As she lay dying

They shifted my mother into a private room, as if they knew she was dying even when they had plans to move her off to a nursing home as soon as they could, so she could live out her life in care uninterrupted.

The little things that had needed their help they’d overlooked, like the puffs of white on the tip of her tongue that she was forever trying to spit away. Until they decided to take out my mother’s denture this thrush came back again and again to torment her. This woman who could no longer swallow and who no longer wanted any food or water to pass her lips.

In the last weeks of her life I increased my visits, not that my mother appreciated them, but out of some sense of guilt and some sense I needed to get there to see her as much as possible before she would be no more. She kept her eyes closed throughout these times, opening them only briefly to catch a sight of this person, her daughter hovering over her. And each time she opened her eyes I sensed, not a look of recognition or of pleasure, but a look that said ‘leave me alone’. Let me be.

It was twilight and the sun was doing its last trip through the sky, letting just enough light into the room to make artificial light unnecessary. I had touched her gently on the hand and my mother’s eyes flickered open, after a shudder, as if her body expected some unwanted intrusion. I had only just arrived and I did not want to leave too soon so I hung about closer to the door than to my mother’s bed at one side of the room. I watched her for signs of life. I watched her as if I knew this would be my last turn to see my mother alive. I watched her in the hope that I might soak in some last minute radiance from this woman who had once welcomed me into the world, who had nursed me for the first three months of my life and had then slipped me off her lap to make room for the next lot of babies that followed me in turn.

I recognised the same hooked nose, the same pointed chin, but her skin, once a vibrant olive glow, had turned sallow and her hair had lost its shape and hung back like a dishcloth from her forehead. It draped around her pillow lank and greasy.

It was a strange and secret time standing there to look upon my mother as she lay dying. A time of reconnection and of severance. All my life I had lived with the knowledge I could never keep up with her. She was always thirty-three years older than me, always thirty-three years wiser, thirty-three years ahead of me in advantage and knowledge. She let me know this often; with every choice I made, except those that suited her. My choice of husband was wrong, my choice of schools for my children, my choice of career as a psychotherapist, my lack of religion. All these things had rankled my mother and she let me know this without words. A hint of disapproval whenever we met such that I had long ago stopped talking to her about the innermost workings of my mind. And I had learned to turn off my own interests whenever she started up on topics of her choice, especially those related to her God and her disapproval of others who took no interest in that God, for surely she was talking about me again. Me and my godlessness. This God, or lack thereof, who came between us.

My mother looked up then, turned in my direction as if she had noticed the soft rise of my breathing or felt my warmth nearby. She turned and opened her eyes. She looked at me and with all the strength she could muster she lifted her hand in such a way as to usher me away.

Go away she seemed to be saying, go away and leave me in peace. I took her instructions, the last sight of my mother alive, a dying woman who wanted me gone.


My mother/myself.

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.