I follow the sharp smell of boiling kimchi jjigae into the kitchen, rubbing the sleepiness out from behind my eyelashes. In the blur I see my mother staring at her phone, with shaking fingers and pallid skin. I hardly notice the tear collecting in one made-up eye—a black tear, dragging down her glass face. I don’t know why she’s crying, but I know that I must hug her—warmly, like she’d taught me last week.
“How do I do something warmly,” I'd asked my mother that day, “if I am not the sun? Or a lightbulb?”
The corners of her mouth lifted and her cheeks turned into pink apples underneath half-moon eyes. She paused a moment, letting her thoughts stay suspended in the air between us.
“Being warm,” she’d said, “is like saying ‘I love you’ without actually saying it. Like through a hug.” Squeezing so that she could feel my love in her stomach, I stood high on my tiptoes until the pads of my feet hurt, wrapping my arms around as much of her as I could hold. I looked up at her then.
She peered down at me.
“Exactly like that.”
So here I hug my mom warmly, like she taught me. I hug her to keep her close.
“Daddy’s gone,” she says. “Dad left me.”
With five words my mom breaks the ribs that hurt from my tight embrace. He’s gone? I think. I hesitate to touch my mother once more, afraid that my own hands, possessed by a fearful quiver, would break her—yet I continue grappling onto her, wondering if the light that used to dance in my mother's eyes still twirled, wondering if everything about her had already turned gray and if she was so far gone that her shards had already melted.
I stare into my mother’s eyes, two black irises deepened by cool blue hues, haunted by darkness and sadder than I’d ever seen them. There isn’t anything to do other than pull her back to the ground. For now, maybe happiness is something we can pretend. Maybe an illusion is enough to keep the coals burning.
So I curl up against my mother’s arm, reminding her through feigned warmth that I love her but that I am also here, and eventually she pulls me into her lap so that we’re hugging each other from the North, South, East, and West.
Then, I think. I think about how I’m laying in my mom’s arms, and how I thought she’d disappeared. But while she looked cold and empty just moments before, I can now feel the warmest part of her: her light. I lay my cheek upon it, and it burns fiercely from somewhere around her heart. And when I hold my hand against my chest, I feel my own light too.
Afterwards we ate kimchi jjigae—microwaved, for it had grown cold—bringing the warmth within us as we sipped soup from our bowls.