When I awake to moans, I think the ghost of Anne Boleyn is roaming our townhouse. I think this because I’m six and have secretly read a book of true ghost stories belonging to my sister. My favorite story is about Anne Boleyn haunting the tower of London.
So I burrow beneath my sheets. I suck my thumb. Go back to sleep, I think. This is a dream, I think. But I can’t sleep. I wait for my mother to wake me for school. I want her to braid my hair, hold me tight while she sings “Close to You.” By the chorus, she can always hush worry.
Instead, my sister comes into the room.
Her favorite antidote is Coca-Cola or cake icing rubbed on her gums, but only when she’s unconscious. Orange juice burns her throat, feels too much like fire going down.”
I think it’s Mommy, she says, then walks down the hall to a bedroom where we find our mother moaning like the undead; she can’t remember our names. But she can say two words: orange juice.
She crawls across the floor, to the hallway, to the stairs. She slides down them on her butt, the way she forbids us to do. Bumpety-bump she goes, all the way down. We crawl behind her to the kitchen –– this is almost a game! We are puppies and hermit crabs and babies cooing mama. But our mother will not answer to this name, no matter how loud we cry for her.
She won’t remember she is the mother and we are the daughters.
Orange juice, she says.
In the kitchen, our mother sits on the yellowing linoleum, head in her hands, and weeps. She’s the baby now.
Wah-wah-wah. She cries.
My sister slides a chair against the marbled Formica countertop. She stands tippy-toe on the seat and grabs a cup from the cupboard. She chooses a Fred Flintstone tumbler. He smiles obliviously while we lift a jug of Tropicana from the refrigerator, then pour. We use both hands, the way our mother has taught us.
Drink, we say, and lift the cup to her lips. She tilts her head back, gulps.
Later, she calls her insulin reactions “spells” and we do too, because a spell can be broken. Her favorite antidote is Coca-Cola or cake icing rubbed on her gums, but only when she’s unconscious. Orange juice burns her throat, feels too much like fire going down.
One afternoon when it is raining and there is nothing to do, she puts a VHS movie called “Steel Magnolias” on TV. We laugh because the characters have funny names like Ouiser or Drum. There’s only one name we recognize. Shelby.
Shelby has the same sickness as our mother, which is how we learn our mother will die if she does not drink.
We are good daughters. We do not shrink when our mother thrashes her hands in our faces. We do not tremble when she screams, Get away from me. We do not relent until she drinks.
Only behind our closed bedroom doors do we say we hate her spells. Only there do we hold our carnival-won rabbits’ feet and wish she will not have one again. We make wish after wish until one day we are grown and living in big, starry cities. We will not know that our mother sleeps alone while her sugar slips.
We only know if it weren’t that night, it would have been another. A daughter cannot save her mother forever.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Maryland. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, The Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website (www.maginlasovgregg.com) and swears she will finish her first memoir in 2018.
Photo by Ruben Bagues, courtesy of Unsplash