The shape of her hairline matches mine. I turn and face the mirror hanging over her vanity and pull my salt and pepper bangs away from my face. I double-check the reflection to make sure. Yep. We have the same hairline. I should know this.
"She hasn't opened her eyes in days. Since before I called you," Mark said. My mother's husband sidled up next to her bedside opposite me. I barely know him even though they've been married for nearly forty years. I expected him to go first—not that I ever cared.
"What made you call?" I ask. I try and make eye contact with him, but his eyes are set on her.
"If it were up to me, I wouldn't have." The back of his hand strokes her porcelain skin; he kisses her pale lips. "Your mother's wish, Tate. That's the only reason." His old knees keep him from moving too quickly, but eventually he leaves the room.
For the first time in thirty-five years, I'm alone with my mother.
"Mama, it's me," I say. No response. I wonder if she still recognizes my voice.
I squeeze my eyes tight, wishing the weight I carry would fall as fast as my tears.
"Your hands look just like mine. And my hands look just like gram's. It's the strings that tie us together. Three generations," she says as she laces her fingers through mine.
I loved holding her hand; until I didn't. I erased her from my life as easily as a mistake on the page. As if a mother were as replaceable as a battery; after all, she was corroded.
"Why can't you be normal like other moms?" I ask as she gets ready for work.
"What do you mean, Tater?" So typical of her to answer with a question.
Like other moms sing in a band. Like other moms are absent most nights, holidays, birthdays, and when their daughters get their period for the first time. I roll my eyes. She's always the star of the show. A local celebrity, if you count being on stage at every dive bar in town, "celebrity status." Tired Kat, too worn out from the night before. Everyone gets a piece of her. I get the shitty leftovers.
Selective memories are my why--justification for severing every tie with my mom. This is how I navigate my emotions.
I can't do this. I grab my rolling suitcase from the corner of her room and head towards the front door. I find Mark bent over the dining room table, stacking and organizing years of memories.
"Your mother was afraid she would lose all the pictures on her phone. She had them converted into these picture books. She ordered one a week." He smiled to himself.
"Why did you call me here?" Before I escape my mother one final time, I demand a better answer than the one he gave me earlier.
"Why did you come?" He looks me in the eye and takes me back to seventeen.
"Tate, come back here. Don't leave like this. Your mom is just as devastated as you. Let's all be together tonight. We're all hurting right now."
"I don't have to listen to you, Mark. You are not my father."
Fuck him. Our dog dies, and she has to have her new boyfriend here with us.
"Tate, please. Your mom needs you." He pleads with me while my mother stands beside him, streaks of mascara running down her face leaving track marks of bad decisions. He doesn't realize he's temporary. She's got a laundry list of ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands—he's just the newest edition.
I just want it to be mom and me. No outsiders. There's always an outsider. And usually, it's me.
"Fuck you. Fuck both of you." I'm out of here.
The old wooden chair creeks as he takes a seat and speaks first when he realizes I don't have an answer.
"I have loved your mother since the day I met her forty-one years ago. For about as many years, I watched her navigate life without the one person she loved the most. You. Every obstacle she's overcome, she did for one person. You." He went back to book organizing. "Here, she kept this on her nightstand for as long as I can remember." He hands me a Bible. "You might find the answers you're looking for in here."
I still don't know how to respond. I want to run from her like I've always done. But I can't because I'm holding the part of her past that's mine. Her name is engraved on the front: Katherine Rose Collins, my mother's bible when she was married to my father. I walk back to her room and open the worn leather cover. The scent of my childhood invades my senses—my mother.
Pieces of her fall to the floor like feathers from the sky: our dog's death certificate from that awful night, bible verses scratched on a sticky note that no longer sticks, and past Mother's Day cards. The last one, dated thirty-five years ago, is a glaring reminder that I haven't acknowledged her for over three decades. I feel Mark standing in the doorway of their room.
I turn to the man who loves her more than anyone ever has, including me.
"I'm here to acknowledge her," I say with release.
He extends his hand to mine. For the first time, I want to know him. Because he knows her. And I want to know her, too.
"She's a grandmother and a great-grandmother," I tell him. It's not until I say this out loud that I realize what I stole from her, from our entire family.
"Tell her, Tate. She's been waiting."
"Mark, her eyes are open." I pull his chair up to the bed so he can sit next to her. I lean down next to him; our shoulders touch for the first time.
"Mom," I say and lay my head on her chest like I did when I was little. She runs her hand through my graying hair, and I tell her about the family she doesn't know exists: Charli, her oldest granddaughter is a new mom; Luci, our middle girl is in law school; and Lee, our youngest, plays football at a small private college in Illinois. I want to have the years of conversations we missed out on all at once.
"I always knew you'd be the best mama ever, Tater."
I close my eyes at the sound of her vanilla contralto voice. The familiarity transports me back in time. I feel the aching from decades of silence. I want to tell her everything I didn't all these years.
"Mama, do you know we have the same hairline?"
"I do," she whispers and drifts in and out of sleep.
"We all do, Mom." I want her to know that I noticed.
Mark hands me her brush; I gently run it through her hair so I can see her face, all the things that make her my mom, all strings that tie us together.