I get the call to jump on a plane. Mum has suffered a stroke while staying with my sister in Hamilton. Once up there, we all stay in the hospital with Mum. But after ten days or so I return to Napier, at which point I decide to stop writing altogether, right in the middle of translating Daniel’s poem which itself has been hanging around since 1979.
A month later I get another call. By the time I arrive Mum has stopped eating and drinking, or even taking her pills. She has stopped speaking. Her right eye works but her right arm doesn’t. Mum is dying. After weeks of trying with physios and nurses and family and doctors it is over. She has made up her mind.
We accept Mum’s decision to die. She is eighty years old. This time there will be no drip, and no thought of prolonging the inevitable. We take turns at her bedside.
Consciously, Mum can move only her head and eyes. But without anyone’s say-so, her left arm waves about distractedly for long periods. Occasionally her left leg shifts under the sheet.
Sometimes she will acknowledge a person’s presence in the room and sometimes not. When it comes time for Alice to go back to Auckland, Mum lifts her head and purposefully follows her exit as far as the door knowing it will be the last time she’ll ever see her. Conversely, the rest of us might go unacknowledged for days on end. But we tell ourselves she can hear us.
Mum is pacing herself.
I sometimes read to her from a book about a woman renovating a big old house in Queensland, Australia. Is it better than sitting here saying nothing? I don’t know what to say. In fact, if I said what I wanted to say, I know I would crack up and tell Mum exactly how much I love her, and how grateful I am to know her.
So one day, when no one is around, I tell Mum precisely that. I tell her that this is the reason I read from a book and can’t speak directly. And of course I do break down, and I tell her how much I love her. How I’ll never forget her, and will love her forever. I tell her about the Stravinsky concert in Vienna, when she happened to sit beside me, and how neither of us said a word. How, I learned, it was possible to talk without speaking. How, I learnt, everything is OK.
“Mum,” I say. “I feel like I’ve been mucking around my entire life.” And I tell her how I am already doing up the garage and will eventually put a sign out on the road. A studio that says DERF. I won’t have to tear the house apart either. I’ll make my own furniture. Following right along from ‘Scarlet Toilet Door’ will be ‘Man With Beam In Eye’ I say. That will be made with Gib-board and splotches of yellow-coloured plaster and swirly pencil marks.
After that will be ‘Motorway Bed,’ which I imagine to be a double bed pretty much designed after the fashion of an eight lane motorway.
For the first time Mum gazes intently at me. I know she can see me.