"Hiraeth" by Hannah Gordon

Mom has an Obscure Word of the Day Calendar. Every time I visit her, she has a new one for me.

            “Crepuscular,” she says. “Do you know it?”

            “You know I don’t,” I say, settling into the chair opposite her. I pay good money to the nursing home each month for her to have a room that overlooks the pond. A duck swims lazily, the water rippling behind it softly, a row of ducklings following in its wake.

            “Of or referring to twilight,” she says.

            The sun is rising in the sky. I visit her in the mornings, before work or on the weekends, as she drinks her coffee and reads her word of the day.

            “Yesterday’s word was ‘hiraeth,’ ” she tells me. “It’s Welsh.”

            “So foreign words are obscure now?” I ask.

            “Do you want to know what it means?” She sips her coffee. The steam fogs her round glasses. “A homesickness for a place you can’t return to, or a place that never existed. Isn’t that lovely?”

            I don’t know what my first memory was. People like asking that question: what’s your first memory? I never have an answer for them. I’m sure it is of my mother, though. All of my childhood memories are of her: how she smelled, like hairspray and expensive perfume, how her fingers would comb through my hair until I fell asleep, how she laughed, how it was quiet at first, then it’d build and build until it was so loud it’d rock her whole body.

            “So how are you feeling?” I ask her.

            She never wants to talk about this. Doesn’t want to think about it -- about losing her memories.

            I skip ahead in the calendar when she’s not looking. Friday’s word is “alexithymia” (n): an inability to identify and describe one’s feelings. A little too on the nose, that one.

            I think she wishes it were the cancer again instead. Skin cancer runs in our family. All of Mom’s sisters had it. One died from it. When I was a teenager, it kept coming back on her face. The doctors would hack away at it, each time making my mother a little less recognizable. Before, people would say we looked like twins, that I was like a miniature version of her. I used to worry that someday I’d pass her on the street and not even know it was her.

            Now, there are days when I walk in her room and she smiles at me politely, like I’m a lost stranger, before realization ripples over her face.

            “Oh,” she’ll say. Her voice will shake. “Hi, honey.” Or, “Sweetie.” Or, “I missed you.” She knows that she knows me, but my name will evade her for some time. Each time I wait a little longer for it to come back to her.

            But there are always other words.

            Fugacious (adj.): lasting a short time.

            Syzygy (n.): the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies.

            Oenophile (n.): a lover of wine.

            Every day there is a new word, and every day she learns something new, something she didn’t before, something for her to talk about with me.

            “What’s your favorite one so far?” I ask her.

            I know the day will come where she does not recognize me at all. For some reason, I think that will be the day I finally remember my first memory -- like the absence of hers will stir mine, will make me fight a little harder for my own.

            “Tittle,” she says, without skipping a beat.

            “And what’s it mean?”

            “It’s the dot above a lowercase i.”

            I wonder how it felt to be held by her for the first time. I wonder how she felt, being handed this tiny, squalling, miniature version of herself. I wonder if she has felt anything like it since.