I am wandering around in our house in Quito—the one my mother chose because it has the best views of the surrounding volcanoes—looking for something to read. There wasn’t much room in the three suitcases that the airline allowed us when we left Barcelona, so this house is almost bare of books. It is almost bare of furniture, too, and in the kitchen there is only one big pot for boiling water (what comes out of the spigot is full of parasites that we’ve been told might kill us) and a frying pan for omelets. We believe that we’re here for only one year, so we’re sort of camping out.
On the dining room table, among a stack of letters from Spain, I notice my mother’s passport. In the photo, my mother looks especially happy, because she is about to fly to the wilds of South America. (My mother is the most beautiful woman I know, as beautiful as the statues of the Virgin Mary that I see in church—not the ones where She’s holding her dead Son, but the ones where He’s still a baby.)
Below the photo I read, Date of Birth: February 28, 1918. But this cannot be. We’re in 1955, which means that my mother is…thirty-seven years old! I repeat the math, just to make sure, and there it is again, that appalling, fateful number that tells me that my mother is extremely old, and will die soon.
As I stand holding the passport, the room swims and darkens around me. A ghostly hand squeezes my ten-year-old insides, and my breath feels as tight as when I run in Quito’s 9,000 ft altitude. My father is upstairs, rehearsing Dvorak with his string quartet. My mother is taking a nap. I am alone with my terrible secret–because it is a secret, and must remain so. I cannot reveal to my mother that she is in imminent danger of dying of old age, because the knowledge might kill her on the spot. Let her spend her remaining days in blissful ignorance. I must deal with this horror alone.
My mother, dead—I can no more imagine that than I can imagine my own non-existence. The sense that she is essential to my survival is as deeply rooted in me as if I were still in her womb. But yet here she is, an impossibly ancient woman of thirty-seven, with perhaps just a few years or even months left to live.
What will happen to me when she dies? Although I know that my father is a few years older than she, the realization of her imminent mortality is too overwhelming, and leaves no space for wondering how long he will last, or what my life with him will be like. No, when my mother dies I will be left alone in this strange country of volcanoes and no seasons, left to find my way back to Spain somehow.
If I had come across my mother’s passport in Barcelona, I would have had two sets of grandparents nearby, all of them older than thirty-seven, yet going about their business without so much as a cane to lean on. Or I might have confided in one of my mother’s sisters, who would have mocked me a little, and jollied me out of my fright.
But all those people are far away now, across the Atlantic, and here I am face-to-face with my mother, carrying my dreadful knowledge. Our uninterrupted mother-daughter duet, now that the buffer of grandparents, aunts, and uncles is gone, is beginning to weigh on me. Without her in-laws to please, her parents to worry about, and her sisters to shop and argue with, my mother is free to concentrate on me: my posture (slouched); my hair (in my face); my smile, or lack of it. In our nearly empty Quito house, there is nowhere for me to hide.
But in the secret recesses of my cells, the hormonal tides are rising. The feathers that will power my future lifelong flight away from my mother are beginning to sprout. This wordless sorrow at the thought of losing her, my utter inability to envision life without her presence, are the last fraying threads of the cord that has bound me to her from conception.
For now, however, the rumbles of my oncoming puberty are too faint for me to hear. As for my mother, she is in her glory, surrounded by volcanoes, having adventures that she could not have imagined as a child in her Catalan village. Her husband adores her, and the Dvorak sounds divine. The Amazon beckons, with its orchids, ocelots, and head-hunting tribes, and the best is yet to come. After all, she’s only thirty-seven.