The optimist sees the doughnut and the pessimist sees the hole

I’ve been working on a short story for which I cannot find an ending. Why am I so bad at endings? I tend to wrap them up too neatly or leave the story dangling in mid space as if I have left it off half dressed.

I don’t like endings of any sort. I want things to be left in such a way that they can always be resumed at a later date. So for me the idea of riding off into the sunset or happily ever after does not sit well.

I suppose the ultimate ending is death and I don’t want to talk about death again, at least not for the moment. I’ve been on about death too much of late, or at least in my head I have.

My mother told me on New Years Eve that she had said a little prayer to herself, asking that she might last out 2012.
‘I can’t see why it’s not possible. I feel well. The doctor says I’m well. There’s nothing wrong with me except my heart, so there’s no reason why I can’t go on.’

My mother then proceeded to tell me the story of a woman who had lived nearby in the units at her retirement village. This woman came to see my mother one day and told her about a recent visit to the doctor. The doctor had told the woman that she was in the best of health. The woman was delighted at this news and told my mother as much. The next morning her husband found the woman dead in their bed.

‘It just goes to show,’ my mother said. ‘You can never know. The doctors can’t always get it right.’

And here I am talking about death again or am I talking about something more, about the wish for certainty perhaps?

Those who visit clairvoyants and the like, are they looking for some sort of certainty? It’s rather like reading your horoscope. The horoscope says today you’ll have a great day; make lots of money; meet someone fascinating; and so it goes.

We want to believe the best that’s on offer. We tend to downplay the worst, or at least many of us do. And of course, there are those others who focus on the negative.

This was always the contrast between my parents: my father’s negativity and my mother’s optimism.
‘The optimist sees the doughnut and pessimist sees the hole.’ This maxim I learned early in my life and it has stayed with me.

Everyone of our children is away at the moment, overseas or house-sitting or interstate and it is quiet for once in a way that I find unsettling. Perhaps that is why in my dream last night I went back in time to my life before I had children, to when I was much younger, a university student all over again and looking for accommodation.

My house is far less cluttered than it was, now after my annual Christmas clean up, but in my dream the house I occupied was full of clutter and signs of renovation.

That has to be a good sign, I think. Renovation. Hopefully I’ll go on renovating until I die, if not literally, then at least metaphorically.

It is change I look forward to and change that terrifies me. Change is the one great certainty besides death.

Nothing stands still and yet I sometimes want it to. This house for instance. It is over one hundred years old and my present family has lived in it for just over thirty. We moved into this house in 1980. We have twice renovated it and although our daughters say it’s time for another I am past such massive house renovations. The next step will be to sell it and to move into a smaller place.

Last night as I stood brushing my teeth and contemplating the silence of the place without the usual noisy clatter of other people and lights burning at all hours, I thought this place is too big for the two of us.

One day I will want to move out. Not now, not for several years, not until our youngest is past her university days and well onto a career of some sort, but relatively speaking one day, sooner in the scale of time than later.

What a task that will be, to shift out of this house that has seen so much of our lives. My children say we must never sell this house. We must always keep it, and pass it on to them, but that is unlikely to happen for all sorts of reasons, financial among them, but also, I suspect, our children will need to make homes and lives of their own.

They will have this house in their memories just as I have the houses of my childhood in my memory.

I remember the house on Wentworth Avenue best of all and my mother remembers her house on the Marnixplein. From the perspective of our memories, it no longer matters to us what happens to these houses, it matters most, for us at least, that we can remember them.

The house of my mother’s memory from the inside.

My mother’s room today.

Memory enables us to avoid the ending because we can repeat the scenarios over and again in our minds for as long as we like, and usually they shift closer to how we would like them to be.

Purple lips

My mother has heart failure. Her heart is giving up. She sits in a wheelchair and waits to be taken places, even to the toilet. She cannot exert herself in any way any more. To exert herself is to run out of breath.

There is fluid on her lungs, the doctor says. Every time she breathes in she has to work harder to get in enough oxygen to purify her blood.

My mother’s lips are purple. At first I thought they were red. ‘How lovely you look,’ I said to her, ‘as though you have put on lipstick.’

She preens. Even at ninety-one my mother is a vain woman, but she has lost much of her dignity.

I wheel her into the toilet. The pills she take include diuretics to help get rid of excess fluid. She visits the toilet often. We are in the doctor’s surgery and lucky to find a disabled toilet large enough to fit into. I steer her alongside the toilet bowl and help her up.

‘Do you want me to wait outside?’ I ask.
‘No, you might as well stay,’ she says. She struggles with the button on her trousers. Once undone, they drop to her ankles. I try not to look.

I busy myself with the wheelchair. I put on the brake so that she can use it as a support when she’s done.

I am now the adult and my mother who once held me in her arms is like the baby, or at least a toddler on her potty.

She sits for some time on the toilet. I listen for the trickle and flush.

‘There’s not much there,’ she says. ‘It’s like this all the time. I can’t wait and then there’s not much to show.’

I stand alongside to help her up as she wipes and pulls up her knickers. I pull her trousers up off the floor and hold my hands around her waist in order to find the button hole and thread the button through.

My mother feels warm and smells of musk and something unfamiliar to me, the smell of age.

My mother flops back into the seat and I lift back the foot flaps to accommodate her feet. I am a novice with wheel chairs. I steer the device awkwardly.

It is a strange process this reversal of roles and all the while I find myself reflecting on what it will be like when my turn comes around. When my ears give out and I cannot hear so well and I must sit with my back to the room where my daughter has perched me and I must bide my time and wait uncomplaining while my daughter discusses the intricacies of my condition with a doctor who is at least fifty years younger than me.

Payback perhaps.

When I first started in social work as a young looking twenty two year old, my mother said to me more than once, ‘If I had problems, I would never want to discuss them with someone as young as you. How could I have any confidence?’

I thought then, I will never be able to catch up with her. She will always be older than me. She will always ahead of me. But now this.

When my mother dies, I will be next in line for death. It is a sobering thought.