A Glacial Slowness by Tara Isabel Zambrano

My mother is unable to cry.

She’s sitting next to my father’s body covered in a white sheet, her hand over his chest. She’s staring at his face—dry, loose lips, a prickly beard—presses her hand on the fabric.

The neighbors arrive for the prayers and my mother goes into the kitchen filled with relatives, some friends. From the window, a post-monsoon light streams in, falls at her feet. An emotion rushes to her quickly, peaks and disappears. Speechless, she nods as if concluding something.


In the X-ray, my father’s brain tumor looks like a diamond in a black hole, threads of metastasis growing with a glacial slowness but fast enough to kill him in a few months. The doctor points to the left side of his brain, where my childhood and my mother’s youth lives. Where his secrets sleepwalk.

I suck on my thumb where I’ve accidentally cut myself, the blood browned, waiting for the doctor to decide the date of my father’s surgery. My mother has called me twice, I haven’t answered the phone. In the coming months, the intervals between hospitalizing my father will shrink. In the coming weeks, his hallucinations will increase, he’ll wonder why he’s holding a toothbrush, how he’s supposed to take a bath. He’ll write the names of family members in a diary and wish them well on their birthdays and anniversaries. Then he’ll fall asleep because his head will weigh him down. In the coming days, my mother will watch the raindrops splatter on the patio, weep in the dark, gray mornings.

My mother is sobbing on Skype. In the background, I can hear my father yelling, his speech incoherent. I instruct her to take him to the hospital: perhaps it’s a stroke, perhaps something else. She hangs up and there’s silence, but I can hear her helping him walk to the porch, into the car, driving away, surrounded by horns and screeching brakes, holding his hand, stepping into the phenyl-smelling corridors of the nearest hospital, the creases on their foreheads softening in the irritating summer light, the curve of their mouths flat, as if they have no expression to give except waiting.

I’m visiting on the spring break after my mother has mentioned a few incidents where my father struggled to remember her name. He is taking pictures of the flowers in the front yard, bending sideways to snap an orange rosebud. Colors are something our brain composes, I say. No way, he exclaims, like I have robbed him of a dream. The sky is clear of wheeling clouds, pristine. My mother is standing on the porch, wearing a lemon-yellow nightgown. She is rubbing her left eye. Something in it, she says. When I get close, I see her cheeks are wet and the edge of her forehead blurs into the crisp, golden air. She waves a hand of dismissal and says she wishes I could stay longer. I squeeze her hand. Together, we squint and smile. In the distance, my father raises his camera, his windswept sleeves like wings, up, up and up.


Tara shares what inspired this piece:

I started writing this piece when my father was first diagnosed with glioblastoma, and added to it after he died nine months later. My father’s death affected me deeply and this flash piece is focused on my mother who was his primary caretaker in India, since my brother and I live in the US.

Tara Isabel Zambrano is a writer of color and the author of a full -length flash collection, Death, Desire, And Other Destinations by OKAY Donkey Press in 2020. Her work has appeared in The Southampton Review, Shenandoah, Tin House, Mid-American Review, Bat City Review and others. She lives in Texas and is currently working on a short story collection.

Essay first published in Matchbook.

Header photo by Daniel Hansen on Unsplash

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