staring at the seat.
Mom forced out a nervous laugh. She was dressed pretty that day, her silky blue scarf highlighted against her dark pink coat. “I remember that I kept having nightmares,” she said into the ongoing racket. “I would dream about how I was late for the exam, or how I didn’t study, or how I did study but still didn’t know any of the questions on the test.”
“Lil,” my second aunt spoke from behind me, and I turned around. “You were always the smartest one in the family, everyone knew that.”
Now mom was laughing, a genuine smile clung to her cheeks as she rubbed at her eyes. “I would wake up from every nightmare with cold sweat down my back. I was so nervous on the night before the exam. I couldn’t sleep at all.”
I caught my second aunt’s eye, but she averted hers quickly.
Too young, great-grandma’s voice suddenly echoed through the tiny car. Her wrinkly face grasped at my mind like how her fingers grasped at my skin the day of uncle’s funeral. Too young to die. Too precious. Such a pity.
Two years later, great-grandma fell down a flight of stairs. She was 96 when she died.
Mom kept on speaking, but her words blended together. She talked about insomnia, and how she walked to the edge of a nearby river. She talked about wearing only her nightgown in the crisp night air. She talked about closing her eyes and stretching out her arms as wide as the sky. She talked about how she felt a sudden urge to open them, how she had never seen a more beautiful night, and how she would never see the moonlight again if she spread her arms too wide.
A cold breeze blew through the open window, and I heard great-grandma’s whisper again.
Too young. Much too young.
I don’t think I’ll ever remember what caused the groceries to fly everywhere.
Dad’s silhouette pressed against the red-torn sky, his face stretched in a nearly comical scream, and even though I knew he was yelling, the noise sounded like a dull buzz.
Mom stood feet away, her gaze firmly held the scene outside the transparent balcony door. She didn’t seem to be listening.
I was in the middle, my knees slightly hurt from pressing against the wooden floor. My fingers grappled at the groceries, I didn’t know what else to do.
I pulled the blankets up extra high, mumbling stories of magical castles and flying letters.
The Titan would come back tonight.
I had always known who the footsteps in the night belonged to.
A light, ruffling sound told me they belonged to mom.
I kept my eyes shut, ears grasping for any other noise.
She’s just going to the bathroom, I thought to myself, she’s just going to the bathroom.
The gentle flood of light reassured me I had been right. Go to sleep, my mind cooed, and I obeyed.
It felt like hours when I heard another slightest of sounds. Atlas’ blurry form appeared in front of my eyes. His shoulders slumped from carrying the sky. A soft whimper was coming from far, far away.
Go back to sleep, my mind murmured again, it’s just a dream.
Maybe the Titan had given up after all.
I sat up straight and gasped, my blankets falling off with a sigh of relief. Dad had been sitting at the edge of my bed, and I could barely see his dark figure silhouetted against the dull bathroom lights. No words passed through either of our mouths.
I hear the sound again. This time, I completely pushed the blankets off me, sliding out of bed and into slippers. Dad neither moved nor spoke. The creak of the wooden floorboard beneath my feet was the only noise that accompanied that pathetic, muffled snivels.
A hesitant greeting. Offered as a knock on the bathroom door.
Her hands covered her face just as dad’s had, but the moaning had stopped. “Mom?” I said again, shuffling my feet, inviting myself in.
I carefully pulled at her fingers, imagining the salty taste of tears. “Mom, please talk to me.”
This time mom did look up. She wore the same expression as she did when the groceries went flying. The tears on her face were dry.
“Mom?” I tried one more time.
Silence. And then –
“I don’t want to live anymore.”
Just as this morning, my knees dropped to the ground. This time, however, it was the cold marble that welcomed them. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know what could be done.
Dad’s heavy, hurried footsteps came thump-thump-thumping across the floor. I felt my mom wrap her arms around me to stop me from screaming. “No, no, no, no, honey.” Her words embraced me. Her forehead pressed against mine. Warm tears gripped my cheeks. “I didn’t mean that, of course I didn’t.”
Her soft voice sent shivers down my back.
“Mommy would never die, I promise.”
“Sweetie it will be okay.”
“I would hold up the sky for you.”
I am older, and sometimes I wonder whether the weight of the sky had been too much for her after all.
Now I’m studying in America, and today is the day I go home.
I feel a flood of warmth as I grip my mother tightly. It is she who has to stand on her tippy-toes.
“I’ve missed you.” I mumble the words into her shoulder.
“We’ve missed you so much, honey.” Through my half-open eyes, I see a proud smile on dad’s face, bigger than any smile he has worn before.
It is not unusual for us to share a shower; we aren’t poor, just economical.
Something on mom’s body catches my attention. “What’s that?”
Mom immediately turns her back to me, so I can no longer see the deep scar that runs from the bottom of her bare breast to the top.
“Mom?” My voice is shaking, “what happened?”
She continues to rinse her hair. I stare at her reflection in the foggy mirror. “It’s nothing dear. Don’t worry about it.”
“Did you have surgery?”
The question floated in the heated air. Thoughts of uncle knocked on the bathroom door.
“Yes.” She faces me now. I notice for the first time that her eyes looked too old for her body. “The doctors diagnosed me with breast cancer, but they’ve removed the tumor. I’m perfectly fine now.”
Her words fall through her mouth, like how water falls through the shower, skip across the slippery marble floor, and slide down the drain.