To What We Lost – Jude Brigley
Jude Brigley writes a wonderful tribute to her mother about the hard days of losing her. What I truly appreciate in reading this kind of piece is the honoring of her own experience without sugar coating or stylizing, but allowing the beauty and sorrow piece itself together in its natural course.
My mother is talking to ghosts of her past. She says she has just heard the news that her uncle has died. She calls me to come quickly and I stumble from the couch in the next room, worried out of half-sleep, to find her stark upright in the reclining chair that she refuses to recline in.
‘Uncle Arthur is dead,’ she says baldly, her eyes wide with shock and grief. I say nothing but nod in concern. I am concerned, but not about Uncle Arthur. His dust has been scattered on winds for fifty years.
‘Auntie Nell was here,’ she continues, distraught. ‘We need to let Christine and…..’ she pauses, ‘the other maid…’ She does not mean domestic servants. Being locked up with her, door barred to the virus, I know her mind. When she cannot think of a word, her brain darts around the blockage and finds another way.
‘Claire,’ I suggest.
‘Maid’ a quaint word for a young woman. Straight out of the Georgette Heyer or Jeffrey Farnol novels she loved as a girl.
‘Yes,’ she says with relief. ‘how can we let them know?’
‘Leave it to me,’ I say. She relies on me for practical tasks, so this soothes her mind.
‘And sadly, his sister has died on the same day. How can it be managed?’ This thought makes her distraught.
‘We will find a way.’ I say calmly. ‘Now, are you in pain?’
‘I am always in pain,’ she says snappily as if I should know better.
‘Shall I get you a tablet?’
‘What’s the use?’ she asserts. ‘You always want to give me a tablet.’
‘It’s to help the pain.’
She tuts. Tablet taking has become a chore. She no longer wants to take them and has been known to spit them out or to sit staring at her closed fist, only to open her hand in surprise and let a blue or a white tablet tumble into the folds of a blanket or roll into dark recesses under furniture. I have been known to cajole, to plead, to hector over such moments, knowing that to suck a slow-release tablet is to overdose. To not know the dosage is to court spikes of pain.
‘No need to be nasty,‘ she says
‘I will have to tell the nurse you are not taking them.’ I tell her in exasperation.
‘Do you know me?’ she asks challengingly.
I wonder if this is some kind of trick. ‘Of course,’ I say, ‘You are my lovely mother.’
She snorts at this. ‘Then you know that no nurse is going to tell me what to do,’ she says with a mental stamp of her foot. A literal one would be too painful.
I laugh out loud and hug her. ‘You are my mother,’ I say in a kind of relief at her spirit.
‘I don’t know why you are laughing, she says, ‘I mean it.’ But I can’t help it. Her determination is so familiar. She has faced cancer three times with practical and stoical calm. But, her festering leg is becoming more than she can stand. She flicks the tablets on the night table away in a gesture of defiance and disdain. And perhaps, she needs to do this. This. These are her last acts of assertion.
‘I think my mother should know about Arthur,’ she says. ‘Is she upstairs?’
I pause. I do not want to lie to my mother, but I do not want to upset her either. It is as if the pain has made her retreat into a time in her life when she was happy and safe.
‘It’s late.’ I say. ‘She is sleeping. We can tell her tomorrow.‘ Then, trying to be business-like, I add, ‘You need to settle down and go to sleep. It is three o clock.’
‘In the afternoon?’
‘No, in the night.’
‘Oh dammo, I am keeping you up again.’
‘No matter. But, you need to settle down.’
‘I need the commode. And I want a cup of tea,’
I know these are reasonable requests, but my heart sinks a little as I think of my pillow and blanket in the other room.
There was a time when my mother would not undress in front of us. Even on the beach. Everyone had to hold up towels for her to change into bathing suits. ‘Turn the other way,’ she used to admonish us. Now, like a child she raises her arms to be changed. She has no qualms about sitting on the commode. One day I go in and she is sitting naked having folded her nightdress in a neat square. These are signposts to her illness and her thresholds of pain, crossed many times into the recesses of her mind.
‘You are not doing anything,’ I say as she just sits on the commode complaining of her leg’s agony. ‘You need to drink more.’ I offer her painkiller which this time she drinks greedily.
I feel her impatience at being told what to do. ‘I am staying here until I am finished.’
I leave her and make tea. Going back, she is half asleep.
‘You need to get back to the chair,’ I say. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Are your sisters all dead?’ she asks me tentatively, as if not really wanting to know. I have no sisters, and my brother, although he visits every day, is not allowed in, as my mother is sheltered from the virus.
I realise that she thinks I am her mother. And why not? Everyone says I am like her in my appearance and my ways. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘sadly, they are.’
She scrutinises my face. ‘No,’ she says. ‘That is not right. Why did I ask that? I am losing my mind. It is not fair to lose my mind. I would rather lose my leg.’
‘You are all right.’ I say. ‘You are safe.’
‘I am going over the surgery to speak to that doctor,’ she asserts. She has got up and is limping to the door.
‘No, Mama.’ I bar the door. ‘It’s the middle of the night, and doctors won’t let you in anyway.’
‘I won’t forgive you for stopping me,’ she says angrily.
I gather myself into a tight ball of string. I am the elastic bands she weaves into round shapes in the long afternoons. ‘Yes, you will,’ I say, ‘yes you will.’
She sits as if defeated. I cannot take her suffering from her or shelter her from what she must go through.
‘Let me help you to your chair,’ I say. She allows herself to be aided and as we go she says, ‘Thank you little girl. I don’t know your name but thank you.’
‘Where is my husband?’ she adds, ‘Why does he not come to see me?’
She has asked this before. The first time I told her he had died. She cries like it was fresh news. The second time, I say he is at work. That placates her. She asks my brother unexpectedly the same question, as he leaves the groceries at the door, and taken aback he tells her the truth. Later, my mother accuses me of lying to her. Now, I must play my hand with care. ‘He is over the library,’ I say.
‘Has my mother gone with him?’
‘Yes.’ I say hesitantly. I expect her to say that the library is shut but she seems comforted and ready to settle down. ‘It’s five o clock,’ I say. ‘We should be sleeping.’
I bend across her to pull the blanket up and she opens her eyes wide. They are very blue oceans. Then, she looks at me in delighted recognition. She kisses my cheek and says my name.
In her last days, I would lift my mother’s head in my hands,
placing her cranium on the pillow, as painstakingly
as a priest or a sculptor, feeling her bones
rest in the feathers, like a small boulder,
as my hands slipped away, and her with no voice
to acknowledge my awkward progress .
I was the child who tripped over chalk lines,
dropped my coins in the grating, slopped
my tea cup on the Sunday-best cloth.
As the nurse stooped to bandage her legs,
raw and crusted as a war hero’s,
my mother’s eyes observed without reproach,
as I let the bowl’s soapy water lap
to the floor, staining the carpet.