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“Help me do my hair.” Palsied hands guided mine to the pair of
chopsticks Mama always used to bind her hair in a tight bun. I
gathered the limp gray strands gently, conscious of Mama’s fragility.
No matter what I did, though, the chopsticks kept slipping out of the
knots I made.

“Harder.” She reached up and gave the chopsticks a sharp twist. I
winced as I heard hair snap, but her face showed no pain. “I want to
look my best when I die.”

“Mama, don’t say such things.”

“I’m dying and you know it. No sense pretending. When I’m gone, you
have to keep the family together. Someone has to keep your brothers
from killing each other.” She nodded toward the other room. Through
the thin wooden walls, we could hear them already arguing about

“How can I? They won’t even give me the time of day.”

“I know you can do it. You have to be strong.” She patted my hand.

I felt her slip away. “Mama!”

“I love you all.” As the light left her eyes, her head bent forward.
The motion jarred the bun loose and the chopsticks clattered to the
floor. I reached for them and tried to do her hair again, but there
was no strength left in my shaking fingers. A door slammed shut,
and my family was no more.

(Written on the train.)

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