Aunt Mags found the building and parked. We entered a three-story brick structure that looked cold and institutional. The flip turns started in my belly again but I put a smile on my face and tried to act as if visiting my mother in this place was no big deal.
The guard on duty asked for identification and verified we were on the day’s visitor list. He examined the contents of the bags we brought in and made us empty our pockets and place everything, including Maggie’s purse and the stuff we brought to my mom, through an x-ray machine. We went through a metal detector. The process seemed to drag on, prolonging my anxiety. I grew queasy, and worried I’d need to find a restroom or throw up on the floor. A swarm of people lined up on the other side of the check-in, waiting to see their loved ones. Finally, a guard cleared Mags and me to join them.
Another fifteen minutes passed before a female guard escorted us into the building’s interior, leading us down whitewashed corridors with closed doors on either side. At the end of one corridor she used her keys to open a door, and ushered us into a large meeting room full of tables and chairs. Reunited families hugged each other. Couples held hands. A pair of little boys ran in circles, chasing each other as if on a playground. Spirits were high. It was easy to forget we were in a correctional facility.
I looked for my mother and the nervous knots in my stomach tightened when I didn’t see her in the crowd. Mags, too, looked around, her head swiveling as she perused the scene. Moments later, a woman rose from a table in the back and walked toward us. Something about her seemed familiar, and I gasped. It was Mom, and she looked so different I hadn’t recognized her.
“Oh!” she said, the voice unmistakably hers. “You’re here.” Two steps later, she stood before me, reaching out for me, her face alight with joy. I held back a moment, drinking her in, trying to figure out all that was different. “Get over here,” she said, coming closer. “Give me a hug.”
I let her enfold me in her embrace, inhaling her familiar scent as I buried my face in her hair. Her arms encircled me, holding me close. Her breath caressed my skin, and the wisp of her eyelashes brushed my cheek. I relaxed and sunk into her, all the fear and anxiety escaping.
We stood for a moment and then she released me, still keeping her eyes on me. “Let me look at you,” she said. She gave me a once-over and smiled. “You look great. Strong and healthy.” She turned to Mags. “You’re taking good care of her, Maggie.” She reached for Maggie and they embraced. I gave her a once-over and noticed she’d put on weight, filling out her jeans in a way she hadn’t in years.
“Let’s sit,” she said, gesturing toward the table in the back. We followed her and took our seats, staring at each other, at a sudden loss for words. My mother broke the awkwardness.
“So, how is everything?”
“What did you do to your hair?” I asked. No wonder I hadn’t recognized her. She’d chopped off her long, chestnut locks, her trademark, the only hairstyle I’d ever seen her wear. It was a pixie cut, short around her face and ears, with a side part that led to soft bangs.
She reached up and tucked a stray piece behind her ear. “Do you like it?” she asked. “A hairdresser comes once a month. I hadn’t planned on cutting off more than an inch, just a trim, but when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the woman I saw. I decided to do something new, something different, now that I’m getting a second chance.”
I studied her new look. She had a freshness about her, an unexpected youthfulness. Her face had filled out a bit, and her skin was clear and rosy, her eyes bright.
“I like it,” said Mags. “It’s very becoming. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with short hair.”
“It’s so easy to take care of,” Mom said. “No blow dryer. Just wash and go. What do you think, Aerin?”
“I like it,” I said. “It’s time for a change.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. I was afraid it might be too drastic.”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine. You look beautiful.”
“I feel great,” she said. “I’m doing so well here. I’ve gained almost ten pounds, and I’ve been working out. This place has a pool, and I’ve started lap swimming. I haven’t swum laps in years, but I’m getting my stride back. It’s like riding a bicycle – once you learn you never forget.”
We laughed. It was good to see her excited about something, especially swimming, because she’d once been a college champion and hadn’t been in the pool for years, too busy working. Since she’d come home from Afghanistan she’d lost a lot of weight, and grew dangerously thin because of the pain and the pain pills. Her depression sucked the joy out of life, and she did little but work and sleep. Now she looked more like herself, in spite of the short hair, which was adorable, especially the way it spiked on top. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I smiled back, relieved she was happy, healthy, and on her way back to being my mom.
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