I'd give you the warmth and more.
May 1, 2022 / Laura Ngyuen.
I’ve always loved the creak of a swinging hammock. It’s a sound that I know well, and it’s forever etched into my being. It’s my mother cradling my four-year-old self inside the hammock of our living room, my eyes lidded yet trained on an unknown movie that drowsily hums in my head. My mother’s warmth seeps into my very own skin, and unknowingly, she nurtures me, even in her sleep. The natural heat graces her cheeks with the loveliest of hues. The contrasting blue light that reflects against our skins rolls back as the sunlight shines into our window. The distant morning rush — a bicycle winding down the street, a car revving up for its next monotonous day of work — makes itself known. It’s time to awaken.
Fuschia is her favorite color. It has to be, because every single morning, I’ve watched her swatch it onto her lips. She powdered bright reds onto her cheeks for an extra touch. Her hair was a fiery red, because that’s how bright she was. She was loud, and I was proud — she was my mom. I swore from day to day that I would be the happiest, brightest, hardest-working kid on the block. I wanted her to know that every cent, second, and feeling she spent on me would be worth it. And I would do that, just for her.
As I climbed in height and age, she shrunk. She’s a little past my shoulder now. The vivid canvas I embraced turned into delicate, warm auburn hair, and pink lips that complimented her cherub face. I never noticed these pigments dimming until we took her to the doctor for the first time in 15 years. She was bleeding at the back of her eyes, and we caught it just in time. I’m hit by how much life has taken a toll on her the moment she lays down on a hospital bed. I now realize how fragile she was all along, and how I failed to make every second worth it for her.
Medication piles up in our drawers, machines that prod and poke into her skin become regular guests into our lives. Soon, we’re struggling to see the flowers underneath the weeds. It’s hard to pull pieces of beauty within life as she’s slowly taken away from me. The soil is bare, and I don’t have anything to nurture it with. She’s older, weaker, frail. I know this, but it was only a couple years ago when I could look back in a grocery store and find her carefully watching me waddle down the aisles. Now it seems like distant lectures of my own voice echoing for her to get decent rest, to eat your vegetables, to wrap up warmly when it gets too cold outside. Life can change when the person you’ve admired your entire life is suddenly the one you’re protecting at all costs.
And while that maternal love is still there, I’m grappling for an answer as to why she deserved this — why we deserved this. The pigments and bursts of color and expression I memorized by heart soon turned into that — a memory. With any sickness comes a break. The fiery reds and fuchsias I recognized as life turned into a blank canvas that had no definition. The roots of her hair soon drowned out in black, her lips chapped and dried white. When her hair and skin thinned, and she was a poke away from bruising, it was the least of her concerns. It’s unfair that the life and vitality I was privileged to see was stripped away from me with just a prescription.
But we still lived. With every engagement, anniversary, birthday came an opportunity to bring back life. I could feel the blood rush against her skin as she held out her makeup bag toward me to get dolled up once more. The earnest, hopeful glint in her eyes made me realize that she relied on me to make her feel beautiful when she herself could not. She was stuck in a time that was aesthetically dynamic with her 2004 Lancome eyeshadow duos and the tattooed makeup on her face.
Now, at 21, I stand with her in front of her vanity. She’s smaller and much more fragile than she was when I was four. When her hands won’t work, mine will. I smooth the foundation across her aged skin. I paint her lips with a new fuchsia. Soon, I apply a brush of blush against the apples of her cheeks, and I almost feel the blood and heat rush against the pads of my fingertips. The subtle blush warms her pale complexion, and it traverses us back in time. I could feel the sun raining down her freckles, her heart beating against my own on a cozy morning in the hammock. The rush of memories is enough to make me believe that she is and will always be the brightest, strongest, warmest person I will know.
The thing that leaves me breathless is knowing that I can’t give her more life, no matter how much I replicate hers. I can frame her face with copious amounts of peaches and pinks, try as I might — but I can’t give her the natural blush she once had. I can’t fix the shakiness of her hands; I can’t fix anything as the medicine takes its turn in her body. I miss my mom; I miss having a mom. I’m still grieving the absence of someone I religiously leaned on.
Makeup isn’t a prescription, but it’s a way I can give back to her. With a brush of pigment on her cheeks, I’m able to grant a spectrum of color to my mother who brought unconditional warmth into my life. It’s the starting trickles of rain in an endless drought of vivid hues and lively memories. It’s a way to imagine what we once were: warm, safe, protected by all means, and more. Suddenly, we’re back to a place where I was nothing but a curled up body and a thrumming heartbeat. When blush crawls up onto her cheeks, it reminds me of the warmth that latched itself against my skin. I was a life gifted from her and solely her. It’s a remedy that transcends us back to where we were before. ■
Story by Laura Ngyuen.
Layout Brooke Borglum.
Photographer Katie Pangborn.
Stylist Courtney Fay.
HMUA Anna Strother.
Model Rusama Islam.
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.