Patagonian Mummies

I’ve noticed my hands are aging. If I pull at the skin on the back of my hands, if I pinch it together with my thumb and finger and then let go, it stays there. A thin line, like an old woman’s wrinkle.

That’s okay I say. I want to age gracefully. When I was young I decided I wanted to die at sixty before I got too old and lost my sight and hearing, before arthritis set in and I began to hobble. Now that seems outrageously young. Too young.

Last night I dreamed my mother was dead and we, my brothers and sisters, cousins aunts and uncles lined the pews in the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The church on top of Whitehorse Road stands squat like an animal about to pounce. It is built from cream coloured bricks that give it a sense of solid form and old-fashioned modernity.

The church is surrounded by row upon row of perfect flowerbeds: petunias, pink and white and standard roses in lines alongside the green lawns that form hillocks beside the church.

We are inside the church looking up to the altar and my mother’s body lies in the middle of the centre aisle but not in a coffin. She rests on a stone slab and is covered by a swathe of cloth, orange silk or taffeta. She is covered completely, her body a small mound under the creased material.

A breeze runs through the church and lifts the cloth fractionally so I can see my mother’s toes. They are parched and dried out like the fingers of a mummy. I have seen them in picture books, Patagonian mummies. The figures of the dead in Patagonia are draped in cloth that is falling apart. Some have embroidered collars around their necks and one man’s throat is adorned in what looks like a dog’s collar.

In my dream I shiver to see my mother so emaciated, so far gone. She looks as though she has been roasted in an oven and all her juices have dried out.

Then I am in the pulpit, a thrust of anxiety running through my stomach, wanting to speak but dry-mouthed and fearful they will all yell me down. But they do not, they listen and in my mind I am rehearsing the thing I have spent years rehearsing, my mother’s eulogy.

I want to tell them: I love her, I loved her, but I also hate her. The little woman with the hooked nose and spindly fingers, the rounded belly in its tight corset.

We are outside and I am numb with loss when my mother appears, now in her fifties, my mother as I am today, full fleshed and sprightly, though fatter than me. She looks over at me with piercing blue eyes. No one else sees her, only me.

‘What are you doing here?’ I say. ‘You’re dead.’ She does not answer.

My father appears, also in his fifties. He is hunched over next to my mother’s body. His face is wet from crying. He rubs his big hands up and down his cheeks. His chest heaves. He has lost his wife. Only I know she is still here.

I wake from my dream and wonder, is this an omen? Will my mother die soon?