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art by Liz Clarke

Memories of My Mother

Ken Liu has worked as a programmer and lawyer, and he still thinks about drafting contracts and writing code the same way. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, among other places. (Go to Daily Science Fiction to find his other appearances in this venue.) He lives with his family in Massachusetts.
Ten:
Dad greeted me at the door, nervous. "Amy, look who's here?"
He stepped aside.
She looked exactly the way she did in the pictures hung everywhere in our house: black hair, brown eyes, smooth, pale skin. Yet she also felt like a stranger.
I put down my book bag, unsure what to do. She walked over, leaned down, and hugged me, first loosely, then very tight. She smelled like a hospital.
Dad had told me that the doctors had no cure for her sickness. She had only two years left to live.
"You're so big." Her breath felt warm and tickly on my neck, and suddenly, I hugged my mother back.
Mom brought me presents: a dress that was too small, a set of books that were too old, a model of the rocket ship she rode in.
"I was on a very long trip," she said. "The ship went so fast that time slowed down inside. It felt like only three months."
Dad had already explained it all to me: this was how she would cheat time, stretch out her two years so that she could watch me grow up. But I didn't stop her. I liked listening to her voice.
"I didn't know what you would like." She was embarrassed by the gifts that surrounded me, gifts that were meant for another child, the daughter of her mind.
What I really wanted was a guitar. But Dad thought I was too young.
If I had been older, I might have told her that it was all right, that I loved her gifts. But I was not yet so good at lying.
I asked her how long she would stay with us.
Instead of answering, she said, "Let's stay up all night, and we'll do everything Dad says you can't do."
We went out and she bought me a guitar. I finally fell asleep at seven in the morning in her lap. It was a fantastic night.
When I woke up she was gone.
Seventeen:
"Why the fuck are you here?" I slammed the door in my mother's face.
"Amy!" Dad opened the door again. Seeing him next to my mother, still twenty-five, still exactly the same woman from the pictures, I suddenly realized how old he had grown.
He was the one who held me when I was scared out of my wits by the blood I found in my panties. He was the one who, red-faced, mumbled to the store clerk to beg her to fit me for a bra. He was the one who stood there and held me while I screamed at him.
She has no right to dip back into my life once every seven years, like some fairy godmother.
Later, she knocked on my bedroom door. I stayed in bed and said nothing. She came in anyway. She had crossed light years to get here, and a plywood door wasn't going to stop her. I liked that she pushed her way in to see me and I also hated it. It was confusing.
"That's an elegant dress," she said. My prom dress was hanging from the back of the door. It was elegant and cost me half my savings, but I had torn it near the waist.
After a while, I turned around and sat up. She was in my chair, sewing. She had cut a guitar-shaped piece from her own silver dress and patched it over the tear in mine. It was perfect.
"My mother died when I was a little girl," she said. "I never got to know her. So I decided that I would do something different when I... found out."
It was strange to hug her. She could have been my older sister.
Thirty-eight:
Mom and I sat together in the park. Baby Debbie was asleep in the stroller, and Adam was with the other boys by the jungle gym, screaming with joy.
"I never got to meet Scott," she said, apologetic. "You weren't dating last time I visited, during grad school."
He was a good man, I almost said. We just grew apart. It would have been easy. I had been lying for so long to everyone, including myself.
But I was tired of lying. "He was an ass. It just took me years to admit it."
"Love makes us do strange things," she said.
Mom was only twenty-six. When I was her age, I had been full of hope too. Could she really understand my life?
She asked me how Dad had died. I told her that he went peacefully, even though it wasn't true. There were more lines on my face than on hers, and I felt that I needed to protect her.
"Let's not speak any more of sad things," she said. And I was angry with her for being able to smile and I was also glad that she was there with me. It was confusing.
So we spoke about the baby, and watched Adam play until it was dark.
Eighty:
"Adam?" I ask. It's hard for me to turn the wheelchair, and everything seems so dim in my eyes. It can't be Adam. He's been really busy with his new baby. Maybe it's Debbie. But Debbie never visits.
"It's me," she says, and squats down before me. I squint: she looks the same as always.
But not exactly the same. The smell of medicine is stronger than ever, and I can feel her hands are shaking.
"How long have you been traveling," I ask, "since you started?"
"Two years and counting," she says. "I'm not leaving again."
I'm sad to hear this, and yet I'm also happy. It's confusing.
"Was it worth it?"
"I got to see less of you than most mothers do, but also more."
She pulls up a chair next to me, and I lean my head on her shoulder. I fall asleep, feeling very young and knowing that she'll be there when I wake up.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 19th, 2012


It occurred to me after the birth of my daughter that parents and children live in very different time frames. You don't even need relativity to see that.

- Ken Liu

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