by Kyra Z. Norsigian

The sun filtered in through the hotel room’s closed curtains, just enough so that no artificial lights were necessary. I sprawled my tired body across the bed. My arms were outstretched to prevent my young nephew, Lucky, from falling to the floor. I was responsible for him while his mother, my sister, was out getting groceries.

Mom was downstairs at a women’s health meeting in one of the hotel’s fancy conference rooms. She left a contact number for her, but only for emergency use. It was the first time I’d ever been left alone with Lucky. My mother and sister said we’d be fine, but my nervous stomach disagreed. What if he…? Who should I…? I reassured myself by remembering that my sister Amanda would return shortly.

While I settled comfortably under the crumpled sheets, I flipped through the TV channels. It was disappointing, but certainly not surprising, to find only a few in English. After all, this was South Africa.

It was not long before I heard the familiar click of the key in the door’s lock. I thought it was my sister. Why was she returning so soon? It wasn’t Amanda. Instead, my sobbing mother stood before me, accompanied by an unfamiliar woman. As my mother approached, the other woman disappeared without having entered the room. I knew it. I knew from my mother’s pallid skin and her mournful eyes. I knew it from the frighteningly pained expression on her face. I knew something had happened to Dad before she uttered my name…or his.

"Did something happen to Dad?" I asked, knowing full well her answer.

She nodded. "He had a heart attack." Her words were choppy, as she sobbed uncontrollably. "He died." I stared down at my favorite blue sweatpants; they seemed so much brighter than usual. All I could think of saying was that Mom was wearing the jacket Dad and I gave her for her birthday. I loved the colors; its deep purples were the best.

Lucky started crying, not because he understood what it meant when we told him his Zaddie died, but because our tears frightened him. We hadn’t fallen off the bed or spilled our milk. Why were we crying? He wanted his mommy. I hugged him tightly and reassured him that his mommy would soon return. She did, and we told her about Dad. Although we had different mothers, we shared the same father. We cried together.

The image of my mother weeping is ingrained in my mind as certain as the lines in my palm. I remember crying very little. My mother was crying for us both. Mom was falling apart, and I was standing strong, like a pillar, supporting the two of us. I was in shock. The sort of shock that keeps you calm and sensible, until you feel you don’t have to be the strong one tending to those weaker than you. Until you can fall apart in the safety of someone else’s strength.

My uncle was the one to call Mom. It had taken him a while to track us down in Johannesburg. When my uncle told Mom about Dad’s death, her first reaction was of utter disbelief. "You must be joking," she accused. But it was no joke. Thousands of miles away, my dad lay lifeless. I remember wishing that he would remain serene in his bed, long enough for me to return to Newton and give him one last hug. The four of us tried to cope with visualizing the unimaginable.

The soonest available flight to Logan Airport was that evening. For the next few hours, I used the television as a painkiller. By the afternoon, my sister’s husband had arrived to join us, and we decided to go out for a walk. Nothing felt real. I walked, but my legs were numb beneath me. I ate, but it didn’t satisfy my hunger. I spoke, but I couldn’t hear myself. I was just going through the motions. Maybe if I didn’t accept my Dad’s death emotionally, it wouldn’t be true.

I felt incredibly sad, but his death was still just in words, not tangible, not yet. We stopped to buy some apricots from a man’s fruit stand on the sidewalk. Later, my mother claimed they were what caused her to throw-up continuously on the plane ride home, but I knew better. We reached a park and sat down on some benches while Lucky ran about in circles.

Several hours passed. Then it was time to begin our journey home. The drone of the plane’s motor had a strange, numbing effect. What worried me most were my mother’s frequent trips to the lavatory at the back of the plane. Afraid of what I might find if I went myself, I sent my brother-in-law back to check on her frequently. Upon exiting the plane, we were met by my older brother and a few security guards. They whisked us away, through customs and straight to the large mass of close friends and family awaiting our arrival.

The funeral home was cold. Was it my imagination? My dad was wearing his favorite bright African print shirt. Sticking out of his breast pocket was an old baseball card; he and my brother used to exchange it back and forth for birthday presents each year. I touched his folded hands. They were cold. He looked content. I was surrounded by a swirl of sounds and words. My brother, fifteen years older than I, collapsed sobbing in my lap. Remaining stoic, I barely cried.

My time to cry came much later. In fact, it hasn’t ceased. I cry when I’m all alone and just thinking, seeing over and over in my head the image of my mother’s sobbing face, wishing my dad were here to see me grow up. That’s when my tears come. That’s when my column of strength crumbles. That’s when I let myself feel the pain of knowing I will never get that one last hug.


Kyra Z. Norsigian