From the time I was a zygote until May, 2004 at 10:30 p.m. I had a mother.
It’s know I had a mother because there are pictures to prove it and in those pictures you can see that there is a woman to whom I bear more than a passing resemblance. It’s true because I have siblings and we resemble one another and her.
We all shared that day and night of May 2004. We were all there. In her small house home an hour north of the city. Each one of us remembers that day and night differently and each of us is right.
We took care of her after her last breath. A few of us washed her. Dressed her. Prepared her to leave us, to change that transitive verb: ‘have‘ to had.
We did not talk about how she didn’t want to go. We did not talk about the three sisters and their partners who lived in the same town that took care of her every day, and how they coped while I, who lived an hour away with a crazy busy work role did not visit as often as it was thought I should have.
We did not talk about how things fell out along oldest to youngest birth order although I might — MIGHT — have unintentionally exercised my first-born birth order, that inherent privilege to sit vigil by her and place my head close to hers and whisper that it’s ok, and hold her hand; leaving only to go to the bathroom and, insanely, step outside of the house to engage in a spat with my youngest sibling who was in process of disassembling in front of my eyes and whom I couldn’t help, could not step across the bridge that divided us if my life depended on it. Me, who does not argue. But that day I did. And because I rarely argue, when a tsunami of frustration welled up and threatened to explode, I chose an alternate action: I threw a paper napkin that I was holding right at her. SUCH an adult act. Some part of me knew — when the napkin fluttered away instead of hitting my target — that it was a surreal moment and utterly stupid, and idiotic of me. Thank the gods and goddesses that part of me laughed at my idiocy. Not out loud; that’s rude in the middle of a spat. But my internal overseer knew I was being stupid even if I couldn’t stop myself for the grief.
We had a difficult relationship my mother and me. Most of the time I was confused by her and not sure that I did, or could or would love her. What I know is that she had a very difficult life in any way you can think of and did the best she could with what she had. And so at some point during my late 20s, I came to know that I did and could love her, any time all the time.
I loved her when she apologized for not being a good mother, and when she told me she didn’t understand me at all. I loved her when she patted my hand and told me she loved all of her children equally. I loved her when she drew Disney cartoons for me. I loved her when she told me my drawings from a drawing class I was taking were good, because I can’t draw for beans: my other siblings have the artistic talent. And I burst with love once, when in an antique shop, we found an old autograph book and in the book were autographs of people famous in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. One of the autographs belonged to Walt Disney himself! She loved his characters. My mother, who had studied commercial art before getting married, was beside herself with excitement both at seeing it, and touching something that Walt Disney had touched. It was too expensive to buy but sheto have seen and touched it.
On the domestic front, well, let’s see: she could not cook. The two things she cooked well were egg+chips and um …. egg+ chips. She hated cooking and domestic life in general. On the other hand, she was not too nosey a mother (vowing to never be like her mother) but implicitly expected every waking moment we had to be about her. She did not really push marriage, and shared with some of us that she married and had children because it was expected of her. She was incredibly ambivalent about all that relationship stuff.
But what she did have, she had in abundance: first, she was drop-dead gorgeous. A petite, dark haired, olive skinned beauty. Second, she had cool sense of understated style, (except for rings) with an artist’s eye and sensibility (and temperament), a sometime willingness to help with school projects; English cheekiness, and an Energy. Third, she had an astonishing sense of humour and adventure; a willingness to have fun and be a goof; a love of music and dance and animals, and a temper. Oh, and shopping. And yard sales. She was nuts for yard sales.
One summer day before her diagnosis we were in the car driving along, hunting for yard sale signs. She wasn’t wearing her glasses and was squinting to see what she could see. Anyway, she said she saw a pink neon sign. I couldn’t see one anywhere. She pointed and said, “There! Hurry. Go faster!” So I drove, looking at posts for a pink neon sign. I found… well, not exactly a sign, but a pair of pink neon shorts on the tall wide guy who wearing them for his morning jog. All of us in the car were hysterical. She almost pee’d her pants laughing at herself.
Another time she and one of my sisters crashed an outdoor wedding because my mother saw lots of cars and thought there might be a yard sale. My mother, in many ways a quintessential stiff upper lip Englishwoman and ever conscious of class as only an English person of lower middle class was oddly nonchalant by her barges into wherever she thought she might find a deal or good shopping.
She could not sit still, my mother. Ever. She was not prone to deep thoughts, but action. Still, she did offer some wisdom: if you really have to wonder if you are in love, then you probably are not, and underneath it all men will always be little boys, which I have generalized to be gender neutral to mean we are all still kids underneath it all.
About six years before she died, I had a dream which is vivid even now. In it, my mother had taken ill and died. In the dream, I burst out sobbing and could not stop as the radioactive waves of grief hit me. I awakened myself, sobbing, and scaring the one sleeping next to me because I could not catch my breath, and could not speak. I was inconsolable for weeks, and worried about her from then on in. It did not seem a prescient dream. Just a reminder that she would not be with me, with us forever, and that I had best prepare myself for yet another reminder of the impermanence of everything. And so, I did.
It’s funny how things are branded in the visual memory centre of a brain. That night in her little house, just after she died, I stepped into her bedroom to be alone and thought I would split apart, but my immediate awareness was of her dog Cody, curled up on her bed. I forgot about me and took him out to be with her. He sniffed her face, her lips, then looked at all of us and turned tail with his beautiful black head down went back into the bedroom to jump on the bed and curl up tighter. I curled myself around him.
The mother I had loved to laugh. This picture is not of us but certainly could be. Now when I think of my mother and me, it is always of us laughing. Laughing until tears stream down our cheeks.
None of us know with any certainty if she knew she was dying, or simply put on a brave front for us. What people hear when they go the doctor is often a mystery. We think she never took in the word palliative, even when we explained it too her. We think that her understanding of stage four and terminal didn’t get into her brain because of the tumours that were taking up space. The people at the hospital where she went for her chemo treatment were good to her. As they were at the other hospital, for her radiation. She did not ever want to be in the hospital, and so she never was.
Yet in the last months of her life, she came to better accept being loved, to being lovable, to being a mother. She came to smile when I called her mother with that cheeky tone. She came to accept that she was not the centre of the universe, because now, in a perverse way she had become that in very concrete way for her family. It’s a fierce love, even when it’s angry love between mother and daughter. (Message to brother: yours too: you were the only boy after all 🙂 .)
And then she was gone. We had a family lunch, and stories were told and laughter was had and tears were shed and then it was over. We all stepped back into the slipstream of our individual lives. In strange ways, none of us have entirely done so. We do not have the mother we had.
I had a mother. A humble, fun, troubled, shy, insecure, opinionated and reserved woman bursting with things she could not and did not release in life. A mother who apologized to me for not being a good mother; the mother I love and who helped define and shape me through her own terraforming ways. The woman who was my mother that I sometimes, privately, in my own home only, channel when I am my goofy self.
Today, years later, I am left with a sense of not saying goodbye in a good, honourable way, that would release her from where she was frozen in me. I’ll know the way when it’s right.