Our school was small by university standards, a selling point on campus tours that covered the bland aesthetics with promises of a quality education. Wilted poplar trees lined the bleak sidewalks that connected grey and white academic buildings. Despite the close-knit community the brochures advertised, I didn’t know many outside the immediate circle of my two friends. I’ll be damned if I could tell you the names of even ten students in our class before I met the one whose name changed everything. She was Sunday, formally Sundra Day Forrester, born and raised in the great Golden State, whose name encompassed the very essence of her radiant personality. She lit up my world and colored the campus with an aura of yellow ochre. We lived in the same house sophomore year as a product of the random housing process, but I like to think there were greater forces at play.
Sunday was the happiest person on our green grounds, just ask anyone. She had a way about her that just made people smile, always boppin’ her head along with the music and greeting you like you were just the person she’d been waiting to see all day. She used to come home from class with the biggest hugs that would melt away any negativity that had built up in her absence. One day she started calling me “Mom” because she thought it was cute that I cooked and cleaned for the whole house and the nickname just kind of stuck. I never minded taking care of her. She had the playful innocence of a child that needed guidance, but behind it all was a dark seriousness that betrayed the façade she used to hide her complicated home life. She was always so keen on helping everyone else, but I knew she needed someone to make sure she was doing okay. Especially after she lost her mom. That was when she really needed taking care of. Her grandpa was still so far away taking care of business back home, someone had to be there to help the sun break through all those clouds.
We often broke through those clouds by flying high above them in the vessels crafted by joints and red wine. We would glue ourselves to the bedroom floor and let whatever music was playing carry our minds as far away as possible. We all had something we were looking to escape.
Nights like these were always my favorite. I was never into drugs, but smoking weed always felt right to me. Someone once told me it was natural and I liked the way it felt, so I just kept on. It was almost always for socializing. It let us open up more and act the way we did with our siblings at home- weird but in that way that doesn’t feel weird at all, just comfortable.
Our schedules always got busy once the semester reached mid-way, so we had to make plans to have nights like these. One night late in October that year we were waiting for Sunday to get out of work so we could fly together. She always had this way of bursting through the door with a look of pure excitement, as if the greatest thing had just happened or was about to happen. It never failed to lift my mood.
“Hey guys!” Sunday rang out as she bounced into the room and laid out a spread of leftovers she snuck out of work. We all shouted back our appreciation for the snacks and her presence, which turned our boring threesome into a full on party.
“How was work?” I asked, noticing the apparent relief in her body as she sank to the floor.
“Ugh, exhausting! Work will be the death of me, but I need the money so it’s great. It’s great!” She laughed and we laughed with her because that was how things were with Sunday. She could put a positive spin on anything and never seemed to want to complain.
Someone started passing a joint around the music volume was increased. I coughed and coughed when it was my turn to hit and Sunday just leaned back with her eyes closed and said, “I can’t wait to be high.”
Our vision was blurred in the haze of the room and after what felt like an hour I looked down at the joint in my hand.
“Is this thing still on?” I asked. Sunday looked up into my eyes and cracked open the widest smile I’d ever seen. She leaned over and hugged me, laughing and said, “You are the cutest. I love you.”
I hugged her back, basking in her compliment and the truth of our friendship. “I love you so much, my sunshine,” I whispered back. Every fiber in my being knew the truth those words carried. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, holding onto each other. As long as we needed to, I guess. Our embrace saying everything we knew our words couldn’t. I wills always be here for you. I will never let anything bad happen to you. I’d never fallen into that kind of love before, but all at once it felt so familiar. After that night, hearing her call me Mom had a whole new meaning.
I had always wondered where she conjured up her positive spirit. After living with her for a few months, we slowly learned more about her home life, which made her upbeat personality even more surprising at times. It was inspiring, though she never saw it that way. For her, it was just the way she had to be to get through the day.
When her grandfather came to visit in November of that year, I finally understood why Sunday was the way she was. Watching from our upstairs window, I stood amazed as the two ran into each other arms after so much time apart. The emotion in the embrace was visible; in a moment so powerful it was minutes before I realized I had tears on my cheeks and a handful of curtain twisted into my fist. I lost my own grandpa only a few months prior and didn’t realize how much I still longed for him until witnessing the intimate moment between another grandpa and his little girl.
I don’t remember her grandfather’s name, it really wasn’t important at the time. He was one of those jolly old types who said, “Just call me Grandpa,” so we just did. He had an air of soft power about him – sweet as could be, but would drag you by the ear if you ever got out of line. His fluffy white hair grew out in all directions and his body, clad in a staple white turtleneck and blue velvet slacks, felt like a sack of pillows when you hugged him.
He took us all to the grocery store that afternoon and demanded we invite everyone we knew over for dinner. Everyone I knew already lived in our house, but Sunday invited enough friends for us all. Our meager kitchen was filled to the brim with excited chatter in anticipation for a home-cooked meal.
I remember the calming sensation of gratitude that came over me as we sat around two mismatched tables that had been pushed together to fit us all. I watched as the Grandfather passed out baked chicken and buttered rolls, Sunday never leaving his side and a smiling never leaving her lips. I realized as I sat there staring at the scene that I too was smiling, as if I was watching a happy memory play out from the outside.
“Hey, Mom! Can you get this wine bottle open?” Sunday shouted at me from across the table and I was released from my trance, snapping back to reality with the mechanic attention given response to her voice. The bottle was passed down the table and I expertly removed the cork from the neck with the subtle pop and hiss of a crisp Cabernet to a chorus of applause and approval.
“What a pro! I knew she’d be able to do it. Thanks, Mom!” Sunday’s steadfast belief in me made me swoon. I never told her how nervous I had actually been while handling the corkscrew. I so badly wanted to impress her grandpa and our friends around the table, and when I’d succeeded I felt a pride unknown to me before.
After dinner there was a classic store-bought white frosted cake, as we sang a belated blessing to past birthdays we hadn’t all been together for. Sunday threw her arms around her grandfather as someone snapped a group photo. I was just happy to be in a room with so many of my peers. It was the first time at school that I felt accepted. Like I belonged somewhere.
At the end of the night her grandpa had to leave so he could go back to his hotel. As he made his rounds saying goodbye, he stopped in front of me and gazed deeply into my eyes. We hugged and I felt every emotion of him embrace.
“You are a good person,” he whispered in my ear, his arms still wrapped tightly around my torso. Involuntary tears sprang to my eyes with his nonchalant declaration of one of my most personal fears. He gave me one last look, as if to say it’s okay, I know, and turned to leave with Sunday guiding her through the door.
I sat down to process the night and the impact of his parting words. Sunday bounced back in the door and joined me on the couch, giddy from the night’s good spirit and good company. We sat there, silently processing the feelings crossing our minds and hearts. Gratitude and acceptance for me, comfort and hidden longing for her.
The rest of the semester flew by, as they always seemed to do. I was moving out to go abroad, something I simultaneously longed for and regretted. I needed the experience but was sad it had to come at a time when I was finally finding my place at school. I had a family now.
On the day I had to leave I said my goodbyes strategically, anticipating the difficulty and distress of leaving such love. When it was finally time to say my final goodbye, Sunday was the only one left in the room. I stood there, paralyzed with a lamp in one hand and a pillow in the other. I smiled and she hugged me tightly.
“I’m going to miss you so much, Mom. Please come back soon.”
I assured her I would and continued to smile. Despite the tears in her eyes, I kept my composure, knowing all too well what would happen if I let myself go.
I turned and walked briskly to my car, getting in and speeding off before I had the chance to look back. Maybe if I had stayed, things would have been different. But probably not. This was my life’s path. As much as I wanted to be there for her, I had to go.
At the end of my semester abroad, I was celebrating my birthday with champagne and decadent chocolate mousse, covered in handmade whipped cream and truffle shavings, in blissful ignorance of all the happenings of life back home.
The text came through from one of our housemates. Sunday’s mom had been found, alone in her apartment. She’d been there for a few days before anyone had even started looking. It was declared suicide, the end to a long and laborious battle with drug abuse and mental health.
I texted Sunday to let her know I was there for her, although I didn’t know what else to say. I never knew her mom and she never liked to talk about home. If she ever wanted to I would have listened.
The first time I saw her after it happened, I could feel it. Her loss carried its own presence beside her when she entered the room. She still gave that notorious Sunday smile, but it wavered at the corners of her mouth when she thought no one was looking. She quickly changed the topic when the conversion moved to anything regarding her, and her glass seemed to always be full of some alcohol or another.
We don’t live together any more. Those of us who went abroad decided to move off campus, but her scholarship kept her locked into the random housing process. We still see her for our nights above the clouds, but the weather feels darker now. The sun rarely shines.
I still do what I can to take care of her. I spot her money when we go out to eat and pretend not to notice when she doesn’t pay me back. I’ll share my drinks with her at the bar and pretend not to look concerned if I think she’s had one too many. I pretend everything is how it used to be.
By all accounts it is the same. She still bounces when she walks and smiles at strangers. I’ll do something weird and she’ll tell me how adorable I am.
I asked her how her grandpa was doing the other day and she said, “He’s good.” I don’t think they’ve actually talked since winter break.
We do what we can so we don’t lose her. Although, maybe we already did. I try my hardest not to believe it. I try not to believe that the one person who brought sunshine to my life could have lost all of it from her own. I try and try to give it back but I just don’t know how. I guess that’s just how it is with family.