Abi had been driving around the neighborhood for the past fifteen minutes when a car in front of the hospital drove away, freeing up a parking spot. Maybe there’s a god after all, she thought to herself, slotting her car into the spot.
Her mother, Anna, was asleep and snoring noisily. The early morning wash, the few steps down the stairs, the four mouthfuls of yogurt—painfully swallowed—and lastly the half-hour ride in Paris’s mid-morning traffic jam had gotten the best of her. Ordinarily, she enjoyed the ride across the city. She would observe, saying something about all the details Abi now overlooked. The Haussmannian buildings, she’d say, were built at an ideal angle to reflect light, their shadows standing out like cathedrals on the asphalt.
“Stop, we can spare two minutes, right?” she asked. Although weakened by sickness, she was still adamant. Anna had woken up and spotted a small street flanked by blooming cherries.
“Pull over so we can stroll for a bit, would you?”
Abi obliged without protest. Her mother pulled herself out of the car laboriously and inhaled the cold air. Then she took Abi’s arm by the elbow, always in the same way, and slowly they walked, seeking out the sidewalks lit up by the early spring sun.
Anna greeted passers-by, stopped to chat with garbage collectors, gave change to beggars—quite unlike the average Parisian. When her pace slowed as she ran out of breath, Abi picked a café where they could sit on the terrace. The old lady always ordered the sticky treacle Parisian cafés call hot chocolate. Some days, more frequently now, her pain ruined her appetite, robbing her of the taste of food. She would then content herself with raising the huge mug to her nose and taking long inhales of its aroma.
“This is good,” she said, smiling.
Abi smiled back. She had to submit an article to the culture magazine she worked for, about a performance by a white South African artist portraying Black people in cages and reenacting the human zoos of the early twentieth century. Art morphed into obscene voyeurism, insult and, dressed up like that, was on open display all over the world. She also had to create content for her blog, meet the manager of the nursery about her little Jenny, do some shopping, and think about that evening’s dinner. Her time was precious, fleeting; some mornings, the young woman woke up to the feeling that she was already two hours behind schedule. None of that mattered. Every minute, every hour was pegged to her mother’s hand holding her by the elbow, to the sick old lady’s erratic step, her emaciated features, her short breath… My mother is dying, oh mother…
They had reached the terminal phase of the illness. Abi barely slept. She woke up frightened by the silence if her mother wasn’t making any sound. Or when even the least suspicious sound seeped from the next room. One night, she ended up coming out when she heard her mother in the corridor. Abi switched on the ceiling light and, just in time, held her mother back as she was about to take the stairs.
“Mother, where are you off to?” Anna, blinded by the light, had stopped in her tracks.
“Oh, Abi, did I wake you? I’m sorry, go back to bed. I am going to the bathroom. Everything’s fine.”
No, everything was not fine. Her mother, confused in the darkness, would have fallen down the stairs had Abi not stepped in. She was forced to exercise a calm she did not feel, not even remotely. Her hands trembled and, in her stomach, and down her spine, she felt an unsettling tickle like an electric shock: irrepressible fear, a certainty that things would only grow worse and that there wasn’t much she could do about it. Abi had led her mother to the toilet: “Wait outside, please. I can still wipe myself, you know.” The old lady had smiled.
Abi hadn’t responded. Her mother could no longer take care of her basic personal hygiene, she who was always such a clean freak. The young woman would return to the bathroom later to clean the floor if necessary. It did not bother her, not anymore.
The first time Anna had unconsciously soiled herself and then the bathroom floor, the shock had rattled Abi so violently that it left her paralyzed. She stared at the feces as if they themselves would realize the strangeness of the situation and disappear out of shame. Then she had scrubbed and mopped the floor, then cleaned her mother. If she didn’t do it, no one else would. That night, Abi had brought her mother back to her own bed.
“You should consider hiring a home care nurse,” the doctor had advised after her last hospitalization. “Your mother wants to stop chemotherapy. Her state will worsen quite rapidly. We can reduce the pain, but not by much. She no longer has the strength to take care of herself.”
She is sick, not deaf. She is still very much in her right mind. She is conscious of what is happening to her. Speak to her like a human being, Abi protested under her breath. She did not want to antagonize the doctor, the nurses, anyone who could ease her mother’s pain. With gritted teeth, she endured their coldness, the raw, technical, definitive words they dished out with professionalism and indifference. The untreated breast cancer had metastasized. It had spread to her pancreas and liver. Chemotherapy would enable her to live six months, a year at most. This time would decrease drastically if she continued refusing treatment. And Anna continued refusing. The aftermath of her first chemotherapy session had convinced her to stop her treatment.
“Well, if the poison they are pumping into my body can’t save me, I would rather stop,” she had objected to an exasperated Abi.
Treat her kindly. I know you see helpless, terminally ill beings every day. I understand the need to keep their suffering at a safe distance, but you must understand: to me, this woman is much more than just a failing body, Abi pleaded silently. She is a loved one, a precious life ebbing away in silence.
Abi did not reach out to any nurses. She was horrified by the mere thought of a stranger touching her mother’s enfeebled body. Some mornings, the old lady examined herself in the mirror. Her hair and eyebrows, now lost. Her muscles, shrunken under flappy skin. She felt like an empty envelope. She even had a glazed look in her eyes now.
“Do you remember how beautiful my hair used to be?” she murmured, caressing her hairless skull.
Yes, Abi could remember. What nurse could boast of such a special skill?
“You’re my mother now,” Anna told her. “I never knew mine; it has taken me getting old and falling sick to taste a mother’s love.”
Yet, the illness spread at such speed that Abi’s sacrifice was rendered useless. The cancer was literally eating away at her mother from within. Abi imagined it as rats gnawing on her liver, stomach, pancreas…stopping only when they’d devoured every single inch of her body. In the beginning, she’d hoped every moment of happiness would keep the old lady alive, the same way one uses all manner of tricks to hold back guests at the end of a dinner. “You can’t leave now. Have some more dessert. Do you care for tea? Come on, take one for the road!”
Walks in Paris, hot chocolate, butter croissants on café terraces, little Jenny’s laughter, visits from her son, Maxime… Indeed, in the beginning, all of this had meaning, but not anymore. Pain clogged the present, permeating every moment of joy. Smiles turned to grimaces.
I do not know how to help you anymore, mother. I do not dare touch you anymore. I’m scared I would hurt you without meaning to. I’m scared I would do something clumsy and make you more uncomfortable while trying to ease your pain. I’m sorry, mother, so sorry. I don’t know how to help you anymore. Abi cried on their way to the palliative care unit.
Her mother sat snoring in the car. The desolation and torment of the past few days had been terrifying; nothing brought her any relief. Initially, Anna had forced herself to maintain an ounce of normalcy, but her weak body no longer obeyed her. Any physical effort exhausted her. Her every gesture grew slow, labored. She stopped getting up from her bed in the morning or feeding herself. The least sip of water triggered groans of pain. “Mother please, just one sip, try again,” Abi kept insisting.
Deep within Abi, a harsher, more urgent voice echoed: I’m not ready. I do not want to lose you now. I’m not ready…
Even deeper within her echoed an awareness of the imminent end and the futility of her prayers.
“Look, mother, it’s spring. The plane trees are green, cherries are in bloom, potted flowers on windowsills are blossoming in the sun, garages are draped with colors, girls are baring their tanned legs. Paris is looking at herself in the mirror of light and smiling back at her reflection, look mother…”
From Days Come and Go by Hemley Boum, translated by Nchanji Njamnsi. Used with permission of the publisher, Two Lines Press. Copyright 2022 by Hemley Boum. Translation copyright 2022 by Nchanji Njamnsi.