It’s hard to let go… (Dark Doorways conclusion, #25)
Others at street level stared dumbly, watching the two of us floundering in the river. Chicago’s finest were all out for their lunch break, from the suited corporates checking their phones to the lost tourists checking their maps. Not one person considered helping us. Looking back, though, I wasn’t sure I would jump voluntarily into the Chicago River either. The Italian Riviera this was not.
Michael was already reaching the edge of the river, trying to grasp onto the stones of the sidewalk. Just as I hauled myself up to catch my breath beside him, we both turned to look for the boat. Part of me was still hoping to get Mom back, to perhaps take a taxi to outrun the boat, jump on it from a bridge somehow, and get her off. Such are the impractical thoughts of a mourning daughter.
But as we turned our heads, still dripping the sewage of the Chicago River, there was no boat.
The morning fog lingered just a bit, but not enough to conceal an entire boat. Neither of us expected to see the boat, really. We looked, acted surprised not to see it, but knew it wouldn’t be there. It would have crossed under the last bridge by that point, never to return. We didn’t have to understand any of it to admit the boat was gone.
There were no words needed. There never are when you finally realize you’ve lost someone, eternally lost them. You have to pick yourself up and let people stare at the polluted water leaking off you. That’s what you have to do.
Michael knew instinctively to stand beside me as I stared at the void where Mom last held me. If I held my hand to my cheek, I could still remember the comfort of resting on her shoulder. Maybe that’s what I should do, I thought. I should just stay here forever, in this place where I let down my mom.
“Será!” Gabi’s voice cut through the smog in my head, her tender voice making my misery all the more pathetic.
“Sarah? Michael? Are you two okay?” Swanson was out of breath, clearly not the sounds of a man who visits the gym.
“Yeah, I think so. Michael, are you feeling alright?”
The fuzziness in his eyes told me all I needed to know. How he ever swam out of the river by himself was beyond me.
“You need a doctor. I should call 911.”
“Let me just take him to the ER. There’s a hospital just a block away. Will you watch Gabi?”
“Of course. But– I mean, you don’t mind doing that for him?” For me?
Swanson’s careful smile, the one that was much faster to appear with Gabi, might have broken my heart any other day, if I didn’t still have Mom’s jasmine clouding my rational thoughts.
“He was my student. So of course I care. He’s also–” The arm waving began, the lecturing kind, the reverting-to-his-academic-self-to-avoid-emotion kind. “You know. Your boyfriend.” So maybe he was still adjusting to this shift in our relationship, and maybe I was learning that it might still take some time before we found any normalcy as father and daughter.
Placing one of Michael’s arms over his own shoulders, Swanson helped Michael up the steps to street level where they disappeared toward St. Mary’s. Gabi placed her hand in mine, comforting me incidentally. In the moments there, on the river’s edge, her treasure map had somehow found its way back to us, to flitter back onto Gabi’s little arm.
I didn’t want to discuss the map, why it flew or why it kept breaking glass just when I needed it to. I wanted my mom.
Hand in hand, we took the El back to Evanston, where we eventually got off and walked the few blocks over to Swanson’s house. Traveling with a three-year-old, even just those few miles, began to erode my efforts at staying composed. I could be with Michael. I could be home, crying into my bedsheets. But instead I was hearing about how Mr. Pig got married to Eli the Elephant.
“You have the key, Gabi?”
“No!” The no was so bouncy and spirited that I’m sure speakers of other languages would have been certain that she had answered in the affirmative.
“Well, we can wait. Or we can go to my apartment, I guess.”
“Qué será, será. Whatever will be, will be…” Gabi was singing so quietly that the song almost went unnoticed. The treasure map flew out of her pocket and into the lock, unlatching the door in seconds. And I could only stare at Gabi.
“Gabi, how do you know that song?”
“Your mom’s song? She was singing it as you fell out of the boat.”
“You– She– What?”
“Come on! We can have spaghetti.”
I followed Gabi as she waved me in, speechless in the self-opening doorway. “Gabi, what do you mean, my mom was singing it on the boat?”
“When you fell out! I heard it.”
“Did you hear anything else?” A way to get her back perhaps?
Gabi shook her head no as she ran up to her bedroom. My head was swimming, and for the first time that afternoon, I wondered if I should have been the one in the ER. Deciding that all I needed was to clear my thoughts, After I made a cup of chamomile for myself. It was the blowing on the hot liquid, so I wouldn’t burn myself, that convinced me I should probably check on Gabi, but only after checking the lock on the door a dozen more times before hiking up the stairwell.
“What are you playing?” I never knew what to ask kids. Maybe this question would let her guide the conversation.
“These Barbies are you and your mom. And this box is the boat.”
“Oh?” It was a challenge to hide the chills going down my spine. Just when I was beginning to tell myself that it was all a bad dream, Gabi pinched me back to reality, through Barbies no less. “And where’s Michael?”
“He wasn’t supposed to be there.”
“Eliza tried a lot of things didn’t she?”
“You know Eliza?” The enigma-child was a well of surprises, surprises masked by cute cheeks and blonde ringlets.
“I know she wanted to stop the boat from crossing. She thought you would stop it.”
“What?” I sat down on her plush carpet, displacing the princess Barbie who had blue marker on her lips and, apparently, no eyebrows.
Gabi reenacted the entire scene, her hand pulling Barbie-me onto the boat then waiting a few seconds to temp Barbie-me with Barbie-Mom.
“How do you know everything that happened? I mean, you weren’t there. Michael was the only one there with me.”
“You’re Será. You’re the one who makes them leave.”
“Makes who leave?” And leave where?
Gabi walked over to her closet, where a toy bin sat on the floor that she could access easily. I expected to redirect her back to our conversation; I didn’t expect her to pull out a wounded doll. The Barbie’s broken neck snapped back together quite disagreeably, as if there had never been a neck there. The knotted hair and threadbare clothing finally gave her away. There was only person the doll could be.
“Eliza,” I whispered.
The soulless Barbie-Eliza pulled others with her onto the boat. They were all misfits, unfit for Barbie’s perfect world of shopping, grooming, and dates with Ken. Some weren’t even Barbies.
They all entered the boat just seconds before Barbie-Mom threw Barbie-me over the boat. Making chugging noises that I imagined she made with her bath toys, Gabi pushed the boat along her toy table until it fell off the edge, crashing very unremarkably to the carpeted floor. She looked up at me beaming.
“I don’t understand.” It was my first conversation with Swanson all over again, him explaining his research and me not having any clue. To be fair, that was my first week of grad school. What defense did I have not comprehending a three-year-old?
Her sweet little hands picked up the Barbie-Eliza, brining it over to face me. “She thought that if you were on the boat, it would stay.”
“Stay? Like stay on the river?”
Gabi showed me where the doll’s neck had snapped apart. “She died a long time ago. She made herself look older because she didn’t get on the boat when she was supposed to.”
“And my mom? Did she also not get on the boat when she was supposed to?”
Gabi shrugged, untroubled by the fact that my mom had waited over a year to– To what? Cross over? What lexicon does one use for a situation like this?
“She was on the boat.” It was a simple response. Straightforward. The kind of thing I had come to expect from Gabi. She got that from her dad.
Of course Mom was on the boat. That’s what matters. I couldn’t change anything, and maybe I wasn’t supposed to. Mom could have jumped out with me, but stayed. She stayed on that boat and crossed under the seventh bridge without me.
“And you could buy your old house, right?”
“What? You mean my mom’s house?”
Gabi, humming happily as if we were having tea with Mr. Pig and his new bride, as if we weren’t reenacting my mom’s crossing, went over to pick through the boat’s wreckage. A mutilated Ken doll appeared, which she excitedly shoved in my hands.
“Of course. Receding Hair Line Parker.” I had forgotten him, or maybe I had sabotaged the memory of this man who desecrated Mom’s house.
It took me a few moments of silence, moments of staring at Ken-Parker, to fully connect all the pieces. He was one of them. Eliza was one of them. Who else? How long had Mom been running from them?
“She was running away from them. I need my mom back. Maybe I can still find that boat. Do you think it’s somewhere on the Chicago River still?”
Gabi had moved on to brushing her pink pony, or unicorn rather. Her humming switched over to the bridal march, indicating that an equine wedding was about to commence. It struck me as odd that a unicorn would get married, and that I had no idea what gender the rainbow pony groom was.
“Gabi? Gabi! I need to go look for my mom. I need to get her off that boat and away from those… those, whatever.” Ghosts? Zombies? Uh, I couldn’t bother with semantic choices. My mom needed me.
“Será, no.” Gabi stood, abandoned the pony-unicorn wedding, and lifted the cardboard Barbie boat. One of the sides had collapsed in the fall, rendering it useless.
“But–” I couldn’t let go. That was it. After all these months of mourning and convincing myself I had moved on, I still wasn’t ready to let her go.
“Did she tell you how she died?”
“What?” Gabi had an eerie way of haltingly switching topics, like a stuttering bike chain that you knew would fall off in seconds.
“Did your mom tell you how she died?”
“How she died?” I scratched my head, wondering if she even knew what cancer was, or how I would explain what it was. “Well, several years ago, just before I met your dad, she got really sick with this thing called cancer.”
“No, Será. I mean, how she died.” She handed the Barbie-Mom to me, as if sensing that I would need some part of Mom to hold, even if it was just this Barbie golem.
My eyes fixated on the youthful doll, how her eyes sparkles, her hair shimmered, her firm body enticed. Mom was this youthful. She never seemed to age, even as I did. Her gray hairs only appeared there on the boat, and even then, there were no other real signs of aging.
“She… she–” She could have been my age.
“It was a really long time ago, Será. You were so little.”
I was. I was really little. I was not much older than Gabi, come to think of it. I began to remember the funeral, the consoling relatives, the young Sarah crying all the way through her mom’s funeral, the lawyers.
“Heinrich and Donnell. They… they…”
“They were your parents?”
“Well, legal guardians. Yeah, I guess.” The reality was beginning to overwhelm me. I had to sit back against the beanbag chair, the one that seemed to swallow me, enveloping me the further I leaned back. It was like a sick joke, like it wants you to lean on it, but only to be consumed.
As I watched Gabi marry the unicorn to the pony, I realized my mom’s apparent fight with cancer was her way of saying goodbye to me. She warned me not to enter dark doorways. She wasn’t afraid of someone or something harming me; she just wanted me to choose life.
“She fought for so many years, almost two decades.” I was mumbling to myself and the bean bag chair. “She ran away from those things because she wanted to stay among the living. She wanted to stay with me.”
“Da-da-da-da…” The bride marched on, toward her androgynous groom, toward hopes, pains, dreams, fears. Toward life.
“So all those times she drove me here, to her dream house, she wasn’t showing me how to escape, she was escaping herself. She was fighting off–” What? Death? An afterlife? I wasn’t sure.
“Your mom wanted you to see light.” Gabi paused the wedding long enough to get the words out, then just as quickly resumed the ceremony. I wasn’t sure who was officiating, but it looked like some unicorn with a moon on its side.
“Light…” My voice was probably only a whisper, absorbed either into the beans of the chair or into my own thoughts.
Never enter a dark doorway. It wasn’t her warning to stay away from something evil. It was her warning to choose something better. To live a full life when she couldn’t.
The clicking of the front door caused me such alarm that I bolted up off the floor in milliseconds, even with dolls all over me. I had forgotten the broken lock.
“Don’t worry. It’s just Dad and Michael.”
Looking out Gabi’s window, I saw Swanson’s car parked in the driveway, a wave of relief sweeping over me.
“Oh good. I thought… I don’t know what I thought.”
“You’re a good sister, Será.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You decided to stay with me. You could have stayed with your mom and you chose me instead.” She smiled widely at me, helping the newlyweds dance at their reception. “Other kids were afraid of you.”
“What? You mean kids that pointed at me?”
“Yeah. They saw your mom following you. It looked scary. But I knew she just missed you. That’s what it’s like to love someone. It’s hard to let go.”