— Richard Gibney —
It was on a Tuesday just after noon that my mother last went to see the GP in the shopping centre. At about ten past twelve, she ascended the two floors from her job in the chemist’s to the offices where the surgery was, and the doctor informed her that the lump they’d taken a tiny sample of was malignant. He referred her on condolingly, making sure she got everything, making sure she took it all in. He was very nice.
She quit as soon as she got back. She picked me up from school. The world stood still while we drove out to the hospital. There haven’t been many times in my life when my world stopped, but every time it’s happened it’s been with Mam. Mam’s always involved. Time freezes, like on the Grecian Urn and everything else be damned. Living in the moment is difficult, attritious, exhausting, when the moment is taken up by bad news or depression or not being able to cope and throwing in the towel or the bandanna or too much medication and sleeping all day. That sounds selfish, but it’s true.
She took the treatment like a soldier. She wore headscarves for a while, like a soldier, and then they told her it would have to come off altogether. They cleaved it off in one fell swoop and she stayed in bed for a week. She’d always been told that it might have to come off, that there was too much of it, but she always knew it wouldn’t come to that. But it did. She got a present from the hospital. It was a big silicone jellyfish for her bra. And it stung when she wore it. And it stung when she didn’t.
The first day she showered, she got into a pair of navy track-suit pants and a striped pink-white blouse with a vest underneath and she looked at herself in the mirror, called me into her bedroom, looked at me through the mirror, turned around and looked at me, smiled, asking:
“How do I look?”
Her skin had always been sallow; now it was a sickly-bronze sallow with freckles on her face. The area below her eyes had inverted, her hair was stubble that would eventually grow back into a wispy shadow of its previous shampoo-ad glory, and she was questioning me about her appearance. I told her to make me breakfast, and she told me to fuck off. It used to be feck off. Now it was always fuck off. One of the reasons why the world stopped when Mam gave the order.
Da had come back sporadically, but they still roared long into the night, slamming doors, chasing each other round the house, breaking things. I could only hope, as I lay awake at night, that when she screamed at him there was some kind of catharsis going on in Mam’s body and mind. Then I didn’t see Da for a good while until the Indian fellow she could never understand told her there was a secondary growth in her liver, and she lost all her hair again. At the time, she had to call me in from behind the curtain to translate, and although I knew what he was saying, I had trouble getting to grips with some of the words, like how it wasn’t hepatocellular carcinoma, how it was metastatic, resectioning was a possibility, shouldn’t be ruled out, but she’d still need the therapy. I had got to grips with his accent, but I couldn’t understand the meaning of the words. Eventually, we forced him to dumb it down, to get back to the real world, and he reluctantly told us the miserable news.
Then Da came back, and things were much better. We did things with Mam that he did with me when I was seven, like the Sugarloaf picnics, the driving on the beach and the cinema.
The mountain walks were the best. There was a scout troop up there once, out on a day-trip, and they had a barbecue and shared with us, and we shared our ham, cheese and egg salad sandwiches, our caviar and our capers. One of the lads had a guitar, and Mam took it. She did ‘Venus’ and a Sandie Shaw song she did at all the dinner parties, and she got a massive round of applause both times, and she was luminescent.
My driving on the beach made her laugh. She sat in the back, rolling her head back and roaring in hysterics while Da screamed at me to put in the clutch or move up or down a gear as we jerked along or tore up the sand, creating deep ruts in our wake. It all seems so forced now, so contrived, like we were the Keystone Cops and she was watching a big screen. It was real then.
Da moved back into the double bed from the spare room. But it wasn’t a façade just to keep me happy, because I actually heard them at it one night. I listened. Happily married folks doing it with me listening and I’d have been mortified, naturally enough. But I was ecstatic, elated. Time stood still as I lay awake listening. Then the moment passed, and I started thinking. I told him one night over a pint that if he left her again and she went back, I’d never forgive him. He squinted at his empty pint glass on the table, picked up his keys and said:
We were driving home, his eyes were fixed on the road and he said:
And I watched his face, he wouldn’t look at me, he kept driving. I knew it wouldn’t come to that.
I visited her every day after school. Sometimes, I nodded off in the chair beside her bed, and Da would arrive in and take me home. She died just after noon on the sixteenth of February, 1994. A Wednesday, the long day of the week in school because I had band practice. I missed it that day. When I was called out of economics I knew that was that. Mr. Burke drove me to the hospital, full of beans. I didn’t know what Mr. Burke did other than that he ran Amnesty International in the school. There wasn’t a dull moment on that journey to the hospital.
She was lying on a table and not a bed in a different part of the hospital surrounded by flowers that had been sent down by the other patients in her ward who had instructed the porter to leave them with Katherine. Da had gone up to thank them when I came in. A white sheet covered her body as far as her shoulders and her eyes were closed, her face expressionless, not a hint of pain or serenity.
“I’ll leave you alone with her,” said the nurse, and I took her cold hand and gripped it until her sisters and brothers began to filter in, making me upset, and that’s when I decided to call it a day.
I was in the double bed that night, listening to Da’s entertaining downstairs at the wake while I lay there. I was conscious of my mother’s death even before I woke the following morning. It was seven o’clock when I got out of bed and went into the en suite in their room to have a shower. I didn’t need a shave, and I didn’t want a shave. As I stepped under the water once it was lukewarm, the Indian with his medical talk in his strange accent came into my mind and I wondered why he hadn’t saved my Mam with all his mumbo-jumbo specialist consultant banter. And I glanced down and saw the wisps of hair clogging up the drain and I stooped forward, careful not to slip on the soapy ceramic and I plucked the hair clump out of the plug-hole. There was DNA in hair. Maybe the Indian fellow, with all his technical knowledge and expertise, could clone a new Mam for me. The same Mam. Mammy. What was I thinking? Bereavement Induced Delusional Matricentric Cerebral Distortion, as the Indian would say, then back to reality, and the plug-hole.