by Monica Strina
by Monica Strina
I never liked my mother.
We talked once a week on the phone, how are you, are you eating enough, did you get over the 'flu. After my father died I often did her grocery shopping and every time we repeated the same routine on the landing, let me give you the money back, no Mother you don't have to, it was my pleasure. She had been too beautiful as a girl; perhaps that was why she never liked to be touched – to touch.
Sometimes, when I was a shy little boy not yet grown into a shy tall man, I tiptoed into the bedroom where she slept alone, and lifted my hand, index outstretched. Slowly, holding my breath, I moved it closer and closer, until it was all but touching her shoulder. And there, with the warmth of her body within my reach, I felt the thrill of guilt. Never once did I lay my finger on her skin.
At the hospital, it was easier. Everything was horrible in there, so I didn't mind being near her. Problem was, I didn't know what to talk about; I counted the drops that fell through her IV, adjusted the height of her bed and fixed the antenna so she could watch Dallas and Dynasty. Brought her decent food I'd cooked in my lilliputian kitchen and any object she asked for from the shops or her house.
It went like this: I'd come in and say hi Mum, how are you feeling today. She'd say I'm nailed to this bed, what do you think? I'd say I brought you some soup; I made it myself. She'd say mh. So I'd place the soup on her bedside table and sat between her bed and her roommate's, trying to convince myself that my presence made a difference. I wriggled on the plastic chair, wondered whether reading a book would be bad form, tried to take an interest in JR's affairs.
'She was in pain during the night,' her roommate would say, or, 'she slept well. The nurse increased the morphine.'
Morphine sounded so modern, as though my mother was a drug addict, more rebellious than I had ever been. I nodded towards Mrs Trevors, whom no one ever visited, and smiled, hoping she would not start telling me about grandsons, dead husbands and dogs. I seem to inspire trust in old people – all except my mother. They talk to me on buses, planes, waiting rooms. And smile at me, as if I could do something about it.
I'm a professional nodder. I nod about their inflamed sciatic nerves and arthritic pain. Sometimes I wonder whether I could be rude if my life depended on it. Trapped by those opaque eyes, I nod and nod. Mrs Trevors, however, smiles at me then goes back to her knitting, and I can't help wondering for whom she is doing it.
This morning there was something missing in the room; yet everything was as I'd left it the evening before.
'She might not wake up again,' the doctor said. And as I sat beside her, looking at her immobile skin, I wondered why I still could not bring myself to touch her shoulder, even now that she might never find out. I tried to remember what the last word I had said to her was. Probably, 'cabbage'. As in goodnight, I'm sorry the soup was too salty, tomorrow I'll bring you steamed cabbage.
I sat there with the cabbage in a box, watching the black TV and calling myself a monster for not feeling any different from the way I did all the other days. I would still spend the visiting hours in silence. Afterwards, I would again go home by myself and work on my articles. At the weekend, I would treat myself to a dinner out and a cinema night, perhaps some apple pie.
'I'm really sorry about your mother.' Mrs Trevors's white head moved in the corner of my eye, and I turned to look at those chicken's hands knit hypnotically. 'They say she is not suffering.'
There. That's what I should have asked. Monster.
'Thank you, Mrs Trevors. How are you today?'
'I ...' Mrs Trevors pursed her lips. They were small lips, but fleshy, dignified nests of a million wrinkles. 'How are you, Mr Hughes?'
I dropped the cabbage. It made so much more noise a cabbage of any size has a right to make. To retrieve the box, I had to crouch on four legs under my mother's bed and stretch my arm to a spot that was probably under her heart. My hand came back shaking.
'Has it been so long, Mr Hughes?' she asked, her mouth bending downwards.
'Dean, please. I'm just Dean.'
On the second day of my mother's sleep, I accommodated Mrs Trevors's bed. She was getting a backache because of the position she was in when she knitted, and the relief in her face when she got the right support for her back was thanks enough.
'Do you want the TV on?' I asked, 'I could look for the channel you prefer.'
She shook her head, and the morning light made it shine platinum. It must have been regal, her hair, when she was young: there was still a lot of it, coiling into a tress that fell on her right shoulder.
'It bores me.' She smiled with her dentures that were too perfect, too white. 'I prefer this.'
I looked at the knitting pins and blue wool; at the needle stuck in the back of her hand. I've always thought that IVs look more like they're sucking something out, rather than putting something in.
'What is it?'
'A jumper.' Her veiled eyes went down, cerulean, to the coverlet; when they came back up there was no trace of suffering. The light filtered in from the white blinds, playful, to bounce on her fingers, and there was love in that touch – in the way she picked up the thread and wrapped it around the knitting pin, as though it needed to be accompanied.
'It must be hard,' I said.
She looked at the work she had done, the back or the chest of a blue jumper, and nodded.
'Yes. It is.'
When lunchtime came, I gave her the spaghetti with tomato sauce I had made in case my mother woke up. She had taken the cabbage the day before, and she took the spaghetti, too.
'I am sorry I cannot eat more of it. You're a good cook.' Her eyes scanned my left hand, stopped on my ringless ring finger, then went to my face. 'Have you got someone to cook for?'
'You,' I said.
On the third day, Mrs Trevors was a ball of pain. They had changed her medication, or made a mistake, I didn't understand. I sat beside her bed and wetted the gauze they had placed on her forehead, read her newspaper articles, breathed. The knitting pins stabbed the woollen skein on her bedside table, askew like the edges of a fracture, and her hands were squeezing the bed sheet so hard, so hard.
I had not realised, until that moment, how much her stitch-counting had resembled a low music in the room. Now I could hear the noise my mother's ventilator made, and the heating system whirring. I plumped my mother's pillow; wondered if she could hear, if I should put on Dallas just in case. My hand stretched towards the remote, then fell back. I ate my own Shepherd's Pie.
On the fourth day, she died.
What I felt was an existing absence getting more noticeable.
I sat beside her trying to cry, but all I could think of was that I didn't have a black suit. I made arrangements for a handsome coffin, azaleas as she would have liked, a plot in the cemetery. In the mortuary room of the hospital they kept her cold, beautiful again. When someone sat beside me, I started.
'Mrs Trevors? You should be in bed.'
She answered looking at my mother's body, the lines on her face a music sheet filled with pentagrams.
'Your mother. How are you, Dean?'
The concern in her eyes was unbearable. She stretched out a hand and, before I could move away, she placed it on mine. Her skin was rough. Warm. There. She saw me jump and her face was so sad. I don't know how it happened. There were tears everywhere, and my head was on her shoulder, and she was saying: there. There.
On the fifth day, I brought home-made pizza. Mrs Trevors smiled; I saw her eyes try to spit out the morphine that was eating her as much as the illness. She took small painful bites.
'I love pizza. It's been a long time. Thank you, Dean.'
The woman in my mother's bed asked me to turn on the TV, and I did. The Bold and the Beautiful was her drug. Mrs Trevors counted the stitches under her breath, and I thought of how each one of them was meant to protect from the cold a little patch of skin on someone she must love.
And as days passed the jumper grew and she shrunk. I was afraid that I would come in, one morning, and find her the size of Thumberline under the coverlet. She ate less and less of my food, but smiled about it just as much. I heard the nurses whisper and crack jokes about the old lady and me, one day, as I walked to her room.
Against the stench of hospital food, Mrs Trevors still smelled of jasmine, and of clean skin. Somehow, as she diminished, the girl she must have been came back in her high cheekbones; in her impatience towards the IV needle. I followed with my eyes the swollen veins in her hands, the same colour as the jumper, and felt fear about what my last word to her would be.
I didn't want it to be 'cabbage'.
On her last day, four weeks after my mother's, I found her sitting up, with her hair groomed and a smile. She was not knitting; I couldn't see the knitting pins anywhere, and the IV needle didn't seem to annoy her as much.
'What have you got for me, today?' she said with a little mischief in her voice.
'Apple pie with vanilla ice cream.'
'Ah. My favourite.'
I had brought my good dessert plates, the ones that matched. She ate the whole slice, closed her eyes when she tasted the filling. I ate a slice beside her with the plate in my hand and a wrought silver fork.
'Would you like another slice?'
'No. No, I'm happy with what I've had.'
She picked up something from under the bed sheets, trying not to pull out the IV needle as she did so.
'No, I ...'
'Sssh. Dean. Listen. I would have made it anyway. But it felt nicer when I was making it for someone.'
As she handed it to me, she caught my hands; held them in hers.
About the Author
Hello, I am a freelance editor and linguist who has published some short stories in literary magazines in the UK, Ireland and the US. I was born and raised in Sardinia, Italy, but currently live in England. I hope you enjoy my story.
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