I couldn’t find my umbrella that morning. It wasn’t in its usual spot by the door, standing guard, waiting to escort me to sophomore English, and Algebra II, which I was hopelessly failing. And to make matters worse, it was raining that morning. It was one of those rainy days that aren’t in the forecast. The kind that comes in the middle of an unsuspecting week.
I remember getting that umbrella for my tenth birthday. It had been a mini prank staged by my dad. We sat on our mauve rug in the living room that felt like butter beneath us. The day was like Christmas morning, except instead of Christmas lights and a tree, colorful streamers lined our beige walls, and one present stood in the middle of the rug.
“Honey, I’m pretty sure I got you the best birthday present you’ll ever receive,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I challenged, skeptical. “Let’s see it then.” Secretly, though, I was ecstatic.
I unwrapped the gift and flung open the box, preparing to be astounded, only to find “An… umbrella?” A bright blue umbrella — my dad’s favorite color. He burst out laughing as I opened it, then tried and failed to close it. It was made for an adult to hold, and since I’ve always been a late bloomer, my small hands and limp arms struggled to pull the gadget closed.
“Not funny,” I snapped back, even though we both knew I thought it was funny.
He smiled warmly. “Let’s go to the Comfy Kitten, and you can choose a real present.”
“Really?!” I jumped up.
The Comfy Kitten: a pet store located near our house in a little strip mall. It has the store name painted in colorful block letters, reflecting the equally colorful walls on the inside of the store, with a giant inflatable cat that greets you at the door. The walls are glass, so you can see the rows of fish tanks and hamster cages as you walk by.
It was our hang-out spot. It was where we went after I got my first “A” on a math test in 6th grade — I struggled a lot with math in sixth grade. And it was where he took me to pet kittens as consolation after my team lost the soccer playoffs in ninth grade. And it was where we went to mindlessly gaze at fish after my first break-up.
My mom came with us once and had an allergic reaction, probably to all the fur that sprinkles the floors. She hasn’t come since. To be fair, though, she never really understood the appeal. She would tilt her head to the side and contort her eyebrows, expressing her confusion about our propensity for this store.
My mom once tried taking me to a book store in that same strip mall. Except the walls were muted neutral colors, and the store name was “Book Store,” painted with dull pastels.. “My mom and I always went here together when I was your age,” she explained. “We’d sit for hours, reading through pages of fascinating stories.”
She’d take me there and hand me a stack of books, but after a few minutes of flipping through the pictures, I’d always ask, “Can I go to the pet store with Dad now?” I would watch as her grey eyes flicked downwards. “Sure,” she would always reply.
Some people go out for ice cream; others go to the movies — my dad and I went to the pet store.
And every time we went, specifically on lousy, good-for-nothing days, my father’s calm and comforting presence pulled me through to the end of the day. His soft brown eyes, my eyes, always held some measure of serenity, and his strong build, though some might misinterpret it as threatening, gave him the quality of a protector. When I was with him, I felt safe.
On my tenth birthday, he bought me a fish. Though I was happy, I couldn’t help but shiver a little at my mom’s cold gaze and how it had followed us as I led my dad out the door, holding his hand in mine.
And when he wasn’t there, I would hold the umbrella. I took it everywhere with me and eventually grew into it. It was our little joke. People would tease me about it. Every mean girl throughout my life made some snarky comment about how I always carried that umbrella with me. Even my mom told me once, “You know, you’re might be asking to get bullied, the way you obsessively carry that thing around.” And though it crushed me, I couldn’t seem to get rid of it. The feeling of its rubber grip in my palm gave me an unmatched comfort. And at least it was better than when they made fun of me for my lack of athletic ability in elementary school or for being the last one to get my period in middle school. I was okay with their insults being targeted at an inanimate object rather than at me directly.
So the morning that I lost my umbrella, I walked to the bus in the rain, unprotected by its tendrils that seeped under my raincoat and through my clothes. I was a sophomore that year. And it was when I was walking across the quad, umbrellaless, experiencing this same sensation of vulnerability to the outside world, that an uneasy feeling swept over me and covered me like a blanket, like the wet clothes that were now clinging onto my body.
It was right when I got home from school, surrounded by the monochrome cement buildings of our apartment complex, still umbrellaless. I stepped down onto the sidewalk as my mom stumbled out of our building, her face soaked, which I figured was just from the rain. She clenched a small, dingy umbrella that was hardly keeping her dry.
“Your…father,” she said between sobs so great it looked like consecutive pulses of electricity were jolting through her body.
“He…” she continued through sobs. “He’s been… there was an accident, and he…,” and she let out the most horrific cry I’ve ever heard her make.
I don’t remember dropping my backpack, but I must have, because then it was on the floor. And so was Mom. My ears seemed to clog as if my head was suddenly immersed in water, and all the sounds merged together like a poorly blended smoothie. I didn’t hear the explanation she probably gave me at that moment. I simply stood. The buildings seemed to tower over me, daunting me, ridiculing my weakness in the presence of their grandness, even with their book-store dullness. I was like a tiny ant, at the mercy of the universe to squish at any moment with the slightest, most effortless movement. Who was I kidding? It already had. I was a fatherless, umbrellaless smear on the wet concrete, and nothing was moving. My feet remained heavy in the spot I stood as if caught in molasses. I couldn’t seem to move my legs to get myself out of the storm. Walking. It seems like such a simple thing until you can’t. And I couldn’t.
I don’t remember how long I was outside. I just remember waking up in a hospital bed, with a nurse leaning over me to take my temperature.
I was sick more often than not for the next few months with every kind of sickness you can think of. My mom and I both. Those few months of illness after illness felt like an ambush. Like I was trying to re-build a wall that kept getting knocked down over and over again.
I was at my dad’s funeral, coughing and crying incessantly. It rained that day too. My mom and I stood at the service under an umbrella she had found in the basement — the same umbrella under which she had delivered that terrible news. But it wasn’t the same as my dad’s, which the rain seamlessly slid off of, keeping everything under its wingspan completely dry. Her umbrella was slightly permeable, causing an icy droplet to fall in my hair every few seconds. She tried to hug me, but I instinctually pulled away from her embrace, the way a child rejects that of a stranger.
After three rounds of the flu, two of strep, a two-week-long pneumonia, and countless other sicknesses, my immune system finally started to work again. But while we were both sick, my conversations with my mom were minimal.
“Mom, how are you feeling today?”
“Wanna watch a movie or something.”
Her eyes peered blankly at the wall. “Maybe later.”
“We should eat something.”
After a long pause, she responded, “Ok,” as if it were the most carefully thought-out response in the world. She never looked at me once. And with every ounce of apathy she showed me, the more I ached for my father.
My mom disappeared into her room for a few days. I’m still not sure exactly why, but I saw her taking a bath one day. The bathtub was full of water, and a uniform layer of soap suds floated above the water like icing on a cake. I saw her lay there with her eyes closed, and taking a deep breath, she submerged her face under the water, stayed for a few seconds, and came out with soap covering her face. I left as she began wiping the soap off her face, fearing that she would see me and get upset at me.
When I came out of my room the next day and walked into the living room, I saw something was out of place.
“Is that—” I started.
“I stopped by Target today,” my mom interjected, followed by a fit of coughing. “I hope you don’t mind.”
I stared blankly at the brand new umbrella standing in the corner of the room. It had the same rubber handle as my dad’s, but instead of the vibrant blue of my dad’s umbrella, it was a soft pastel orange. Not the dull pastel of the book store. This was something different. Something new. I paused a few seconds before answering, “No, I don’t mind.”
My mom came over and hugged me. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to support you much through everything that’s happened. I’ve tried, you know. I have. But I know that’s not an excuse. I’ll try and do better if you’ll let me.”
She hugged my limp body tighter, though it still ached from sickness. But this time, instead of resisting her, the only thing I could think to do was hug back.