It was Mother’s birthday. Bernard, the kind one, was the only one of her four children who went back to see her, bringing with him a much-welcomed strawberry cake and sweet memories.
The room where he found Mother was the back living room of their old house. At noon, it was the sunniest room. Its tall windows looked out to a backyard garden, carefully kept with not a weed in sight. The garden was Mother’s favourite. Diane often found here out there, lying on the grass, so still that Diane’s heart would stop, thinking she had fainted,…or worse.
Mother was getting old, after all. Her children had all by now grown up and found other places to live. Annette, her tall, pretty, sensible, eldest, had married early, followed by her headstrong third child, Christopher. Diane, Mother’s youngest, and sworn bachelorette and loved by everyone, came to care for her almost every day – except today. She would be late coming from a teacher’s meeting, followed by dinner with a ‘friend’. Mother had mentioned once that one of Diane’s fellow teachers – a handsome, intelligent young man – had his eye on her and was the one who asked her for dinner. Mother always spoke of him with a hopeful twinkle in her eye, and teased Diane about him whenever possible. Bernard, though, Bernard….she sighed heavily whenever she spoke of him. But today, Bernard was the only one who had time to visit her. Her devoted Bernard,…she asked him now about his brothers and sisters, their lives, the news, the weather, the world outside.
“Christopher,” she asked Bernard, “he isn’t thinking of having children in his family yet?” Bernard squirmed in his seat like a boy waiting to run outside. He hated to be asked.
“No, no. Last I heard. They’re both working, you know.”
“And Annette?” Mother demanded. Her hopeful gaze pierced his eyes. He looked away as fast as he could.
“Um, no….didn’t she tell you?” He glanced over – just a fast one – to Mother, shaking her head, then looked down at his feet. He didn’t know how to say it.
“She,…Annette can’t have kids – didn’t she tell you?” He didn’t look up again, but he heard Mother lean back on her chair.
“No one cannot have kids,” she said, bitterly.
“Well, ah,” Bernard felt smart all of a sudden. “The doctor said–”
“–Erm. Huh.” He forgot what he was trying to say. Mother didn’t notice. She stared into her kitchen, remembering how her children used to chase each other through it while she was preparing dinner. It was dangerous, and they were so innocent to harm.
“Do you remember,” she spoke slowly, “you and Anie in the kitchen?”
Bernard squirmed some more, but said nothing. He had heard all of Mother’s stories by now.
“She was five and you were three. There you stood in the middle of the kitchen, holding a cup of orange juice. Anie wanted a taste, so she grabbed your arm – you didn’t hear her when she was talking to you – and, of course you dropped the cup, spilled juice everywhere onto the floor. Annette screamed, and I cam rushing from the stove, and you just stood there, absolutely dumbfounded! And all the time we were trying to clean up, we couldn’t get you to budge and inch. You just stood there, still as a statue, covered in juice, and eyes were so wide! I just had to laugh!” Mother chuckled, lost in her memories. “Yes, you and Anie were such adorable children. Those days pass too quickly.” She sighed in those last words.
There was silence as Bernard squirmed and Mother murmured longing little words into the garden. Her eyes were bright and glassy as she moved her lips almost imperceptibly, moving her head slightly in an unnoticeable breeze.
“Mum,” Bernard asked, hesitating.
“Hmm?” Mother said, distantly.
“Well, I always wanted to ask….why did you name us….in the order of the alphabet?”
Mother turned slowly and smiled at her son, all the pride of forty years hard work looking back at her nervously. She was proud of him, all of them, and she was happy.
“I’ve told your father many times. I always imagined having twenty-six children.”
Bernard looked uneasily at the floor, as if treading private property. Mother laughed.
“But what on earth would I have named those last few children, I often wondered to myself.”
The next day, Mother found Peace in her garden and never again woke up. Diane the Gentle One found her, her own nightmares come true. Kneeling deeply beside her mother’s sleeping face, Diane saw both Peace himself and the shadow he left behind, still sighing wistfully for the old days gone by. Diane’s heart squeezed tight against her throat and she let out a scream so silent only the garden crickets heard it, and they immediately stopped their work to look at her. Then, helplessly, she found that she could only cry, only as quietly as the early morning air, as softly as the gentle morning rain.