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. 

Olive trees, white paint, and a pandemic

We have two olive trees in our back garden, in pots. One has its first black olive ever, the other is dead. It fell over too many times in the wind, slipped adrift and with its roots too often exposed to the winds, could not muster the strength it needed to survive. 

It’s still outside in the garden on its side. I haven’t the heart to remove it. Besides there are tiny green bits of moss that have rooted around the surface that please me. 

I like to be reminded that life and death coexist. As if I need reminding in the middle of a pandemic. 

I have a friend and every time we talk on the phone she says, let’s not talk about the pandemic. But invariably, towards the end of the conversation, one or other of us will slip in some question about which hand sanitiser to buy, what mask to wear or what do you think of the new rules?

The new rules that bind us to our homes as never before. It’s tedious because it’s everywhere. Ubiquitous. As ubiquitous as the time in my life when I served carrots with almost every meal to the point my husband now calls carrots ‘ubiquitous’.

It’s part of the human condition to talk about the things that ail us; the things that surround us; the things that make us happy, sad or otherwise. Our health, the weather, whatever viral theme floats along in the online world, including this pandemic. 

Until it happened, we could not have cared less. But now. Wow. Now we pay attention because our lives depend upon it.

In like manner, I find myself irritated by my generation’s frequent conversations about how much we’re relying on the digital world these days, for our work, for our human connections. As if it needs further analysis. 

Perhaps it does because it’s a change and change needs attention. But it’s hard to get to grips with what things mean when we’re in the middle of them. 

I watched a movie last night about the artist L.S. Lowry, about the life he led caring for his lonely, sad mother in Pendlebury, Lancashire. A woman who could not get over the fact that she was not living the life she’d imagined she’d live, a quality life away from Pendlebury so lose by the mills in the early 1930s when she saw herself as made of superior stuff. 

Disappointed in her husband; she was disappointed as well in her son, despite his paintings, which to her were so much wasted space. Except for one painting of yachts that her son had painted for her many years earlier. Not until a neighbour admired the yachts, a woman Mrs Lowry also admired because she wore fine clothes and was a kindred spirit. Until this woman admired Lowry’s painting, his mother saw his work as without merit. 

‘Underneath every picture is the colour white,’ Lowry said. White, blank, open and empty. ‘I paint what I see,’ he said. ‘I paint what I feel.’ Such simple notions from a man who painted sublime images against much opposition, in the absence of his father who left little but debts and his over-demanding mother whom Lowry spent all his time trying to please.

There’s something tragic about these stories of children who can never leave a parent’s side. A son who grows up at home and never leaves. Never finds a partner of his own, always wedded to his mother. 

It gets to me, unsettles me, especially when it’s obvious this mother is working to keep her son glued to her by two things:

One, her constant insistence he must never leave her. She needs his care.

And the other, her constant undermining of his goodness and capacity. 

Parental envy of children is insidious, and it happens more often than we like to admit, literally and figuratively. 

During this pandemic for instance. The older generations lamenting the fact that we only have technology to hold us together and an insistence that it’s an inferior medium from what we enjoyed in days gone by. 

Inferior to the radio and newsprint. Inferior to the television even.

Why must everything be digital? some lament. And decry the young folks who swim around in their digital soup with ease comfort and satisfaction.

It’s not good for their brain development, they insist. They won’t be able to write by hand. They’ll lose all those basic skills. They won’t be able to read a map. 

The list of all the things the young won’t be able to do is endless. When in truth they wheel around us online with such alacrity, it’s breathtaking.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all wondrous good in the digital world, the world of spammers and scams, the world of fake news, the virtual in preference to the so called real, but my goodness, it’s here now. 

It’s here to stay and we getter get used to it.

For one thing, this pandemic has forced us to face our need to slow down, to stop hopping over the world like minions following one another on the trips of our lifetimes or tripping over to London for a half-day business meeting. 

One thing the digital world has allowed is a way of negotiating our distances while reducing our fat footprints, and at the same time keeping us closer together.

And yes, like everyone, I too miss the actual presence of my children, the people with whom I work, and friends, the comfort of being in a room with real people.

This will return but our digital life will not go away and long may it live until the next revolution in evolution comes our way and we begin to rely on other methods to survive in a world that increasingly needs our help to reduce our impact. 

Otherwise, like the parasites we are, we will overcome our host planet, expose our roots to wind and rain, go back to the basic colour white of Lowry’s pictures, or the bare-rooted tragedy of my olive tree and die out.