Mom started talking to Amira about two and a half months before she died. She had many invisible companions during her illness—a brain tumor tends to manufacture such things—but most of them didn't stick around for more than a few days. Some barely lasted an hour.
The conversations she had with her other imaginary friends never made much sense. Just one random sentence after another, some in English, some in French, and some in languages which had never graced this planet until Mom and one of her tumor people invented it on the spot. Sometimes there weren't even words—just laughs, grunts, and odd noises which defied classification. And many times there were barely sounds—just hands and arms in agitated motion—and on rare occasions, even dancing.
But Amira's arrival changed all that. When Mom conversed with Amira her words had direction and purpose and she talked about things I could recognize. It was almost like she was talking to an old friend on the phone. In fact, the conversations were so realistic, I wondered if she were reliving past conversations with a person who actually existed. Maybe Amira was an old college friend or a favorite student from her high school teaching days. Maybe the tumor had made time more fluid and Mom had decided to backstroke to a happier age.
That's another thing I noticed. The most striking thing. Whenever she spoke with Amira, Mom was happy. She was actually better than happy; she was beaming, almost like she was in love.
One afternoon, when I arrived at home to do my tour of duty with Mom so my father could get out and stretch his legs and get a much needed breath of fresh air, my mother's eyes focused on this universe and I asked her flat out who this Amira person was.
"She's my daughter," Mom replied, somewhat annoyed as if the answer to my question should have been obvious.
My heart sank. When she was healthy, my mother was an incredibly smart and unflinchingly sane woman. It was sad to see her psyche fray like worn yarn. If she were manufacturing fictional children, it wasn't going to be long before she lost track of who the real ones were.
"But Mom," I reminded her gently, "you only have two daughters. There's Allie and me. That's all."
Mom clenched her jaw and there was a long, stony silence. I'd made the mistake of mentioning my sister who was pretty damn close to being estranged. She only called to ask for money and rarely came home even though she lived only sixty miles away. And since Mom officially became terminal, Allie had only visited once.
"She's my best daughter, Nicey," Mom finally said. Then, she stood and slowly dragged herself upstairs. Within minutes I could hear her chattering away and laughing in her room above me. Amira had come to visit.
After Mom dropped that bomb about Amira being her best daughter, I began to eavesdrop on their conversations more actively. I found out quite a few things. Had Amira actually existed, she would have been the middle child. She liked good clothes and was a fine cook. She called her mother every day. She came to family reunions and actually enjoyed them. She married her college sweetheart and they were still married some fifteen blissful years later. She and her husband were both successful civil engineers like my father. She liked smooth jazz and read pulp romances to decompress like my mother. She was a literacy volunteer at the local library. She'd produced no grandkids, yet but she and the hubby would get there eventually, just give them time….
The more I listened, the more it became clear that Amira was everything Allie and I were not. Her life was respectable, neat, and clean. No messy divorces (Allie and me) no dropping out of grad school five months shy of a degree (me) no terminal underemployment (Allie and me again) no grand artistic aspirations which predictably came to naught (me). Amira was better than best; she was damn near perfect. No wonder Mom was beaming when they spoke. God or the tumor was doing a good thing: granting a dying mother her last wish.
One Sunday evening after dinner there was a knock on the door. That was not unusual. One of the ladies from my parents' church always came to visit on Sunday evenings bearing gifts of bright flowers, good food to last for most of the week ahead, and prayer. So, when I went to answer the door, I thought it was going to be one of them.
But after nearly four months of Sunday evenings, I knew all the women who ministered to the sick. There were four in all. Each of them had dropped by at least three times. So, imagine my surprise when I opened the door to see a complete stranger.
"Hey Nicey," the woman began, as if she'd known me all my life, "is Mom asleep?"
I answered on autopilot. "She's up in her room, but no, I don't think she's asleep yet." I tried to place where I might have seen the woman before. She wasn't from the church. Like I said, I knew all of them. She looked to be a few years younger than me. She was a little plump, but very pretty. Her hair was as wildly curly as mine, but somehow she managed to wear it long and keep it tamed. She was dressed in a stylish taupe power suit with matching handbag and shoes. She reminded me of a picture of my mother I'd seen in her college yearbook. A woman most likely to succeed.
"Nicey, Nicey! Earth to Nicey!" the woman exclaimed with mock annoyance. "Aren't you going to let me in?"
Oh. Yes. I guess I was being rude. I stepped back and let her through.
"I'm sorry I haven't been by sooner. I call, but you know that's hardly enough. I've had a big project at work. Been burning the midnight oil for forever, but now it's done and I'm here." The strange woman smiled and extended her arms for a hug. I stayed put and felt something like a scowl forming on my face.
The stranger looked worried. "Nicey, what's wrong?" she asked. "You aren't angry with me again?"
"How can I be angry at you again when I don't even know who you are?" I shot back with more venom than I intended.
"Jesus, Nicey! Don't tell me you've caught a tumor too! I'm your sister. Amira? Certainly, you know that."
My stomach fell to my ankles. Come to think of it, this woman did look like she could've been my sister in another universe. Maybe I'd slipped into one by mistake. Lord knows if I were seeing one of my mother's hallucinations in the flesh, anything was possible.
"God, Nicey, what's wrong with you?" Amira looked frightened.
"You should get more rest. You and Dad. I swear you've both got this superperson complex." She started towards the kitchen as if she knew where it was, as if she had a right to go there. "By the way: is Dad here?"
No, thank God. He'd have kittens through his nose and then I'd have two sick parents. "No, he's not here. Tonight's his night out with the boys."
"That's good I guess. The man does need a break."
"Yes," I seconded, "he does."
Amira grabbed an orange from the fruit basket, fetched a glass out of one of the cabinets, and poured herself some water from the tap. "I guess I should go see Mom now," she announced when she'd had her fill of fruit and liquid. "I don't have much time."
Amira ran up the steps and immediately I heard her and my mother laughing. They talked and laughed for an hour when abruptly all the joyful noise stopped and a strange, colorless silence replaced it.
At first I thought Mom had slipped away. But then I took a peek into her room. It was dark and Mom was sleeping deeply. Amira had vanished.
I wondered how. I'd heard no one descend the stairs, no one say goodbye, no one walk out the front door. I'd heard no car pull out of the driveway, but come to think of it, I didn't remember seeing a car in the driveway or in front of the house when Amira arrived. How had she gotten there? She couldn't have walked far in those shoes.
When my father came home, I told him nothing about our singular visitor. I doubt he would have believed me and I was having a hard time believing myself. But there was one less orange in the fruit basket, and the half-full glass remained on the kitchen table where Amira had left it before she ran upstairs for her visit. If that little could constitute proof, then Amira was as real as anyone could get. Aliens often left behind far less and people still believed in them.
After that fateful Sunday evening, Amira came to visit almost daily, although that first visit was the last time she knocked and came in the front door. From then on she just...appeared. I'd be sitting and reading to Mom in her room when suddenly I'd look up and Amira would be standing in the doorway smiling.
Nicey, she'd say softly, let me finish that...and I'd stop my reading and she would come and pick up where I left off. She had a pleasant voice with a faint Southern accent and she read as perfectly as a seasoned actress. Mom might have been nodding off when I read, but as soon as she heard the sound of Amira's sweet voice, she perked up and smiled. Sometimes she even reached out and put a hand on Amira's knee.
That's when I left the room. I knew when I'd been beat. And it seems almost as soon as I left, Mom, and Amira would start talking and laughing. Even though I knew it was silly to be paranoid about an apparition, I often thought their laughter was at my expense.
The strangest thing about Amira and her visits was that only Mom and I could see her—and she could only see Mom and me. She certainly was aware of Allie and my father—every time she materialized she asked about them—but she could walk right through them and they'd never know.
Actually that's not completely true. Once Amira appeared bearing a gift of hot apple pie. It wasn't a whole pie, just a couple of slender slices for her and my mother. (She didn't think to bring any for me.) It smelled heavenly.
Dad was sitting not far from Mom's bed reading the newspaper. Mom was babbling away, thanking Amira for the ghost apple pie, and pretending to stuff her face. Dad tensed. He didn't like it when Mom started talking crazy. He tried to keep reading the paper, anything to drown out Mom's nonsense.
But suddenly: he dropped the paper and started sniffing the air. He asked Mom: "Nezzie, did I hear you say something about pie?"
Mom wiped her mouth with a tissue and replied: "Yes, Nate. Homemade apple pie. Amira brought some by." She turned to Amira who was seated beside her on the bed even though Dad could see no one. "Next time you come, you should remember to bring some for your father. I know I said he was watching his weight, but a tiny piece won't hurt."
Dad frowned. He couldn't get a handle on Mom's latest fantasy. This one was far too tenacious. He resumed hiding behind the newspaper. "Funny," he mused a bit later. "I thought I smelled apples. Must be a neighbor cooking. Although where they'd find good apples this time of year I don't rightfully know."
Mom inevitably got worse and Amira began to change. Miss Perfect was not so perfect anymore. It was little things at first. Once she appeared in her usual crisp power suit wearing mismatched shoes. Another time she materialized with gaping runs in both legs of her nylons. Then: she had a mishap at the salon and appeared with bright orange hair. And then there was the time when she was reading to Mom and was seized by a stuttering attack. And one time she started cursing a blue streak and couldn't stop.
Then: about a week before Mom passed, we were sitting in the family room staring at the world outside in all its midsummer finery. Suddenly we saw Amira clad in the rudest of rags running on the next door neighbor's lawn down towards our house. She ran like she was on fire; she screamed like she was on fire. Even with the sliding glass door shut, the sound of her wail was piercing.
Amira burst through the glass (somehow nothing broke) and threw herself at Mom's feet, sobbing violently and practically baptizing my mother's gown with her tears. Mom tried her best to comfort her, weakly stroking her hair with one hand.
Amira finally composed herself enough to speak, but what came out was unintelligible and bizarre, like a foreign language spoken backwards. Mom understood this odd talk and tried to respond in kind, inhaling when she should have been exhaling, the pitch of her voice wildly rising and falling like waves on an angry sea.
I watched them commune in this way for a bit, but soon I began to feel like a third wheel, so I excused myself. I sensed this was the beginning of the end and I knew this was the last time Amira would visit. I know it sounds awful, but I can't say I was too upset about that. I envied the hold she had on Mom. Imagine. Jealous of a hallucination.
I busied myself upstairs while they babbled, cleaning Mom's bathroom and changing the sheets on her bed. I had just settled down for a moment of peace when I heard a keening the likes of which I hope never to hear again. It was definitely my mother's voice, but she sounded more like an animal caught in a trap.
I flew down the stairs to find Mom on the kitchen floor doing her best to crawl on two knees and one hand. The other hand held Amira's head. Just her head.
The scene was more surreal than disgusting. The head had come off fairly neatly—no tangle of veins and tissue hanging down like the tentacles of a jellyfish—and almost bloodlessly—like a child's baby tooth. Somehow it was still breathing, but only barely. The eyes were wide, black, and full of anguish.
Mom lifted the head towards me as much as she could without losing her balance. Her eyes were full of tears. "Fix it," she pleaded.
I leaned down and took the head, relieving Mom of her grotesque burden. The head was real—at least I could feel some terrible weight in my hands. I gingerly placed it on the kitchen table, not really sure what to do with it. In my own head, I could hear myself screaming, but outwardly I remained calm. I had to. Mom was unraveling.
She was on all fours now, whimpering like a lost puppy. "Can you fix it?" she asked.
I glanced at the head on the table. The anguish in the eyes was fading and emptiness, not peace, was replacing it. Just as I suspected, Amira was leaving for good. Even if I possessed the magic to rebuild dreams, there was not enough time.
"Fix it," Mom implored once more.
"I can't Mom. She's not...real."
"No, Mom. I can't."
That's when Mom collapsed completely and I scooped her up in my arms. She was as light as a feather, as light as ashes, I grimly thought. I had no problem carrying her upstairs. I laid her in bed and she was immediately seized by sleep. It was an active sleep; I could tell by the way her eyelids twitched. Perhaps she was dreaming.
I watched her for a few minutes to see if she were breathing comfortably, then went downstairs to tend to Amira's head. Dad was due home in less than an hour, and even if he couldn't see the head, I didn't want it lying around and staring at me.
But the head was gone. There was nothing but a fine black dust in its place. I ventured to the family room where I assumed the rest of the body was. The dust was there, too. I knelt on the carpet and touched some of it with my fingers. It felt like grains of salt. Black salt? I thought.
Then: a wind came out of nowhere. The dust rose in a mini cyclone and vanished.
I stared for a long time at the place where the dust had been. I was still on my knees in the family room when Dad came home.
"Nicey, are you okay?"
I didn't answer.
Dad knelt beside me and put his hands on my shoulders. "Nicey, what's wrong?"
I couldn't tell him what was bothering me because he wouldn't believe me. Plus, I didn't rightfully know. Was I sad because Amira was gone? Was I relieved? Did I regret all the time she made me lose with my mother? Was I angry because she'd left so quickly? Was I sorry that I never tried to get to know her? Was I sad that Mom felt compelled to invent her in the first place?
My silence was making Dad nervous, so I finally made something up. "Mom fell today," I said, my voice flat and gray. "I don't think she has much time left."
"I know," he said, and gathered me in his arms and rocked me like a child.
I was right. Mom didn't last much longer. She slipped from consciousness three days after Amira disappeared and died not long after.
I do not know where people go when they die, but I hope Mom went someplace good. She led a good life. She did not deserve to die so slow and lose her mind. I hope she has friends wherever she went.
Maybe she watches over her family. Maybe she can finally see Allie and me for what we are in all our muck and glory and she realizes we are so much more than disappointments.
Or maybe: she is with Amira. Maybe Amira was the guide who helped her through that final passage and maybe she is still helping Mom through.
Like I said, I don't know where Mom is. I only hope she is happy.