Illustration by Rosie Pea
Congratulations to Vania Selvaggi, whose submission was one of the two honourary mention winners of Good News Toronto’s True Story Contest — a creative non-fiction personal essay about “An Encounter that Changed Your Life.”
My mother has been dead for two months. I’m in the bathroom and my fingers squeeze the toothbrush handle as I scour the surface of my teeth. In the mirror, I try to imagine how my mother saw me at age three: foam around my lips, my eyes seeking her approval, the basin spotted with spit and blood. Ma had said, “Don’t press so hard. You’ll ruin your gums.” Now, at twenty-eight, I’m desperate to hear her voice again. I dare my dead mother to speak so I scrape the bristles over the pink skin in my mouth. But no voice comes, just more blood.
Normally I’d go back into the bedroom to dress for work, but today it’s the hospital. My uncle’s having an operation and my aunt is waiting for me.
She and I are not close. I view our past through memories tethered to rules. When I was nine and got stung by a wasp, my aunt said, “Don’t cry. Worse things can happen.” When I was twelve, she said, “Don’t act silly and when you speak, have something thoughtful to say.” There were many more rules, but as the distance between my aunt and I grew, they faded only to come back, boldly, when my mother was sick.
“Erica,” my aunt said to my mother, her sister. “Don’t take this cancer lying down. Get up and fight.”
Her words enraged me: my mother, swollen and yellow on the bed, dying at fifty-six, and my aunt saying what? Don’t.
I think about this as we hold hands in the waiting room. I try to make sense of this woman, because she is the closest thing I have left of my mother. When the doctor tells us the operation went well, and my uncle is in recovery, we link arms and walk the corridor.
A woman, about my age, approaches. She looks at my aunt, who pulls away from me. To this stranger, my aunt says, “Tell me?”
The girl sobs and my aunt holds her, listening to the story. The girl says her father had a cancerous lump removed. I want to run, but my aunt stands firm.
“Listen,” says my aunt. “Don’t lose faith. Don’t show your fear. Your father needs you to be tough, strong. Have courage.”
The girl stops crying and kisses my aunt’s cheek. Then she’s gone.
And only now do I see my aunt clearly. I envision the place where she writes don’t, over and over again. It’s not a cold place of control, but warm, filled with the intent to better, not just herself, but those around her. And for the first time, I appreciate the word don’t.