In the days and weeks after my mother’s death, my husband explained to anyone who asked that she had died at home, in her own bed, in her sleep and with her daughter by her side. A good death, a peaceful death, he implied, the kind people hope for. They were comforting words, which I did not begrudge, and they were almost true. But every time I heard them I wanted to say, ‘No, no, it wasn’t that simple.’
It was just the two of us that last night as it had been, in some ways, all my life, and I am haunted by the things I did not do, the things I should have said. I see her falling in slow motion, over and over and over, and wonder how I might have caught her. I cannot believe she is gone.
My mother went to hospital twice in her life. The first time was to have me in 1957, a slow, smooth birth that she recalled with unfaded bliss on my birthday every year while I listened with a tight smile of adolescent embarrassment, even in my fifties. The intensity of her love was a raft that buoyed me and a responsibility that sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, weighed me down.
Among her papers after her death I found a recent note headed Important Memories. Second on the list, in her lively handwriting, was Seeing & holding my baby daughter immediately after birth. Violet blue eyes, long black hair, dear little face. 8lbs 2ozs. Born 9pm. Sandwiches & tea (yum). Next morning nurses brought Susie in with pink ribbon tying up her hair. Oh joy!
I smiled and cried at the familiar details. Darling, devoted Mum. What the note left out was the miserable background to her newborn joy. When she left hospital—when we left—her ten-year marriage to my father was collapsing and she was already a single mother. Dad was more than halfway out the door, in love with the woman who would become his second wife, when I was conceived. It was the last time they had sex, Mum told me much later. Whenever I suggested her life would have been easier without me, she was emphatic: ‘You are the best thing that ever happened to me.’
She created safety amid the ruins. The other day I heard the old 5th Dimension song Up, Up and Away on the radio and the hopeful happiness of my childhood rushed back. There’s Mum grilling chops in the tiny kitchen of our rented flat, me wrapped in a vast bath towel in front of the gas fire, music playing on the radiogram. She let me eat dinner watching television with my plate perched on the wide arm of the sofa. If I woke in the dark, I found my way to her double bed; for months I didn’t pretend to sleep anywhere else. I felt no envy of my friends with two parents, siblings and a big house. I had Mum all to myself.
At first she told me Dad was away working, which was often true, but postponed the whole truth. Mostly she knew just when to segue from fantasy to fact. For years she wrote Christmas cards To Susie, from Santa in an old man’s shaky hand, but she came clean as soon as she saw realisation on my face. When I asked about babies while we were tidying the linen press, she gave me the details straight and then took me to the library.
But the Dad story was harder. I was six when she came in from the letterbox opening a cream envelope and stopped for a moment to read the letter before running up the hall to her bedroom. I found her flung across the bed and sobbing like a child, the sheet of paper hanging from her fingers. I clung to her legs and cried too. Finally she said, ‘Daddy isn’t coming home.’
There were visits from Dad, tense conversations about money, and for me holidays with his new family and outings to climb trees, fly kites and catch fish. I was always glad to go home but, caught in a state of the emotional bends, I didn’t show it enough. Mum swallowed her excitement and hid her hurt from her formal, cool-eyed daughter. We were so different, so often unknown to each other, and yet I can’t imagine a more perfect mother. "Image of her mother," she said reflexively after she or anyone else paid me a compliment.
Mum was brave: she killed moths and spiders and fought off men who thought a divorced woman was easy prey. She was daring: she learned to drive, bought a Mini Minor and became famous for her tight U-turns and illegal parking. She was patient: not a harsh word, even when I vomited in the front seat of the Mini or peed in my sleep on her new sofa. She was modern: she worked hard, built a career and bought us a house.
She was beautiful: her blonde curls turned white ‘overnight’ after her divorce but her blue-grey eyes shone, she was full and fresh and stylish even when her cheque account was in the red. She was vivacious: although she dreaded parties she laughed and danced and was often there until the end; strangers befriended her and men desired her. She was late: I was usually the last kid to be picked up from school and always seemed to be waiting. She was a generous spirit, open-minded, moral and wise. For a long, long time I believed she could solve any problem.
My life without her was unimaginable and I began imagining it from the first time I reached for her hand in a crowd and found a stranger attached. As an adolescent at home when she was late, I stared out the window and fought panic until I believed the night must end with a call from the police. She always turned up, oblivious and apologetic, just as I had begun to make hysterical calls to anyone who might track her down or take in her orphaned daughter.
We were like two teenagers when the seventies came. Mum was a friend to my friends, a role model of independence. We shared meals, diets and Woody Allen movies. She cheered my successes at school and I pushed her into acting classes. Our little house was alive with energy and laughter and Irish setters. But sex got in the way. Men and boys arrived and when things became serious we took turns to be jealous and protective.
The day I was cramming Latin for an important exam, Mum announced she was going out to lunch with the man who had transformed her from a mother into a lustful woman. I responded to her threat of abandonment with a tantrum and, to my outrage, was delivered to my aunt’s house to study while Mum went to lunch. Another year, Mum was planning to join my boyfriend and me for a distant picnic with friends. When it was time to set out she was drying her hair and putting on her makeup. We waited; we were late. ‘We’re going, Mum,’ I said finally and as we headed for the door her enraged cry—‘You bitch!’—hit the back of my head.
I was there, though, kneeling by her bed and stroking her hair, on the night of despair after her lover had strayed. I left her too, of course, moving half a block down the street with my boyfriend and dogs, and then to other suburbs and other countries, jobs and marriages. Mum didn’t complain— she paid my rent for the first year— but I felt a tug of guilt that she was the one at home alone. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever marry again,’ she said eventually and I agreed. She didn’t really trust men — hers or mine — and who could blame her? There were offers, none of them irresistible, and by then she had found strength and comfort in solitude.
The second time she went to hospital, she had broken her elbows.Going to visit friends, she made her way in the dark and did not see the cracked concrete that rose up and tripped her. She hit the ground hands first. Her friend found her there and made one of those calls I’d always dreaded: "Shirl’s had an accident." I was home for a visit from New York and rushed to the hospital.
Mum was pale with pain and the X-rays showed complicated fractures that would require surgery. Both arms in slings, she settled in as if at a health spa, in no rush to leave her pleasant room overlooking the garden, and the attention of the nurses. I was relieved to see her growing stronger in body and spirit. But what about the surgery? ‘Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,’ she said. She entertained the orthopaedic surgeon but politely resisted any pressure to schedule an operation. When I had to return to work in New York the hospital staff were gently trying to eject her.
There was no surgery. A final set of X-rays showed no sign of fracture. The surgeon was pleased but mystified: bones didn’t mend so quickly. Mum explained lightly that she had been treated by a Christian Science practitioner and she was not at all surprised by the result.
Ah, here was the fulcrum on which her life turned. Whatever emptiness Mum felt, she filled it with her belief —
her knowledge — that we are created by God’s infinite love and our real existence is not material but spiritual. Her mother had learned about Christian Science in its heyday and the family adopted the teachings of its American founder, Mary Baker Eddy, who had healed herself and many others of physical and mental ills through prayer.
Mum was only in her twenties when first her mother and then her father died. Rather than losing her faith, she said Christian Science helped her to rise above her grief. She was private about her religion and never stern or dogmatic. For me it was natural to go to Sunday school, to learn lines I can still recite from Mrs Eddy’s textbook Science and Health, and to turn to a practitioner for spiritual treatment, which dispelled fear and directed attention away from physical conditions to acknowledge God’s power. We went to the dentist, I had vaccinations at school and a doctor came to our home when I had measles or Mum had hepatitis. But I don’t remember going to a doctor’s surgery until I was a teenager wanting a prescription for the Pill.
By the time I was an earthbound journalist, I had drifted from the church but I still found a meditative calm in its prayers. I respected Mum’s beliefs and was glad for the certainty they brought her. I didn’t question her testimonies of healing for which there was no other explanation. Sometimes, in a crisis, I asked for her help and her clear thinking always guided me to some kind of solution.
‘Seventy is different,’ she told me soon after her birthday celebration, when I gave her a diamond ring that she would only ever remove to polish and show me its sparkle. (‘My Susie gave it to me,’ she told admirers, flashing its modest constellation.) She was still a "young" mother and I was surprised that she would make any concession to age. But she felt deeply tired and finally she gave up work."‘I don’t know how people live to a hundred," she said. "The thought is exhausting."
Living back in Sydney with my husband, I saw Mum when I could and talked to her on the phone, but she quietly craved a return to our old partnership. "I thought you’d want to see more of me," she said. "I got used to living without you," I tried to explain.
When I wrote my first book about a young man with a brain tumour, I didn’t mean it as an insult to Mum. At first I was attracted to the story because the pianist seemed to have overcome his illness through a combination of a neurosurgeon’s courageous work and his own spiritual strength. I thought it might prove something. To my surprise I became fascinated by the operating theatre and hospital ward, places of mystery and fear, and when his cancer returned I was plunged into a medical story with a sad ending. After the pianist died I sat by his bed, holding his hand, and wondered at the emptiness of his boyish body. I had only proved to myself that neither God nor doctors gave a guarantee.
My reliably proud mother, who clipped every newspaper story I wrote, came to the book launch and kept a copy on her coffee table to show visitors. But after reading the first few pages she laid the book aside and that was that. If I was disappointed, I also understood: while I needed to know how bodies functioned and failed, Mum did not.
As she approached eighty she moved into an apartment, sold her car and became dependent on others to take her places. But she was slower and later than ever, and our outings exhausted us all. Besides, she was more and more content to stay at home. ‘I’m never lonely and never bored,’ she declared.
We settled into a routine. On Saturdays I rang for her shopping list and delivered the week’s supplies. "Suse!" she said as I came through the door, her eyebrows raised as if my arrival were the happiest surprise she could imagine. Love and anxiety filled my chest. When I bent to hug my shrinking mother I felt like an adult towering over a vulnerable child.
We sat down for a cup of tea and talked about this and that. They were irreplaceable times and I tried to slow down and be patient. She only hinted at her problems. I knew she spoke regularly to a Christian Science practitioner and had visits from a Christian Science nurse, who changed a bandage on her leg and read with her. I could see she was in some pain and had a vague idea of what her ailments might be. Years ago she’d seen a doctor with no result and told me she intended to rely solely on Christian Science. Questions were batted away. "How are you?" led nowhere. "Just love me," she said. When there was an opening she told me, "I’m learning so much about man’s relationship with God. I’m growing all the time and it’s so exhilarating."
At times — especially when Mum was unaware of my gaze — I had the strange sensation that I could see through her, as if her physical presence were diminishing and she hardly impressed herself on the air. Neither of us admitted that she had begun her gradual departure. I still believed in her extraordinary mother-power to fix things, or perhaps I was just in denial. I didn’t want her to be old.
If I allowed myself to imagine her death I pictured her going to sleep and not waking up. Whenever she did not answer the phone, my childhood panic hit and I braced myself. My mind shied away from whatever came next and yet the fear sat low in my stomach. I could not see myself nursing her at the end and even said once, "Mum, I don’t think I’d be a very good carer." Naturally she hated the thought of nursing homes and I wondered if her stoicism was partly a defence against being ‘put’ in one. I had no intention of doing so but I didn’t know what the alternative would be if things got worse. Blindly I hoped we could continue as we were. "I’m trying not to be a nuisance," she said.
The year I took long-service leave I planned to travel, work on a novel and recuperate from thirty years’ full-time journalism. I also wanted to spend better time with Mum. My aunt and cousin helped her even more than usual while I went to France for my first month of freedom. The cleaner and the nurse were regular visitors. My husband took hot cross buns for Easter, ice cream and delphiniums for Mother’s Day, and carried out the garbage. No one reported any dramas.
By late June I was ready to be more attentive: I would write in the mornings and spend afternoons with Mum. But suddenly she was worse. Weak and pale, she began sleeping for long stretches, sometimes more than twenty-four hours. The nurse was there most days, tending to the wound on her leg and helping her bathe and move with a walking frame. When she left I cooked and ate with Mum, half-watching television and talking. If I could feed her, I thought, I could keep her alive. ‘Mum, do you want some medical help?’ I asked, not for the first time. Usually she just said no. This time she added, without looking at me, ‘It’s too late anyway.’ Then there was silence.
We were both trying so hard to cope in our different ways. Her secrecy, which was intended to protect me and avoid giving reality to sickness, simply multiplied my unnamed fears. Christian Science seemed to be letting us both down and yet I was not allowed to say so. I felt powerless or, worse, passive but if a doctor came, what would happen? She would become another medicated, grey figure in a hospital bed. Mum’s wishes were clear and my frustrating duty was to follow them. I just wished I knew how to do it well. I cried at home but only once in front of her and she shook her head and said, "Don’t". Another time she said, "The thing I worry about most is not being here for you when you go through this." Tongue-tied at her selflessness, I could only squeeze out, "No, you mustn’t."
Our days found a new pattern. Mum remained cheerful and uncomplaining. She sat in her nightie on the sofa, surrounded by papers, books and the diary that kept her days in order. I reached her by leaning down to kiss her head. She was grateful for every tiny thing I did and noted in her diary the details of our time together: Susie came at 4pm, brought coffee, made tea, chicken soup, etc. and made chicken and veg for dinner. We watched First Tuesday Book Club where they talked about Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Dear sweet Susie!
This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my long-service leave but Mum’s timing seemed almost deliberate. Between visits I tried to pretend my life was normal. I wrote distractedly, helped my father to move, even went away for a working weekend. In early August my husband and I took a stroll on a cold Saturday afternoon and peeped in Mum’s window. She beckoned us in for a cup of tea. He hadn’t seen her for weeks and she half joked that he wasn’t welcome (no one was). He remembers her laughter following him out the door.
The following Saturday I had an all-day writing class. I dropped in early to leave breakfast beside Mum’s bed, and during the day the nurse came and my aunt and cousin visited with homemade soup and pies. In the evening Mum was in her usual spot on the sofa but she seemed distant and confused. She asked to look at an artwork she had bought not long ago and pointed out dozens of non-existent dogs hidden in the abstracted scene. She seemed to be hallucinating."You’re looking at me with real love," she said, turning to focus her eyes on mine. "You mean unlike all the other times?" I bantered back. I heard myself and wondered why I couldn’t stop the defensive cracks and just say, "Yes, I love you so much. I love you more than I have ever told you. I love you enough to fill all the other gaps and wounds and make you whole."
She was shivering so I turned up the heater. When I was about to leave she asked me to go out for takeaway Chinese and by the time I’d brought back the honeyed chicken and broccoli I was late for dinner with friends. "Can’t you stay for five more minutes?" she asked as she picked at her plate. "No, Mum, I’ve got to go. I’m trying to do the right thing by everyone." What was I thinking? To be honest I was tired and spooked and wanted to get away. But at our friends’ place I cried and wondered why I was there. Next morning a paralysing gloom fell over me. I knew I should be with Mum but I lay in bed and convinced myself she would contact me when she woke, as she often did. In the evening my cousin called to say she was there cooking dinner. "Do you want me to come?" I asked half-heartedly. She insisted I take a break and stayed deep into the night.
I was woken early on Monday by a call from the nurse, who had heard from the practitioner. Mum needed help. I hurried there, followed soon by the nurse. Mum was in bed and coherent but her breathing was fast and shallow. We supported her to the bathroom and brought water, tea and food she didn’t want. It’s hard to believe but I had been planning another short trip that week to speak at a writers’ festival. With the nurse’s agreement I went home and cancelled my arrangements and returned with a bunch of jonquils that I put in an orange vase beside Mum’s bed. They looked like a child’s drawing of spring flowers and made her smile.
As the day went on Mum chatted intermittently but she was restless and feverish. I told her to try to breathe more deeply and stroked her brow with a cool cloth. She dozed and woke. I rang the practitioner many times and held the phone to Mum’s ear; she closed her eyes to take in the soothing words. The nurse came and went and when she left for the night I stayed by the bed without a plan. "I’m not leaving, Mum," I said. She looked relieved. I still did not know what dying looked like and it didn’t occur to me that I should bring the family to her bedside.
Perhaps unconsciously I felt we had to do this, whatever it was, together. One last time I offered to call a doctor or an ambulance and for a fearful moment wondered if I should call anyway — more for me than for Mum. Then I tried to apply myself to being there. I was intent on not falling apart and Mum’s courage helped me but we were just being ourselves, mother and daughter. She asked me to call the practitioner and when there was no answer for a while Mum looked anxious. "Even if we can’t get her, you know the truth, Mum. You don’t need her. I’m here, God’s here, we’re all here." Her eyes were shut but her lips turned up in a half-smile. "I’ve given my whole life to this," she said. I assumed she meant Christian Science and perhaps preparation for her ultimate test. "It suited your . . ." ". . . psyche?" she said with a puff of laughter. She’d never talked much about psychology but maybe she was right. "No . . . your view of life," I said, hearing my absurd dryness.
I thought it might be a comfort for both of us if I lay on the bed and cradled Mum. But each time I tried to curl into her the phone rang and I leapt up, rocking the mattress. Even sitting beside her seemed an intrusion so I stood. She had windmilled herself sideways across the mattress and she looked tiny and fragile. But the hand pressed to her forehead was smooth and manicured— the hand that had always held mine, much too youthful for this.
I should have said I loved her but it came out differently. I wanted her to know she had succeeded at her life’s work. I made sure to use the present tense. "Mum, I couldn’t have a more loving mother." "No," she said, "I don’t think you could." Her certainty almost made me laugh. I don’t know where she was drifting between our snatches of conversation, but the last I heard from her was "Mum . . . Mum". She might have been echoing the word she always loved hearing from me. I’ve since read that dying people sometimes call for their parents and Mum always said I reminded her of her mother, so perhaps at that moment we blurred. I hope she felt our love.
Some time after midnight, when Mum relaxed into sleep, I decided I should rest. Who knew how long this would continue? Well, I didn’t. I slept jammed into the two-seater sofa that I had peed on as a child. Mum’s coughing woke me and I went into her bedroom where, by the half-light, I wiped her lips and stroked her back until she subsided again. On her digital clock I saw it was just after three and I tiptoed back to the sofa. When I woke again around five, I knew.
Mum was lying as I’d last seen her but there was an extra stillness to her. Her back was warm under my hand but didn’t move; or did it? When I was sure, I went out and sat in the dark silence. I didn’t cry, I didn’t pray, I barely thought. I suppose I was beginning my slow acceptance. As dawn came through the blinds I was still sitting and it was time to do something. I rang the nurse, the practitioner, my aunt, my husband and, a few beats later, my father. "She’s gone," I said. For a moment no one knew what I meant, and then they were stunned and began to hurry over.
I had to make another call, the nurse told me. Because Mum had died at home and had not seen a doctor in the past three months, the police had to be informed. This was the first I’d heard of that. Two young constables turned up at the scene of the possible crime, just as they had when I reported a burglary. They were polite but they had to examine Mum and interview me about the circumstances of her death. My skin prickled with automatic guilt. Two detectives in dark suits crowded into the living room to ask more questions and take photographs. One of them said he’d recently lost his grandmother and understood how I felt.
All the same, Mum would have to go to Glebe Coroner’s Court, better known as the morgue. As a young journalist I had covered inquests there and had glimpsed the nightmarish sight of a refrigerated storeroom lined with shelves of naked, fire-damaged bodies. It was unbelievable that Mum’s carefully guarded, private withdrawal from the world should end in such indignity. I was outraged but useless. The police said we should remove her jewellery before she was taken away, and my husband stepped up to a task I couldn’t do. He came out of the bedroom with the diamond ring I’d given her twelve years earlier and placed it on the table. I couldn’t look at her again. I didn’t say goodbye. And then, for a second time, she was gone.
On Mum’s list of Important Memories the first note says: Morning after Mummy died. The sun came up. Birds began to sing. The world went on as though nothing happened. Incredible!
Nothing changes, and everything. In the days and weeks that followed, I went about the many things that had to be done, making the phone calls, arranging the funeral, giving the eulogy, applying successfully to stop the autopsy, holding myself together. A bubble of unreality separated me from the world and I wanted to shout through the invisible wall, "My mother is dead!" Quietly I accosted acquaintances on the street, the girl who made my daily coffee, any stranger who casually asked how I was: "My mother died yesterday." "My mother died last week." No one seemed to register the importance of what I was saying. As the days slipped by I felt Mum disappearing into the past.
I cried in short storms, sometimes prompted by a kindness or a song or, just as often, by pushing my supermarket trolley past the bread and biscuits I no longer bought for Mum. Friends let me cry and talk. My husband held me tightly in bed. Grief entered my body as stabs of pain that gradually quietened to a low, humming ache. Mum had once said I seemed to take on her various complaints in sympathy and now mortality was my affliction. My future looked like an inconsequential moment. I took to reading every death notice in the newspaper out of respect for each individual loss and I noticed that all the Shirleys were dying. Soon, I thought, it would be all the Susans.
More than a year later I am still winded — sometimes several times a day — by the sudden realisation that Mum is dead. For an instant I think there must have been a mistake, until it sinks in once more that I will never see her again, that I cannot change anything that happened to her or between us. I miss her as much as I did on the first day, perhaps more. I feel like a table that has lost a leg; even with three good legs I wobble and teeter. She is my lost love.
And yet we find ways to cope. We create rituals and grow new parts. I did my best to follow Mum’s six pages of notes, headed Future Project, on how to run her funeral. (A thanksgiving service. Lovely flowers, lovely music, not too much serious religious stuff . . . Whoever wants to speak can say nice things about me if they can think of anything or funny things if they want. Don’t be too cruel, ’cause I’ve tried my best, like everyone. But, yes, be realistic.) I slid her diamond ring onto my finger and wore it constantly for a year. I dedicated a tree to her in Sydney’s Centennial Park, a favourite place planted with memories: a grand Moreton Bay fig almost as old as she was, with a broad shadow and deep hollows where I can sit in its embrace.
I took heart from a newspaper story that said seventy per cent of Australians wanted to die at home but in fact seventy per cent died in hospital, and that most doctors did not want to suffer the ‘hell’ they inflicted on their end-of-life patients. Perhaps I did not fail her, even if I could have done better.
At last I can see her — why did it take so long? — as more than my mother, as a woman and a daughter. Mum always spoke of her own mother as if she’d just left the room. Only now do I understand how devastating that early loss must have been for her and how it shaped her, how she idealised her mother and treasured the bond that I could treat more casually.
If ever I thought I would stop being my mother’s daughter I know now that she’ll always be in my head, praising me, curbing me, telling me I’m beautiful or should wear more eye makeup or lose weight or hold on to my job. A mother’s power is inextinguishable.
Many months after Mum died, I found a letter that I had shoved among some old papers and forgotten. She’d written it in 1979 when I was twenty-one and living in London but had decided against sending it. Instead she handed it to me after I moved home from New York almost twenty years later, and although I read it then I did not absorb it as I have now. The
two handwritten pages spell out her love for me (my main reason for living) and her hopes for my life based on her unwavering principles.
One day, she wrote, if I should have to leave you to go on to another stage of experience, I hope you won’t be sad, because
I will be alright . . . Love, love, love—be compassionate—to yourself as well as to others. Overflow with love—and be wise. This is my message to you—because I want you to enjoy life; it is a marvelous opportunity. Be courageous, fear nothing—for there is nothing to fear. I know this to be true. With love from your little mother.
This essay 'Disbelief' by Susan Wyndham is part of collection of essays entitled My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent, edited by Susan Wyndham and published by Allen & Unwin in 2013. Other contributors include Susan Duncan, Helen Garner, Tom Keneally and Mandy Sayer. A new edition of the book will be out in July.
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