Sink or Swim

I was 9-years-old.

I was 9-years-old and Mother had decided I didn’t need her love anymore; that I wasn’t still at that fragile age where children need their mothers just as much as they needed the everyday kiss goodnight that assured them the spirits won’t hurt them at night.

At 9-years-old, Mother decided I no longer needed either.

It stemmed from something really small, really. Or as small as any responsibility can get when you’re 9-years-old.

I wanted to quit the piano. I hated that thing. I hated how it made my bum hurt, how my baby finger always cried in protest when I stretched it too far. It frustrated me how I couldn’t play right; no matter how much I practiced, my fingers would always slip a key, always hitting the wrong note. Or how my brain always forgot to tell me to play, that, sharp. The notes swam off the pages. They didn’t make sense the way A-B-Cs do.

I told her I wanted to quit. “I’m a big enough girl now to choose what I want to do. And I don’t want to do piano.”

It was simple enough.

I was polite enough.

Mother stood like a lighthouse in a storm – but there was nothing comforting about her. Her spine was straight, arms crossed, and her countenance stern and unimpressed. She stared at me with this condescending smile, as if to say, ‘Oh isn’t that cute?’

“No,” she said clearly. I was ready for this. I’d been in enough arguments with her to know that no amount of quiet, desperate pleading would be any good. I pulled in the biggest tantrum I’d ever given in the past 5 years. It started low and controlled, before slowly escalating into a raging storm of anger. I was 5 five years sharper; each argument she presented I countered with quick wits and a sharp tongue. I didn’t hold anything back – not even the meanest comments I could think of back then.

Mother’s eyes were steely, cold – cruel.

She’s got that mean look; like she’s sure she could kill me right there and then.

Mother once told me how I’d been such a stressful baby and she had wanted to throw me on the floor just to make me shut up.

Yeah I bet she could kill me right now.

“Well since you think you’re a ‘big girl’, you don’t need any help living, do you?’

Her threat was something harsher than that, I’m sure. But my mind has learnt to bury it deep, thrown it into the deepest abyss, because those words had cut me deeper than Mother’s butcher’s knife ever would’ve.

I’d hidden them away, made myself forget the cruellest of all the cruel comments she’s ever made, because that night I cried myself to sleep, pretty sure Mother didn’t want me anymore.

I was 9-year-old. And my own mother made me feel like nothing.

It was the oldest trick in the book: The Cold Shoulder.

If it had been the regular dosage, that’s fine. I would’ve been able to take that, though be a little miffed about the silence but still have learnt my lesson.

But Mother always takes things two, three steps ahead. She’s evil and cunning that way. No, it wasn’t enough that I was ignored. I was to be non-existent.

In the morning when I woke up, sunlight was pouring excitedly into my bedroom window, like it was daring me to figure out what’s wrong with the picture. I looked outside and the sun was high in the noon sky. That’s not right; I was supposed to be in school right now.

I ran to my siblings’ room, only to find them not in their beds.

Their bags were gone. They were in school.

Mother hadn’t woken me up that morning.

(Or any other mornings to come for the rest of my life, though I didn’t know that yet)

I went down for breakfast, though it was technically closer to lunch.

Except there wasn’t any breakfast  or lunch prepared for me. Even if I was late, even if I overslept, Mother would always force me to sit down and have something to eat before starting the day.

There was nothing.

Mother hadn’t made me breakfast or lunch. She was tottering around in the kitchen, cleaning up the floors. I went up to her.

“Mom, why didn’t you wake me up for school?”

She turned to her right, avoiding me, and starting mopping up a section of that floor. I moved to her right.

“Mom, what’s for breakfast?”

She swivelled back again to the left. This time, I firmly placed my feet on the wet spot on the ground where she’d just mopped. It always got her nagging and frustrated when any of us did that. “Mom?”

She didn’t respond – just turned back to the right and continued mopping like that had been her intention all along. The moment I stepped away from the wet spot, she began mopping that part again and clucked like she had no idea who’d created the two matching footprints on the ground.

I figured I knew where this was going.

I grabbed two pieces of bread and placed them right on the counter, without bothering to get a plate. I made a sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with way too much peanut butter and jelly that dripped off the edges and onto the shiny counter.

That also always got Mother nagging.

But the moment I stepped away, she just came over and wiped them down, shaking her head like she had no idea who’d messed up the counters either.

I was happy at first.

I mean, which 9-year-old wouldn’t be? I didn’t have to go to school, I got to dirty everything up without getting a single word out of Mother, and I could do whatever I wanted. The only thing I found a little difficult to manage was food.

Mother never made me breakfast or lunch or dinner. She didn’t even set out a place at the dining table. It was like she forgot about me – or was pretending that I didn’t exist.

I figured I’d be okay with just bread and cereal though.

It went like this for a few days.

Each day, it was getting more and more frustrating, and not just because it’s typical of all 9-years-old to want to be noticed and receive attention. It was becoming clear Mother wasn’t just ignoring me – she wasn’t seeing me.

I was a piece of furniture, the shadow in the corner of her eye that she just didn’t care to think twice about. She even treated me like furniture. She ‘accidentally’ stubbed her toe on me once, when I was sitting on the living room floor, and she went away muttering, “Stupid chair. Need to throw it out.” When I was clearly watching television, she would come over and turn it off, muttering about who could be one who didn’t turn the TV off before going to school. When I turned it back on again, she’d just switch it back off, and I’d yell asking her what her problem was, but the she’d just move away like she didn’t hear anything at all.

My school finally called at the end of those few days, asking why I wasn’t there. I overheard Mother saying, “I’m sorry Mrs Bern, but I don’t have a daughter named Alex.”

That was a stab to the heart.

I was 9-years-old.

I was 9-years-old and Mother was public acknowledging that I was not her daughter. That she didn’t even have a daughter; she only had two strong, beautiful boys who loved her and gave her kisses every day.

(They don’t. And they’re fat and ugly, always the firsts to get a wedgie from the playground bully. Now he’s strong and beautiful.)

Imagine your own Mother, never seeing you, never acknowledging you. Pretending she doesn’t know you exist. You are the furniture. You’re only as good as the furniture. Really, really, you are nothing in her eyes. Does it hurt now, as an adult, knowing that you are not loved or wanted?


It hurt a whole lot more as a kid.

I cried and cried and cried and cried and thought that Mother would break at hearing my sobs that wrecked through the walls and crept through the cracks in the door. I thought she would could come in and hug me and kiss my forehead and say she was sorry for being so cruel.

But she never did.

And I figured she never would.

(And she didn’t. Not until much, much later.)

I thought to myself, ‘What’s it gonna be? Are you gonna sink, or swim?’

I’d never been into a pool without my floats before. But that day, I took them off and tried out my arms and legs. I figure out how to keep afloat at least. If I’m not going forward just yet, I might as well learn how not to sink.

I woke myself up with an old alarm clock I got from my father. I tried making my own eggs, which turned out black and burnt at first, but slowly got better at it. I went to school. I paid attention in class. I didn’t let it get to me that my friends were talking about how they were doing this and that with their mums later on, or how on Mother’s Day we were each forced to write a sweet card to our mothers.

I sat next to Alicia Young, a girl whose mother left her and her dad when she was just a kid. I told her I didn’t have a mom and that we should make a “secret club” for mom-less kids. We wrote our cards to each other instead.

I made my own dinner. More burnt eggs and soggy, tasteless ramen. (I’d forgotten to put in flavouring.)

Little by little, I was swimming forward. I didn’t know any strokes – hell, I was dog paddling the whole time – but I was moving forward. I was swimming. Albeit terribly and very, very slowly, but I was doing it on my own, and that encouraged me to keep doing better.

Mother saw that, I guess. She started making food for me and stopped referring to me as the furniture, but that was as good as it got. We still didn’t talk; we still didn’t acknowledge each other directly. Mother is a proud woman; she didn’t want to admit that her own daughter did a whole lot of growing up without her.

That because she treated her own daughter like nothing, her own daughter decided that wasn’t true and pulled herself out the carnage without her.

I don’t need you Mother.

You taught me that.

I don’t need anyone, because if I can survive without you, then I can survive anything. I learnt how to swim on my own, even as you anchored me down.

I cut you out of life the way you cut me out of yours. Oh Mother, I am swimming. I am swimming because you thought I could be brought down easily. I am swimming because I don’t want to drown.

I am swimming, far away from you.



xx Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim


4 thoughts on “Sink or Swim

  1. You could easily see the difference between the mature, proud Alex who call her mom “mother” and the little broken daughter between the lines. I can’t believe there’re some moms like that.
    Some things can either break or make you. I’m happy for it was the later.

    Good work.

      • I don’t read because I’m obliged to do it. No, I read because I enjoy to do it and I try to always read behind the lines, and your work was worth my time, so no need to thank me.

  2. Now that is a powerful story. Made me kind of hope it would not be true. A mother denying her love from a child must be painful. Thank you for sharing!

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