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My vision narrowed, looking at my mom, who sat on the edge of her bed. I had arrived from Japan a week ago, one week after my mom’s successful surgery. My sisters and brother lived in other cities, hundreds of miles away from my parents’ house. Before I had come back, they had helped my dad take care of my mom. So when I had come, it had been my turn to look after her. After staying in the hospital for a few days later, I had accompanied her and my dad go back to their home.

I saw my mom; her face softened in the dim light coming from a bulb hanging on the wall above the headboard. Following her shoulders’ movements, her chin went up and down slightly. She rested her hands on her blanket wrapped knees. Her eyes closed, but I knew she wasn’t sleeping. I moved to her bed and sat behind her, touching her back.

“Stifling?” I asked in a low pitch, bending nearer to her ear.

She nodded. “A bit.”

Her skin, where the surgical sutures remained after the removal of her cancerous lung, was tender. My dad, who slept on another side of the bed, had rolled to his right side, facing the wall. I was sure he was exhausted. While I stroked her, I peered at the wall clock above the headboard; its short pointer looked vague, stuck between the numbers one and two.

Since her discharge from the hospital, my mom woke up around the same time each night. She pulled herself to a sitting position. Her breath was short. It must have been painful, but I never heard her complain. She never woke me or my dad, didn’t make any noise as if she hadn’t wanted to disturb our sleeping time. But I heard her shallow breathing even though I thought I was in a deep sleep. Her soft rustling, although I am sure unintended, drew me from my slumber.

Like the other nights, I caressed her back and shoulders. We seldom conversed until her breathing calmed and I felt her tension release under my hand.

“OK,” she whispered. “Better?” She nodded. “Still stifling?” She shook her head. “It’s fine.”

But I knew it was anything but fine.

I arranged two pillows behind her, helping her lie down on her back. She seemed most comfortable in this position after the nightly episode.

“Thanks,” she said. “Go to bed.”

The corners of her mouth moved upwards, but it was so faint that had I not watched, I would have missed it. I felt as if morning sunlight filled my chest—the similar sensation I had as she embraced me when I was in the dumps.

I left her side and returned to my bed, watching her lids lower. Her chest moved in a peaceful, syncopated rhythm. The clock caught my eyes, and thinking that it had been minutes since my mom awoke, it surprised me to see it was well over an hour.

Two days before I went back to Japan, I accompanied my mom and dad one-hour-and-half-flying to Jakarta to stay at my sister’s home. On the flight to Japan, my thoughts fixated on my mom and her claiming to never feel any pain. Her smile and eyes gave her inner truth away.

My sister told me the doctor had informed her they couldn’t remove all the cancerous cells—small ones often remained and might spread into mom’s healthy lung. Her only lung. I was afraid the agony would get worse. It might be in a few weeks. Months. I didn’t want it to happen, so one day I spoke to God to give half of mom’s suffocation to me so she wouldn’t experience the worst. I vomited a few minutes later; nothing happened to me since then. Four months later, tears streamed down my cheeks when I read my sister’s message on the messenger on my computer’s screen; mom had passed away.

***

Seven years later my doctor showed the chest X-ray on his monitor—my X-ray. A white billow covered my left lung. I had pneumonia. Hospitalize, he stated. I refused. Alone in my rented studio apartment was better. I had a high fever and coughs, but unlike my mom, I would survive and I breathed normally. The doctor gave me antibiotics and an inhaler. It wasn’t cancer, so I thought I would be fine.

But tonight, my chest is so tight. I am out of breath as though I have just run, climbing stairs from the ground to the twentieth floor. My chest is heavy, the air is not passing freely. Someone is smothering me with a bolster. The air conditioning is on, but I have soaked through my clothes. I can’t think of anything but air. Oxygen is the only thing I need. I need it now. I pull myself to a stand. I open the window beside the bed. I lean against the sill and push just my head out into the coolness of the night air. With mouth open wide, I try to take in fresh air. I am falling into an unused dry well and don’t know the way-out. I am carrying a sack of rice. I’m tired. I cease looking for air and sit on my bed, like my mom did, the same short, staggered breaths.

I see my mom; her face, her lake-water eyes, her morning-breeze smile. The three weeks of years ago fill my head. My last time with her.

“I shouldn’t complain—it’s nothing compared to my mom,” I whisper into the darkness.

My request of seven years ago rings in my head, jerking my mind. I said I wanted to take on her pain.

“If this is the way to lessen my mom’s suffering, I accept it,” I say under my breath.

I accept it, I accept it, I accept it; I repeat in my heart. The more I think about my mom, the more I accept it, the more relaxed I feel. My breath is getting better, like a whirlpool in a river after the tornado lifts away.

The time awake passes without any comprehension of how long the episode lasted. When I awaken in the morning, my first thought is not the pain, but having slept like a log from the moment my head dropped to the mattress.


BIO


Kartika Lestari is a former climate scientist who got to a point that recalled her youth’s joy, passion for writing. She started viewing another path in 2018 and taking writing more seriously in 2021. Her work has been published in Potato Soup Journal and accepted in Soul-Lit, among others. Her stories were on the list of The Unsealed’s Writing Contests. She has also published her pieces on her blog, https://rkartikalestari.medium.com/.

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