It’s been seven years now, but I still remember exactly when it began. The end, I mean. Not that I recognized it at the time. It’s not like twelve-year-olds can identify a famous painting from the first brushstroke.
It started on a Sunday, my favourite day of the week. There was no homework on Sundays—at least, not for me. First, we’d all go to church and out to lunch. Then my mom—a history professor at the University—would curl up with her research or a backpack full of student papers, while Dad would take me anywhere I wanted to go.
Dad taught in the Drama department, but he never scheduled rehearsals on Sundays. We’d visit the zoo, the amusement park, or best of all, the art gallery. Other times we’d go to the public gardens. I’d set up my easel and Dad would spent hours just watching me work. It didn’t matter what we were doing, as long as we did it together.
Mom and I had a special Sunday ritual, too. On schooldays, we wore ponytails and barrettes, but Sunday was the day for French braids.
The morning it happened, I put on my dress and ran to my parents’ bedroom. Mom sat before the mirror, running Great-Grandma’s silver-backed brush through her walnut hair. I perched on the bed, watching her slender fingers as they parted and plaited. The locks, smelling of warm cinnamon, slid through them like water, falling right into place.
Once when I was ten, I’d tried to braid my own hair. I’d struggled for what felt like hours, arms on fire from holding them up. The sections had tangled and skipped, the plait wandering all over the back of my head. Mom achieved smooth perfection with no apparent effort; from my braid, wisps and tufts struggled to break free. I’d finally given up, shaking my head to untangle the mess, and asked Mom to take over.
Now she twisted an elastic over her ends, and I took her spot on the stool. Mom’s fingers, soft and gentle, smoothed my hair back from my forehead. She started to brush, taking her time, humming as she worked. She brushed until my hair—the same colour as hers—shone like hers too. I closed my eyes as she began to braid, feeling the plait take shape. She hugged me when she was finished, our faces side-by-side in the mirror.
Dad swaggered in, arms spread so we could admire him in his Sunday best. “Are my beautiful ladies ready to go?” He tugged the end of my braid and we followed him outside.
He was holding the door of the Mercedes for me when our neighbour came out of the house she shared with three other graduate students. Dad waved and winked. “Don’t be late for class tomorrow, Mona—it’s Juliet’s big day!” She tipped her sports drink at him.
I slid into the back seat as he watched her jog away, her blonde bob flapping. After waiting what seemed like forever, I called, “Daddy?”
He wheeled back to face me and smacked his forehead with his palm, making his goofy-dad face. “Sorry, Peaches. Thought-train derailed again!” Closing the door, he circled to the driver’s side, leaving Mom standing on the pavement. She hesitated before opening the passenger door herself.
I stared at the sky as we drove away. It was summer blue, but a cloud had blown over the sun.
There are supposed to be signs, right? The end of my world should have been foreshadowed, like with fires and floods, or two-headed chickens. At the very least, by the muffled sounds of fighting behind closed doors.
But life seemed to go on pretty much like normal. Maybe Dad worked a little later, or started going out when Mom settled down with another musty old book. Maybe Sunday lunches were a little more subdued. Maybe Mom’s eyes, the soft grey of the sea, started to look a little more like fog. Hardly reasons to panic.
Then Dad announced he was moving out, and panic seemed like a perfectly acceptable response.
“Sorry, Peaches,” he said, heaving a suitcase into the trunk. “The apartment Mona picked out is pretty small. We’ve only got one bedroom.”
“It’s OK.” I passed him his gym bag, trying to look cheerful because he did. “I want to start high school with my friends, anyway.”
“You’re a trooper, kiddo. Maybe when we get a bigger place…. See you Sunday!”
I called for backup the moment the Mercedes was out of sight. Bex’s parents had died in a car accident when she was eight—if anyone would understand how frantic I felt, she would. “Don’t worry,” she said, settling cross-legged onto my bed. “It’s just a phase. One of those mid-life whatevers. Aunt Mom says all the men she dates are going through it. It could be worse.” She cocked her head. “At least he didn’t spend your college fund on a Ferrari.”
I choked a laugh and she patted my knee. “Don’t worry, Kat. He’ll be back.”
I should have known from the way she twiddled her eyebrow ring that she didn’t really believe it. But I did. I didn’t doubt for a second that Dad would come home. Until a few days before my fifteenth birthday, when the divorce papers showed up.
He’d granted my mom sole custody.
I hunched in front of my mirror the Sunday morning after, elbows on the desk, fat raindrops flinging themselves against the bedroom window. It was still early, and the house was silent. It was always silent now. When Dad left, he took all the noise and motion and happiness with him.
I glared at my hideous reflection. Birthday or no, I still looked twelve. Why couldn’t I be lucky like Bex? One day she was a cute, spunky kid; next, she was a woman, all curve and grace and fire. Compared to her, I was stretched and skinny, pimply and awkward. My eyes were too big in my long thin face, and my hair… was exactly like my mother’s.
And just like that, I snapped. It sounds lame, I know, but that’s how it felt, like something inside me had broken. I yanked my drawer open, riffling through pastels and brushes and inks until I found my scissors. The blades gleamed in the lamplight.
It was easy—the easiest thing in the world. The strands parted like silk over a scalpel, locks scattering around me. How could hair, so strong when braided, fray so easily? The blades clicked as I hacked and slashed, cutting and cutting, even when I couldn’t see what I was doing anymore, because of the tears.
Hinges creaked, and I heard my mother gasp. “Katrin? What are you doing?”
I lowered the scissors almost calmly. “It’s your fault.”
“It’s your fault!” I whirled to face her, the words bursting from my throat. “It’s your fault he left us! You didn’t try hard enough, you weren’t there for him! You spend so much time reading books about dead people, you forgot about the living ones! It’s your fault! It has to be.”
Mom started shaking her head, over and over, her braid swinging like the pendulum of the grandfather clock in the front hall. Her eyes shimmered and I felt a twinge of guilt, but it was too late to back down.
“I’m sorry this happened, Katrin,” she said at last, her voice tight and strange. “I understand why you blame me. I hope someday you’ll understand the rest.” She turned to go, but paused with her hand on the doorframe. “You’re right about one thing, Kat. It’s not your fault.”
I slammed the door so hard Dad’s framed playbills clattered against my wall. I wasn’t going to church that day. I never wanted to go again.
It was clear my parents had given up, or maybe just lost their minds. But I knew it wasn’t too late. All I had to do was remind Dad of what he was missing.
I worked on the sketch for weeks, alone in my room where Mom wouldn’t see. I must have started over a dozen times. My fingers cramped and charcoal dust imbedded itself in the grooves of my skin, but it was worth it. When it was finished, it was the best piece I’d ever done.
On Sunday—Visitation Day—Dad took me to a movie. Something with biceps and explosions that neither one of us really enjoyed. When we finally got back to the car, I handed him the drawing.
I’d captured Mom’s dazzling smile, the love in his eyes as he’d looked at her. My younger self, in a polka dot bikini, swinging from their hands. “It’s from that photo,” I said. “San Diego. Remember?”
“Of course, Peaches.” Dad leaned over and kissed my forehead. “When did you get so good, huh?” He stuck the key in the ignition. “Want to come over for dinner? Mona orders a mean pizza.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to hit him, or just burst into tears. “Thanks, Dad, but I should go… study.”
“It’s not over, Kat.” Bex sipped her venti half-fat-no-foam cappuccino. “So OK, he’s lusty for Miss Peroxide, but he loves you. You still hang every Sunday, don’t you?”
I stared at the moisture rings on the table, the milk from my chai latte curdling in my stomach. “Sort of.”
“We’ve only missed a few,” I said defensively. “He’s been really busy.”
The flash of pity that crossed her face nearly killed me. Then she smiled—her “take no prisoners” grin. “Maybe you need to show him how hard things suck when he’s not around.”
“I tried to tell him—”
Bex flicked the freshly-trimmed ends of my bob. “I said show him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well… How do you feel about a little teenage rebellion?”
“Um. Isn’t acting out for attention totally cliché?”
“Totes. That’s because it works.” And she clinked her mug against mine.
We got our tongues pierced the very next day. When I showed Dad the stud, he burst out laughing.
I leaned back in the passenger seat. “You’re not mad?”
“Tell you what, Peaches.” He flicked on the turn signal and changed lanes. “Promise to wait until you’re eighteen before you get the matching tattoo, and we’ll call it done.”
“Not even a paternal good-judgment lecture?”
“Not on a Sunday, kid.” He chucked my chin. “You and I have better things to do on Sundays.” Dad pulled over in front of a drycleaner’s.
“Aren’t we going to the gallery?”
“Mona asked me to run a few errands on the way.”
I glared at him, tongue throbbing. “You just said you and I had better things to do.”
“So come in with me.”
I didn’t move. When he’d gone, I pulled out the antiseptic spray the piercer had given me, promptly dropping the cap. I fished for it under the seat and found something else. My drawing, crinkled and yellowed.
He’d never even taken it out of the car.
I cut my first class that week. Two months later, I spray-painted the side of the gym.
That one landed me in the principal’s office. Mom told Dad about the meeting, but he didn’t show. When I picked up the extension that night, I overheard him tell her, “Look, I’m sorry. But if you didn’t want sole responsibility, you shouldn’t have asked for sole custody.”
I replaced the receiver, snuck out to a house party, and got totally, horribly, drunk.
“Did your mom ground you for life?” Bex asked the next day.
“Yeah.” I was holding the phone away from my ear, trying not to aggravate the hangover. “After she cleaned me up and put me to bed.”
She made a wistful little noise. “Aunt Mom made me clean up my own mess.”
I remember the beginning of the end, and I remember the day we started over.
I sat at the kitchen table, staring out the window at a threatening sky. It was a Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after I turned seventeen.
I recall every single emotion I felt in that moment. Uncertainty, terror, grief. But there was hope, too, excitement, and relief. I’m not proud of it, but part of me was thinking it had finally happened—something so terrible, a need so powerful, it would bring Dad home again.
I clenched my fingers to stop the shaking, then punched in his number.
“How you doing, Peaches? We still on for tomorrow?”
“This isn’t a great time, kiddo. Mona and I were on our way out.”
“I really need to talk to you, Dad.”
“What’s wrong?” He didn’t say “this time,” but I heard it in his voice.
“It’s about Mom.” I took hold of the tablecloth and began folding it into pleats. “She’s… she’s sick.”
There was silence, so I continued. “Um. She’s been having these weird symptoms, and she went to the doctor… They said it’s ALS. You know, Lou Gherig’s Disease?”
He still didn’t speak. I tried again, the words coming in a rush. “Um. The doctors said she’d start to lose mobility pretty quickly. She won’t be able to walk or talk or do things for herself, and I have school, and art school after that, and it just gets worse and worse until…” I took a breath and forced myself to say it. “She only has a few more years to live.”
I waited until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Why wasn’t he saying anything? “Daddy?”
“Uh.” He cleared his throat. “Wow. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry, Peaches. Your mom deserves better.”
It was like a trap door had opened beneath me. “That’s it?”
“That’s it?” he echoed, using his playful-dad voice. “I’m already paying alimony, child support for you. And the University insurance program is comprehensive.”
“I didn’t call you to ask for money, Dad.”
“Then what, Peaches?”
“Dad,” I whispered, the tablecloth clutched in my fist. “I thought… I mean. I thought you’d take care of us. I thought you’d come home.”
He laughed, and it sounded like water, rushing in to fill the pit.
“Sweetheart,” he said reproachfully, as if he couldn’t believe his daughter was so naive. “You know better than that. Your mom and me… well. Mona’s my leading lady now. Besides, you’re my big strong girl and your mom has the money. What could you possible need me for?”
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I was drowning, and all he wanted to do was watch.
“I’m sorry, Peaches,” he said, a little uncomfortably. “I have to go. Listen. Instead of the theatre tomorrow, why don’t you come over so we can talk some more—”
The phone slipped from my hand, clattering to the table. I heard my father swear before I blindly stabbed the end key. He wasn’t coming back. Not even when I needed him most.
Especially when I needed him most.
I cried then, deep wracking sobs that tore my chest open. I cried until I gagged, until my eyeballs turned themselves inside out. Tears for a knowledge I’d denied since the moment he left, and tears for the heartbreak I knew was still to come.
Just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop, I felt her touch my hair.
My short, cropped hair—the hair I’d cut for him. The hair I’d bleached, in hopes of becoming what I thought he wanted me to be. Of winning him back again.
But Mom had been right. It was never about me.
Her soft, gentle fingers smoothed my bangs from my face. “I’m so sorry, Katrin,” she murmured, and her hands were trembling. “You know I’d never leave you if I had the choice.”
Then she pulled up a chair and hugged me, and her arms were a fragile circle of warmth, a life preserver that would keep my head above water, keep me from flying apart.
Just like she’d always done, through my mood swings and plummeting grades and detention, when my tongue ring got infected and when I came home drunk. She held me, humming softly, until my tears were dry and I believed in her again. Believed in us.
We were alone. But together, we were enough.
Six months later, I told her I wasn’t going to art school.
“Katrin, you have to,” Mom protested. “I won’t let you sacrifice your dreams to take care of me.”
“Reagan offered me a part-time job at the gallery, and I’ve already signed up for correspondence courses.” I handed her my registration list, folded in the card Bex had made. “The credits are transferable.”
“Please Mom.” I swallowed hard. “Even with everything I’ve put you through, you’ve always been there for me. Let me be there for you.”
That was the only time I ever saw my mother cry.
The sky is blue outside my window, and a lark sings in the spruce tree. It’s Sunday morning. I’m nineteen years old.
So much has changed in such a short time. More than medications and wheelchair ramps. More than learning to laugh when there should be tears. Not just who I am, but who I know my parents to be.
Dad called today, for the first time in months. He invited me to the dress rehearsal of his latest play. Whenever I refuse, he sounds angry, and confused. He still doesn’t understand how he lost me. I do not try to explain.
I have no doubt that my father loves me. When it’s easy. When it’s convenient. And a part of me still loves him, for his humor and flare, for the memory of the man I thought he was. But I’ve been backstage at the play, and now I can see through the illusion. Now I know what’s real.
I stand before my mirror, brushing my walnut hair until it gleams. Parting an area above my forehead, I divide it into three strands. I lift and add new sections, switching and alternating, plaiting straight down the back of my head. No bumps, no lumps. Not a single wisp out of place. Just one sleek, perfect French braid. A symbol of how far I’ve come.
When I cross the hall, Mom smiles at me, hands limp in her lap. I stand behind her chair and we look into the mirror. We share the same eyes, the same hair. I hope someday, we’ll share the same strength.
She doesn’t speak, but we don’t need words. For a moment, she presses her cheek to my hand, where it rests upon her shoulder.
I begin to braid my mother’s hair.