a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
In the slender branches of an oak tree, a small songbird alighted gracefully, the branch trembling slightly under its tiny feet. The wind whispered as the bird’s eyes darted around, scanning its surroundings. Suddenly, the bird lifted its head, letting a melody pour from its throat: four short, gentle notes, followed by a rapid trill. The bird paused, looked around, and then repeated the melody.
Sitting in a well-cushioned chair below the bird was a woman, not young but not yet old. She watched the bird with delight, her eyes brightening as it trilled again. A sparrow, she recalled as she sleepily sipped a mug of tea, the steam curling into the morning air. At that moment, the sparrow let out the final note of its melody and turned its head to the woman. Realizing it was being watched, it chirped three times in swift succession and then departed.
The woman watched it go, smiling sadly. She sipped her tea again, drinking from a mug displaying the name “Sara” in elegant lettering, and leaned back in her chair. It was a quiet morning; the sparrow had taken its melody and left nothing in its place but the morning dew, and even that was fading.
She was enjoying a day off from her job: running the cash register at a nearby supermarket. Though it wasn’t the most exciting occupation, it gave her a salary that was enough to sustain herself, for which she was grateful.
But only that, she thought, only enough to sustain myself and nothing more. She looked over her shoulder to the worn door of her apartment, where the chipped metal numbers hung solemnly. There was nothing wrong with the apartment, but there wasn’t much right with it either. It’s just…the thought halted as Sara finished her tea. Still searching for the words, she walked to her doorstep and turned the handle as mindlessly as she had done a thousand times before.
Empty. The word hit her as the door opened and revealed the space behind it. It’s too empty. Too quiet. The lights in the apartment were still off; maybe that was the problem. Dim lighting often brought with it a sense of gloom, she found. So, looking to rid her mind of the feeling that nagged at it, she flicked the light switch.
The bulbs overhead brightened, illuminating the apartment. But the feeling Sara had been trying to shake remained. She sighed, looking around the familiar room. Bright paintings, small trinkets, a table and chairs. But…something is missing, she observed. No, many things are missing.
But what could they be? Her eyes wandered to a device on the table. The phone. An older model, one she had owned for many years. She sometimes thought about replacing it, given the speed at which it ran. However, phones were expensive. Hers would make do.
Why did her eyes fall upon the phone of all things? Sara knew why. Though she told herself it was an action of the moment, she had been pondering this for far longer than just a minute ago.
Her son was an ocean away, studying to become an aerospace engineer at the University of Cambridge. Sara sighed. How did someone like her raise a son like Eric? He was studying a complicated subject at one of the most respected colleges in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, she was sitting in her tiny apartment, able to pay her rent, yes, but not much more.
Call him, her head told her. See how he’s doing.
Sara sat down, staring at her phone’s black screen. She wanted to call him; she really did…but something was holding her back. Would he want to hear her voice, the mother who was barely able to provide for him? Would he want to listen to her speak, someone who would one day design airplanes while his mother scanned groceries at the local supermarket?
Sara had planned on going to college, even though she wasn’t the best student. But when she met Michael, she realized she didn’t need a high-paying job or a large sum of money. Some company and a roof over her head were enough. When Michael had proposed to her a year after they’d met, Sara had delightedly accepted. She didn’t have much education or money, but she had Michael, and she was happy.
Two years later, Eric was born. Michael became a registrar at a nearby aviation museum after obtaining his bachelor’s degree. He was fascinated with aircraft, planes in particular, and always came home from work with a new story to tell.
Sara smiled, her eyes wandering to the photograph on the dresser. Though the frame was dusty, she could still see the picture under it. She, Michael, and young Eric, all dressed up in pirate costumes. She could still clearly remember Michael’s pirate voice making Eric giggle. She could remember getting ice cream after the photoshoot, the memory glazed with an almost tangible feeling of joy.
Michael’s stories had led to Eric developing an interest in planes, too. The three of them often visited the museum on weekends, during which Michael would go on and on about every detail he knew about the artifacts while Eric listened intently. Every time they returned from the museum, Michael would quiz Eric on what he had learned. As Eric got older, Sara would join in, competing to see who could get the answer first. It became a tradition of sorts, one Sara had looked forward to. Eric usually won, at first because Sara let him, but quickly because his knowledge of aviation was growing substantially. Eric excelled at learning; Michael loved working at the museum; and Sara loved seeing them both happy.
And then it all changed, the voice in her head cruelly reminded her. Her thoughts were taken back to that fateful night.
Eric was fourteen, and he and Sara were having dinner. They usually ate with Michael, but he was late that evening. He sometimes worked overtime, but he usually told her beforehand. However, that night, she had heard nothing from him. She was worried, but didn’t let Eric see it, instead promising him that his dad would have an extra good story to tell when he got home.
That moment never arrived. Sara found out the next morning that her husband had been laid off due to the museum’s closing. Apparently, the community was no longer able to provide funding for the museum, forcing it to shut down. That night, Michael was found dead in his car at the bottom of a ditch. The night had been dark and rainy as he was driving home. Sara suspected her husband had been so distraught by the news that he hadn’t been paying attention to the road, and the resulting accident cost him his life.
Eventually, after a hard year, Sara and Eric were slowly able to adjust to life without the person that had played such a prominent role in both of theirs. But Sara never felt the same afterwards. She had begun feeling increasingly disappointed in herself. In addition, the family had been dependent upon Michael’s salary, and life was much rougher with him gone. While she still had Eric and loved him dearly, she found it became harder to connect with him. Michael’s death had changed him for a time. He became more reserved and started spending almost all of his time with his friends or studying. Despite these hardships, time passed. Eric graduated from high school, his exceptional grades earning him a scholarship to University. Sara had been so happy for him.
But now, preparing to pick up the phone, she dreaded what her son would think upon hearing her voice: the woman who wasn’t able to provide for him alone. Michael had helped Eric learn about his passion and had provided for the family. Sara, though she had tried her best, knew she was never able to replicate those things. Would her son resent her for that, the lesser of two parents?
No, she told herself. Call him. He wants to hear your voice.
Oh, how Sara wanted to believe that was true! Across the sea, her son had started a new life. Would it be cruel to remind him of the one he had left behind?
Sara began to cough, suddenly and harshly. She assumed the spring pollen was causing her allergies to flare up; they had been bothering her lately. She stumbled drowsily to the kitchen, grabbing herself a cup of water to soothe her throat.
She sat back down. The phone. She took a deep breath, blocking out her doubts. She clicked the contacts app, tapped her son’s name. Her finger hovered over the call icon. Finally, after a moment of silence, she withdrew her hand and got up to do other things.
She dusted. She went for a walk. She made a sandwich, then shoved it in the fridge when she found she had no appetite to eat it. Strange, how once she let those thoughts in, she couldn’t get them back out.
The days passed by. She lost herself in the rhythmic monotony of her simple life. Every day she would busy herself, and every night, as she was eating dinner alone at the table that once sat three, she thought about Eric.
She should talk to him. Text him. Send him a postcard, even. But each option led back to the same fear of resentment. Wouldn’t Eric be happier if she let him go on without her?
She decided that if he really wanted to talk to her, he would contact her. That was the best way, really, for then she could wait for the opportunity to present itself. And when it did, she would be ready.
What she was not ready for, however, was the trip to the hospital.
She had been having trouble breathing for some time, and her coughing fits had become more frequent and violent. Now, however, the amount of effort it took to even draw a few breaths, combined with the sudden pain in her chest, were enough to tell her that something was very wrong.
At the hospital, she was diagnosed with acute pulmonary tuberculosis; a bacterial infection in her lungs, as the doctors explained it. They told her it would take some time, but she should recover.
The next day, lying in the hospital bed, a thought burned bright in her mind. Call Eric, it urged.
No. Now more than ever, she couldn’t speak to him. He was in college, most likely burdened with a great deal of schoolwork. Calling him was only going to worry him, and she, above all, wanted him to be happy.
The days slipped away. Sara couldn’t help but feeling alone, no one knowing what she was going through except the doctors, and they could not come close to filling the place in her heart that was slowly deteriorating.
Several mornings after her arrival, a doctor entered her room. He took a deep breath, looked her in the eyes. Sara’s heart sank as she heard what he told her.
The antibiotics weren’t working. The doctor reassured her, saying they would switch to a more aggressive treatment. The medical bills would be nearly impossible to pay off, but at least she would be able to keep her life.
The doctors ran more tests, pieced pieces of the puzzle that was her diagnosis together. All the while, Sara lay in the hospital bed, most of her energy focused on just breathing. The rest of her energy was devoted to frequently checking her phone. Her hopes rose every time she brightened the screen. They fell every time she found it blank.
She was soon informed that her condition was worsening due to a preexisting health complication. According to the doctors, she had been living with chronic heart failure, which explained her dwindling appetite and why her coughing fits had become more frequent and violent. They told her that, paired with pulmonary tuberculosis, it could be fatal. However, they could still help her. Though slim, there was a chance that Sara would indeed emerge from the hospital alive.
The doctors eventually left, leaving Sara to her thoughts. She tried to sigh, but the breath caught in her throat. The doctors had told her there was hope, and she was going to hang onto that hope with every ounce of strength she had. For herself. For Eric.
She looked at her phone. She would survive, if only to walk out of the hospital and call her son. No more would she let her guilt control her. When she was better, she would finally call Eric.
With this in mind, she slipped into a restless sleep, determined to leave that hospital alive.
. . .
It was twenty minutes past one AM. Doctors bustled through Sara’s room, speaking in urgent voices. There was an alert sounding, but Sara didn’t have the strength to determine what it was. Shivering head to toe with severe fever, her breathing was rapid and almost panicked.
The same doctor she had talked to just days before stood by her bed. “Sara, we are so sorry. The bacterial infection has spread; you now have sepsis. We’re doing everything we can, but there is a possibility you won’t survive the night. Please-”
As soon as Sara heard that, she spoke, her voice raspy and weak, interrupting the doctor’s reassurances. “My son,” she whispered. “Eric…let me call Eric.”
The doctor stopped, unsure, before he saw the phone on the nightstand. He quickly picked it up, holding it in front of Sara as she shakily entered her passcode. A few scrolls and taps later, the phone was ringing.
That was it. That was all she had needed to do. The doctor had helped her accomplish in seconds what Sara couldn’t bring herself to do for months. She felt hope rise in her heart, a peace that washed over her. If all else failed, at least she would get to hear her son’s voice one more time.
The ringing ceased abruptly. The voicemail auto-response played, monotonous and unfeeling. Sara felt like she had been stabbed in her heart with a knife of ice. The doctor put the phone closer to her, gently asking if she wanted to leave a voicemail.
Sara said yes.
When the recording started, it was difficult to destroy the dam that had held her words back for so long. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she began to speak.
“Eric…this is your mother,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “I’m afraid I won’t…” She took another shaky breath. “I won’t be able to be there for you anymore. I won’t be able to see your face or hear your voice again.”
Just like that, something shifted. The dam was broken, her words rushing free like floodwaters. “Oh, but how I want to! Eric, my son, I’m so sorry. I’ve wanted to hear your voice for so long. Not a day has gone by where I do not think of you. I’m so sorry, Eric, I wasn’t able to be your father, but oh how I tried! You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I never wanted to fall out of touch, I knew you were busy, I…” Her sentence was interrupted by a series of harsh coughs, each one rattling her body.
Finally, she was able to speak again, but her voice was almost completely gone. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t talk to you one last time. I hope that you go on to be the greatest at whatever you wish to achieve, as I know you will.”
There was a sharp pain in her side. She began to feel dizzy, her thoughts clouding over. One thought, however, remained clear.
“Above all, my son…I hope you know that I love you.”
. . .
The light in a room came on, and a young man walked in, setting down his backpack to sit at a desk. He opened his computer and began to type. His phone was on silent, as it always was when he was working. He would check it later that evening. Maybe his mother would have called him by then, though he doubted she had.
He wanted to reach out to her, he really did…but something was holding him back. Would he ever be able to compare to his father in his mother’s eyes? He knew how much she had loved him, and she had been devastated after his death. He had tried as hard as he could to make his mother proud, to make her happy and relieve her of the worry and sadness that constantly surrounded her. He studied more than he ever had before, in the subject that his father had loved so dearly, and hoped that he could be enough. He went to the best university he could, hoping with all his heart to make his mother proud, knowing he would never compare to his father. She had cared for him with all that she had, and he wanted nothing more than to be able to make her as happy as her husband had made her.
Unknown to him, his mother had passed away from septic shock earlier that morning.
Outside the boy’s window, where a great oak tree stood bent and weathered, a bird came to rest on a tree branch. Its small eyes passed over its surroundings, landing on the working boy for a moment before moving on. The bird, a sparrow, opened its beak, ready to sing.
It never did. The sparrow stopped, standing still for a few moments until it closed its beak, shifting its feet on the branch. Less than a minute later, it departed.
And so, the world waited. Waited for a relationship yet to be mended. A call yet to be answered.
A song yet to be sung.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.