Published on March 14th, 2024 | by Elisa Sinnett


It Breaks My Heart to Leave You Behind

We leave Detroit in the morning. The packed car whines up the I-75 highway bridge with Del Ray and the Detroit River to the left and a line of oil refineries out your window. I should be more excited to leave the gray behind and go on the road, but part of me worries about what’s waiting at the end of this trip.

We’re driving to Texas, you’re asleep, and your neck pillow is a pink shrimp with a face. In the crook of your arm is a lime-colored “squishmallow.” You always surround yourself with pillows and plush toys with smiling embroidered faces. You’ll cry over a stuffed animal stored face down. “It can’t breathe,” you say.

Your empathy doesn’t discriminate; your care for others is deep and sometimes surprising. When your father holds you in his arms for the first time, he pronounces that you have “sangre dulce.” We can see it in your eyes, your sweet blood. And although he does not stick around, his prophecy holds true.

We never have a pet. We need a pet, but we’re living in a rental house and I’m already buying groceries on the credit card. Your pet is an orange, a clementine to be exact. You carry it with you around the flat like some children carry blankies. Your big sister suggests we draw a face on it, but you are outraged at the suggestion. “You can’t poison it!” You name it “My Darling Clementine,” and when your darling disappears one evening you call a giant search party. Your face closes in on itself when we can’t find your pet. When your big sister sweeps it out from underneath the rusting clawfoot bathtub with a broom a few weeks later your face is a picture of everything we have actually lost in real life. A home, a father, a school, and an entire city. It isn’t orange and plump anymore; neither is our life together, but we are trying.

We dress up like the other families and go to the newest movies. At the theater, you cry when a minor character dies, even when your big sister tries to comfort you with, “It’s just a plot device!” We hug up and read piles of books from the library. “Listen to this!” you’ll sniff with tears of laughter or sadness, depending on the scene. But when that boy at school dies, it takes you longer to process and you are silent for a year.

Tienes corazon dulce, you do, but you radiate outward too. You give your juice boxes to people standing at the street corners. “Mom, their kids might be thirsty!” You build the Day of the Dead altar on your knees, talk to your great grandparents, tearing marigolds petal by petal, placing them gently. Your hugs are crushing; you make coupon books good for twelve cuddles, three free breakfasts, six car chats, and no expiry date. But today we’re driving to Texas with all of your childhood in the rearview mirror, and the person you’ve grown to be as a young adult is what shines now.

You don’t judge people. You hold out hope for change, treat people with respect even when you’re holding a grudge. But you also show up with a picket sign. You believe in a better world; you desire to be someone who works for it. You meet your sweetheart at Americorps National Service in California. Both of you are volunteers. You translate for refugees, pack boxes, clear trails, and see the country together. He says, “I always get a crush on the short girl.” You say, “Mom, he’s been to eleven National Parks!”

This is the punch line. You’re staying in Texas, and I’m leaving in a few days. You’ve stayed with them before. His family is intact. His family is generous. His family loves you. His sister says, “We’ve missed you.” His parents say, “Welcome home” and “Your daughter is so perfect for our son.” We visit his grandmother, 91 years old and slinging begonia pots around ahead of the upcoming cold snap. When you and I walk through her kitchen with its scarred oak table and a cabinet of dishes from the 1970’s you lean towards me and say, “It smells like grandpa’s house.”

We arrive at the apartment you’ll share while you study nursing in Texas. You are home now. It’s a small apartment up a steep set of stairs, but within walking distance of his parents. There’s a dog that licks everyone and children who follow you around and think you are the best auntie ever. They ask to try on your Taylor Swift sweater and their new eyeglasses mirror yours exactly. His parents are waiting for me to head back to Detroit before they bring out the ‘Welcome Home’ cake, but I can see how contented they are. “You know I’m happy for you, right?” I whisper as my forehead touches yours. “I do, Mom, I do.”

I see you hugging your sweetheart this morning, the Texas sunshine striping in through the blinds. Your bodies link together, a perfect fit.

You’ve found your person, I know that, but I can still feel the weight of you in my arms, the feel of your tiny head resting against my chest. I have every expression of your face memorized.

It breaks my heart to leave you behind.

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About the Author

This is Elisa Sinnett’s second contribution to MUTHA Magazine. She’s a former public school teacher and writes with her mentor Ariel Gore and the Wayward Writers Workshop. She’s also the author of Detroit Fairy Tales (Flexible Press, 2021). Connect with Elisa on Instagram: elisasinnett

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