by Lisa Lim (written in 2007, year after we lost our Justin to the Iraq War)
My mother has become strange in her knotted gray age. I think it’s because she lost her Poppito to war.
Do you know what it is to lose a child that you should have never lost, she asks me, not wanting an answer.
No, I say. I just try to comb the hair that wants to knot itself even after combing so hard her scalp bleeds and crusts like dead roach wings to be swept away by brooms with bristles like her hair. Rough and knotted in pain.
Last year she lost her Poppito. They say he was in a Humvee and was a bodyguard to high-ranking colonels and Iraqi officials in the desert where he learned to crave masala chai. Where a homemade roadside bomb blew him up. Her Poppito, my baby brother, into bits. Remains of the dead were in Dover now.
That is what the letter says, says the man in a tired green army uniform, the man who tells us our baby is dead swallowing his large Adam’s apple once, then twice, gently refusing offerings of coffee or tea.
That night I remember screams coming out of me and Ma like dying cats. I smelled the white roses of Poppito’s shrine. Too many white roses choking our cat screams and I thought of Ma’s stories of butterflies in the house, how it meant someone was soon to fall into a coffin. I buried my face in her hair as she told me the dead breed mariposas in homes. She swore up and down she had seen one the day before her Poppito died.
It was hard to see my baby brother lying in a casket full of white roses. His eyebrows shaven and his skin morticianed to pretend it was not burnt. But I saw the burns around his head that looked like geographical continents. Not bits like the letter promised, but still. Yes, he had pouty lips but at least he didn’t look angry like before. I hated the mean face he made during war.
We kept hearing from strangers and each other. So numb we felt on
the receiving line.
My father pushed my mother in a wheelchair too large for the funeral room, my mother with the knotted hair in pain, up to the casket filled with white roses and bottles of Hennessy tucked safely in because it was his drink of choice. His face? How is his face? She had asked the man in the tired army uniform. She wanted to make sure his face was not remains of the dead as the letter promised. Hunched over his casket, she whispered something inside his cold ears so large they looked a conch shell you listened for waves against stone breakers. She liked that his face was in peace and kissed his forehead so violently until she wore his morticianed makeup as second lipstick. Each kiss made the crowd of mourners heave. They watched in silence making sure his face was not remains.
I sat in his room, in the attic, the day I went home to cry like dying cats and watch the messenger’s Adam’s apple slowly travel up and down. I sat there combing through my mother’s hair in such tired knots. Yet, every time I combed it straight it wanted to be knotted and confused. Desired to fray and tumbleweed into the world to be left alone wandering in pain.