Illustration: Erin Forsyth

The Sunday Essay: My mother, finally free

How do you grieve a parent when she was lost to you a long time ago?

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Erin Forsyth

It’s a dark night, as though the sky has been painted with thick charcoal. A tiny crescent moon appears from behind cloud cover like a flickering light. At 10pm, an email from Mum’s resthome lands in my inbox, forwarded by Dad.

Good evening! I hope all is well with you and your family. Just to give you an update regarding Mary. She appears to have deteriorated further. We have noticed this 2 days ago when she was unable to tolerate her meal then that progressed and now she can’t swallow anything. We’re not giving anything to her by mouth as it is unsafe to do it. She is less responsive to voice now and there is already a change in her breathing pattern. It would be best if you see her tomorrow. Just letting you know. Thanks!

I try to phone Dad but he doesn’t pick up. I go to sleep and expect to dream but there’s nothing, just blankness.

I wake at 7am to three missed calls from Dad and two from my sister. I phone Dad but he doesn’t answer. I call my sister. “Sare, Mum’s passed.”

I’ve waited for this call for so long. When Mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61, doctors gave her a decade at the most. That was 14 years ago. Ten years ago she was placed into full-time care. Seven years ago she stopped recognising her family; around the same time, she lost all ability to communicate.

There are logistics to sort out. My youngest sister wants to come out from Switzerland. She’ll need to quarantine for two weeks. We do the maths. We could celebrate Mum’s life on May 13 or May 14. I’m superstitious – we can’t bury Mum on May 13.

My doorbell rings. An artwork I ordered a month ago has finally arrived. I rip the cardboard and pull off the polystyrene wrapped around it. It feels good to do something physical, to ground myself. Sellotape falls on the carpet, lying there like peeled skin. The painting is blue and cream, the colours of the walls and crockery in Mum’s favourite room at home. Koru swirls remind me of the ocean she loved to watch from her lawn.

The flight to Napier is delayed. Dad’s waiting at arrivals, his heavy hand thumping my back as he pulls me close. I thought I’d cry when I saw him. I don’t.

Mum’s resthome is cream-painted concrete; from the distance it looks like a low-lying bunker. Over the past eight years, I’ve said hello to the reception staff and walked along these corridors so many times I’ve lost count. The residents are in the communal living area watching midday TV. They lie in Lazy-boy chairs, as caregivers and nurses distribute pills as if they’re candy. Walkers are scattered around like spiders ready to crawl. To me, this place has always felt like a waiting room for death, a glimpse into the realities of human mortality.

The door to Mum’s room still has the black and white photograph Dad pasted there of her as a beautiful young debutante, but now a new sign is tacked up next to it: “Ask a staff member before entering’’. Inside, Mum lies on the bed, propped up by pillows. Her skin is yellow and her eyes are closed. I lean over and kiss her quickly: “Love you Mum.”

The room still smells like her even though she’s gone. In here is the scent of old age and illness, a blend of urine, stale sweat and unaired clothes.

I remember I last saw Mum here on Easter Friday. She lay in this bed with the rail up to stop her falling out. Someone had tied a scarf around her hair to pull it off her face. I remember it was pastel pink and cream, the very colours Mum never wore. Someone had put red lipstick over her thin uneven lips. The lipstick had run as though tiny red veins were cascading out of her mouth. Her face was skeletal thin, her cheeks sunken, her pale skin translucent. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and whispered: “Mum, it’s time.’’

My daughter Mia was with me. She kissed her grandmother and looked through the floral visitor book. We pinned new photos on the wall, right near Mum’s bed: one of Bianca at her school ball and another of Mia and Isabella smiling in the golden light. I realised that most of the photographs on Mum’s wall were a decade old, of my three girls when they were toddlers and at primary school. It was as though time had frozen, as though we kept the girls at the age when Mum last remembered them.

I had whispered that line over and over, every time I visited. “Mum, it’s time.’’

Illustration: Erin Forsyth

I haven’t cried yet. I don’t know why I can’t cry.

*

I wake early to chirping sparrows and an orange sunrise blazing through the roller blinds. Mum surrounds me here at my Waimarama beach bach, in the mosaic tiles she made which now lie under the apple tree, in the blue bottles she collected now dotted around the kitchen near her favourite blue jug. The sun warms my face as I sit on the deck and wonder how today will go: the day we will bury the darling mother we started losing 14 years ago to Alzheimer’s.

I smell jasmine flowers wet from yesterday’s rain. I close my eyes. When I open them again, a fantail flits near me, flying so close I could touch it. In seven years, I’ve never seen a fantail here. It feels like Mum is with me, telling me: I’m okay, I’m free now.

I feel Mum in a way I never did when she lay in that resthome bed with the rail up. My chest heaves and I sob for the first time.

My uncles are strumming guitars and my cousin plays the organ, the songs that Mum loved. Everyone from my childhood is here: the couple who looked after me when she went to hospital, the neighbours we barbecued with, our relatives and my best friends, her old school friends. This church was her special place: up the front, on the altar where the priest waits for her, Mum read prayers at Sunday mass while I fidgeted on the pew.

Here I am Lord rings out. Mum is being carried in by her brother, her nephews and my partner. The man I love passes me in a blue suit with his head down, carrying my mother. I sob and I choke. Mum never got to know him. He came into my life when she had no idea who or what anyone or anything was. I’m not sure that I can breathe. The pew is hard beneath me; my daughter’s body is warm and soft and I sink into it.

Smart in his navy blue suit, Dad begins reading his welcome eulogy, the speech he wrote seven years ago in preparation for this day. He talks about losing his best friend, and about love and acceptance: how Mum understood him. My uncle, Mum’s younger brother, tells us about her childhood in a family of seven, when she helped their father sell magazines at his Waipukurau bookshop and at the railway station, and how as a teen, Mum was obsessed with Roy Orbison. When she met Dad, he had thick, black-rimmed glasses just like the singer. My uncle talks about how Dad cared for Mum when she got ill, how Dad rubbed moisturiser on her legs every day and put lipstick on her.

The author’s mother, photographed in 2007 (supplied)

My eulogy is a gift to Mum. I see the packed pews and the eyes watching me but I think of her and try to calm my voice. The mother we remember is not the one whose mind faded, I say, whom we lost years ago to this cruel disease. She was cheated of years of experiences – retirement and travel with Dad, time with her grandchildren and with us – and we’ve been cheated too.

I say Mum – the mother we remember and think about – is in her sewing room pedalling the sewing machine, whipping up beautiful clothes she would often leave hanging on our doorknobs overnight, as though a fairy had visited. Mum is in the garden, bent over a rose bush, clipping rose heads and pruning plants. Mum is the life of the party, in her dining room with friends or relatives who have popped in to visit. Mum is at the piano, her fingers running over the keys as music rings out through the house and makes us all so happy.

Mum will be buried in Wharerangi Cemetary. When we arrive the grave is waiting for her, under an elm tree with a view of rows of graves dotted with flowers. It’s a perfect spot for a mother who always loved living on a hill with a view. Our first house was on a Napier hill with a view of bush, and when I was 12, we moved to a house on a hill with a view of the sea. Her resthome was on flat land reclaimed in the 1931 Napier earthquake. Before that, the land was a pond.

We sing as she is carried down the hillside by her brother, nephews and my partner. Above us, the elm tree is losing leaves, golden and glowing in the afternoon light. Someone has hung a wind chime on a tree branch.

The priest prays. I follow others to the edge of Mum’s grave. I pick up a mound of dirt and sob. I cry seven years of tears, grief which I never could release while she was alive. We drape a bouquet of blue delphiniums, white roses and white lilies on top of the grave.

Mum is buried near her babies. She carried her only son for 31 weeks; he was born without a breath two days before my first birthday. She never got to see David or to hold him. Dad brought him out here with a priest and they buried his tiny body here, 20 metres from where we bury Mum today. Fourteen months later, she gave birth to my sister, Maggie. A brown scar snaking across Mum’s abdomen was the only evidence she had carried a second stillborn child – another child she wasn’t allowed to grieve for. I remember running my fingers over the scar and I remember Mum pulling me close and squeezing me.

I visit Mum the next day, before I return to Wellington. I pull my jacket around me, goosebumps pricking my arms. Wind whips up, chilling my damp face. I don’t want to think of her lying down there in the cold. The bouquet is still fresh and fragrant, covering her like a blanket, but a single rose has come away and fallen down the pile of dirt. I close my eyes and think of her. When I open them again, a fantail is flitting around, flying in and out of the elm branches above.

Death makes me think about life, about not taking a single day for granted, about gratitude and expressing love to those who are most important. I’ve never visited the graves of deceased relatives but I get it now. In the resthome, each year of Mum’s illness took her further away from me, as though the person I visited was not really, truly, the mother I knew.

Now I take the single white rose and place it on David and Maggie’s grave. Mum is with her babies now, and she is finally free.




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