Would you do me a favour?

My phone went off early this morning at 6.30 and I leapt out of bed in a panic thinking immediately of the worst, that something had happened to my mother.

Only once I reached the phone, answered it and it had stopped ringing did I realise I had set the alarm the night before and my mother was most likely okay, but even then I could not return to sleep.

I am living in a strange time, this hovering on the edge between life and death, my mother’s life and death, and wondering when it might happen. My husband is away and I am holding the fort or so it seems, which adds to the surreal tensions that envelope me everyday.

A few days ago I received a letter from an old friend, a woman whom I shall name Cate, who now lives in country Victoria. I did not recognise her name on the envelope at first because Cate now travels under the name of her third husband. But as I began to read her letter pennies began to drop into place.

She is sorry, Cate writes, to have lost contact with us, with my husband and me, but she had imagined at the time of her separation from her second husband that we were ‘on his side’.

How strange I thought reading this and remembering back to that time. I did not enjoy Cate’s second husband at all, and I was not so much sad as surprised when they separated.

I have a soft spot for Cate. It was she who in a sense brought my husband and me together all those years ago.

I once worked alongside Cate in the days when I was a newly graduated social worker. One Saturday evening Cate held a dinner party – dinner parties were fashionable in those days – and through a long and complicated series of manoeuvres, my husband and I wound up together at the dinner table.

In a sense we have not been apart since. Though do not imagine it has always been a honeymoon but a productive union nevertheless, and Cate believes she was responsible for beginning it, as indeed in some ways she was.

I have not seen Cate now for some fifteen or maybe more years. We ran into her, shopping in Safeway, one Saturday afternoon. She seemed distant at the time and I remember wondering at her coyness in introducing us to her new man, J, whom she eventually married.

J, Cate writes, died two years ago, but not before she had nursed him for six years. She refers to him in her letter as ‘beloved J’, so presumably this third marriage was a successful one.

Cate needs our help, she writes in her letter. Could we do her a favour? She turns seventy soon and although she does not imagine she will die in the next little while, anything is possible. For long and complicated reasons, which she does not go into, Cate has lost touch with her children, all three of them, two daughters and a son, children who must by now be aged in their mid to late forties.

Could we please help? Cate asks. Could we ‘discreetly’ and ‘sensitively’ make contact with her children and let them know that she loves them and would like at least to have an address for them.

Cate’s solicitor has told her there is no point in listing her children in her will if she has no contact address for any of them.

Cate would love to see her children, she writes, if they are willing, but she does not expect them to come running. She wants only to know how they are going and would hate for them to be left full regret after her death.

I rang a friend who might have known a contact address for at least one of these children but she too has lost touch and suggested I ring the first ex husband, a distant and mutual friend, who lives in Melbourne.

It gets sticky and tricky here. I am fearful of how Cate’s ex husband might respond were I to ring out of the blue and put in a request to him for a phone number for his children in order to enable them to resume contact with their estranged mother if they should wish.

‘I have not always been the best of mothers,’ Cate writes.

Which one of us has? I think.

This other friend who has also lost contact with Cate’s children and advises me to ask the first ex husband, warns me that Cate is ‘manipulative’.

I know the word well. It is a feature I have detected in myself. I inherited it from my mother, a state of mind that says you dare not ask for something directly, you can only safely work your way around to getting someone to give you something or do something for you, by stealth.

I try not to get into manipulations these days. To me the tendency to manipulate is the tendency of a weak person who lacks in confidence sufficient to cope with the consequences of a direct question, whether positive or negative.

I suspect women of my mother’s generation were more heavily into manipulation than today because before the advent of feminism and the beginnings of a deeper awareness of the rights of women, at least in western culture, they could only get what they wanted by stealth or feminine guile.

It would not have done for a woman of my mother’s generation to be to open with her desires. She would have needed to obscure them, perhaps even from herself.