Overgrown: A short story

Flowers growing out of ribcage
Sean Tseng/Staff

Overgrown was what my mother used to call me. To her, it meant precociousness — having a certain oldness in a young body. It was too big of a concept to attach to me like a balloon to my small, outstretched hands. It came with too many big thoughts that I was nowhere near grown enough to understand. But I remember reveling in that notion, gripping it by the balloon string and watching it lift my feet a few inches off the ground. She would say these words with so much pride that my childish mind always understood it to be a good thing.

Her face brightened every time she spoke of this precociousness. She’d smile and hold my hands in hers, almost singing my name with her soft voice. She’d wonder aloud how many lifetimes I’ve lived, to love everyone so deeply and unconditionally, to worry about things too far ahead of my years for a mind of my stature to reach.

It was nature as much as nurture. My father liked to joke that I came from the womb with troubled eyes, worried by my mother’s cries that I might have hurt her. And by my mother’s gentle hand and my father’s teasing smile, I fell into the world heart-first.

I remember the morning our family dog passed away. He was old and had been with my parents longer than I had. My impressions of him, even back then, were only flashes of his stringy yellow fur and the cold shock of his wet nose on my lap. He died that day the same way he slept, curled up by the hearth, enjoying a fire that had long puttered out. At seven, I would not have known he was gone if not for the sound of my mother’s grief.

“It was nature as much as nurture.”

I had never seen her so devastated. It’s obvious to me now, of course, that with her fervent love of life, death carved an especially deep wound in the softest parts of her flesh. My father did his best to comfort her before leaving for work, but her eyes were still tinged red when we went out to the couch on the porch. Barely understanding her pain and how to assuage it, I instinctively snuggled into her side.

I don’t remember what I said to her. All I remember was the pressure of worry in my chest as I watched her stare into the neighborhood with something heavy in her gaze. I must have said something because whatever it was made her turn the heavy look onto me, and I recall wanting to recoil at the sight of such raw anguish. Instead, I burrowed my face into the curtain of dark hair at her neck and squeezed my eyes shut, my child-sized hands trying to somehow hold her adult-sized heartbreak.

Without a witness, she let herself fall apart for 15 seconds. When her shoulders stopped shaking, I pulled away, and she looked at me with such pained hope.

“Mia, my love, your heart is so big,” she whispered that morning, almost like it was a secret between the two of us. “Your eyes are so wide awake.”

“I wonder about all the things she might have told me — all the things I’ll never know.”

I remember being confused. “Of course I’m awake, mama,” I told her. “It’s bright outside.” She laughed her candid laugh, like sunlight breaking through the rain, and her eyes shined with something other than tears.

“Sometimes I forget how young you are,” she told me afterwards as we were dancing in the kitchen to the songs our grandfather clock would play at noon. I held tightly onto her hands, my feet going where hers went as we swung around in lazy circles. “I’m seven, mama,” I told her solemnly. And I loudly counted the next seven steps we made to make sure she understood.

She never made sure I understood her words. She left that for me to decipher on my own. I wonder if it was because she didn’t have time. I wonder about all the things she might have told me — all the things I’ll never know.

My mother died on a Sunday in her favorite type of weather at her favorite time of day. I slept past 9 a.m. every morning after that day. I never went outside when it rained after that day. All at once, my unguarded heart closed in on itself, and everything she loved about me, she took with her to the grave.

People always ask how she died. Does it matter? Would it have mattered if it were a car accident or a cancer or some other form of the same end? Would it have mattered to the raw, bleeding, gaping emptiness it left in every breath of mine after her last?

Perhaps. Perhaps it matters to other people to have a how. But it didn’t matter to me because it would never answer why.

My mother used to call me overgrown, as if I were a garden full of brilliant flowers my small body could not yet contain. As if it were something beautiful to be bursting at the seams, so ill-fitted of a vessel I was for the things I held in my heart and in my head. She probably wholeheartedly believed it to be beautiful.

After her death, it became a nuisance to be overgrown. It was painful to feel the blossoms pushing against my chest every time I breathed. It was suffocating to have the creeping vines squeeze my windpipe, thorns digging into my flesh. It was overwhelming to have everything sprouting from my skin, all at once, this uncontainable grief.

There is nothing beautiful about this hurt.

These days, I dream of my mother often. When I wake up, it’s always just barely dawn, and I lay restless on my bed afterwards, unable to fall back asleep and avoid the dreaded 9 a.m.

The dreams have no content in particular. They aren’t memories of her, or of us. They’re just images of her face in moments of time I can’t pin down. Sometimes, she’ll be crying in them, and I’ll touch her tear-stained face only to wake up with my fingers tracing trails on my own wet cheeks.

There is a moment of clarity right after the point of waking on these days. It feels like stepping out of the haze of a hot shower, cold air plunging every sense into alertness. At first, it lasted only as long as the details of the dream did before blurring and dissipating under the weight of consciousness. These days, it’s been lasting longer.

The first time I step outside on a rainy Sunday morning, it’s the dawn after her tenth death-day. I turn back immediately. The air is too cold. The dampness is too sharp. I feel the flowers pushing, and their pressure on my chest feels like I’m drowning on air. My hands tremble for hours after it.

The second time is an accident, weeks later. I’m caught at the market in a downpour while walking Lilo, my neighbor’s dog. We duck under the awning of a nearby bookstore, and I sling her leash around the armrest of the bench. For a while, the two of us sit watching the raindrops leap up off the gravel from the force of their fall. I decide to wait out the rain, watching the streets empty quickly of the Sunday morning crowd.

The rain goes on for so long, I almost fall asleep. But I’m jolted awake by a wet nose nudging my knee, and I look down at Lilo. She’s a hyperactive young Labrador, absolutely nothing like my old dog, but as she sits staring up at me, I see flashes of golden fur in her dark coat. I hear nails scratching the hardwood and cries of concern following them as my mother tries fruitlessly to teach the dog to “treat the floor nicely.” I see my mother with puffy eyes and a stuffed nose, and I feel her arms around me. I think I hear the sound of her crying at first, too, until I realize it’s me.

The dog doesn’t understand, of course. She smiles up at me with large eyes and tugs at her leash. She wants to go in the rain, to skid through puddles and roll in the wet grass. She tugs so hard, the bench jerks with the movement, and I wipe my eyes hastily with the cuff of my sweater.

“Okay, okay,” I murmur, slipping the leash around my wrist and letting her pull me into the downpour.

It’s not as cold as I had imagined. Maybe I’m numb already from the early morning, but the rain doesn’t steal the warmth from my skin the way I thought it would. I feel the flowers press against my chest again, the panic filling my throat, but the dog is leading me further and further away from any hiding spots. I can hardly focus on anything beyond keeping my feet from catching on the cracked concrete or slipping on the slick road. By the time we stop running, I can’t tell the difference between my tears and the rain.

“Maybe it’s the flowers again, pushing themselves against my lungs, up my throat.”

My mother never said why the rain was her favorite type of weather. As a child, I guessed it was because it meant staying inside and drinking hot cocoa, or because it made all the colors of the city spill over in long, pretty streaks of light. But she didn’t tell me the real reason, and I didn’t get to ask.

She was never one to explain herself. I remember always yearning to understand her, to ask her questions that, for all my precociousness, I had no words for. She was my favorite enigma to ponder, and one that I thought I had more time to figure out. The permanence of losing her still leaves me breathless, choking on the grief.

But standing here, now, in the rain with Lilo stomping around in her own reflection, it’s a different kind of breathlessness. Maybe it’s because I’ve just run to a whole other neighborhood I can’t recognize through my rain-slicked bangs. Maybe it’s the flowers again, pushing themselves against my lungs, up my throat. Or maybe it’s because I’m beginning to understand what my mother must have loved about the rain.

Lilo has brought me to the entrance of a park with thriving marigolds and hydrangeas. The rain soaks deep into the black soil, and something about the dampness of the air makes everything seem more alive. The hedges are in dire need of trimming, and vines climb aggressively over any and all surfaces. Weeds poke through the cracks, the rain helping them along as they grow. On any other day, the scene is wild, waiting to be ordered. But in the wash of grey light, the color of life is stunning.

I didn’t know as a child what the beauty was behind an overgrown garden. It all looked like chaos to me, and I relished the thought simply because of my mother’s adoration. Now, as I let Lilo pull me into the untamed undergrowth, I understand for the first time. In the wake of my mother’s death, I see life.

Contact Sean Tseng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @STWeekender24.

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