I have begun writing this piece more times than I can count. Somehow I could not bring myself to finish it.

Last week I received a picture from my parents. My mother was with a friend. Her loose, creamy linen clothes made her look ghostly. But she looked straight at the camera and smiled, a reassuring smile directed to me, and me alone.

It was Christmas. She was trying one of usual fad diets. This was a family tradition, like the bacalao. Nobody at home liked the overly salted fish, the potatoes that took ages to cook and the capers. If there is anything I dislike to this day is the taste of capers in tomato sauce. Somehow bacalao always ended in the Christmas dinner menu and, as much as we couldn’t stomach the smell, it would not have been Christmas without it.

It would also not be Christmas without the announcement of the newest, safest, and foolproof way to lose weight. This time for real. Atkins, Dash, Mediterranean. Low carb. High protein. Only fruit juice for the weekend. I was surprised it lasted until 18 January, every year without fail. Then, on the eve of my father’s birthday, he would order a three milk cake and that would be the end of the charade. Breaking the diet was a given, as were the constant, half-hearted complaints.

Then 7 years ago she actually began to lose weight. It turned out that kale juice was not responsible for that. Cancer was.

(There, I’ve said it).

She was always so proud of her hair. Liz Taylor hair, she used to say. And when she began turning grey, she refused to colour it. She said to people that she was proud of her age. The truth is that the one time she tried it went so wrong that she wouldn’t leave the house without a hat to cover her misery. Now her hair has disappeared. It has been replaced by colourful bandannas that announce to the world the truth that she perhaps would like to keep hidden. The straw hats she always wore to the beach now protect her face.

For some reason, every time I think of my mother these days I think of the time I was a child and wanted a red balloon. My cousin had gotten one from her dad and I, for the life of me, could not understand why I wasn’t getting a red balloon too. But I didn’t get one that day, nor the day after. I cried and begged and crossed my arms and stomped in protest. And I still did not get the red balloon.

Then, it must have been a few weeks later, I had a birthday party. The living room of our narrow house was packed with neighbours, classmates and family. Red balloons hung in every corner, but they were still out of my reach. After everyone had gone home, we spent what seemed like hours just playing with red balloons. My dress was white, with little green apples. And my mother kept on throwing the balloons at me. I would run around the tiny house, kicking and hitting balloons back. I was enchanted. When it was time to go to bed, I got to keep the one balloon and the rest was swiftly popped with a needle and disposed of neatly in the garbage.

When I was back home a few years ago, I hugged her and noticed that she had become light, frail, almost ethereal. I feared that my embrace would break her in two and I confess I shied away from her. That was not my mother I was hugging. She never mentioned it to me, but it makes me cringe to think that she thought I rejected her.

Now I wish I could take it all back and put my arms around her with all the strength I have in my body. To tell her that the small puffs on her head will soon grow back into beautiful waves, like they used to. That she will once more be able to lift her arms and hit balloons around with me.

They still live in the narrow house, my mother and father. He has become devoted to her care, he’s almost a shadow. All attention is on her. Their day is quickly filled with doctor’s appointments, nurses, well-wishers and a few other curious souls. This year, as usual, the smell of bacalao will fill the living room at Christmas. There will be no fad diets, and no red balloons.