I miss the way Mom made us oatmeal for breakfast,” I text my brother suddenly. “She used to blow on it to make it cool enough to eat when we were in a hurry.”
He replies, “I miss that, too.” In a series of truncated texts we talk about my brother’s new job, my schedule, and when I would next come home to the province. It’s easy to talk about my mom with my brother; references in conversations, on days when I can’t bear not to talk about her, are okay to say, because only with him do they have context. He remembers those cold, hurried mornings, all our mother’s mornings, with the same bracing recentness that I do.
“You were always good at the social thing,” I say encouragingly when he talks about how he gets along with the people at his new office. I don’t know the last time I paid my brother a compliment. This might be the first. To my own surprise it doesn’t come awkwardly, as though we hadn’t spent the last 28 years either fighting or cohabiting in cold, critical silence. We cannot afford to be that way now, to cut away at the last threads of association and memory that tie us to our mother, whose death is so recent that we are still living in a state of transition; I have thrown out the last of the onion and garlic that she ever bought, and my brother has rearranged the furniture in her bedroom, but I have not been able to throw out from the fridge the last bowl of instant noodles that she made on her last night alive, and my brother has kept her clothes. Her toothbrush is still in my apartment. Every morning I think about how some of her DNA must still sit there in dessicated cells, lingering from the last time she brushed. Her name is everywhere—my electric bill, the dry cleaning place we’ve patronized for two decades, our cable subscription. We keep her phone charged.
Still, despite living with her ghost, we have gradually, to my horror and relief, moved on. I make it through the first and most difficult year of surgical residency; my brother’s career advances. My brother gets engaged; with equal parts caution and delight I also acquire a significant other. We learn what bills need to be paid, how to run a household. We learn that grief has an expiration date, beyond which we must appear to be our old selves again. It’s true that nothing is the same. It’s harder now to care about things of overmastering importance—nuclear war, earthquakes, bigoted presidents—when the worst day of your life has come and gone; it takes superhuman effort to write about things other than my mother, and it’s easy to care only about things that are immediate and personal. But we get by. We try to get together as a family periodically, and keep in daily contact through social media. And before we know it it’s Christmas, then New Year, then Lent, then suddenly Holy Week, our mother’s shadow hovering over each empty holiday. We say nothing of how difficult it is to believe in Easter and the Resurrection when death has taken so much from us.
And yet in this barren landscape has sprouted something both unexpected and completely natural. Where before my brother and I had occupied different compartments of our mother’s life—we bonded with her over different things and enjoyed her company at different times, which seldom overlapped—now her passing thrust us more forcefully into the roles of brother and sister, neither of which we had previously filled with anything but disdain or at best a grudging tolerance.
The carefulness with which we used to treat each other in the wake of our loss has eroded until we are finally, more fully ourselves, only this time we belong to each other, too. Nothing is more millennial than to rebuild a relationship in this way despite physical distance—through Viber messages, Facebooks tags for funny memes and cat videos, random texts about things that we miss about our mother that nobody will ever understand. Holy Week may have come and gone without her, and Easter might be a harsh reminder that some things may be impossible to resurrect, but we find it’s possible, after all, to bring some things to life.