Cara’s head nodded, drool lining her chin. She’d fought her way in and out of sleep all night as she waited for her mom in the hospital waiting room.
Reflexively, she glanced around the room, processing potential danger even as she fell back asleep. She was slouched in the most uncomfortable chair she could find, thinking it would help her stay awake, but her eyelids had other plans.
Every time she fell back asleep, her textbook slid farther down her legs. It had already fallen once, and the sound of it slapping against the tile had jolted her awake. But that was hours ago, nothing more than a dream to the sleep-deprived teenager.
Her eyes fluttered open at the sound of a distant announcement. A call for a patient’s name. Scuffling feet and sporadic coughs punctured her dreams, interrupting the brief respite from her real life.
“Cara,” Deb snapped as she stood over her daughter.
Cara nearly jumped out of her chair at the sound of her mother’s voice, dropping her textbook with yet another thud. “Hi, mom,” she said as she wiped the drool from her chin.
Deb scowled as she picked up Cara’s book, handing it back to her daughter. “What did I say about coming here?”
“That it better be an emergency,” Cara said with a sigh.
Deb tilted her head. “And is it?” She asked, her body language suggesting she clearly knew the answer.
Cara just shrugged, both because she knew her mom already knew the answer, and because she was too tired to think of anything witty to say.
Deb let out another sigh as she directed Cara out of the hospital. “Why do you feel the need to keep disobeying me?” She asked in a huffy whisper as they walked out of the sliding doors.
Cara clenched and unclenched her hands, fighting to remain calm. Her answer should be obvious, and it makes her furious that her mom would even ask it.
“I don’t,” is all she says in reply, her voice betraying her anger.
“You do,” Deb responds, shaking her head as they walk toward her car. “I told you to stay home and sleep like a normal human being, and you walked to the hospital instead. Do you realize how dangerous that is?”
“I texted you,” Cara said, throwing her book in the back seat of her mom’s car. “I told you I was coming.”
“Yeah,” Deb scoffed as they climbed in the car. “Great good that does me hours after the fact. You know I don’t get texts during work. If something had happened…”
Cara doesn’t look at her mom, opting instead to study the stains on her passenger-side window. She didn’t trust herself to speak. Not while they were both so worked up.
She could feel her mom staring at her, considering what to say next, but nothing came. Eventually, Deb just started the car and pulled out of the parking garage, letting the silence grow as she drove.
Cara could feel her mom’s desire to speak. Could feel the tension building, but neither of them said a word during their short trip home. Eventually, Deb pulled into their driveway and turned the car off, but neither of them got out of the car.
Cara frowned as her mom turned to face her in her seat, waiting for Cara to do the same, but Cara wasn’t ready for that yet. Instead, she turned her face to look at her mom for the first time. A compromise.
“I was just worried for you,” Deb said, her voice soft with concern.
“I know,” Cara growled, biting off the words with more aggression than she intended.
They both took a deep breath, Cara in an attempt to calm down, Deb in preparation to press on.
“I just don’t understand why you don’t want to listen,” Deb said, her voice constricted.
Cara couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Because I’m worried about you!” She yelled, tears beginning to fall. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want you to be alone.”
Deb pulled back, her eyebrows furrowed as she processed her daughter’s words.
“And,” Cara added, “I don’t want to be alone either.”
Deb let out a staggered breath, choosing to focus on her daughter’s most recent statement. “You can always call your dad,” she said weakly. “You know he’s willing to talk with you until you fall asleep.”
“He didn’t answer,” Cara snapped, wiping at her tears. “And it’s not the same. You’re gone like every other night. I’m always alone, mom. Always.”
Cara could see the guilt in her mother’s eyes, thinly veiled within her frustration. “Cara, you know I’d work less if I could. I’m doing the best I can.”
“I know,” Cara said, weariness replacing her rage.
She knew her mom did the best she could, but, sometimes, it wasn’t enough. She’ll never say that. She feels terrible even thinking it, but there it is. “I love you,” she says instead.
Deb’s smile was genuine, yet weighted with worry. Cara could see that in her mom even if others couldn’t, but she felt powerless to help. The best she could do was to just be with her mom, and it was clear even that brought about more worry than comfort.
Ever since the divorce, nothing was secure. Nothing was stable. Nothing except her mom, and yet, even her mom was fragile.
Deb reached out to her daughter, pulling her in for a hug. Tears still on her face, Cara allowed herself to be pulled into the embrace.
It wasn’t until felt her mom’s arms around her, that Cara could finally relax.
As fragile as her mom was, she usually felt even more brittle. Like she was waiting for something horrible to happen. Just one more thing to come along and break her.
But when she was in the arms of her mother, she knew better. She wasn’t brittle. She was oak. She wasn’t fragile. She was steel. She was loved, and she was safe.