My mother is coming over tonight. She’s going to radiotherapy every day and she’s staying at our house once a week because technically it’s closer, although counting the fact that she has to go through the city it’s only about 10 minutes closer than her home.
I’ve stopped calling it ‘my parent’s place. That feels weird. And since I stopped calling it that, the desire to go back there almost entirely disappoeared. The way I feel now, if I never went back, I’d feel a bit sorrowful. But only the way you do when you hear about something bad happening in another country. It doesn’t feel like it touches me. It’s the only home I knew until I was 18, and everything that made it a home has gone. It’s now solely my mother’s territory and I don’t want to go there… might get forgetful and eat something, and never be able to leave.
I think it’s probably just an excuse to see us. To force time with us. Which is understandable, since I’ve been avoiding her. I like my life without her in it.
Or maybe it’s because it will hurt? To be back there. To remember the good stuff and the bad. And only be left with the bad. To have the taste of the good, the echo of the love and the fun. To remember all the times… the time we were bored and he showed us how to catch the moths that were flapping against the windows, trying to get in to the warmth and the light. We trapped them in jars, carefully, and we then we drew them. Mine was a cabbage moth, light blue and shimmery green and so delicate. Careful, don’t touch them… the dust will come off their wings and they won’t be able to fly anymore.
The thing is, it’s not that bad. Not as bad as I thought it would be, anyway. The first week was. I was sitting in the lounge room with her, knitting Habitat. She started acting the way she does, the way that sets my teeth on edge, that sets every fibre of my being to ‘tense’. Huffing, puffing, laughing under her breath, trying to get me to ask her what was up, to get attention, validation. I did what I always do, I shut down, I couldn’t respond. I ended up giving into impulse and fleeing. Retreating into my study, sitting in front of the cold blue glow of gchat, trying to gain comfort from my friends and crying because I was terrified to the depths of my soul that that will be me. That that is inescapably who I will become.
Catching tadpoles. Explaining the lifecycle of frogs. Looking through a microscope – I could never see anything except my own eye. How many of my memories are of science? Most of them. Looking at the stars. That’s Orion. There’re the pointers. Look at the Southern Cross. The red one is Mars, the bright one is Venus. Tell me about the face on Mars again? What does the Centaur of our shared star sign mean?
The next time was both better and worse. She was sick from the treatment and fell asleep almost as soon as I got home. She was sick, and tired, and clearly upset. And I felt… nothing. I felt upset that another human being was hurting. But looking at her, at my sick mother, bedraggled from sleeping and wrung out from treatment and from her day, I felt… wary. Suspiscious. I felt like I was being played. I always feel like I’m being played, with her.
Making things together. Planting things, digging holes. Hammer and nails. Hold the spirit level steady, now. Here’s how you use a saw.
In January, I was walking to the beach. I walked past a house, and there was a little girl in the front yard, long blonde hair, holding a dolly under her arm. The picture of normality. Bare feet, long skirt. She was talking to her dad, or maybe her grandad, who was painting the fence. Asking questions, and he was answering patiently, and with great love. I didn’t hear what they were saying. It didn’t matter. I sobbed all the rest of the way to the beach, tears running down my cheeks, not caring about the passing cars. Not caring, because I would never ever be able to listen to my father patiently and lovingly explain something to me again.
Last week, the halfway mark. I cooked dinner. A risotto. It was nothing special, but she tripped over herself to praise it. Obsequious is the word. I should be thankful that it wasn’t criticism – three years ago it would have been. But somehow I hate this as much. Then I put on some podcasts and cast on for Rogue, and we sat in (mostly) silence and knit. She’s inherited some charity knitting projects from someone in the parish who was also sick and needed something to keep their hands busy. She thought we spent some quality time together. I thought I got some good knitting time in.
Two weeks ago I realised that it doesn’t hurt anymore. Not like it used to. I’m still sad. But I’m not devastated. I expect I will be again in the future, but right now… I’m not. The stabbing pain is gone. I still get a start every time someone mentions their father, every time someone says ‘it makes me want to kill myself!’ everytime… everytime millions of little things. But it isn’t like a stiletto to the heart, a punch to the guts.
Sunday I rang her. Mothers day. That wasn’t why I rang – something needed sorting out about the will. Did I have a copy? We chatted for twenty minutes and it was… fine. It was fine. It wasn’t the best conversation I had all day, but… it didn’t make me angry, or upset, or tired. Am I making too much out of everything, then? Should I just fucking relax and get over myself? I already feel selfish, withholding a mother-daughter relationship. What if there is no point to doing that?
A week ago, riding my bike home from work. Another bike crosses the road a good 50 metres in front of me. It has a baby seat on the back. Suddenly I can’t see the road for tears. My dad had one of those. He took us on rides. I remember, dimly, riding behind him with my sister in the seat on the back of his bike. I remember, more clearly, riding in the Ride Against Want for his work, riding through the hills (I was always scared of being on the road). He rode to Melbourne and back once, before we were born. He used to ride an hour’s car ride to work. I have his old bike pump. It doesn’t fit my bike.
She keeps offering to drive me places. ‘Oh, I can pick you up from work’. That’s fine. I don’t need help. Not from anyone. And definitely not from you. I can’t let you be that for me. I can’t… except today I am. I’m busing to the shops and then she will meet me there. I need to do a big shop, and my sister and I have opposite schedules. And then if I feel like it I might ask her to drive me to Bunnings, and to the pet store, to buy some things that I can’t carry on my bike. I am not sure how I feel about it. It no longer seems to be a symbol of anything. I am sure that it was. So was I fooling myself then, am I fooling myself now, or has something changed?
I don’t know.
I imagine riding behind him now, or in the future. His grandkids on the back, maybe. I cry for the lost opportunity, for the future in which I will never get to watch him be a grandfather. He would have been wonderful. I think about that man painting the fence. I think about watching my dad show things to my children, or my sister’s, or even my cousin’s. Watching him guide small hands, pointing at birds, demonstrating some simple principle with baking powder or water. I will never get over the pain that I can’t see that. If I ever have kids, I think, their father’s parents had better be AWESOME. Because they’ve got nothing from me – I know exactly what kind of grandparent my mother will be, and it won’t be fun for anyone.
Sometimes I wish she was dead. Not because I want her to die, or to not be alive. But because that way I would be able to deal with it. Because this will never stop. I know that, I know that this back and forth, this tugging inside, wanting things and dreading them, will go on until one or the other of us dies. I remember times when our relationship was ok. Never perfect, not even good. But ok. What changed? I have no idea. Was it me? I don’t think so, but would I know? Am I doing the right thing? Being the bigger person? Making things harder for myself? Self sabotaging? So many questions, so much to consider, every small interaction is a huge deal, even when it’s not.
Last time she was wearing his blue jumper. The alpaca, King Charles Brocade one that his mother knit him. The one he was wearing on his birthday. The one that I see him wearing, whenever I think about him now. A couple of months ago I had a dream that he was alive again. But he was wearing the jumper, and it was all rotted and falling apart, hanging off of him in strips. I woke up in a cold sweat. I have the Cobblestone that I knit him. I can’t bring myself to wear it.
I am confused. I will always be confused. I want her to go away so that I can lie to myself, make up a story about her and me. I suppose I will just have find a way to do that with her in the room.
My cousin has this photo up on her mirror in her room, along with ones of her and her girlfriends laughing at their formal, her sisters at the beach… I don’t like to look at these photos. I hear my mother in my head ‘he looked to happy!’ Am I the only one who thought his smile looked brittle, his cheer a little see-through, his grin perilously close to a rictus? Or am I projecting that? I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what any of my memories mean.
I just want to get on with my life. Is there some way we can fast track this, please?
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse