I’ve kept the birthday card you chose for me, Mum. I might even frame it. The dog’s expression is so funny, as if he’s just raised his head from a good session licking something unsavoury. Ready for the next, inevitably fabulous turn of events.
I was pleasantly surprised that you’d managed to pick it out for me. Sorry – that sounds patronising. What I mean is, it’s the perfect card, the sort of card you might always have chosen. Actually, that’s not quite true… It is better than your choices of recent years, plump teddy bears proffering armfuls of flowers dedicated “To a special daughter, with lots of love.” Dad said the scruffy dog made you chuckle when you spotted it on the rack at the garden centre. I laughed out loud when I opened it. Your eyes widened in delight. I took that as a sign that you are still here. There. Still Mum.
On occasion, you do sound quite like your old self when you speak. Certain turns of phrase that startle me with their briskness, their spick-and-span clarity. Fleetingly, I see you coloured in solidly within the lines. The other night, I was lying in bed on the cusp of sleep and was jolted awake by the sound of your voice. An auditory hallucination, I suppose. “Hello, love,” you said. Just like that. As if I’d walked through the door after school. The sound stayed with me for a moment, a luminous wisp like the fading ching of a silver spoon on a slender-stemmed glass. I held my breath. Goodness, Mum. Don’t play tricks on me like that!
Oh, it confuses me how I feel towards you now. As a child, I would sometimes sit on the ground, legs straight out in front of me, mind somewhere to the left or right of me, aimlessly running my hands over the objects scattered around me – toys, balls, teddies, fistfuls of grass. Not knowing what I was thinking, or looking for, or what I wanted to do. No words forming in my head. Seeing only colours and shapes, and the spaces between them. Body heavy like a sandbag, head as light and inconsequential as a one-penny coin. That is how I feel now, around you.
Tell me what to do, Mum.
But you can’t. You don’t talk much, these days. Is it wrong of me to envy your self-containment, just a little? You sit, bent over a jigsaw puzzle – wartime evacuees, a Cotswold village, a fairground – bashing in pieces that look as if they ought to fit, but don’t. Bash, bash, thwack. There you go. Sky, with a bit of road in it. Dad has to carefully separate them all afterwards and put them in properly. That makes me smile. Jigsaws are pretty damn boring, really, so it’s tempting to just force the pieces into an approximation of the photograph. The Picasso school of jigsaw puzzling.
I catch sight of you, sitting with your head in your hands as if your head is hurting you. Or maybe you’re just tired. I don’t know. I should ask if you are OK. Perhaps I should try my default conversation starter: “Mum, do you remember…?” But I don’t have the energy, not today. Increasingly, I have the sense of gazing at you through water. I’d like to become a very small, weightless thing, a leaf perhaps, floating on the surface of that fathomless pool. Not trying anymore, because the trying is just too hard. I’m tired.
So, I observe you, and wonder, and carry on watering the plants.
My feelings towards you are emaciated. They can find no sustenance in this diluted version of you… I know I do love you, because it is there in my memory, set in amber. The gluttonous love of a child, feasting messily on the need to be protected. That chord that still tethers a mother to her child beyond birth – between us, it was pulled taut between extremes, tearing a little under the strain, but at least I could feel it. Because it bled, I knew it was a living thing. I kind of miss that.
In hindsight, I can appreciate all the ways in which you were a feral and devoted mother, ablaze with that love so monstrously tender that it can tilt in an instant into a righteous fury.
You did your best, Mum. There is such beauty in that.
When I cooled towards you, Mum, did you notice? It breaks my heart to acknowledge you probably did. I’m sure you observed my brittleness in your company. I’m sorry, Mum. I really am so sorry. But I can’t tell you that. Can I?
I love you, Mum. But I’m so scared that the need for you will come rushing back in if I admit that.
I should hold you, I know that. Hold you properly, not waft a hug around you as I leave with a see-you-soon. I should hold you so that I catch the scent of your hair, hold you until the warmth of your back feels almost too hot against my arms, until the fluttering of your heart against my chest triggers my squeamishness, and I have to pull away.
Do you remember…? Earlier this year, when Dad asked me if I was OK, I started crying? I hadn’t wanted to let on that I was struggling, but the question caught me off guard, and I wept. You reached for my hand, held it, and stroked my fingers. Your hand was warm. You were there. It was OK. I was OK. It would all be OK. You were still there.
I was awed by the touch of your hand, the softness of your fingers, the wordless love. How many times, over the years, must you have held my hand to reassure me? Such ordinary love. A quiet, unobtrusive little thing, apt to make itself known in small gestures, most easily recognised in stillness.
You told me more than once that we hurt the people we love the most. You were trying to explain yourself, reduce the complicated way that grown-ups love each other into a digestible, if unpalatable truth. Was it somebody in the bible who said that a person who is capable of the greatest good is also capable of the greatest evil? That resonated with you, didn’t it?
But hurting has no part in love. We hurt people because we ourselves are hurt, and we’re angry. We don’t want to bear our hurting alone.
I no longer believe that love should be that complicated. If only we’d had a little longer, I might have found a straightforward way to love you.
I watch you, observing me as I water the plants. They bring you joy, and it upsets you to see them parched and wilting. Plants are so easy to love. Water flows from the hose in glassy sinews. Fascinating how it doesn’t fall straight. The day is hot, and still.
In stillness, I can reach for your hand again, if only in my head. I can wander away with you, instead of watching you go.
The soil swells and darkens with moisture. How quickly the leaves begin to revive, stretching luxuriously, boldly, inevitably to the light.