Next in line

10 August, 2014.

The last time I saw my mother, she was two hours dead. Already going cold and the waxen look of her skin, bloodless, as it pooled below.

She would have hated this. This absence of control over her physical appearance. She could no longer control the smile on her face or the gleam in her blue eyes. 

My mother had always prided herself on her skin and basked in compliments about her youthful appearance, even in her seventies, eighties and nineties. As if the absence of wrinkles from her cheeks, gave her something to hold onto in her otherwise crumbling life.

And this well after all the troubles of her children’s childhoods had ended and my mother entered the third phase of her life with a second husband and a happiness she forgot existed while married to my father.

The last time I saw my mother, I pleaded with her. ‘Wake up, Mum. You can’t stay asleep. Not now, not forever.’ I said to her and woke the small child within me, the one who could not bear to live in a world without my mother.

The adult in me was sanguine. I had long anticipated this moment. I planned to give her eulogy. I had told her as much. That I would like to speak at her funeral. 

What did she make of that? When I told her, I wanted to speak at her funeral. Did she sense my wish to have the last word? To catch up with her at last. She who was always thirty-three years ahead of me. She who believed she had found the true meaning of life in her religion and all my irreligiosity and delving into the world of the human psyche was a waste of time.

I should have stuck with God. She never told me as much. Not beyond those times when I first embarked on my psychoanalytical journey, and she accused me of giving up one religion for another, did we discuss my preferred perspective. 

For ever after, I chose not to inflict my ideas on my mother but marvelled at the way she could talk to me about her conversations with God, about her confidence in the power of prayer, as if I shared her beliefs. As if I knew what she was talking about because I shared those views.

Only I did not. She knew this, I suspect, but did not want to know.

The last time I saw my mother, I was alone with her, for a short time before my siblings began to arrive one after the other. And in those few moments alone with my mother I sensed something I had longed for all my childhood, to have my mother all to myself. 

As if it was ever possible. As if we ever get our mothers all to ourselves. And yet the desire sticks with me given the fact I spent so many years caught up with having to share.

The last time I saw my mother in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem but in Melbourne Australia in a hospice for the dying, I felt the relief that comes at that final full stop placed on a person’s life. 

A sense it was over at last, and whatever was left of my mother existed only in memory or in the smell that lingered in her clothes as we loaded them from the cupboard in Park Glen where she had lived the final fifteen years of her life. 

The lingering smell of my mother still in the air as we cleared out the small room, she occupied most days until she fell ill, when they shipped her off to hospital. A few stray tissues around her wastepaper basket by her chair. 

In life, my mother’s hay fever gave her a chronically wet nose. I have developed this affliction in the past several years, much as she developed hay fever in her forties. A wet nose like a dog. And tissues on hand to stop the drips that take the place of tears. 

My mother rarely cried in my presence even in those final years, except one time after she had heard of her sister’s death in Holland. A sister six years younger. A sister she had long criticised because this sister lost her connection to God. 

This sister smoked cigarettes and drank Cinzano neat. This sister who my favourite aunt stayed behind in Holland when all her siblings deserted her parents for Australia or the Belgian Congo in search of future and a better life. My mother wept for this sister. And for her father and mother, as well as three of her brothers, also gone.

The last time I saw my mother, I knew my turn would be next. 

‘What a small amount of space we’re allowed to inhabit’

A bunch of them have sprouted in our front garden this year. Every year they reappear. Wide spreading leaves that unfurl like oversized flowers on the ground, a pale and insipid green/pale turquoise that looks to be fading even as it’s young.

 

I dislike this plant mostly for the furry coating on the top side of the leaves. It reminds me of whiskers on a young boy’s chin, not yet fully formed and gives me that creepy feeling when I encounter something yuk. 

My husband loves these plants, so we don’t pull them up. 

By summer they will sprout long stalks that in time carry top-heavy yellow flowers, tiny petals in large clumps that I think of as Triffids. Those creatures from the John Wyndham novel of the same name, which I read as a schoolgirl and therefore remember well.

These plant-like creatures stung people in the eyes and caused blindness in the population throughout the world. 

A scary book for a fifteen-year-old but in those days,  I was into scary books. I read all of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and revelled in the way they made my skin bristle. 

I had a similar feeling, though not one of fear, when I peeled the plastic off the morning’s paper and saw on the front page the image of a man I know indirectly through a friend.

He was masked up but apparently smiling, his son on his shoulders. 

The caption read something about the way you can still smile underneath a mask.

Without reading the article, I imagined it was telling people to keep smiling behind masks and know that we communicate a great deal with only our eyes and the lines around our foreheads. 

The mysteries of body language.

It’s rare to recognise a person from our own life on the front page of the newspaper, not a dignitary, but someone ordinary, only this person is not ordinary, not that any of us are as such. 

My first thought, he’d have been chosen because he and his wife have contacts in the newspaper world. 

I chastised myself for that familiar feeling. Why them then? 

It goes deeper. It’s not that I want my picture on the front page of the newspaper. But the wife of this man is a writer who is recognised. And that recognition seeps into me with an uncomfortable twang. 

I know enough writers to know we all want our writing recognised and that there is a degree of pride and pleasure in getting our books out there, but also of having people read our words and resonate to them. 

I was young when I first read Gerald Manley Hopkins’s ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.

The nun who took us for English admired this poet-priest who did not seek fame in his lifetime. He wrote for the love of God.

He did not care that his poems were out here in the world for others to read or so the nun told us, and once more the message was clear. 

Do not be seeking of fame.

Do not be seeking notice.

Hide your desires from everyone, including yourself. 

In those days, I wrote poetry, too. And had a first whiff of the pleasure that comes from recognition.

My big brothers praised my efforts. 

Until then nothing I did was in any way remarkable. My older siblings could read and write and draw and were far ahead of me, or so it seemed to my small mind that said I should be able to do just as they did and so I was useless. 

Everything I did came late such and had a secondhand feel.

Was this where my jealousy first reared its head? 

Even writing this here

fills me with the revulsion that comes of words from the back of my head, words like: solipsistic, self-seeking, naval gazing. Too much introspection. Stop writing about yourself.

Go into the universal, write about other people. We are not interested in you and yours. We do not care what you think about your life or your feelings. We care only for much loftier themes that relate to other people. 

Get out of our way.

Donald Winnicott wrote words that stay with me. He was describing the peek a boo game for babies when they begin to understand here and there, self and other. 

‘It’s a pleasure to hide,’ he wrote, ‘but a tragedy never to be found.’

But to be found does not come with fame or notoriety. 

You can have your picture on the front-page of every newspaper. You can have yourself admired for all manner of achievements in your life. But to be recognised for yourself beginning when you are very small goes a long way to helping recognise yourself within.

I modelled myself on my disappearing mother. When we had visitors you could see her strip off her apron and the oppression of her life as a mother of nine children tied to an abusive husband and almost skip around the room on the company of people like her brothers and sisters in law and the few friends who entered our house. 

You could see her open up like a flower. But you could also hear the criticisms behind her back from people like my father and brothers.

She’s vain. She cares only about other people’s admiration.

She’s fake false and shallow. 

A friend yesterday workshopped a series of poems in our small writing group. All of which spoke to her sense of invisibility as a woman. 

‘What a small amount of space we’re allowed to inhabit’. 

She groaned about the continual pressure she experiences to stay silent, to stay invisible, to behave within the narrowly circumscribed role allocated to women. 

And then I heard Alexandria Cortez’s speech in the US Congress and I rejoiced to hear another woman call out the verbal abuse heaped upon women by men who call themselves decent because they have a wife and daughter and know something about woman hood. 

But a decent man would, and again I come back to my thoughts about jealousy and the seeking of recognition and the sadness that accompanies enforced invisibility and wonder about my wish to rip up those plants in the front garden all because to my mind they are old-fashioned and wan. 

‘Why not let them be,’ my husband says. ‘They look good in winter. 

‘That’s true,’ I said. But by summertime we need all the water and sun we can get the other plants to shine, the ones that belong here, the succulents, not this self-seeding exotic plant that would have fared well in an English country garden.