Long Flight Home
by Samantha Cooke
Emel slammed the door of her red Hyundai closed and swung her bag over her shoulder. Her feet ached from a ten-hour shift at Olive Garden, where she charmed guests with her British accent and pleasantries about her grandchildren. Taking out a pack of Salem Slim Lights, she lit up a cigarette. It was a final moment of peace before entering her parents’ home, where she was not only the primary caregiver for her dying mother but the only companion for her perfectly healthy ninety-year-old father.
She took a drag off her cigarette and sent a message in the group chat she had with her three daughters, who were excitedly texting about Christmas plans. Emel had decided at the last minute to join them up north for Christmas, putting aside her worry over leaving her parents for a few days.
“We can handle it,” her father had told her. “Go see the girls.”
“It’ll be the first Christmas all my girls are together,” Emel had explained to her manager with tears in her eyes when she asked for time off.
Of course, she had to accept her daughters’ offer to buy her plane ticket. Her emergency funds had been drained when she moved back to Florida to be with her parents. She didn’t even have the luxury of living paycheck to paycheck; she lived shift to shift, hoping to make at least one hundred dollars each shift.
I could have been something.
Emel dropped the cigarette to the driveway pavement and stomped it out, only to bend over and pick it up so she could throw it away in the outside trash bins. It was nearly midnight; surely both her parents would be asleep, and she could just walk in and go to her room after checking her mother’s oxygen tank to make sure it was functioning.
Emel walked through the front door of the old home. When they had moved to the States from London when Emel was fifteen, the house had been brand new. Over the years, her parents had put in a pool for their grandchildren, kept a perfectly manicured lawn, and filled the two extra bedrooms with furniture for Emel and her sister so they would always have a place to stay.
Now, fifty years later, the house creaked. The deck leading to the pool couldn’t hold weight. The lawn was mown, but the once-immaculate garden had died and never been replanted. That’s what happens with age. Your body creaks, your knees can’t hold weight, and things that were once beautiful aren’t replaced when they die.
The thought led Emel to memories of her sister, Narin, who had died years before of the same disease that was now taking her mother.
Emel took off her shoes and peeled off her standard Olive Garden uniform—black pants and a stiff, white button-down shirt—and changed quickly into her housedress. She would remain awake for another few hours before she fell asleep, and in her alone time, she would play games on her phone while watching Bill Maher on HBO.
First, though, she needed to go check on her parents.
She walked down the white-tiled entryway, through the dated kitchen (they still had floral wallpaper), to the room her mother slept in. Her father had elected to sleep in a guest room years ago, as he and her mother alternated coughing fits and pained joints. Emel stopped in the open doorway. To her surprise, her mother stood in her nightgown, yelling at someone who wasn’t there.
“I’m not going with you. Go away!” her mother yelled at the wall. She turned and walked slowly away from the wall, her body bent over from age. Suddenly, she turned back around and pointed at the wall. “You sent me off when I was fifteen! Why would I come back with you?”
Emel hesitated. Somehow, she knew what was happening here.
When Emel’s mother was a teenager living in a small village in Cyprus, she had been married off to Emel’s father. Arranged marriages were not unheard of back then—with an exchange of goods, as fathers sold their daughters off to young men in the village—and Emel’s mother had been no different.
At fifteen, Emel’s mother had been sent away to marry Emel’s father, and she gave birth to Narin exactly nine months later. Left alone in a new home with a stranger to sleep next to and a newborn baby who cried more than normal, Emel’s mother began letting the building blocks of resentment form shapes in her body. But because she only had an eighth-grade education, she didn’t know the word for resentment. She wouldn’t, even as she grew, suffered a miscarriage, moved from Cyprus to London, gave birth to Emel, secretly celebrated the death of her wicked father-in-law, and years later, moved to America with her husband, daughters, and the remainder of the family she had married into. The resentment built and built, manifesting in the form of mysterious illnesses and threats of dying if her daughters didn’t clean their rooms.
Emel knew what was happening as she stared at her yelling mother. The resentment had finally broken free.
Eventually, her mother stopped yelling and found her way back to bed. Emel remained in the doorway until the only noise left in the bedroom was the sound of her mother’s oxygen machine, which hummed like the sleep machine Emel had used on her daughters when they couldn’t sleep.
Once Emel was sure her mother was asleep, she went to the guest room her father was using. Looking in, she found him awake, sitting in front of the television watching an old Arsenal soccer game.
“Dad, I think mum was just yelling at her parents.”
Her dad waved a hand dismissively. “She does that, Emel. I just let her do it.”
Emel had always gotten along with her father. They held intelligent conversations over politics, relaxed by watching soccer matches together, and commiserated in misery over her mother. Emel knew this only added to her mother’s building blocks of resentment, but her father’s kindness had filled the void created by her mother’s meanness.
That void had given Emel resentment of her own, especially after Emel had children and watched her mother act like a stereotypical grandmother: home-cooked meals, extravagant presents, warm hugs, and stories told to her grandchildren over late-night cups of tea. Sure, Emel was glad her daughters had such wonderful grandparents, especially since their own father had left when they were young. However, she couldn’t help but feel a nagging resentment that her mother was to her grandchildren what she had never been to Emel.
Emel left her father to sleep and went into her own room. Sitting on the old bed, she messed with the television remote and looked at her reflection in the mirror hanging on the closet door. She looked at least ten years younger than she was, with bicep and shoulder muscles that had always been well defined: first from practicing gymnastics as a teenager, then from lifting trays of heavy food over the last thirty years.
On nights when she was this tired, both physically and mentally, Emel was thankful her daughters hadn’t followed in her footsteps. Emel had lived a free life, bartending and serving throughout her twenties because she had never found something she was truly passionate about.
Which was ironic since the Turkish translation of her name was passion.
When she met the girls’ father, it had only made sense for her to settle down with him. He had wooed her with a sense of humor and, at the time, she had felt the urge to become a mother, so when he asked, she said yes. She had been nearing thirty, and college would always be there.
Besides, she still hadn’t found her passion.
Three daughters later, he packed up his crystal meth pipe and left Emel alone with the girls, never looking back. He also took with him any chance Emel had of going back to school. Emel worked hard, though. And even if her daughters never had the nicest things, they had a mother who loved them.
Even if Emel’s resentment got in the way sometimes.
Emel turned on HBO, put on her reading glasses, and leaned against her pillow. She was asleep before Bill Maher even got through his opening monologue.
The next morning, Emel was awake first. She turned on a pot of coffee, pulled down the pill dispensers for both her parents, and wiped down the kitchen counter in hopes her mother wouldn’t find something to nag about. Emel texted her daughters, asking her oldest what her children wanted for Christmas and her other two if their boyfriends were coming as well.
Over the years, as Emel’s daughters had introduced her to their forever loves, Emel had mentally checked off boxes for each of them. Her oldest daughter’s husband was kind, and when he became a father, he had surpassed any expectations Emel had had for him. Check. Her middle daughter’s partner came from a troubled past but had emerged with an intelligence—both emotional and otherwise—that Emel respected. Plus, he loved science and philosophy, just like Emel. Check. Her youngest daughter’s partner took care of her. Check. Emel gave herself a mental pat on the back whenever she noticed she didn’t resent her daughters for finding good men but rather admired and loved them and their partners.
Her mother shuffled into the kitchen, and Emel wordlessly put a cup of coffee in front of her as she sat down. Her mother’s frame, which only held about ninety pounds these days, shook as she reached for her coffee cup and the round of pills that accompanied it.
“How did you sleep, Emel?” It was always the first question she asked Emel every morning, even when Emel was a little girl.
“Fine, Mum. Did you have a bad dream last night?”
Her mother placed her coffee cup down and looked at her. “Neden bahsediyorsun?” She always switched between Turkish and English, which Emel appreciated.
“I’m talking about how you were up and yelling when I came home last night. You don’t remember that?”
“Are you crazy?” her mother asked.
Startled, Emel laughed. “I think you were talking to your parents, Mum. You were yelling that you weren’t going with them. That they had sent you off when you were just a girl.”
Emel’s mother shrugged. “I don’t remember that.”
After a moment of silence, Emel reminded her mother that she would be leaving in three days to go see her girls. Her mother waved her off.
“We’ll be fine. It’s not like you do much anyway.”
Emel bit her tongue, physically and figuratively, deciding not to waste her breath on recounting for her mother everything she did do for them. How she had given up living in a basement apartment her oldest daughter’s home to return to Florida so she could take care of her parents. How she accepted the brunt of her mother’s verbal abuse and worked four nights a week, far beyond her body’s limits.
When Emel’s mother had finished her coffee, she shuffled back to her room, where she sat in a recliner and spent the day in front of the television. Even though Emel tried at least once a week to get her mother to at least agree to go for a drive, her mother had committed herself to spending her last years with reruns of soap operas and the Turner Classic Movies channel.
Emel was off work for the day, so she would spend her morning cleaning and running the pool vacuum to suck up the fallen leaves. Then she would have time to herself to curl up with her little ladybug.
The ladybug in question was the main character of the children’s book Emel had been passively working on for the last ten years, ever since her youngest daughter graduated from high school. The idea had come to Emel when she was waiting tables at the Cheesecake Factory and a toddler left behind a stuffed ladybug.
Emel had held the ladybug up for one of her younger coworkers to see and had been reminded of one of the rare occasions she had taken her children to a restaurant. Her oldest daughter had left behind her baby doll. They had made it all the way to their driveway before realizing what had happened, and Emel hadn’t had time to go back and get it before her shift that night.
The guilt resurfaced as Emel stared at the ladybug, and she tucked it into her apron pocket, vowing to find a way to return the ladybug to its family. It would be a long flight home for the ladybug, but Emel had a feeling that this worn plush was a fighter. When the family came back to get it, they were gracious to Emel for keeping it safe and not just tossing it. The toddler squealed with joy and grasped the ladybug with pudgy hands that reminded Emel of her own daughter’s.
On the way home, Emel wept as she thought of how fast her children had grown and how much of their lives she had missed due to working two jobs when they were younger. When Emel pulled the car into the driveway, she took out her phone, texted her middle daughter—who was in college studying creative writing—and shared the idea for a children’s book with her.
Now, whenever Emel had downtime, she tapped away on her old Dell laptop, playing pretend with the ladybug. She had thousands of words written. She knew it would need to be pared down, but she was in so deep and enjoyed the adventures she made up for her ladybug. The ladybug had become Emel’s escape, and even if she never did anything with the work, it felt cathartic to bring the ladybug back to its owner. It felt as though Emel were making amends with the abandoned baby doll from so many years ago. In a way, it felt as though Emel was on her own flight home.
Emel hurried through her chores so she could relax in her bedroom with her laptop open. When she was finally able to sit down and open her computer, she heard yelling coming from her mother’s room. Her father was out on his afternoon walk, during which he went up and down the street for twenty minutes a day, so Emel had to respond to the yelling.
When she walked into her mother’s room, her mother stood in her housedress with her back to the open door, pointing at the same spot she had been yelling at last night. “Stop coming! I’m not ready to go yet. I’m not leaving Emel!”
Emel assumed her position against the doorframe and watched as her mother continued screaming.
“Why would I come with you now? You never took care of me. I was always alone! I would never do to Emel or Narin what you did to me!”
Emel’s mother paced back and forth, mumbling to herself in Turkish. Emel picked out some of the words—hate, sad, hurt—and for the first time, she could understand the pain her mother was in. What had it been like for her mother to be sent away to marry a man she hadn’t known? Luckily, Emel’s father was a good man, but what if he hadn’t been? The fear her mother must have felt! And she only a child!
Emel looked at her mother and saw beyond her physical self for the first time. She wondered about the emotional scars her mother held, the burden of resentment that had burrowed inside her over the years. She considered how that pain had affected Emel when she was growing up. How it affected Emel even now. How that pain might have even been passed down through Emel to her own daughters. Not on purpose, but surely her daughters had felt the resentment that had overflowed from her. Three generations of women affected by a pain that just kept growing. Emel thought of the times in her daughters’ childhoods when she had had to make a conscious effort to not take her stress out on them. Being a single mother had been a full-time job, one Emel had felt she had sometimes failed in, and Emel’s biggest hope was that her daughters didn’t resent her the way Emel did her own mother and her mother did hers.
Emel let her mother be. Perhaps she was working through the anger she felt. Perhaps Emel could take a page out of her mother’s book and do the same. She prayed her daughters forgave her for a struggling childhood, and Emel realized it was only fair to offer her own mother that same forgiveness. Resentment could be a vicious cycle, but forgiveness could break it.
Walking into the kitchen, Emel put the tea kettle on and scooped two sugars into a teacup for her mother. She hummed the new Adele song to herself, making a mental note to ask her daughters what the lyrics were. When Emel heard her mother stop yelling, she carried the hot tea into her room and sat on the edge of her mother’s bed. Her mother stared blindly at the television screen, breathing heavily.
Her mother blinked, then turned and looked at Emel. Emel held the teacup out to her mother, who took it wordlessly but smiled in thanks. Emel remained sitting on the edge of the bed, and her mother pointed to the television.
“Do you remember when we watched this movie in London?”
Emel recognized the film immediately. She used to put it on for her daughters whenever they were home sick from school. Their small feet would try to mimic the dancing they saw on-screen.
“The girls used to pretend to be in the movie.”
Her mother laughed. “You and Narin did too.”
“Really? I don’t remember that.”
Of course, Emel did. She remembered standing next to her older sister, ribbons in their hair, as they danced. But this was her mother’s favorite story to tell, and Emel felt her mother deserved to relive the moment of peace she seemed to feel whenever she told it.
“You would always fight over who got to be Gene Kelly . . .”
As she told the story, Emel laid beside her: two women whose paths of resentment ran parallel yet intersected at a shared hope: to be better than the mother who had come before them.