Monday, August 20, 2007

Didn't Say Goodbye

“Ow, Mum!” She says it, matted hair sticking out in all directions, but we both know it doesn’t hurt, that the struggle and complaining is a game, a suspension of reality. So I scold, “Shut it, you’re going to have it brushed,” and I rip the brush through the hair, but the speed and vigour create static electricity and her hair floats up in ethereal peaks. “Ow!” she says and we laugh nervously, so fragile the fa├žade, the roles reversed.
We settle down to watch the tail-end of a daytime TV show, where members of the public share their stories, often extreme and outlandish. “You couldn’t make it up,” she says. The caption reads like a tabloid headline: I had your baby but gave it away because you’re my brother!
Sometimes we try and think up a subject more fantastic, but rarely do we manage it; our lives not worth the attention of a baying studio audience and so we have nothing from which to construct our fake – yet infinitely more exciting – lives.
Next, the news.

What to eat? The decisions can take up hours of our time as we swap the names of the dishes we’d like to have served to us, the food piled high on gleaming silver platters and carried by tall, bronzed hunks, our family, that Robbie Williams (but before he had those tattoo-things). She says. And I agree. My head nodding, my Adam’s apple mirroring the movement as I swallow my grief. So we order: pizza topped with king prawns, no Parma ham and oyster mushrooms; apple pie and clotted cream; shepherd’s pie; cod and chips with mushy peas. But it’s tomato soup. Again. While it heats on the stove I pop upstairs to grab a fresh towel to use as a bib. She’d hate to get a stain on her new nightdress.

Every other day I move the pictures around so she has something different to look at. Now and again, we’ve talking about moving the sofa that has been commandeered as her bed, but I can’t shift it on my own. Not that she’s able to move without a wheelchair. So it’s pictures for now. Today I bought a new one. It depicts a summer meadow. As I show it to her she coughs. “Ooh, I like the poppies speckled through the grass,” she says. They smudge under her finger as she points at them. “Yes,” I reply.

Occasionally, I have to lock myself in the bathroom – it’s the room furthest from her bed. It’s the only place I can go where I can’t hear the wheeze, the burble of fluid. It’s a place where she can’t hear me shed tears. “I’ve got something in my eye,” I’d say, hoping to deflect attention away from my reddened eyes. She always replies the same: your eyeball. She probably picked that up from my Dad, so typical it is of his wit.

We’ve exhausted all the photos. Each one marked a hundred times with greasy fingerprints where we’d spent the afternoon eating hot buttered toast. They stop suddenly about a month back, as if history no longer wanted to take notice of our small part of the universe, had deemed it too distressing to collate and file, to archive in some dim, airless basement of the mind. The day blonde hair turned to brown synthetic fibres. No one likes a photo that doesn’t make them look good.

“Death is coming,” she says late one afternoon. Startled, I look about me trying to see the black cloak and sharpened scythe. “I wonder what presents you’ll get this year?” Only then do I realise I must’ve misheard and she was talking about Christmas, only a few months away now. And so, like the meals we imagined we discuss our ultimate gift lists; neither of us says we want her to live, to see another new year, even though it’s top of the list. Our reverie is interrupted by the sullen beep of her monitor. It’s time to change her morphine drip.

I greet my father at the door with a grimace. We do not share proper conversation, both of us waltzing around the subject, afraid to upset the balance, to break the protective bubble of silence. We exchange grunts, noises, a clap of hand on the shoulder. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a break for me, that I’m being relieved of a duty that was placed on me at my birth, but it is. A break for both of us, me and my mother.
I close my eyes as the whistle of the kettle screeches on until the gas underneath it is turned off, and I picture my father’s shaking hands as he lifts it up to fill his cup. Sure enough, I see him reach for the tea towel to mop up the spilled water. I turn the TV on, flicking through the channels they receive on the dust-coated remote control, sticky with years of sweat and dirt, the numbers and button functions faded or missing. There is only news. I switch it off. There’s already enough unhappiness in the air, I don’t need to see the suffering of others, even if it’s caused by my government in my name.

The pears rot on the tree this year. The weeds have crept to knee-high in just a few weeks. But I don’t let on. I don’t want to spoil happy memories. She may have lost many things but I’ll do whatever I can to protect her from more unnecessary suffering. We time the gardeners’ visit to the hour each week she spends at her consultant’s clinic, but for the past month they have declined to earn what they have termed in their letter as “the paltry sum of eight pounds” and the postcard in the corner shop’s and newsagent’s windows have yet to elicit any response. Perhaps the winter will be harsh this year and nature will respect my mother’s hard work over 20 years; I know already that nature has respect for nothing and no one, the God she spent her life worshipping even less. Once this week I’ve taken a large knife outside, indiscriminately hacking away at the plant life around me, releasing the anger. It helps me cope.

But today I come inside, there is no kettle, there is only silence. And I know the wheezing has stopped, know that it won’t start again. Images rush past my eyes, the taste of metal in my mouth and I’m off running. The chance to say goodbye has gone, passed away. And so I keep running long after the burning in my chest forces me to vomit, long after the pain in my side increases to the point where I think it can’t get any worse, up until I collapse exhausted.