We are in a strange place of endings. My mother may be dying. She is not dead yet, not totally on her last legs, but the doctors cannot stop her heart from racing. Now they imagine she might have a clot in her lungs or some such difficult-to-discern reason for why her heart rate will not slow down.
‘It’s my age’, my mother says, finally acknowledging that she is old.
I wonder that we all go on as though we are looking for a cure. To my mind, it would be good to find a way of settling my mother’s heart a while longer so that she can go back to her beloved room in her retirement village and spend the rest of her days, as she herself tells us, in the joy of looking out onto her little bit of garden surrounded by her books, her memorabilia, her piano.
But this may not happen.
If my mother cannot get back to resume the life she once lived she might prefer to die. I know she does not want to go into a nursing home.
It’s not just the finality of the nursing home, it is the disruption. Hospital for my mother is okay because hopitals are busy and noisy places full of life and attention.
Before she goes I start to write my mother’s obituary. I start it now while she is still with us because we are in that in between place where life and death touch one another ever so closely, and it is as if we can see in both directions, if only for a moment.
Once my mother is gone, all we will have left of her are our memories. For now she is alive. For now I can still hear her voice, her crowded Dutch accent filled with dislocated verbs, and disordered sentences.
Am I a fraud? To rush onto the scene now, now in these last few months when it has become more clear that our mother is soon to say goodbye forever.
‘Sometimes we can’t separate relief from sorrow, resentment and love,’ David Denby writes, reflecting on the death of his parent.
This may be my struggle, our struggle, all my sisters and brothers, as we try to grapple with our mixed feelings, now as our mother is about to leave us for good.
Some part of me wants her to go, now at last, while another part wants her to stay, for many years yet.
When I was a little girl I remember so clearly a constant fear: what would I do if my mother died? How could I ever cope without her? When I entered adolescence and early adulthood the feelings shifted. I began to feel that my mother needed me instead.
I wanted then to make up to her for all the privations she had suffered married to my father, married to a man who for all the good that might have been there hidden within, bullied my mother and caused her immense pain, the pain of sexually abusing his oldest daughter among other things.
I have often wondered how it is that my mother has coped with the fact of my sister’s abuse, my father blinded by his past, and his pain.
I have often wondered how my mother has lived with this knowledge.
She carries the burden with her. I see it in her eyes. I hear it in her voice, the way she does not chastise any one of us for abandoning her as we have all chosen to do, in one way or another, over the years.
Our rage with our mother has gone unsurpassed, though I must not speak for all. I must only speak for myself. Only I can know my mind, and what others have told me, but we do not often confide in one another about these things, sometimes, but not often.
These things are too raw, too painful, too much a scooping out of your sense of yourself, from memories of a lost childhood to bear talking about out loud, at least not with one another because somehow when I am with my sisters and brothers, I carry a strange sense of guilt for all the things I too have ever done wrong in relation to them and for my anger towards them for the things they have done wrong in relation to me.
The day my older brother kicked me in the pubic bone, the day my older sister tried to nick ice cream out of my bowl once too often, the day my younger sister threw my school hat over a fence in a neighbouring street on our way to school, the day I told my little brother that I thought he was too dependent on me.
I was twenty-two years old in a new job, my brother only sixteen. He had come to stay with me for a few days in Canberra. I felt ashamed of having a little brother then with me at work and of not knowing what to do with him.
I left him in the hospital grounds. I told him he must fend for himself. I told him he was a burden on me and he cried. I cried afterward for this rejection of my baby brother who had stirred up feelings in me that I had not wanted to know about at the time.
My mother’s lips are still red, but not so purplish in tone now that she can have oxygen whenever her breathlessness appears.
I visited her this morning.
‘My head feels hollow’ she said. And with the echoing of her hearing aid it was not easy to have a conversation.
The woman in the bed opposite asked my name. She admired the fact that my mother and I have the same name and scolded me for shortening it. And I think then of my four daughters all with my name in second place, a link that goes back through the generations to the other Elisabeth’s that have preceded us.
The passage of time. There was a tine when my memories seemed as fresh as yesterday, but these days they fade. They fade every time I write about them, as if in the process of retelling them on the page they lose some of the energy they once held for me when I mulled over them from time to time.
The geraniums in the front yard pf my childhood home have faded along with the blue hydrangeas in the back. The garden has diminished in size. It was once enormous, the size of a paddock. Now it seems the size of a car park.
My mother does not share her memories any more, but she tells me that when her youngest son walked in to the hospital to see her yesterday she found herself crying.
The sight of him, and he looks so young yet, she said, as if she had expected him to look older.
She does not see my youngest brother much these days. Like most of her other sons, this brother has been angry with her. They are all angry, all my siblings but some manage to bypass the anger into a respectable closeness, others will tolerate her, others still might even feel a deep fondness.
I remember my mother as a movie star beauty with dark hair, olive skin and bright eyes. I remember my mother with lips reddened with lip stick and the faint flush of pale compact on her otherwise pink cheeks.
I remember the feel of my mother’s body, tight under her corsets, the rounded shape of her hips and belly where all the babies once lived.
I remember my mother for the softness of her skin and the melting moments in her eyes. But those same eyes could glaze over and this same mother could become distant and aloof.
She rarely spoke a cross word to me, but when anger took over and this I remember particularly from my adolescence onwards, my mother became ice cold, the steely glow of her otherwise shut off eyes, a sliver through my heart.
I have not been a faithful daughter. From the time I entered into analysis in my early thirties I began what I consider to be a delayed adolescence and I came to hate my mother.
I blamed her for everything. Where once I had blamed my father for all our difficulties, I now held my mother responsible and not so much in a simple it’s-all-her-fault kind of way but more in the way of feeling she had denied too much and I resented all those denials.
Yet I now know my mother was a creature of her times.
My mother was a woman of a her generation who married and stayed marred, who obeyed even when her instincts told her not to, who maintained her marriage at all costs, not simply out of a loyalty to the commandment of marriage, but more so because she had no choice, no money, no career, no other way of looking after nine children without the infrastructure of husband and breadwinner to support, however negligent that breadwinner might prove himself to be.
I cannot stop writing here. It holds me to the page. The clicker clacker of the keyboard protects me from this unraveling feeling that creeps up on me all the time now.
My mother is dying. She will leave soon. For all that she does not want to go, she will leave us and the little girl inside me who wept so hard for my mother when her second husband died several years ago, will weep again for her and this time for me, too, to be left, to be next in line and to be faced with the struggle that my ongoing life in this world entails.