:: Article

The Gift of a Mother

By Nigel Featherstone.

It was not the call I had ever imagined I would receive at 6:00 am on Christmas Day. At the other end of the line was the overnight nurse at my mother’s aged care facility. “We want to let you know that Rosemary is expected to pass away within the next few hours, so if you’d like to say goodbye you should make the necessary arrangements.”

I said thank you and hung up.

I lived 160 kilometres away, and we were in the middle of a heatwave, and I had visited my mother the previous day, but I knew what had to be done. I apologised to my partner Tim, who had spent days preparing lunch. He offered to drive me. I said I was fine—I’d pick up my middle brother on the way.

But as I drove, my chest began to feel as though it was filled with a jittery kind of air; my legs became as heavy as stone.

I should have turned around.

Two hours later we found our mother in the room, the curtains drawn. She was lying on a bed low to the ground, the mattress thin as if for camping, a mat on each side in case she rolled out. She couldn’t roll anywhere. She could barely move. She could barely breathe. Her eyes were closed, and every few minutes we heard the throaty rattle that everyone says is true. A vein on her neck pulsed frantically. Her head was turned to one side, her mouth wide open and forming an O, as if desperate for oxygen. Her hands—the brittle bones, the purple-black skin—gripped the sheets. Her legs were raised, almost as though she had been sitting in a chair and then become frozen before they put her back on the bed.

My brother checked her feet.

“They’re cold,” he said.

A carer came in and propped her up with pillows. Were they trying to make her presentable for viewing? Mum began saying, “Yellow blue, yellow blue, yellow blue.” An hour later, she started saying, “Nothing, nothing, nothing…” An hour after that, she opened her eyes, looked at my brother and me, and said in her authoritative voice (it had sometimes scared us as children), “This is ridiculous.”

*

My mother had received the diagnosis of dementia only eight months earlier. Until then she had been living in her own home in Canberra, albeit with considerable assistance. She rejected the diagnosis. “Absolute rubbish,” she told the doctor. Even if she had been able to process the information, it would have come as a shock. Her mother, whom I adored, had battled Alzheimer’s for a decade, and my mother had cared for her every day. My mother had seen first-hand what dementia does to a human being: the erosion of reason, memory, and character; the loss of independence and dignity; wellbeing reduced to a word in a pamphlet. She must have spent years fearing it would come for her. And it did.

She never reached a point of acceptance. She fought it.

Two weeks before Christmas, while I was visiting, a carer said into my mother’s face as if speaking to a child, “Rosemary, are you okay? Are you comfortable? Is there anything you need?”

I watched as my mother lifted one of her hands, made a fist, and went to punch the carer in the head.

Gently I brought her fist back down to the sheets.

Later that day, I tried smiling for her, because I could remember her doing exactly that for my grandmother.

She said, “You think this is funny, do you?”

“No, I’m just smiling.”

“I want to spit in your face.”

Still I smiled. Stubbornness is a family trait.

“Oh, go kill yourself,” she said.

*

Earlier in the year, when the disease was less advanced, I was able to get my mother into a wheelchair—it required the assistance of a pair of patient though determined orderlies. One morning I pushed her up a ramp so we could sit in the sun, which was something she enjoyed. Even though we had done it numerous times, on this occasion she screamed, “Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t.

I said she could sit wherever she liked. She said she wanted to go back down to the driveway, where it was level.

A moment later, she reached out and briefly squeezed my wrist.

She looked up at the birds: rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos, currawongs, magpies.

Half an hour later, having become hot in the sun, she asked to be wheeled back to the room. Then it was time for me to begin driving home.

“Please don’t go,” she said.

“I have to.”

She turned to look out the window.

She said, “I just wish I could climb into the trees and fly away with the birds.”

Another time, when our conversation had run dry, I saw on her bedside table a pump-pack of Sorbolene, which weeks earlier I had brought down from her house.

“Let’s moisturise our hands,” I said.

“Why on earth would I do that?”

“Because it’ll be nice.”

“No,” she said.

I did it anyway. I worked the Sorbolene into my hands.

“You have such big hands,” she said. “You could have played the piano.”

I stared at her. “I did play the piano.”

She looked down—at her hands.

I said, “You can’t remember?”

“No,” she said, without looking up. “I can’t.”

*

Even as a child I adored music, and I loved playing the family piano. My mother and I would sit beside each other on the piano stool and, with the sheet music in front of us, she taught me various pieces, including Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and the scores to films I had enjoyed—the theme tune to Phar Lap had been a particular favourite. For many years, my mother had been an early-childhood teacher (as had her mother), and while seated at the piano I got a sense of what she would have been like in the classroom. “Don’t rush,” she suggested. But then she’d shout, “For goodness sake, stop pounding the keys!”

When I was little, in Sydney, I was very close to my mother. I can remember her tucking me into bed after she had read to me.

One night I began to cry.

“What’s wrong?”

“What will I do when you die?”

“That won’t happen for many years, darling. Look at your grandmother—she is still alive and I’m middle-aged. I will be around for some years yet.”

Another time, nearing adolescence, I embraced her without warning.

“God,” she said, laughing. “You’re like a bloody leech.”

Something else happened during my adolescence: I began to write, not just for school but during the holidays. As part of a longstanding tradition, my mother regularly took me and my brothers to the local library, where we filled our library bags with books—for me it was Tintin and Asterix comics, as well as the Swallows and Amazons series, the Follyfoot series, and John Christopher novels. It is only now I realise my mother was ensuring that as well as reading works from the school curriculum we had the opportunity to choose what we read.

And then there were all the big, important books in the house, ones by Charles Dickens, DH Lawrence, Xavier Herbert, Ethel Turner, Patrick White, Eleanor Dark, Morris West, Helen Garner, among so many others.

For three years my mother worked in a bookshop, and she regularly came home with books, though more often than not they were children’s books.

“For the grandchildren I’ll have one day,” she said.

Did she really say that? If memory serves correctly, she did.

When it came time for me to decide what I would do with my life, I said I wanted to do something with music—I’d spend hours making recordings of the simple songs I made up on the piano—or perhaps I could be a writer. My mother made it clear that neither was a viable option. She loved gardens. I liked gardens. Somehow she heard of a profession called landscape architecture. So, not wanting to be a problem, I went to Canberra to study that.

Within a month of graduation, and now living in Perth, I wrote my first short story as an adult. Two years later and back in Canberra, a couple of my poems were published in literary journals. Then some of my short stories were published. I began interviewing authors for the local newspaper’s weekend magazine and had opinion pieces published; for some years I had a semi-regular column.

A small local press offered to publish a chap-book collection of my short stories. Excitedly, I told my mother there would be a launch.

By this time she and my father—their marriage had always been fraught (for years they didn’t sleep in the same room)—were divorced.

“Will your father be at this launch?” she said.

“I’ve invited him.”

“Then I won’t be there.”

“That’s an unfair situation to put me in.”

“I don’t care.”

*

At some point on Christmas Day, while my brother was in the corridor talking to the registered nurse, my mother opened her eyes and looked at me. Pronouncing every word slowly and clearly, she said, “I want to go home.”

I held her hand.

*

My mother read some of my published short stories. During one particularly tense conversation, she told me (a) to never use names of people in the family, even distant relatives or acquaintances, and (b) I should write under a pseudonym. To a certain extent I understood the former but declined to do the latter.

As my writing life developed into a daily practice, I would be lucky enough to have more publications and launches. I always invited my mother to the launches, because I wanted her to have the opportunity to change her mind and join the celebrations. She never did. Although I accepted it as reality, it became a source of considerable, private disappointment.

She went further than simply declining the invitations: she began to cast a dark cloud over my public events. I remember telling her that singer and festival director Robyn Archer had agreed to launch my latest novella, at a bookshop in Canberra. My mother said, “That woman had something in the paper the other day. I didn’t like it one bit.”

*

During one visit I noticed my mother had a copy of The Spare Room by Helen Garner on her bedside table; this was only two months after she had moved to the aged care facility, so, aided by a walker, she was still sufficiently mobile to get to the small library and choose something from the shelves.

I pointed to the book and said, “You’re reading that?”

“What?”

“I see you’re reading a Garner novel.”

“Who?”

“Helen Garner.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“She’s an amazing writer.”

“I’m sure she is.”

My mother picked up the book as if she had no idea what it was doing in the room. She read aloud the dusk jacket. It looked like she was proving to herself—and me—that she could still do it. But she stumbled on the words.

During the drive home that afternoon I remembered how my mother had once told me about The First Stone by Garner, how the public response to the book had caused the author’s health to deteriorate. I didn’t know books could be that powerful. But having a writer in the family? No, that was not appropriate.

Perhaps my mother thought it best to steer clear of artists because, at heart, they were bohemians. Or was it because I often wrote about gay characters—did she worry that readers would conclude that she must have made a mistake in the way she had raised me? That is likely.

No doubt she also longed for the freedom that I had as a male.

I made the decision to stop sharing my writing news. I never told her that in 2013 I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which houses the Australian Defence Force Academy—I wrote the first draft of a novel there. I didn’t tell her that in 2014 I was commissioned to write the libretto for a contemporary song cycle, which would have its premiere in Canberra before being performed in Sydney and Goulburn, my adopted home-town. I didn’t tell her when I signed with a literary agent.

It felt as if I had children but refused to show her photos of them, or share humorous stories. It was as if I had discovered something I considered valuable and important but kept it hidden in a box that gathered dust in a hallway cupboard.

*

Last year I visited my mother in the aged care facility as often as I could on Sundays, despite it being a 320 kilometre round-trip. I also made sure to phone her twice a week. When she was still living at home, our conversations had often descended into arguments, even when just talking about current affairs. More or less we shared the same political views, but I thought she wasn’t progressive enough, and said so. She thought I was naïve—she was born in the Great Depression, had lived through the Second World War, was well-travelled, had raised three children and maintained a house while also working for money.

However, in her final months during which she had begun to struggle with coherent sentences, we mostly just spoke about the weather. It became her habit to end every call by saying, “I love you with every fibre of my being.”

I did not mirror her words; I was a 50-year-old man and couldn’t reciprocate.

I just said, “I’ll see you on Sunday.”

Or, “I’ll call you again in a couple of days.”

One evening in winter, during a call in which my mother began saying, “Nine, nine, nine,” over and over, at last I said what I wanted—and needed—to say: three short words.

She stopped. For a moment, we both listened to the silence.

Then on she went. “Nine, nine, nine …”

*

There is no known cause for dementia. Some of the studies point to a build up of plaque, which strangles brain cells; others suggest it is caused by a malfunction in the immune system. Currently there is no cure.

The number of Australians with dementia is expected to double in the next twenty years.

People say I am my mother’s son.

*

On Christmas Day, in the afternoon, the registered nurse on duty said that Rosemary appeared to have stabilised. My brother and I decided we would say our goodbyes and begin the drive home.

While he used the bathroom, I kissed my mother on the top of her head, on her thinning hair, on her white, flaky scalp. I tried to say it again, that briefest of statements, those three short words; but the words caught in my throat.

The toilet flushed.

I tried again. This time I managed to say the words.

Did she hear them?

Or was she already too far away?

Four days later, an hour after my brother visited again and the day before I was to make another trip, my mother died—the aged care facility rang me with the news. Without pausing, the caller said, “What will you be doing with the body?”

I asked for a minute.

“Of course.”

I hung up.

Tim sat with me on the couch, his arm around my shoulders. My body began to shake, as if the temperature had suddenly dropped.

*

After the family made the decision to sell our mother’s house, my brother and I spent weekends getting the garden together, doing repairs, cleaning out cupboards and shelves—there were 85 years of belongings in the place. I chose to keep as many of my mother’s books as possible, including those she had won as school prizes and those that meant something to me personally, the ones that I could remember reading when I was a child. The majority were donated to Lifeline. In the end there were, literally, truck-loads of books.

Only days before the house went on the market, my brother called out from the kitchen, “You’ll want to see this.”

On the top of a cabinet that otherwise displayed a range of artisan pottery was a green, plastic, ring-bound file. Stuck to the front was a white sticker with the words NGF PIECES PUB—my mother’s handwriting.

I picked up the file. It was an inch thick, bulldog clips keeping it together.

I opened it. Jammed into the plastic sleeves were cuttings of everything I had written for various newspapers, journals, and magazines. It also contained everything that had been written about me: interviews, reviews, even tiny little publicity notices of my launches. I turned the pages, kept turning. Every piece had been cut out carefully with scissors. My mother had marked every piece of paper with the date of publication, her handwriting neat and steady.

*

I keep the file—the gift—in my spare room, in an old travel-trunk of my mother’s, wrapped in a blanket that used to be my grandmother’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nigel Featherstone’s novel Bodies of Men is published by Hachette Australia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 3rd, 2019.