portion of the artwork for Ethel Rohan's story

Ethel Rohan

Three times I flew from San Francisco to Dublin and visited my mother inside the nursing home, kept vigil by her deathbed, hung on her every breath. Three times—skeletal, mindless—she pulled through and I got back on a plane, left her again.

“She won’t go easy,” my father says through the phone, his voice edged with pride.

I can picture him inside the dark, narrow hall of our family home. A house where, even after fifteen years abroad, some part of me still lives.

On my last flight back from Dublin, I watched a CNN exposé on girls’ circumcision: In a Ugandan village, the mothers brought their little girls to the witch doctor, the old woman’s eyes the brown-brown of deepwater fish.

She tied the girls with ropes to a wooden table and cut off each clitoris with a rusted knife. After, the naked girls were confined to a dark hut for days, sometimes weeks, and returned to their parents only when their mutilated vaginas stopped bleeding, or they died.

The grim-faced journalist spoke into the camera, her voice thick, quavering. From behind her, the girls’ wails rose from the hut, calling Mammy, Mammy, Mammy.

I tensed and scanned the other passengers, put my hand to my mouth, to make sure the cries weren’t coming from me.

Each time, Mother was drowning in her own fluids. She would choke and the nurses would force tubes down her throat and suction her out while she gagged, called out for her mother.

I shushed her, held her moist hand. “I’m here, Mammy’s here.”

“Mammy,” she said over and over, squeezing my fingers till they hurt, startling me with her strength.

She slept, her mouth open, like she was calling out. I rested my head by her stick arm.

I dozed, and imagined I was a girl again, that I found a baby bird under a tree, beneath its nest. The bird cried, tears almost as fat as its head. I was afraid to touch the bird, like its hurt was contagious. Yet I couldn’t leave it to die. I picked up the brown clump, and tried to climb the tree with my free hand. The bird called, Maw, Maw.

I couldn’t get a good grip on the rough trunk, its bark falling away. The bird lay on its side inside my palm, its beak open but nothing coming out. Its chest barely rising. I cupped the bird in both hands and threw it up at its nest.


The baby landed by my feet with a thud.

I awoke, breathless. The blue vein in Mother’s left temple had disappeared. The nurse confirmed her pulse was fading. My chair erupted in shards of glass. I told Mother that she had done her best and now it was time for her to go, to rest. I whispered into her ear, repeated that I forgave her.

I phoned my father. He arrived, his hair mussed, still wearing the old clothes he wore to tend his garden, buttons missing from his stained shirt, his pale skin peeking through the gaps. He sat next to Mother, leaned in close, his gray head trembling. His liver-spotted hand covered hers—I pictured that baby bird.

My brother appeared, also summoned by the nurse. He looked at Dad and me, at Mother, and settled onto the chair at the foot of her bed, read a newspaper. Just past forty, he was completely bald now. Every now and then he shook the newspaper and looked up, his dry-eyed expression puzzled.

In my mind, I wandered the nursing home’s corridors and the cold streets outside—searching for a complaints window, a hole in the sky.

I grabbed at memories, at evidence of our mother’s love, of our love for her. I smelled again her Yardley face powder, replayed her hugs and kisses.

Those earliest embraces came only when she was drunk, sitting on my bed, apologizing for beating me, for the things she’d said. The later affection came when she’d turned fat and dependent, encased in her armchair and wanting only to eat, smoke, and drink brandy, any alcohol. As long as we catered to those three needs, she was as pettish as a baby.

A third time, Mother defied the odds and I found myself back in a taxi, back in Dublin’s departure terminal, security threat orange. Fifteen years earlier, when I first emigrated to America, Mother had stood in much the same spot and cried hard, trembled like a spider web in a breeze. Guilt still tugged at the bottom of my stomach; I still felt like I’d abandoned her. I heard again those girls’ cries from that hut in Uganda, in everywhere. Cries that stabbed me, that should have cracked the earth.

Return to Archive

FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 29 | Summer 2010