Mum’s hands dance in an absurd game of charades. ‘The thing that goes like this but not the broom.’ Though she means for me to answer, she directs her words to the space above my head.
‘The vacuum cleaner. I’ll look at it now.’ I don’t get up; I won’t be looking at it. Mum’s right that something is broken, it’s just not the vacuum.
She sits in the chair opposite, most of her tiny frame hidden beneath the table. I watch as she pulls faces at her teacup as though it is to blame for its emptiness. In the before days, this quirkiness would have been endearing. Here in the after, it breeds weariness and heartache.
Tomorrow marks the four-year anniversary of the after and I still can’t reconcile this existence with the way she used to be. It’s like the photostat churns out a new her every day, but every day the ink is lighter. Her face is different too. Distorted. Haunted. And the spicy freshness of ylang ylang that used to dance around her has given way to a musky bouquet of lavender and talc with a tang of wild bladder. Today’s her third day without showering because she refuses to undress in front of me, a ‘stranger’. It’s these acts of defiance that strengthen my resolve to call time tonight.
I retreat to the comforting ritual of pouring us more tea. Activity averts anguish. It’s become something of a maxim, a way to push through when emotion threatens to hijack me.
Mum surveys the replenished cup, the possibility of a smile playing on her lips. I want to believe she’s remembering all the times we’ve sat in these same seats. The afternoons where, fuelled by chocolates and tea, we’d dismantle our lives and rebuild fantasy ones. Her fantasy lover would change in line with whoever she’d been lusting after on the tele that week, but her endings never did. Short, sharp, and sexy was her plan. She didn’t care too much for the detail, just as long as she wasn’t left living a half-life. It was a game I was happy to play, never thinking she was writing a script that I may one day have to deliver on.
‘I know you’re trying to trick me. I’m not letting you steal my money.’ Mum’s words rush out, riding the wave of her exhale. They’re barely audible, but it doesn’t matter, we’ve argued this before.
‘I’m not stealing your money, Mum. I’m making sure your bills get paid and your bloody electricity doesn’t get cut off.’ I hate the frustration I hear in my voice. She didn’t choose this life either.
Mum manoeuvres her elbows on the table and leans into the space between us, beckoning me with a seductive curl of her finger. I don’t take the bait.
‘You bitch,’ she—or rather Harald—spits at me.
Harald’s my mother’s testosterone-fuelled, aggressive doppelganger whose visits, though fleeting, are becoming more frequent. I can’t tell you when Harald first appeared. It’s ludicrous to imagine a grown man being born, but it feels as binary as that. Unlike the tiny humans who emerge a glorious blank canvas, ready to soak up and repay our love, Harald landed fully fledged with an inspired vocabulary and an arsenal of prejudice and spite.
For the third time this morning, I leave the room under the pretence of needing the loo. Activity averts anguish. By the time I return, Harald will have left (again), Mum will be back (again), and I’ll be the only one to have noticed. Again.
Though Harald’s first appearance was something of a shock, the signs that something was amiss were there long before—the lost keys, the missed appointments, suspicion where none was warranted. As the frequency of the incidents increased, my mother’s friends and I compared notes. Turns out, it wasn’t what was happening that drew the most concern, but rather, what was not. Laughter, once dispensed with abandon, almost never made an appearance now. Smiles, though there, were no longer effortless. Cooking was out, opening packets was in, and rowdy discussions about politics and the right to free speech had been supplanted by soulless, transactional exchanges.
At first, we compared our stories in the perfunctory way one comments on the weather. But as the incidents increased, so did our worry. I gave up my city apartment and moved back home, desperate to believe that my presence could somehow achieve what modern medicine could not. But the mum full of hugs and forehead kisses, the one who would leave the peas out of the shepherd’s pie when she knew I was coming to dinner continued to slip away, her body hell bent on destroying the very thing that brought it to life, as though executing some screwed up, slow motion, suicide pact. I wanted to scream and cry and take my anger out on the world. But as long as the disease denied my mother her dignified ending, it also denied me the right to grieve.
When I return to the kitchen, Mum is back, sipping her tea. There’s something different about her though, a lightness, and no sign of the agitation that suggests Harald is skulking in the shadows. Seizing the moment, I grab the shoebox of old family photos from the lounge and sit next to her. The photos are grouped, each held together by a faded rubber band. I flick through until I find a young Mum in a strapless, ruched bathing suit, staring seductively into the lens.
‘Che bella, Mama,’ I tease, as I hand the photo to her. Though it was taken before I came along, it’s my favourite photo of her; how I remember her as she was before—strong, beautiful, fearless, free.
She runs her finger up and down the photo. For a long while she doesn’t say anything, and I start to wonder if she’s still there.
‘Young. Young and smart. Not a silly old woman,’ she says finally, without taking her eyes off the photo.
‘You are not silly, Mum. Old, yes. Silly, no.’ It’s a meagre exchange but it’s closest we’ve come to having a conversation in such a long time. I lean closer and lay my arm around her shoulders, anchoring myself to her. We stay as we are for another minute or two, the ticking of Mum’s tiny gold watch a steadying rhythm against the fitful thumping of my heart.
Mum clasps my hand and turns to look at me. She doesn’t say anything. I untangle myself from her and escape to the bathroom, my hands guiding me wall by wall. Hidden inside, I slump to the floor and sob.
I head to the bedroom to help my mother through her evening routine. Routine is king, the care workers tell me. I want to tell them that this mundane, pre-programmed existence represents the totality of my life. For me, routine is not king; routine is the executioner.
Mum’s naked form emerges as the day’s clothes pile up at her feet. Any inhibition she had about undressing for the shower is forgotten. I stand to the side as she opens each drawer of the dressing table, looking for the nightie that sits folded on the end of her bed. I stand there as she finds her nightie, as she struggles to pull it into place. It’s another rule, another arbitrary demarcation between the carer and the cared for.
‘Have you taken your pills yet, Mum?’ I ask less for an answer, more as a marker of where I am in the night’s tasks. It’s one of the daily rituals I’ve adopted to test how close I am to following in my mother’s increasingly unsteady footsteps. I worry that I won’t realise that the disease is taking me prisoner. I worry more that I will realise but be powerless to do anything about it.
Mum’s medicine cabinet would make any junkie stand-up and take notice. Pride of place goes to the anti-psychotics and anti-depressants—the anti-joy-in-your-life pills. The homeopathic remedies, no longer part of her daily routine, are relegated to the back corner with her water pills. Water pills. It’s her term, not mine. I can only assume ‘diuretics’ was too confronting for her and her contemporaries. For all my mother’s rhetoric about free-thinking, she never escaped her generation’s quaintness when it came to talking about her health. Or rather, not talking about her health. It’s a brutal irony that she must now have others be part of her most intimate routines in order that she go on living.
After I’ve dispensed the night’s tablets into a small dish, I double check my work—lookalike labelling means the packets are easily confused. I need to get this right.
I wait while Mum swallows each pill. I suggest that she go to the toilet. She tells me she doesn’t need to. I insist. She yells. I give up and retreat to my childhood bedroom.
Persistent heavy rain delivers a restless night. I’m tormented by dreams of washing my hands in blood gushing from a tap anchored to my heart. My mother’s there. She’s looking at me chanting, ‘Out, out damn spot’.
I lie in longer than usual before shuffling over to open the curtains. The fly screen sits loose in its frame, its once vibrant aluminium replaced by the dull patina typical of salvage stores. The windowsill only reinforces this sense of weariness, littered as it is by millions of tiny carcasses and piles of flaking paint. I consider brushing the mess onto the floor. Reconsider. Do it anyway.
Beyond the glass there’s beauty in the garden’s chaos. For the last few years, Mum’s been vowing to plant less, certain that each year would be the one that she herself gets planted back into the earth, fulfilling the cycle that we unknowingly commit to when we take that first breath. But she hasn’t been taken in a single harvest, her demise more akin to the perpetual lettuce, plucked into oblivion one leaf at a time.
I dress by rote as I run through the plan for this morning. It’s the same plan as for every other morning. Put the kettle on, set the table for breakfast, go and get Mum.
Oh, Mum. What have I done?