Death, Family and a Text from the Afterlife
Tim Parks Tries to Reply to it All
After visiting my mother I feel it’s only my duty to tell my brother how things stand. “She’s having difficulty moving around,” I email. “She’s in pain. She can hardly get out of the house. I don’t know how long this can go on.”
From the other side of the world my brother replies: “She’s a tough old bird. I phoned last week and she sounded very chipper.”
Not that I live nearby. I have to spend many hours in the train to go down to the city, hence I only tend to see her when work calls me there. I add a day on to my schedule and take a couple of buses out to the suburb where she is now more or less imprisoned in her tiny house. “It takes her a while to answer the doorbell,” I write to my brother. “She finds it hard to get out of her chair. Her left arm is swollen like a balloon.”
My brother often leaves a while before replying to emails, but not these. “We all have our bad patches,” his message appears in a matter of minutes. “I’ve been telling her for ages she should use a stick, but vanity dies hard!”
It irritates me. My mother has had this cancer for some years now. Why is my brother pretending it isn’t happening? Why doesn’t he accept the testimony of someone on the spot? Worse still, he sometimes seems to be suggesting that I’m some kind of gravedigger; I’m willing the end to come, out of some macabre love of melodrama. This isn’t true. I love my mother, I visit her when I can and I see what I see. “She has to get her neighbors to do the shopping now and can’t eat in the evening. They’ve given her a morphine substitute to inject herself as required.” My brother responds saying his son visited a few days ago when he was passing through and apparently found his grandmother in good shape. “He’s on a tour of Europe. She took him to an Indian restaurant and ate, he says, with gusto.”
This is strange. I realize my mother must be giving a different account of herself when she talks to my brother or his close family. Is this because he was the poorly one as a child? She doesn’t want to scare him. Certainly he loves her quite as much as I do, perhaps more. Or because she fears if she tells the truth he’ll feel she’s trying to get him to make the expensive trip back home to visit? With me she puts a brave face on things, but if I ask directly, she’s all too frank. “Most days I feel terrible,” she told me on my last visit. “I’m nauseous and confused and not myself at all.”
I wonder if her confessing these things to me isn’t a kind of compliment—a recognition that I’m tough enough mentally to handle it. She’s glad of the relief of being able to tell someone the truth. Or could it be that she is equally candid with my brother, but he doesn’t want to take it on board? Or he takes it on board but doesn’t want to appear to have done so, since his not being aware how serious the situation is is now the only reason for not coming back to see her while there’s time. Perhaps he’s so attached to her deep down he can’t face the idea of a last meeting. Or I suppose you could even imagine that my brother deliberately makes light of the situation in order to make me feel like a drama queen, thriving on her dying. Meantime, I catch myself looking forward to the shock it will be for him when she actually does go. How is he going to sound relaxed and optimistic then? I’ve started observing her more closely to find ominous symptoms I can describe to him: the slightly slurred speech, for example, or the way she puts a hand on the nearest piece of furniture to steady herself as she moves around the room. It’s not good. I didn’t want to become like this.
“It seems,” I write “she can’t take a bath anymore because once in the tub she can’t haul herself out. She has to wait till the nurse visits to do her dressings.” With uncanny immediacy given the different time zones, my brother replies saying his wife phoned the evening before and mother spoke cheerfully of a visit to a flower show. It’s as if my mails were a threat that had to be neutralized at once. But a threat to what exactly? I happen to know that Mother was bullied by an old friend into accepting this invitation to the Chelsea flower show, then felt too nauseous to enjoy the flowers and spent most of the time sitting in the car outside getting cold. I could explain this to my brother, but I hesitate, because this whole back and forth between us has begun to make me fear I might be wishing her dead simply to prove him wrong. There has always been a competition between us. Out of the blue, he writes: “Spoke to Mum yesterday who told me she was enjoying a good game of Scrabble with her old pals from the Church Missionary Society. Complained they kept looking up words in the dictionary and ate all the Battenberg. Guess she’ll be with us for good for a few years yet.” I realize I should feel cheered by this picture of domestic feistiness, but I don’t, and don’t reply.
One thing my brother and I have in common is that neither of us believes Mother will be going to heaven when she dies. Or anywhere else for that matter. We’re atheists. Or he’s an atheist, I’m an agnostic. Mother, on the other hand, really does believe. She’s spent her whole life in the Church, she’s an evangelical. Our childhood was full of talk about being born again and giving your heart to Jesus. Still, she doesn’t seem pleased by the prospect of Paradise now that it’s at hand. Last week, on top of everything else, she was dealing with a urinary infection. “It’s hardly worth living in these circumstances,” she said, shaking her head grimly. “Apparently she has written down the details of her funeral service,” I emailed my brother. “The hymns she wants and where to spread the ashes.”
“I have days when I feel like that myself,” my brother replies “bar the hymns of course.”
Unlike her brothers, my sister shares Mother’s beliefs. She has the same faith, the same fervency. And she lives much closer to her than I do, only an hour or so’s drive. But she doesn’t visit very often and is somehow never there when I visit. I don’t email her, or she me. My brother doesn’t communicate with her at all, though there’s less age difference between them than there is between him and me. I’m the youngest, my sister the oldest. The fact is, at some point the whole religious thing split us apart. On the other hand, following my mother’s recent fall and consequent deterioration it seems important that we children get ready to take tough decisions. I phoned my sister and asked her what arrangements were in place for the time when my mother would no longer be able to look after herself in her own home.
Why I don’t know, but on the very rare occasions I have reason to be in touch with her, I always phone my sister. I wouldn’t dream of emailing her, whereas despite being much closer to my brother I never phone him, only email, and he never phones me. He phones my mother. More often, he has his wife phone my mother.
On the phone my sister was extremely friendly and practical and not at all competitive—it was quite a pleasure to be speaking to each other again (actually, this is always the case, so that I invariably end up wondering why we don’t speak to each other more often). What took me aback, though, was how critical she was of Mother. “She’s in complete denial,” my sister complained. “Refuses to sort out the necessary legal documents, doesn’t want to accept that sooner or later she’ll have to leave the house. And she’s a such a bad patient, moping about the pain, but not doing anything to keep her mind busy. Why doesn’t she listen to music or watch a video?”
I didn’t refer any of this to my brother since it really isn’t my perception of how Mother behaves. Instead I emailed to say that since falling down the stairs mother needed a nurse to come in twice a day to sort her out and was having problems with incontinence and sciatic nerve. “Apparently she has some kind of arrangement with a hospice but it isn’t clear when they’ll be willing to admit her, or whether mother will be willing to go to a place you only leave feet first.” “She’ll keep the heavenly hosts waiting a while yet,” he replied.
Laptop on my knees on the long train ride home it occurred to me that my irritation with my brother might have the function of allowing me not to dwell too gloomily on my mother’s suffering. Looked at that way, the friction between us seemed positive. Certainly his offhand responses to my unhappy news are sapping more mental energy than her suffering. A little later though it seemed that this stupid distraction, the feeling that her dying had become part of a win/lose discussion with my brother, was actually depriving me of a proper relationship with my mother in this critical period, the last of her life. I was wasting this opportunity to be with her by seeing everything in terms of what I would say, or email, to my brother. On the other hand, however surprised I was by my sister’s criticisms, I never felt like challenging them, or arguing with her the way I do with my brother. Mother probably behaves differently with all of us is the truth, and even when her behavior is the same we see it in different ways. That said, the fact that a person is terminally ill is something undeniable, not a point of view. How can I say it clearly enough?
When my father died, thirty years ago now, my brother had already emigrated, but there was no email then and hence this discussion at a distance couldn’t be had. Phone calls cost a fortune; neither he nor I had much money, and it must have been my mother who called my brother to inform him of my father’s rapidly deteriorating state. His cancer was much quicker than my mother’s, a matter of months. In the event, my brother came to visit shortly before death but then did not return for the funeral. It seemed sensible. I can barely recall my feelings that day, nor a single word of what passed between me my sister, and my mother. I wonder whether the same will be the case with the funeral to come. All this irritation with my brother will be forgotten, but so too will all these visits to my mother which take the form, I realize now, of two people knowing that they are meeting above all because one of them is not long for this world. No doubt that’s why I feel I have to write those emails to my brother the moment I leave her house. I have to do something with this distress. Certainly, if my brother does come to the funeral it will be the last time we three children will ever be together.
Does that matter?
The next time I came down to the city my sister phoned me while I was on the train to say that Mother had been taken to hospital. That day I had a full schedule and then the following morning, just as I was heading out toward the hospital, my sister phoned again to say that Mother was now being taken down to her house, my sister’s. Her husband was driving her. Theoretically, I could have made it down to my sister’s and back in time for my returning train, just about, but I couldn’t see how I could really help now that my mother was in good hands and had company. Actually, it felt rather pleasant to find I had the day to myself. I did a little shopping and took the train home without seeing her.
“She was in so much pain, she called an ambulance,” I emailed my brother.
“Poor mum,” came the response, “Never underestimate her capacity to bounce back.”
My visits to the city changed. I didn’t stop tagging on an extra day to my business trips, something my wife and family had become used to, only now spent them wandering around on my own. Again and again I planned to make the further trip down to my sister’s, but a strange reluctance always overcame me. I had rather enjoyed seeing my mother in her little house and being useful to her and eating together and playing a little Scrabble, which she always beat me at; but the thought of seeing her with my sister was depressing, especially since there were no signs of her bouncing back, rather the opposite. I wouldn’t have minded seeing my sister on her own, if she happened to be in town, but not my mother and my sister together and neither of them singly at my sister’s house. Why? I wasn’t sure. The religious texts on the walls? The fluffy white rugs, the many dogs and cats?
Meantime, my sister’s husband began to send rather formal emails to both my brother and me. Mother was unable to move from a sitting to a standing position. Sometimes she was incontinent. Her left arm was now entirely useless. The drugs were quite inadequate to deal with her pain. I mailed back at once offering to share the cost of a private nurse. I noticed that while I responded using the reply-to-all option my brother did not. But I knew he had replied because when my brother-in-law responded to him, he copied me in. My brother had said that he wished there was something he could do, but he couldn’t see that there was. “Rather gruesome bulletins from Sis’s hub,” he commented in an e-mail to me. Immediately it felt like we could be friends again. I phoned my sister every few days and she again complained what a dire patient Mother was, in particular her obstinate refusal to enjoy any kind of entertainment, but my sister didn’t seem unhappy and her voice was affectionate when she passed the phone to my Mother who actually sounded rather cheerful. She had sewn a button on a coat for her granddaughter, she said, and even managed a few lines of knitting.
Perhaps, it occurred to me, putting the phone down, mother put a different face on things over the phone, not just with my brother but with everybody, and hence the key to his whole blasé approach to the situation was her phone manner, which had led him to believe that my mails were alarmist. Why didn’t I Skype my brother, I wondered, and enjoy a nice chat with him. Why did I phone, but never email, my sister? Why did I “reply to all” in mails to my brother-in-law while my brother replied only to him, even if, as it turned out there was nothing in his messages that couldn’t perfectly well have been sent to me too. On another long train ride I suddenly had the intuition that if I put some pressure on these questions, if I really tackled the issue of why we contacted each other in the different ways we did, I would eventually find my way back to some defining moment in our childhood when my sister, my brother, and I had become who we were. Behind the mystery there would be some scene, or some protracted drama, that explained everything. It seemed an interesting idea, but I felt reluctant to pursue it. Instead I began to wonder how my father would have communicated with us if he had lived into the period of email and Skype. Dad loved gadgets and electronic novelties. He once spent quite a lot of money trying to find the perfect voice recorder, so he could record his ideas wherever he was. Mother used to laugh about him preparing sermons in the bath. And he bought a fax machine at great expense as soon as they came out. Half asleep with the rhythm of the train, I dreamed I received a text message from my father: “Soon your mother and I will be together in Paradise,” it said.