The Last Thing You Do

My last memory of my mother is of a tiny white dot, high in the sky above me, and a thin wailing sound as the wind carried her hot air balloon out over the sea.

I hung on as long as I could, the rough surface of the wicker basket creaking and cutting my palms as I struggled to pull myself into the gondola of the balloon, giving it a bit more ballast. Alas, I have never been athletic, and in this moment of desperation, not even my fervent wish and urgent need were enough to achieve the impossible and lift my leg over the edge of the gondola. Instead, fate, fear and lacquer conspired to make my sweaty hands slip, sending me tumbling sideways the forty feet to the ground where I crashed, and, as I found out later, broke both my humerus and my clavicle. Mother would never have survived the fall.

As I watched the balloon lift and mother went from a doll to something even tinier and therefore more unreal, I could still hear voice high above me.

“Tell your father I never loved him!” she shouted, wiping at her face. “I always despised him and I’m glad to be leaving!”

The pain in my body caused the world to ripple and shimmer, and the pain of seeing my mother drifting uncontrolled out to sea was a crushing weight that kept me from floating up into the sky after her, but this bomb that she dropped from sixty feet up hit me and drove me into the ground.

“What?” I yelled, not because I hadn’t heard, but because I hadn’t believed. We’ve all done that.

“I hate your father. Just tell him!”

I clasped my hands to my heart, worried that the pain I was feeling might be a heart attack, although I dismissed that notion because to have a heart attack at a time like this would be self-indulgent and attention-seeking. She must have thought I was sad. It was true, but to say I was sad is like saying that the universe is big. It’s a word so out of scale as to be wrong.

“I love you. Never forge…”

But I may have made up the last bit of that. The “I love you” was almost audible, but it may have been a seagull somewhere near as well. She was too far away for me to hear anything properly, and all I was left with was her saying she hated my father. I stood there, my toes hanging off the edge of the cliff, and toyed with the notion of stepping off and flapping my arms.

While everyone in the world who wasn’t us looked for her, a tiny old woman in a hot air balloon with inadequate ballast, a non-intuitive steering mechanism and a picture of Buster Keaton as a young and handsome man painted on the side, my father and I sat at the kitchen table and stared at each other and two cups of stone cold tea. I thought about telling him what she’d said, but the more I thought about it, the more angry I became.

How dare she. How dare she burden me with breaking the news to my father that their 42-year marriage had been a sham. How dare she intimate to me, in what may well have been her final moments, the notion that her life had been unhappy. I love my father. He’s a kind, gentle, unambitious man whose dahlias win prizes that he donates to charity and who writes letters to the editor in which he says that So-and-So is really a much nicer person than anyone gives them credit for. How could she have saddled me with the task of breaking his heart? I joined them late in life, a miracle baby when my mother was on the cusp of menopause, and I had always thought that she and my father had always wanted children and that I had dispelled their disappointment. It would never have occurred to me that I had caused it. Why did she feel it necessary to ensure that she took from us not just herself, but any happy memories that we might have of the time she had spent with us?

“What is it, sweet pea?” my father asked, patting my hand with his own. The blank, blasted shock on his face had been replaced with concern for me. As though I had witnessed her being drawn and quartered, rather than being swept away in a balloon.

“It’s the last thing she said. I just don’t understand.”

“What was it?”

I drank off the last of my cold tea, gagging a little but preferring to gag down cold tea that had been coddled in the first place to telling him what she had said.

“She said that she never loved you. That she hated you.”

I broke down crying, putting my arms out for my father to comfort me, but he didn’t. He couldn’t.

On the anniversary of her disappearance, with no body to bury, no ashes to scatter, no reason to even observe because she hadn’t been officially classified as dead yet, Dad and his new girlfriend and I all went to the cliff. The ruts in the ground that the gondola had made as it scraped its way toward the cliff edge had long since eroded away and filled in with grass, but I imagined I saw them. On the day she disappeared, the sky had been mercilessly blue, allowing me to imagine I saw her for an impossibly long time. Today, a frosting of cirrus clouds obscured the furthest reaches of the heavens, and protected the three of us from having to say anything. I didn’t tell Mom that Daddy and his girlfriend were talking about marriage, that I had been accepted to college and was packing my things to leave in three weeks. I didn’t tell her that only a year after her leaving, first by blowing away, and then by rejecting us, we were fine.

I have always held the suspicion that she lied.

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