Chapter 1 : Finding Yellow
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Tons of thanks to Maggie, Katie, and Heidi, without whom this would be a lot closer to its original draft than any story deserves to be.
I was eleven when my mother gave me the first gum wrapper. It was crumpled and dirty and it had a corner missing, but it was the first thing my mother had ever given me, so none of that seemed to matter. I had been telling my parents about getting my Hogwarts letter and how much I was looking forward to school, but when that square of red paper fluttered down from my mother’s hand into my lap, I stopped mid-sentence, staring at it.
When my grandmother saw what it was, she sighed. "Good Lord," she muttered. Then she smiled brightly. "Yes, thank you, Alice dear. That was very nice of you." And she rose to help my mother back to her bed, sighing and calling back over her shoulder, "Stick it in the bin, Neville dear. What she was thinking . . ."
But I didn’t. I kept it. And the next time we visited, when she dropped another one in my lap, I kept that one, too. And before too long, I had an entire rainbow of gum wrappers from my mother, every color but yellow. My mother didn’t like the yellow gum, the nurses told me.
The fact that my gum wrapper rainbow was incomplete shouldn’t have bothered me. But it did. As much as I tried to tell myself to stop being so foolish, to push it to the back of my mind, my thoughts kept being drawn back to that missing color, and I found myself, every Christmas and birthday, actually disappointed when my mother handed me a green or blue or red or orange or purple gum wrapper. Not at the gift itself, not at the fact that the only things my mother ever gave me were empty candy wrappings, no. Just at the color of the offering, because that missing color came, unasked, to signify what was missing out of my own life.
Yellow meant happiness. Yellow meant friendship. Yellow meant peace. I had none of those, not really. Those were things I thought I would never know. There was only one aspect of yellow in my life, the worst aspect of the color. Cowardice. Weakness. A lack of bravery. My yellow was what I was most ashamed of having.
I had long known that I was never going to be as brave or as smart or as talented as my parents had been. I had grown up knowing that because I had grown up hearing that. The words may have been spoken with love, but they still dared me to measure up, even as they told me I never could.
And I guess there was some part of me that thought if I could just have the missing color, if I could only complete what was hidden, unfinished, then I could measure up. I could be as great as my parents had been. I could finally make my grandmother proud. All I needed was yellow.
If my life had been a story written down, then my mother would have handed me a yellow gum wrapper when I visited her by myself for the first time just before I left for my seventh year at Hogwarts.
She didn’t. On that day, that visit, the wrapper she gave me was orange. My fifth.
I tried not to let my disappointment show. The last thing I wanted to do was leave my mother upset, when I knew it might be the last time I saw her. So I thanked her sincerely, kissed her on the cheek, and helped her back to bed. And I headed off to school, no closer to finding that missing color than I had been before. But something was different this time. I had a new resolve, a new determination. If I couldn’t find yellow, I would just have to make some of my own.
And something changed, once I made that decision. All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t as brave or as smart or as talented as my parents. The fact that I was Neville Longbottom, that awkward Gryffindor who couldn’t do anything right, wasn’t important anymore. The students at Hogwarts needed help, and so, instead of wondering what my grandmother would think, I helped them. There were things that needed to be done, and instead of worrying about if I could and what would happen to me if I did, I just did them, and didn’t care about the consequences. I became an entirely new person, and it was exhilarating. I believed in myself so that others would believe in me. For the first time in my life, I took a stand. For the first time in my life, I mattered.
And when I came back from their detentions, exhausted and aching from their torture, I never let it show. Like I had learned from my mother and father long ago, you can color others’ emotions with your own. So I would stride, not stumble, from their dungeons, my head held high in defiance. The looks on the faces of my peers was worth every bruise. They were proud. Of me. And I was determined to earn their pride.
Because I learned something, and the longer I lived in Hogwarts that year, the more the lesson sunk in. The missing color didn’t matter. It no longer represented who I was. I had become the whole rainbow, and they couldn’t touch me. They couldn’t hurt me, they couldn’t keep me from being seen, and they couldn’t change the reaction people had when they saw me. I was doing something and I couldn’t be stopped.
The visit to my parents just after my seventh year was the first time I had ever gone, not out of a sense of duty, but because I had something that I really wanted to tell them. "I know this won’t mean anything to either of you," I said, sitting between their beds, "but we won." There were days I woke up and could still hardly believe it. "It means something now. Everything you fought for, everything that happened . . . it was for this. We won. He’s gone. And I just wanted you to know. I wanted to be the one to tell you." My parents looked at me blankly, but because I hadn’t expected anything different, I wasn’t disappointed.
I smiled. "You know, you taught me something, Mum," I said to her, and she turned her dull eyes to me, head tilted to one side. "Whether you meant to or not. You taught me that there are some things that can’t be given. Some things have to come from inside you. I never knew what I was capable of until I had to make my own courage. See, I thought the incomplete rainbow meant I would never have it, when really, it was just that I had to find it for myself."
She continued staring at me as I spoke, rocking back and forth a little. Then she pulled something from a drawer and shuffled over to me, holding out her hand insistently. I held my own beneath hers, palm up to receive whatever it was she was giving me. A gum wrapper fluttered down.
It was blue. I laughed. "Exactly," I said quietly. In a world as unpredictable and turbulent as ours had been recently, it was nice to know that some things didn’t change.
That was all many years ago. The time when incredible feats of bravery were necessary to get through each day are long past, and my life is as simple and quiet as teaching at Hogwarts can be.
That was my last visit to my parents, telling them I’d been hired to replace Professor Sprout as the Herbology teacher. I think I was just as excited that day as I’d been when I’d told them that Voldemort had been defeated. By then I was my parents only visitor, as my grandmother had died a few years after the Final Battle, as proud of me as she had ever been of her son.
But that day, in the hospital, I was telling my parents about getting the notification and how excited I was to be going to teach at Hogwarts when my mother shuffled up to me and dropped a gum wrapper in my lap. Red.
I let my previous sentence trail off as I looked down at it, smiling a little, sadly. My mother hadn’t stopped giving me gum wrappers in the decade or so since I’d been visiting her alone. And now she stood by my chair, anxiously waiting for me to accept her offering. I did, as always, picking it up and putting it in my pocket. "Thanks, Mum," I whispered, and I led her back to bed.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve needed the rainbow and that one missing color," I told her, still holding her hand. She looked up at me, catching on to my slight sadness. I smiled reassuringly. "You can give me as many gum wrappers as you want," I said with a smile. "I will add them to my collection at home. I’m only saying that I don’t need you to finish the rainbow for me anymore. But I do wish that there was a way to finish it for you. I wish you could find your yellow."
For in the time since my last year at Hogwarts, I had grown to realize that, although it really didn’t need to signify anything, that incomplete rainbow had become a better analogy for my parents’ lives than my own. They needed happiness, friendship, and peace far more than I did, now. Their lives were the incomplete ones, the ones missing that vital, vibrant something. And I knew that it didn’t matter how dutiful or loving a son I was, I couldn’t give it to them. I would never be able to. Just like my mother was never be able to give me yellow because she didn’t have any yellow wrappers to give. She simply didn’t have them.
Maybe, somewhere, somehow, my mother knew that something was missing. Maybe, locked away inside her, hidden from thought and memory for so many years, was the little piece of Alice Longbottom who knew who her son was, had always known. I imagine, if that was true, that she found her inability to give her son yellow as frustrating as I once had.
I say this because my mother died a few nights ago. Part of me mourns because my mother is gone, because that part of her that may or may not have existed is now truly lost to me. But part of me knows, also, that the woman who sat in the bed in St. Mungo’s wasn’t my mother and hadn’t been for a long time. And all of me knows that she’s better off wherever she is now, that the part of her that was Alice Longbottom, my mother, is free again.
When I got to the ward, to do the things that had to be done, the first thing I saw was my father, sitting in his bed, looking bewildered and lost. Every so often, he would glance to where my mother’s bed had once been and stare at the now-vacant space.
"How is he?" I asked the nurse. She looked at him sadly.
"He only knows something’s missing, poor dear." Yes, and that is a theme that has run rampant through all the lives of this family. Something’s missing.
The nurse then told me that my mother had been inconsolable the last few days of her life. I was told that she was constantly agitated, constantly unsettled and upset, looking always toward the door of the ward, as if waiting for someone to walk through it. "She had something she wanted to give you," the nurse told me, and then she spoke of a battered envelope that my mother had refused to let out of her sight. She clutched it to her person or set it on the seat of the chair I always occupied on my visits, and nothing any of the nurses said could convince her to give it up.
"I haven’t opened it," she said as she handed me a dirty, much abused parchment envelope. "Didn’t seem right to. But it was very important to your mother that you get this, dear. Maybe you’ll know why."
It took me a very long time to open that envelope. I sat in my office, staring at it for hours that night, wondering what on earth had been so important to my mother. It was likely nothing, I tried to tell myself. Just a delusional woman’s fancy and nothing more.
Finally, in one fluid motion, telling myself to expect nothing, I upended the envelope over my desk and stared down at what fell out of it. Slowly, so slowly, a smile spread across my face, even as tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, there hadn’t been some part of my mother in the vacant woman I had always known all along. For sitting on my desktop were five gum wrappers. One red, one orange, one green, one blue, one purple, all identical to the countless others I had gotten since the age of eleven but for one thing. They were, every one, colored over with yellow ink.
My mother had finished her rainbow after all.