Nurse Themba doesn’t say a word, she doesn’t need to. Instead she gathers me in her strong, comforting arms. I let myself fall to the weakness and I become limp and crumpled in her arms as I soak both of us in a shower of salty tears. Seconds pass and slide into minutes. After what feels like an eternity I let Nurse Themba lead me back out of the archives room, out of the staff only hallway and back into the waiting room. I still have the file clutched in my hand as Nurse Themba tells me to sit down in a chair and to rest a little before I open it. I wanted to cry some more, but we are in public and I had already cried myself dry. I looked around at some of the other people who were sitting in the waiting room. There really weren’t all that many. Just one other family. There was a napping grandpa, a mother, and two very young kids who I wonder if they even understood what was going on.
I stood up and walked over to the desk. I couldn’t take it. I had to know what happened to mother, but first I wanted to see Maria. Locating Nurse Themba I walked over to her and asked her if she would accompany me to see my dear sister. Our eyes met and I could see a tear spring into her eyes. She slowly nodded and walked around the desk so that she could lead the way. I handed her Mother’s medical records to put in safekeeping. I wonder if she was watching me. Does she know that I have yet to open up the folder? Or does she think that I have now found my answers? Whatever the case might be she puts them in her desk, takes my hand with both of hers and leads me down the path that I now know so well to Maria’s room. No words are spoken until we get to the door when I whisper, “Stay, please?”
Once the door opens I have to let someone pass me. Someone was in the room visiting with Maria. Someone that I didn’t know, but she somehow looked familiar. Our eyes met and I could tell that whoever this person was, she cared for my sister because she had tears in her eyes. I walked steadily over to the bedside afraid of what I might see. On the walk over I was making myself be prepared for the worst. I looked into Maria’s once beautiful face that is now broken. I was pleasantly surprised. Though Maria looked no better, she did not look any worse. I bent over her and kissed her on the forehead, right where she would kiss me everynight when tucking me in. I thought I saw a slight smile appear on her face, but it was most likely wishful thinking for when I looked again, I saw the same face as when I walked in. A face so broken it is hard to tell that it is a face. A face that used to hide all bad emotions, but that now shows pain. A face that I can hardly recognize as my sister’s.
I expected to cry, but nothing came out. My tears had all gone towards Mother today and I saved none for Maria. I left the room then with my head hanging low. There was nothing I else that I needed or wanted to do. I had said everything that I needed to already. It was time for me to accept that I was most likely going to be an only child fending for herself pretty soon.
Nurse Themba looked at me as if about to ask a question, but when she saw my face closed her mouth once more. The hospital was silent that morning. Our feet as we walked back to the waiting room echoed loudly through out the hallway. I went straight behind the desk and grabbed the folder. Walking over to a table that was as far away from the other family and the other lady as possible I sat down and finally opened the folder.
There was no doubt it was the right one. There was a picture of her in the hospital bed that looked to be identical to Maria. Even with Mother’s broken face in the picture I could tell that it was the same as Maria. The golden hair that shone in the sunlight that was streaming through the window. The mouth, though even in pain still curved upwards in a smile. The light brown eyes that sparkled even with them half closed. I held the picture close to my heart, hoping that it would bring Mother back. I even smelled the paper in hopes of catching a whiff of her lilac perfume. I finally put the picture down and picked up a document. I read it over carefully, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a copy of her birth certificate. Her full birth name was Naomi Helena Smith. I had no idea that I was named after my mother. How I wish that Papa had told me.
Papa. The word filled my mind. Why did we call him Papa? Papa is a title that you give someone who looks out for you, that loves you. Someone who will try everything to make you smile when you are down. My papa is none of that. He doesn’t deserve to be called Papa. Not by me. From now on I will refer to him as father or him. Papa is a title that you have to earn, something he is far from doing.
I go back to looking at Mother’s file. There are lots of things in here that I didn’t know about her. Like how she broke the same bone in the same place multiple times when she was younger. Or how she had to get her tonsils removed when she was 14 because she had strep throat too many times. I didn’t have time to look at all of that though. I needed to find how she died. I shuffled through some papers. I found it. It was in the back of the file along with a newspaper clipping.
Plane Crash August 26, 2002
Hundreds dead. First responders came quickly to the scene, but it was too late. The plane was already engulfed in flames and with so many people still on it too badly injured to get themselves out. Despite dedication the firefighters were not able to get everyone to safety.
I couldn’t keep reading. This accident had happened exactly seven years ago to when Maria was hurt. The paper fluttered out of my hands and landed safely on the floor, unlike the plane was able to. Oh, my. Mother must have died in this plane crash. She must have been saved from the fire filled plane, but was too badly injured that she couldn’t hold on. I knew one answer, but I needed more.
Why did Maria need to be put into the hospital? How come she looked so similar to the pictures of Mother after the plane crash? Maria was going to school, she wasn’t on a plane. If there was a school bus crash then surely I would have heard about it. The first day of school, she left after I did. That means that she would have missed her bus, but if she left right after me then she would still be able to make it if someone drove her. Maybe one of her friends picked her up and together they drove to school, but on the way they were in an accident. Then, what about the friend and the mom that drove? Are they here? Are they alright? My head was swimming with possibilities, but I kept going back to the one where there was a car accident the morning of the first day of school.
A person walked past my table, putting a piece of paper next to me. Hopeful that it was a note telling me it would be alright, or even giving me more information on Mother or Maria I opened it up and looked at the writing. “Oh,” I thought kind of disappointed to find that it was only the news article that I had dropped. I looked up to thank the person, but they were already gone. I looked around the room when I found someone who was watching me, but trying really hard not to show it. Figuring that it must have been her, I went over. Something about her looked familiar. It hit me, she was the woman who was coming out of Maria’s room when I went in. Even still, she looked familiar, like I saw her before today.
“Sorry about Maria, Helena.” Okay, she knew my name. We have definitely met before, but where? Reading my thoughts, “I am sure you don’t remember me, but I was Maria’s teacher last year. It is such a pity that two girls so young have to live in the condition that you do, and now for you. The hospitalization of your sister, who I know you love so much. If there is anything that you need just tell me. Hold on a second. It is the middle of the afternoon. Why aren’t you in school?”
“Oh, that is because, well you see.”
“No, I don’t see. A young girl as yourself needs to be surrounded by a group of friends.” She didn’t know.
“I have no friends. Well, except one, but I’m not sure if she will still want to be friends.”
“Well, that is just not right. A girl your age dealing with being poor, an abusive father, no mother, and now a sister in the hospital, but on top of all that no friends who can take your worries away at least for a little bit?”
“Well, I have had some friends, but only because they pity me. And it isn’t that hard at school anyways. I am focused on my school work and I don’t let my mind wonder about what goes on at home.”
“Okay, that’s at school, but what about when you get home? The weekends? Winter break? Summer break? What do you do for the three months at home all by yourself?”
“Well, I am never alone. I have always had Maria. When I get home I do my homework then I help Maria keep the house somewhat organized. Then I read. Or if we happen to have any scrap pieces of paper I might write a little. The same on the weekends. During winter break, if we are lucky and have snow, I love to play in it. During summer break it does get harder, but you just have to be creative. Maria and I make it through the summer without too much boredom.”
“Such a bright and creative mind like yours should not be wasted. You must go back to school. It intrigues me, what is it that you like to write?”
“Oh, not much. Just a little bit of poetry. It isn’t all that good though. I actually have a poem in my pocket. It is the one that I always have with me, I read it when I need some hope. Would you like to hear it?” Miss Sherman nods.
Golden light stands strong and proud
Hope is accomplished”
“Oh, my dear. This is wonderful. You have such an amazing talent and it must not go to waste. I’m imploring you, do go back to school.” She gives me a hug with a kiss to the forehead before she stands up and leaves. I let her words sink in for a moment. I have made my decision, I am going back to school. I am now the only one left in the lobby save the nurses and other hospital workers. Deciding that I have already asked much of the hospital today I get up to go, but not before I ask Nurse Themba one last question.
“Nurse Themba,” I say weakly, “did Maria get hurt by a car crash?” She made a small nod. I began to turn around and walk towards the door, but I stopped myself and asked, “What about the other girl and her mother?”
“They died on impact. Maria was very lucky to have survived.”
“Thank you” I turned around and headed to the doors that were marked exit. I knew everything that I wanted to know. It all made sense now. My head began to race as I walked slowly home.
It all makes sense now, the reason why the two pictures of Mother and Maria after their crash look so similar to one another. The reason why father also got really emotional that first night in the hospital. When father said that he didn’t want it to happen again, he was talking about not letting Maria die the same way as Mother, from a crash. Also, when we were in the car and he yelled at me for it being my fault, it now makes sense. It was my fault. Had Maria not wanted to make me a surprise breakfast and make the morning special for me, she would have left on time to get on the bus and she would have not been in the car when it crashed. With the weight of the new realization I hurried home, too ashamed that I was the one who caused this. I am never going back to the hospital. How am I going to face my sweet sister now that I know that it is my fault that she is dealing with all of this?
When I start to unlock the door I am surprised to find that it is already unlocked. That means one of two things. The first being that I left in so much of a hurry that I forgot to lock it, or father is home. If father is home then it could spell trouble for me. I manage to slip in undetected, so I decide to try my luck and find what father is up to, my guess is drinking. I could already smell the familiar pungent smell from the front door. I see father bent over at the waist leaning out of the window with a bottle in hand and with many more empty alcohol bottles on the floor, he must be sick from drinking so much. Tears begin to well up in my eyes, but before any could spill I saw father turn around. Not wanting father to know that I was spying on him I took a step back, so that the wall was hiding me, but I could still peer around the corner to watch.
I watched father come back in, his eyes red and puffy. I watched as he threw yet another empty bottle into the pile. I watched as he grabbed another bottle and leaned back out the window. How many bottles has he gone through like this? I have to put a stop to this. I start to go towards father, but stop myself. He has already finished that bottle and is reaching for another one. How did he finish that one bottle so quickly? I stop breathing in hopes of being able to hear better. It sounded as if a sink was left on. Then I realized what father was doing. He was dumping out all of his stashed alcohol. Come to think of it, I had noticed that father smelled less like vulgar these past few days that Maria is in the hospital.
I decided to let father be alone while he finished pouring out all of the bottles. Having had a very emotionally long day, I decided to go to bed without dinner. I had a small snack at the hospital and was still hungry, but I couldn’t let father know that I was here and that I saw what I just witnessed.
“Helena, wait. I know that you are there,” shoot. I guess that I wasn’t as secretive as I had hoped. Though, I was hoping that now that father knew that I was here he would apologize. Apologize for everything that he has done and not done these past years, these long, hard years. “I thought that I raised you better. You know that you shouldn’t spy on people.” Not only did he not want to apologize, but he thought that he had any part in raising me and that he was the one to teach me manners. I didn’t bother saying anything in response, I was too tired to carry through with an argument. I headed up to bed, I had another big day tomorrow.
I couldn’t fall asleep that night, I kept tossing and turning, worried what tomorrow would bring. Finally, I had fallen asleep around 2 a.m, but it was not peaceful sleep. I kept having nightmares about what the kids would say and do to me. Maybe the bliss of my first day had all been imagined. What if, what if Amika was imagined and she really wasn’t there? ‘No,’ I told myself. I couldn’t keep thinking about all of the what ifs. I had to go back to school tomorrow, it will be alright.
Managing to get only an hour of decent sleep, made it hard to get up the following morning, but I did it. I got myself dressed and out the door ready in time to make the bus. If only Maria had made the bus the first day of school then none of his would have happened. Look on the bright side. If Maria had never been hurt I still wouldn’t know how Mother died and father would still be drinking.
When I got to the bus stop everyone fell silent. All of their attention turned to me, but they realized that I didn’t want the attention and turned back to their friends and continued talking, about me most likely. The air seemed to change, though everyone was trying to pretend that it hadn’t and that nothing was different. A few parents came up to me and offered their condolences, but I hardly paid attention to them. I was too busy trying to find Amika. My fear from last night, that I had just imagined her, came back. Then I found her where I least expected her to be.
Amika was hanging out with Ally and her group. I couldn’t believe her! Anger started to bubble inside of me, like a volcano was about to erupt within. She saw me and her face lit up, she called me over to her. I wasn’t sure about that. Ally and I didn’t get along all that well. Though, Ally too turned around when she saw Amika waving like the crazy person that she is. Instead of a look of disgust that I was expecting when she saw me, she smiled a little.
The bus pulled up, I got on, and sat in the same seat that I sat in on the first day, expecting to be by myself. I watched the people get on and go automatically to a certain seat. I saw the familiar bag that I knew belonged to Amika, I was curious where she was going to sit. I jumped a little when the bag landed on my seat and Amika followed, thinking that she would sit with Ally for sure. “What? This is my seat too you know,” Amika offered with a smile. “Just because I am now friends with Ally it doesn’t mean that you aren’t still my best friend. What was I supposed to do while you were gone for two days, mope all day and not be happy? I’ll let you know that I sat in this seat,” she said pointing to the bus seat, “everyday hoping that you will show up again.”
“Well, here I am. Look I’m sorry that I got mad at you at first when I saw you with Ally, but it has been really hard now. I’m not sure that you know, but-”
“Helena, everybody knows.”
“Oh, really?” Dropping my gaze into my lap, I was about to tell her that everyone knowing about Maria was not the half of it, but I decided against it. It best that she doesn’t know, it might dappen her happy mood. Amika was so happy to have me back at school. The whole bus ride she talked pretty much nonstop about what work I have missed and how hard it will be to catch up. She even caught me up to speed on all the new gossip. I have never been so happy to hear gossip before. “I can’t believe that I ever thought that you wouldn’t want me as a friend any more, or that you weren’t even real,” I said laughing a little.
“What!” Amika’s jaw dropped, “Why would you think I wouldn’t want to be your friend?” She asked in all seriousness, then added in a lighter tone, “Or that I wasn’t even real?”
“Well, after only one day of knowing you I did leave you for two days by yourself.”
“For a completely understandable cause.”
“Last night, I was worried about coming back to school and I guess that I just started to come up with all of the worst possible situations.”
Amika gave a laugh and hugged me tight, “I will never leave you. This year will be amazing as long as we have each other at our side. And if you ever want to talk and cry without being judged, I’m there.” I hugged Amika back, it felt so nice to have a friend that I could rely on. For the rest of the time on the bus Amika would not stop planning about how we were going to have the best year together.
Even as we walked into the classroom Amika kept talking about all of the fun adventures that we were going to have together. When Miss Wilson had us go to work silently, that didn’t stop Amika. She kept writing notes then passing them to me under the table. I was worried that Miss Wilson would notice and then we would both be in trouble, at least that was not on Amika’s “To-Do” list. I would keep looking up periodically to see if Miss Wilson looked mad or angry at us, but she would just wink and smile. A few times she reminded us that we would have to turn in our sheets at the end of class even if we weren’t done. Every time she said it though she always ended up looking at me or Amika.
I enjoyed being back at school, I was able to get my mind off things and clear it up that Amika really does care for me, and was real, and so does Miss Wilson. It was lunch time before I knew it. Without thinking twice I followed Amika through the crowd. She lead me over to the table where Ally usually sits, I wasn’t so sure about it, but Amika assured me that it was fine. Ally didn’t seem to be too mad, she didn’t look happy about it, but she didn’t make a fuss. I knew why, it was pity, well I wasn’t going to take it. Without making a big commotion, I stood up and found another table, I didn’t need pity, and definitely not from her. Without asking her too, Amika followed me over to my new seat. “You don’t have to do that, Amika. If you want to sit with Ally then go for it.”
“No, it’s fine. I really didn’t like her anyways, she never included me, she just tolerated me being with them. Do you need some lunch?” I nodded, I always needed food. It was nice to finally be with Amika again, and for her to share her delicious lunch with me. All too soon the bell rang and we had to go back to class. The afternoon was pretty much the same as the morning, me trying to get my work done and Amika slipping me notes with Miss Wilson pretending not to notice as long as we weren’t too loud and we got our work done.
2:35, the end of the day. Every other kid ran out of the classroom, but I lingered behind a little. There was something that I needed to do. Miss Wilson came over to me and gave me a big hug, “It is so nice to see you again, Helena. Is there something that I can assist you with?”
“No, thanks, I have everything that I need,”
I began to walk out of the classroom, but before I leave, Miss Wilson calls, “Oh, I let it happen today, but you and Amika cannot be passing notes everyday,” she ended with a smile. I couldn’t help but smile as well, until I remembered the other important task that needed to be done today.
I got outside of the classroom to see Amika waiting for me. Oh, no. I can’t have her following me, this is something that I must do alone.
“Amika, thanks so much for waiting for me, you have been so supportive and I couldn’t have asked for a better friend, but please, hurry and get on the bus.”
“Aren’t you coming on the bus?”
“No, I’m sorry. There is something that I have to do, but it has to be done by myself. You have to trust me, and just get on the bus before it leaves without you. I give Amika a rushed hug and start walking away from school. She looks worried as she gets on the bus. I can’t help but think that I have been a terrible friend and she deserves so much better than me, but the fact that she sticks by me is why I love her like another sister.
“Papa and I, we went to the cemetery only once after Mother’s death, and that was for the burial. I was only 6 at the time and didn’t really know what was going on. I only thought that she was going to be taking a nap in the earth, but would come join us soon. I didn’t realize that it would be us joining her one day. I had even brought along the perfume and sprayed the grave so that when she woke up she would still smell like herself.” -Maria
Yesterday, when I was looking at the file I managed to find the cemetery that Mother was buried at. Now that I stand at the entrance I cannot move. I have never seen Mother’s burial sight and I am not sure that I want to. What if there is a ghost? No, that is silly, ghosts aren’t real. Besides I blew off Amika to come here on my way home for school, I wasn’t going to stop now. I slowly make my way through the cemetery, being extra quiet as to not wake any spirits. I still wasn’t able to convince myself that there are no such things as ghosts.
I thought that I was alone, but I saw a man in the distance looking down at a grave. I felt sorry for him, though I didn’t know him. I made my way over to him to comfort him if he needed any. The closer I got the more the shape seemed familiar. The description of the area also seemed like Maria’s description of the area around Mother’s grave. Could it be? The man standing at the grave? It was really father. I could not believe it, he really did care and still missed her. I crept up behind him and stood next to him also looking down at the grave.
He looked at me, finally noticing that I joined him, “Naomi? Is that you?” father asked with love and care in his voice. “ No,” he said shaking his head, “can’t be.” But even still, his wandering gaze never left me.
“Not Naomi, Helena.” I said soothingly, but very confidently.
“Helena? What are you doing here?” His tone still very loving and caring.
“I think the same reason why you are here. To see Mother.” He nodded his head in agreement, but not another word was said. He mumbled some words under his breath, I couldn’t make out everything, but I did hear the words “Maria… hospital … scared … Helena … strong … love … miss you…” At that he looked up to the sky and turned around and left. Not knowing what else to do I kissed my hand and put it on Mother’s grave, got up and followed father out of the cemetery. I walked next to him, not knowing where we were going. Pretty soon I noticed where we were headed. When I thought we got we were going, father turned the wrong way. He started to turn as if he was headed to the bar, I gently put a hand on his arm to stop him, the most interaction we had the entire walk. He looked down into my face and nodded. He turned the other way and we headed into the hospital. I nodded to Nurse Themba as she was working the desk. I saw a smile spread across her face as she saw that I was with father.
There was an unspoken agreement that we shared. We both knew that there was lots of healing that had to be done. Lots of arguments that were going to come up with the revealing of long-time hidden secrets. Lots of lost time to make up for. And that this will take lots of time. But, we also knew it was worth it.
We walked down the hallway to the room that we both knew so well, room 230. Again, on the walk down we didn’t interact with one another, but before we opened the door he paused. He bent down to match my height. And said, “I’m sorry, Helena.”
“Me too, Father. Me too.” He gathered me into his arms, where we both wept long and hard before either one of us moved. Finally, he was the one to stand up and he opened the door to Maria’s room. We entered together, ready to work through whatever life threw at us.