We are mothers who left.
We were once women who weren’t mothers yet. This was before you emerged from our bodies slippery slick in our blood. Or before you were handed to us, swaddled in some blanket that we examined for another woman’s desperation, or the vestiges of her love. Before you were toddlers we spied in photographs, and from the edges of institutional courtyards where you played. We may have promised ourselves you would soon be home with us where you belonged, at last. It was never soon enough. Some of us became mothers in a neonatal ICU when we rocked you through withdrawal, what we felt for you overwhelming our compassion for the addicts who carried you to unwelcome birth. Some of us did not even recognize ourselves as mothers. We taught, we cooked, we coached, we counselled or nurtured, we said. It was a job we were paid for, in cash or kind. We weren’t mothers at all. Except we had all been overcome, even if only for a moment, by a love so strong it brought us to our knees in defeat: please -let-her-be-alright or give-me-the-pain-that-he-has.
This is an island, we think.
We washed up on these shores in the dead of darkness, guided by a glimmer of land beyond ink black sea. We stumbled on shore lonely and weary, to find sand cocooned into beds and a dreamless sleep that might have lasted eons. We awoke to the growing luster of dawn. The boats were gone. Those who still had the strength to wonder, did. Had we left them unmoored, we asked; who among us was responsible, and who forgot?
The ones who didn’t question any of it were the ones defeated by the lives that they left.
The mothers of children who were killed; the mothers of children who were killers of others. The ones who kept futile vigil around sickbeds of children. The mothers who might have borne the devastation of genocide and war in some fashion if they weren’t also required to watch the things that were done to their children.
But some of us were mothers who only watched our children grow up and lose the promise of their childhood. Difficult teenagers, or the loneliness of an empty nest. Adult children grown distant in space and emotion. Children who were hurtful, or hurt by the world. Such was the motley bag of burdens that we carried. We did not know this yet. We each woke to our own weariness, to the greater and lesser sorrows that each of us bore alone.
We could not have told you what we were doing before we found ourselves on those boats. We had no memories of the journey to the shores of our countries, or the plans we made to get here. We came from every continent, from cities and villages, in war and in peace. And not one of us could tell you how it was, or how it came to be.
We walked inwards from the beach in the growing morning, through tropical palms that shaded our skin. We found soft sand paths, and grass that cushioned everything else beside. We discarded shoes. Were there people, we wondered, was there a village? We came upon the stone cottages when we were just beginning to tire. We found them empty and sparely furnished. Chairs to sit in on porches that faced west, worn wooden tables on stone floors within We noticed there were no kitchens. No cupboards, or locks on doors. No gathered dust; no brushes, mops or cleaning supplies.
We found waterfalls and rock pools. Even secluded pools that excluded all gaze for the most bashful. The youngest among us rushed in, the older ones followed. The winds rose with sounds of our frolic. When we emerged, there were fresh clothes at the pools’ edge. Soft fabric in every hue that fit us gently, and swayed with the wind. We wondered why we wore the layers we had worn before. Why had we tolerated their pinching, confining grips?
There were no mirrors. The streams rippled with waves, rock pools were agitated by waterfalls. We could only see ourselves in the faces of the others. Faces lined with age, the ones still plump with youth. We saw worry, sorrow, strength and pain. It seemed natural the way we sat in groups, with no attention to language or skin color. The way the stories tumbled out. Perhaps we did not understand the words that each spoke, but our meanings were never more clear.
There was the youngest of us, a single mother, fighting no more than grinding poverty, overwork and exhaustion. “My baby,” she worried, until she remembered a sister she trusted, who would step in to care. A thin woman with track marks on her arms said little, and did not need to. An old woman spoke of a grandchild taken by soldiers after the children were gone. A middle-aged woman who spoke of her daughter’s cancer and chemotherapy. There were women in an array of ages and races, with stories of inhuman suffering— the kind we hurried over or skipped in newspapers: of children abused or killed, of neglect and inattention. Of hunger. There was the flotsam of our world’s conflicts, great and small. I thought they were our neighbors and friends, until they turned on us. Each of the stories was more than one human being could bear, and here was a multitude. Perhaps we wished we could shut our ears after a while, and wished ourselves back to the security of our own wants and fears. Back to our tiny singular sorrows.
Instead we continued to hear, both the stories and the way the air around us shuddered and sighed. The gurgling streams that paused for the tiniest of minutes. The sand that shifted, and settled again. We talked for hours while the sun grew higher in the sky, then even higher. Our voices and stories mingled and merged. Our hearts swelled to include it all. We saw the wilting leaves and the flowers that drooped around us. Was it the heat, or was the land taking on the sorrows we could no longer bear?
By evening, the sun gentled in the sky, and we realized we had given up everything. Possessions, stories, grudges and guilt. Even the insults hurled at us, though they were meant for our children. Bastards, Sons-of-bitches. Everything belonged to all of us and solely to none of us. Mothers of killers embraced the mothers of those killed, each grieving as much as the one she embraced. Mothers of pillagers and rapists consoled and were consoled by the mothers of their victims. “It is not your fault,” they said, “it was not that you loved too little or too much.” Perhaps they were platitudes that we had heard in our past lives, whispered to us at funerals and sentencing hearings. We believed it now where we had not, then.
When we stood up, the paths had shifted. We walked obediently along, and came upon picnic baskets upon spread tablecloths. We were not hungry though none of us could remember when we last ate. We opened the baskets, and there were the treats of our childhood. Orange fizz labeled in a hundred different languages, sweets once craved and long forgotten. Sticky buns, scones, yuebing, malasada, baklava, halwa, tulumbe, suman, jalebi and birthday cake. Familiar foods and the ones we read about in books from distant countries and longed to try when we were young, and never did. We ripped open packages to explain, and to share. Here were happier memories to soothe the razor-sharp wounds we had newly inflicted. We only needed a small bite before we discarded them, all want satisfied.
We walked further along, our arms around one another, to find orange blooms at sunset. We picked them to tuck behind ears, and into our windswept hair. We came upon the stone cottages again and thought up bonfires of discarded branch. We danced on the beach to the sound of birdsong and crickets, the roar of wind and surge of waves in the twilight. When the sounds of sea settled, we realized the boats were back. They bobbed up helpfully onto sandy beach. We helped each other in. We sat behind oars, and readied ourselves for our previous lives. We were going back; we felt it in all the ways that counted.
“Perhaps it is just a dream,” the young mother of an infant said. “Maybe I’ll wake up and find my baby by my side.” She was the most eager among us to be back.
The mothers from boats fleeing genocide or with daughters in captivity to monsters turned paler, but looked more resolute. Perhaps it was, and the troubles they had were the ones they would wake up to.
“It has to be a dream,” another, in her forties, said. She had the assurance of a woman used to being listened to. Perhaps she taught, or managed others. “There is the wish fulfillment, everything appears as soon as we’ve thought it. The way time behaves, expanding and contracting around us. And the way we desire food and never eat. It’s a dream. It has to be.”
Several among us nod. But all of us feel the solid wood beneath our palms, the sturdy floor under still bare feet and the sea spray upon our faces. When have we ever dreamt a dream that felt so real; that lasted so long?
“It’s a gift,” an earnest young woman in her thirties says. We have an image of her in previous life: perhaps she lived with cats and knitted them pullovers at Christmas. “Maybe we’re meant to take all that we have been given here, the kindness and forgiveness, and spread them out into our worlds.”
One of us smiles. She is the one that lost a grandchild after children were lost. “Doesn’t it seem familiar, somehow?” she asks.
Perhaps, we think, it is much simpler than that.
We remember the cocooning beds, the wishes granted, the consideration of comfort and care. The baths, the frolic, the food, the flowers. The joy of dance. The absence of drudgery, the absent male gaze. The way we emerged slippery slick from shaded and shallow pools. Perhaps the answer lay in the love so great it brought us to our knees. Had we just been on the receiving end?
We were daughters, of course, once. Before we became women, before the cares and responsibilities we assumed, before the striving and the sorrow. Despite all that passed, perhaps we were still daughters. Perhaps we had only forgotten.
We turn to our oars, the lives and the troubles that remain. Nothing has changed, except for the hearts that are lighter, and open in hope.
We are daughters who return.
Priya Balasubramanian is a physician and writer. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR, Roar and Scoundrel Time. She has recently completed a novel, called The Alchemy of Secrets. She’s represented by Emma Parry at Janklow and Nesbit.