Tahiti was my mother’s island. The name refers to the main island, as well as the collection of smaller islands that compose French Polynesia. You may be surprised to now learn that my mother is not from there, nor has any ancestral linkage. In fact, she has never set foot on the island at all. It is the home of coconut palms, Kingfishers, and barracudas, and it was the home of my mother in her imagination, in her fantasy world composed of her, her island, and no children. I did not know much about Tahiti growing up, other than that it must be extraordinary. It had to be, because my mother always spoke of leaving us for it. She was going to run away and join an island tribe; she would shed her skin by firelight and the life that was accustomed to it. Her new skin would darken beneath the equatorial sun, look ethereal as she danced and picked sweet, ripe fruits, and she would not have a thought in the world about the children she left behind.
I never liked when she talked about her island. It was not that she wanted to go without me, that she thought she could use a vacation without children. I understood that. I did not like that she was going for the sole purpose, or so it seemed, of escaping us, her children. I do not know where my brother and sister and I are in that scenario, where we play into her fantasy. Where does she leave us? At home sleeping or with my grandparents, perhaps? Is she gone for a month or is she gone for eternity? I have not learned the details because she never went. She never left us. I think that is the theme of my mother’s life; she was there. She was miserable and exhausted and at the point of losing her mind just about always, but she stuck through it. For that, she could be proud. It was never easy to be a mother, much less a single one. She raised three children on her own with little money and little sleep. I adored her, perhaps more for her many flaws.
All her life, my mother dreamed of being a mother. I know that she wanted four children, as I do now. Gender did not matter to her in this regard, and she purposely avoided finding that information out before each of our births. You only get so many truly good surprises in your life, she would explain. You should take the opportunities where they lay. I tried to be a good kid. I was the middle child and the oldest girl of my mother’s three children. She had four births and three surviving children. I thought of my older sister all the time. We used to traipse around the old cemetery to find her small plot, nestled in tight with her great grandparents.
My mother wanted motherhood with all her heart, and it is not lost on me that her very first experience with it was heartbreak. Because I know my mother, and I sure do, it is difficult to imagine those days for her and how they were survived. Perhaps, I wonder, if the subsequent heartaches since then have tamed her exploding heart at all. Is such a thing even possible? I recall her screaming, once, into the shadowy air of a house tucked in for bed, simply needing to release the violent aching buzz inside of her. The reason for this was a natural stage that comes with age, with the normal pace of life moving on as it should. People grow older and things change. I think I accepted this about the world at a young age and am still waiting anxiously for her to grasp at this logic.
It all starts with a starter house, does it not? That was our home and that was the plan and then my father left and suddenly there was no plan. To move forth, in a world as cruel and outrageous as this, what an idiotic idea! I think time must have stopped and entered a chapter called ‘post,’ in which we never truly ventured out of. Post my father leaving, twenty-four years ago now, we are still waiting for my mother’s life to resume as it should. The world is not supposed to be this unfair; how could God let this happen? The fact that the world is still turning, that people are ageing and life is continuing for other people is still outlandish. I think she wonders what she has to show for the years. I know she harbors guilt like a full marina at sundown. She tries to place her trophies on the mantel and remembers that our house never came with a mantel at all. The starter house, again; it was only meant to be our launching pad.
My grandmother died in September, my mother’s mother. If anyone knew my mother better than me, it was her mother. Now it is me. I find myself in both my grandmother and my mother. They are beautiful women to come from. Resilience runs rampant in my blood, the same way that emotions try to swallow me whole. There is a poem by Rupi Kaur in her book Milk and Honey which is both my mother and me on a page. I work hard on learning to control my emotions. I struggle to encourage my mother to do the same.
She walked in on me sitting on the floor with a book open in my lap once. “Things Fall Apart,” I answered her inquiry. She paused, taken aback by my answer. “Oh,” she said. Then, quietly, “Yes, they do.” She left the room then and I cried. It was a tender moment in which I caught her by surprise with that title. How unquestionable, how unyielding. She knew it to be true better than anyone. I could always argue for her, and I did, that things could be worse. I did not like to make that a selling point in life, but rather longed for her to look at the positives surrounding her. Protons filled the air to the ceiling in each room she entered. To think of how they must dissipate on an island, with no walls she belonged to to contain it all. She needed to be in these rooms, in this starter house. She needed to be with us.
Motherhood was an island, too. It was not Tahiti, but there were still waves crashing around my mother from all directions. Lonely, distraught, exasperated waves. She persisted. Everyone gets one’s own version of hard in life and learns to manage and work with it. This shapes us further into who we are. It is all supposed to happen. I believe this, and my hope is that one day my mom will be able to see the life she has been given and that she has done her best with it. She continues to. I have never raised three kids alone. I cannot blame Tahiti for its charms and ideals and its lack of three children waiting for my mother’s care. Despite the guilt she holds, my mother was there for us. No matter how Tahiti beckoned, she held her ground. What an impossible task, raising children alone. But because of her, I know, I could do it, too.