The little girl dropped my hand and her face began to crinkle and collapse in on itself slowly the way a piece of plastic does on a campfire. I reached out my arms and she hugged her body, her pointy elbows angled out impossibly. She let them drop and buried her face in my belly and she heaved and shook.
She was afraid that she would forget her mother, now one week gone.
You won’t forget her, ever, I told the girl, but she would. Today she remembered her mother as she’d seen her last, hair fuzzy as dust bunnies and skin thin as a treasure map. Some days the girl remembered her mother before she was sick and she would try to hold onto those days at the beach and those nights watching movies, but they would slip away as dreams do in the moments before waking.
She would think of the way her mother would fold a sheet or the curl of her mothers lip when she’d blow a wisp of hair from her eyes, and for a while she would catch her mother’s scent on a sofa pillow or a sweater, but soon she would remember only those Christmases and birthdays captured in pictures and she would invent memories from what she’d see in the photos.
She would not long be this little girl with the narrow shoulders and the tangled hair. Her body would lengthen and curve and she would become a woman by herself. A kind eyed neighbor, an aunt or friend would quietly offer help and she would refuse, preferring to keep her privacy. A time would come when she’d realize she hadn’t thought of her mother for many days and when she’d try, she’d only see flashes, a pair of sneakers, a silver necklace, a brand of soap.
She’d grow up and she’d realize that the mother she knew as a child was a stranger to her in her new woman’s life. She’d understand she never knew the woman her mother was and she’d wonder if they would have liked each other. She wouldn’t recall the sound of her mother’s voice or the cadence of her speech. She’d try to imagine who her mother might be had she lived. Her mother’s breasts would never sag, her hips never widen and lines wouldn’t mar her face. Her mother would be loving and wise and perfect.
One day she’d realize she’d passed her own mother’s age and she’d know her childhood mother was lost to her forever. Her aunts and uncles and older relatives would die and there would no longer be anyone left to ask, what was my mother like?
These things I could not tell this broken child, so I held her more closely and whispered to her that as long as she was alive, her mother would live in her heart and in her memory.