‘We won’t be renewing your contract.’
I strained to smile, and nodded understanding as my supervisor and the HR manager gave me this news. It wasn’t unexpected. I hadn’t been happy in my job for a long time. My supervisor and I collided on a daily basis. It was definitely time to go, and this was the push out the door I needed.
‘Mum’s in hospital.’
I listened as dad told me what was wrong (he didn’t know), what the doctors were doing (he didn’t know), and how long mum would be in hospital (he didn’t know). None of it was reassuring.
‘I’ll go visit her,’ I said.
My mother and I had always had a complicated relationship. You see, I was adopted, and she valued what other people might think, above all else. When these two facts were put together it meant: a) I was forbidden from mentioning I was adopted, to anyone; and b) she constantly judged me for being different from the rest of the family. I mean, what would people think?
Of course I was different! I was from somewhere, someone, else!
Yet I was closer to her than my father or siblings. I clung to her, even in my teenage years. She was my protector, she was my master. One word from her could set the world ablaze with joy, or plunge it into the darkest depression. She was all powerful, all manipulative, all the time.
I visited her in the hospital every second day. It was lucky I was unemployed, affording me the time to spend with her as she died.
When her condition deteriorated she was moved from the general ward to the palliative care unit. Any day now. Any … day … now …
One day I told her I thought she was brave, the way she was facing death.
‘What else can I do?’ she responded.
My ungrateful thoughts flew to old patterns of response. You could complain, my inner voice said, attacking her courage, or blame someone else — the doctors, the disease, me. You could tell us all to go away. Or tell us what you really think of us. You could make this all about you, like you make everything all about you.
Foolish, broken me. This was her death. It was all about her.
I told my therapist I was looking forward to the day she died; to be rid of her from my life; then I would be free to be me. He asked me who that was. Idiot. After all these years he knew the answer to that question — I had no bloody idea.
He told me to say something meaningful to my mother before she died, to let her know how I felt about our relationship.
‘Like what?’ I asked, clueless.
‘Like, you frustrate me,’ he suggested.
That afternoon I sat by my mother’s death bed, alone with her for the first time.
‘You frustrate me,’ I said, out of the blue.
‘You frustrate me too,’ she replied.
Then my father walked in and her attention shifted to him.
It didn’t provide the closure my therapist had implied it would. I smile at her; she ignored me; I went home.
God damn it! She was so frustrating!
We were in the lounge, my brothers and I, eating greasy take-away food, when dad walked in and said ‘She’s gone’.
We dropped our food and rushed into her room. Mum lay there like a statue of alabaster and silk; looking as delicate as a cobweb and as peaceful as a swan gliding across a lake. I touched her hand.
‘Her skin is so soft,’ I commented to no-one.
A nurse stood in the doorway, her mask of sadness attached to her face, just like she was trained.
‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ she said, low and mournful. We thanked her and went back to ignoring her.
‘You’ll need to clear the room in thirty minutes,’ she said. That made us pay her attention.
‘What?’ my brother asked.
‘We’ll be moving her to the morgue and preparing the room for someone else,’ she explained, the mask slipped and revealed the pragmatist underneath. ‘Take what you wish to keep. We will dispose of anything left behind.’
We gaped at her.
She pushed the mask back into place and gave us a pitiful smile, and marched away.
We looked at each other, then flew into action. We stripped pictures from the walls and flowers from the window sill. We packed her clothes into plastic shopping bags. I emptied her bedside drawers into her toiletry bag.
Except for her Valium. That I slipped into my pocket when no-one was looking.
I might as well get something out of this, I thought, besides being rid of her.
‘How do you feel now?’ my therapist asked.
‘Lighter. Like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders,’ I said. ‘Knowing she is gone, that she isn’t out there somewhere judging me, feels great. I feel free.’
‘Do you miss her?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. No, I don’t.
‘What now?’ he asked.
I felt silly, sitting there, talking to him about things he didn’t understand.
‘I don’t think I want to see you anymore,’ I said. ‘You’ve been great, but I’ve moved on. I don’t need you anymore.’
First published on Medium.com, 10/08/2021. (c) David McKenzie