Not yet an orphan

What a day I have had. It is too busy at the moment by half. Once again I resist the basics, like hanging out washing that has sat in the washing machine overnight. I rationalise it is because of the rain. I have also failed to ring my mother. Every time I try she does not answer. I worried at first until I spoke to my older sister who tells me that in the evenings my mother takes out her hearing aide and turns up the television. She cannot hear a thing. So I must keep trying and maybe during the daytime. My mother does not watch television in the daytime. She is far too disciplined for that.

And busy she tells me, what with activities in the home, trips to doctors, her bible reading group and reading generally, she has no time for television by day but she likes to read in the evenings, once she turns off her TV.

My mother, I think to myself, is the sort of woman who will die in her sleep. Not yet I imagine, but one day soon enough. She will die in her sleep because it is the least painful way to go.

Imagine it. Imagine that last night alive. You follow your usual routine. For my mother the news on television, a few programs till around ten o’clock when her eyes start to feel heavy and then a visit to the toilet and the long struggle into her nightclothes. Finally she will put her dentures into a glass beside her bed and pull out her favourite book. She has been reading Ann Tyler of late.

My mother has always been a gluttonous reader. She will read for sometime, a fresh burst of energy with all the effort getting into bed has taken and in time her eyelids will droop again and she will make the supreme effort of switching off the light before falling into sleep.

She will mutter a prayer under her breath before she slips into unconsciousness, before her unconsciousness slips into oblivion and sleep becomes death.
Then my mother will have made her exit from this world in the same way she made her entrance, oblivious to the hardship and suffering around her, which is not to say she has not suffered. My mother knows intense pain but her way of dealing with her pain is one of looking on the bright side.

And now it occurs to me. This might account for my resistance to those who seek always to create lovely images in life, my hostility to those who resent my efforts to present different and less attractive facets of life, those who might prefer to die in their sleep oblivious to the pain of moving on, from those who rejoice in the struggle. Those who claw at the last vestiges of their lives, those who insist, I’m not ready to go yet. I want to stay.

My mother imagines these days she will live until she is 96 years old. It used to be that she imagined she would die at 86, the age of her father when he died, but she moved past that age. Now she has a little over five years to go on her reckoning.

What this means for me? For me at the age of 57 I am still not orphaned. None of us, my siblings are orphaned. My oldest brother in his mid sixties still has an intact mother. It drags back development. We must wait until we are next in line and by the time we get there assuming my mother’s death precedes that of her children, we will be so close to the possibility of our own deaths age wise, we already are that way, that we will have little time to ponder on the subtleties.

Haunted by Photos of the Dead 1.

In order to spare people great lumps of text I’ve broken the following into smaller sections which I shall eventually post in full but in pieces.

My mother, now in her ninetieth year, told me yesterday that she had hurt her hand. She had been walking through the hallway to her bedroom when she accidentally knocked it against the doorknob. She must have hit it hard because the top layer of skin came off and it was bleeding. When she looked at it more closely she realised that not only had she knocked off the top layer of skin but also the wound was deep. She could see her tendons down to the bone. She took herself to the office in the home where she lives in the hope that a nurse would be on duty.

The staff took one look at my mother’s hand and called an ambulance. My mother thought this unnecessary. She would have happily called a taxi. Still the ambulance came and took her to the clinic where they patched her up. They could not give her stitches because the skin on her hand was too thin. ‘It would tear,’ they said. Instead they pulled a series of tiny strips across the wound, and then bandaged it tight.

‘It hurts a little when I move it in particular ways,’ my mother said, ‘but I can tell it’s healing.’

I had rung to ask my mother a question about the past. I wanted to ask her about the photo of her dead baby, her first-born daughter who had died during the Honger winter of 1945 in Heilo, Holland. I was curious to know how the photo had come about.

My curiosity has been flamed by two books, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination and the other, Jay Ruby’s Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, a transcript on the nature of post-mortem photography in America, which includes several photos of dead people. A friend recommended the first book; the second, I found by accident in a used books shop. I could not leave the photographs behind.

Gordon is interested in the notion of the things behind things, the things that lie beneath. She takes notice of the thoughts that haunt her even as she is trying as a sociologist to do research on something concrete and ostensibly evident. Whereas Ruby is concerned to ask questions about why we have become so afraid of death, at least in the western world that we no longer take photos of our loved ones after death as mementos, or if we do take photos, they are kept private, not shared with the public, for fear that the owners might be considered ghoulish. (Ruby, 1995, p. 161)

I struggle to understand why so many things have become unspeakable, that it gets harder and harder to remember. But these days my mother’s memory for certain past events has a sharpness and clarity it never had before. My mother’s thin skin is a sign to me that soon she will be gone and with it her voice, I must catch her memories before it is too late, even as her memories are full of gaps and shadows. I will hitch her memories to mine and look for signs in between, look for the haunting to uncover something of her past.

I follow in Gordon’s direction. She describes how one day she was on her way to a conference to present a paper. She does not spell out the topic but how she had found herself distracted away from her topic by thoughts of a woman whose image she had discovered as ‘missing’ from the photo of a conference group in Berlin several years ago. According to Gordon’s research, the woman, Sabina Spielrein should have been present in that photo, but she was not there. Spielrein is a little known psychoanalyst from Freud’s day, little known despite the fact that she was the first to hypothesise on the nature of the death instinct.

My mother is describing her wounded hand and I cringe at the thought that her skin is so thin it cannot withstand a simple knock, the sort of knock that would leave most of us with a red mark, at best; a bruise, at worst.

‘They peeled the skin back over the hole,’ my mother said. ‘It had rolled itself up and they dragged it back over the wound.’ The image left me squeamish. Why do we wince when people describe their injuries, their own or another’s injuries in graphic detail?

In time I asked my mother the question that had prompted my phone call. She could not remember who took the photo, but she suspected it was the neighbour of her cousin in whose house she had been staying. She told me again the story she has told me many times before, always at my instigation. When I was little I wondered that she could stay dry-eyed in the telling. She seemed so calm, when I had imagined that were I the mother of a dead baby I would find it hard to go on living.

‘It is harder’, my mother said in this most recent conversation to lose an older child. ‘When a child dies so young, you have fewer memories. It takes far less time to get over it.’

For my mother, memories keep the idea of her lost child alive but given that this baby was only five months old, her life so short, there are few memories attached to her.

Still there was a catch in my mother’s voice as she spoke to me over the phone, as if she were re-remembering the feeling of her loss all that time back.

As long as I can remember my mother has checked herself; kept her tears to herself; put a full stop onto her feelings by offering some trite homily, some staving-off comment:
‘Well, that was that. No use dwelling on these things.’