My Mama lived at home in my big and noisy family when I was growing up and is a big part of who I am today. I’ve been feeling a little emotional about my lovely Mama of late, so you might find this post a bit of a departure from my usual cheerful style. I also wrote it in present-tense-second-person for no good reason. Deal with it.
Last night I visited you in hospital. You have a brand-new hip now, but I don’t think you understand that. Lost in a bewilderment of tubes and bleeping machines and white linen, you look so small. You have always been little. We used to tease you about it. In the noise and laughter of our dinner table, you would stand up to get our attention and bang on the table to cancel out the five-conversations-at-once. We would giggle and say, “Mama has an announcement! Stand up, Mama! Stand up!” And you would laugh and swat at us with your napkin and call us cheeky. But now, in that bed so high off the ground, you look tiny. Like a baby bird, too weak to fly.
Harry is excited because he can see a train out of your window. The hospital is next to the train station. I remember when I was a little girl, you would take me on the train with you on your excursions to Town. How we would emerge from the exciting, subterranean station, pay a visit at St Francis’ church, and wander through the department store wonderlands so you could run your errands. After this, if I had been good (and you always thought me good) we would have a special treat for lunch before catching the train back home.
The train pulls away, a snake of lit windows in the night, and Harry and Christopher Robin wave at it. You don’t like this hospital. You hate being sick. When I was a little girl, I loved being sick. You would bring me downstairs to your big Queen Anne bed and bring me cups of tea and fried eggs on a tray with flowers. After lunch, you would perch on the bed with me and watch your “serials’, Days of Our Lives, The Young and The Restless. You thought them very silly, but you never missed an episode.
Last year, when things got really bad, the doctor said you would have to live in a nursing home, where you could have full-time care. We had all thought you would live at home forever. We had never realised that one day that would become impossible. In my grief, I swung into action mode and sought comfort in lists and research and pros and cons. The home you live in now was number one on our list. Tall trees, warm nurses, close community, fun activities. But it’s not home. And you know that and we know that.
The hospital confuses you. “Is that George over there? That can’t be George can it?”. It isn’t George. George is one of the other residents at Cottage Four who has a great-grandson just Harry’s age. Actually, George isn’t even George. His name is really Walter, but you’re never one to let silly facts like these get in the way. Walter just doesn’t realise his name is actually George. Christopher Robin says that you’ve given Walter a nickname and I find it hard not to call him George myself sometimes.
You’re getting tired, it’s time for us to go. Harry bounds over to give you a hug and a kiss and Annie bounces in her dad’s arms saying “Mama!”. Christopher Robin gives a small, sad smile and a wave and Matilda lingers reluctantly at the foot of the bed. But you don’t notice this. “You have a beautiful family, you should be very proud” you murmur sleepily. Pride in your grandchildren used to be a full-time sport for you. If one of us came home with a glowing school report or a certificate from a science competition or pretty much anything with a gold star on it, you would whisk it away to some hiding place in your room, only to mysteriously produce it again whenever important visitors came around. It was so embarrassing. But you had the sort of personality that could get away with anything.
Matilda is subdued in the car ride home and as I tuck her into bed, she is crying. “I wish Mama was living at home with Grandma again.” she whispers. Matilda remembers what you were like before, when you were only a little bit forgetful. We talk about the little impulsive gifts you bought her and the special lunches at the food court of the local shopping centre. By now we’re both crying, but it’s dark, so it’s not so bad. “I know it’s harder for you, Mum”, Matilda sniffles, “because you’ve known Mama for longer. But it’s still hard for me.”
I want to say something really wise. To talk, maybe, about how some goodbyes are swift and jarring, whilst others are slow and gentle. To reflect on the ways in which love and relationship can transcend language and intellect and even memory. But the words won’t come, so instead I hold Matilda tight and smell her beautiful hair. And we stay like that for a very long time.
The title of this post is a warning to my older brother. In Japan, public displays of emotion are kind of frowned upon. Except that frowns are too expressive for Japanese public transport. My brother complains when my posts make him laugh out loud when he’s on the train. It makes everyone around him quietly tense. If he were to get a little teary, his morning commute would get very uncomfortable.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Mama had known about my blog. Mama was never tech-savvy at the best of times, but I can imagine her brandishing print-outs of my best work to distribute amongst all her Church Lady Friends. I can hear her hassling the parish priest after Mass: “Did you know Katie got a Liebster award last week? Let me give you something to read…”