Mummy, Me, Memories
Iris Leona Marie Cross
© Copyright 2020 by Iris Leona Marie Cross
For most of her adult life, my mother had worked outside the home to support her two children. My father had died tragically by drowning after four years of blissful marriage, so my mother became the breadwinner. She was a stenographer/bookkeeper and if she could have worked for as long as she lived, she would have been overjoyed.
“I never missed a day of work since I started working,” she would always boast whenever I moaned about having to go to my teaching job. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you young people. I enjoyed working.”
At 60 she had to retire, and being a retiree was a stage of life she couldn’t come to terms with. She missed the hustle and bustle of competing during rush hour traffic for a parking space close to her office in downtown Port of Spain. Although she tried to fill her days with church projects (which included bookkeeping for the old folks’ home that our church ran), these tasks didn't give her job satisfaction as did her eight to four.
I used to involve her in my teaching activities from time to time so she wouldn't feel obsolete.
“Mummy can you help me mark these multiple choice questions? Can you enter the grades on the marksheet? I have to teach my students about the human skeleton and locomotion. Should I introduce the topic like this... or like that...?”
Sometimes I’d let her run errands for me. On one occasion I sent her to a nearby shopping mall to purchase an item and she fell down the stairs. Shoppers had to help her up, but she was still able to drive home. I was blamed (wrongfully) for that fall and for her deteriorating condition that followed.
“Ever since I had that fall, my body hasn’t been the same,” she would usually snipe when she was annoyed with me about something.
My mother suffered from Parkinson's Disease. She showed signs of the disease more than a decade before she was diagnosed. We had no idea that her slight loss of smell (medical term: hyposmia) marked the beginning of this chronic condition with the potential to turn her world, not to mention mine, upside down
“Iris, come and smell me. How do I smell?”
“Mummy, why do I always have to sniff you all over as though I’m a dog?”
“Because I don’t want to go out and have people say that I smell bad.”
Little did we know back then that the sniffing exercise I regularly had to perform, much to my irritation, was linked to Parkinson’s Disease. Similarly, we were unaware at the time that the loss of balance and coordination resulting in her fall were also signs of the disease. Her health got progressively worse and before long, her life took a downward turn.
The diagnosis was made when she began to show the classic clinical features such as: light-headedness (every morning she would hold her head and say that it was spinning); shuffled walking; slow, rigid, robotic-like movements (she would take a few steps then freeze, followed by another few steps then freeze); difficulty holding a pen or pencil, inability to write a sentence in a straight line, mumbling (inability to speak clearly and audibly) and worst of all the deadpan facial expression. She would just stare at me (expressionless) without blinking, leaving me to wonder what was going on in her mind. I couldn’t determine if she was happy, sad or indifferent. When asked what she was thinking about during her blank stares she would always say: “Nothing.” Tasks that in her heyday would be accomplished in a matter of minutes, took hours to complete. Driving soon became a thing of the past.
It was difficult for me to accept this frail, shell of a person as my mother. Every so often, I would glance at her eating her meals in slow motion (with a bib attached to her chest to catch the falling food) and feel a sense of loss. I had lost my mother long before that fateful morning when I found her body. The once stout, independent, active woman, whose strong work ethic was to be admired (if not emulated), and who drove an American Rambler sedan motor car (with enviable expertise) in the days when most women occupied the passenger seat in motor cars, had been transformed into a shrunken, vulnerable person whom I did not recognize. The only recognizable body part was her tongue which was still as acerbic as ever. Whenever I’d tell her that her views were outdated and that time was changing, she’d reply: ”As far as I know there are still twenty-four hours in a day.”
Equally, it was hard for my mother to embrace the visible changes that had overtaken her body. One afternoon, one of her ex colleagues had phoned to ask if he could visit. I told him he could, but she scolded me for granting him access.
“I don’t want people saying ‘look how she has become’.”
Then again, my mother was known for putting a high premium on other people’s perceived opinion of her. Parkinson’s Disease didn't cause that mindset – only made it worse since she became paranoid about being an object of ridicule. She shunned visitors and wanted to go nowhere. She was embarrassed for people to see her “in this state.”
A chronic worrier, pessimist and an introvert with low self-esteem, my mother had the tendency to see the glass half-empty instead of half-full. Her deteriorating health further solidified this view. Despite being a skilled organist and pianist, bilingual in English and French, a first-class stenographer and bookkeeper and a physically attractive woman, Josephine Selina Perkins-Cross was blind to her many assets. In her opinion, life had not been kind to her.
“There’s no happiness in this world for me,” she’d voice in several of her self-indulgent, woe-is-me moments.
“Mummy, you’ve got to make your own happiness. That’s what this life’s all about. Are you saying that your two children didn’t bring you happiness? We have never one day given you trouble.”
In one of our mother-daughter talks, my mother had revealed that her longstanding wish was to give birth – to be a mother. She didn’t care to be married. My mouth was agape. In her era, giving birth to a child out of wedlock was beyond the pale, especially for a young girl from a devout Christian family in the Caribbean. So, for her to disclose that she was willing to defy social norms to satisfy a deeply held desire took me by surprise. Nevertheless, although she had fulfilled her desire within the bounds of social norms, it still did not bring happiness.
Recounting the night before my mother's death causes me pain even now, twenty-two years after the event. In the last four months of her life, I was her full-time carer. It was a role that I had assumed by accident. When I had returned home from studying overseas, I discovered that my mother's carer was engaged in all kinds of shenanigans, unknown to my ailing mother. I had no choice but to fire her. A new carer was hired but she suddenly quit after one month leaving me in the lurch. The onus was then on me to see about my mother’s care, single-handedly. It was stressful, tiring, frustrating and overwhelming. As the days and nights passed, I wondered how long I could continue being a full-time carer with no respite in sight.
My mother was also fed up. She was tired taking tablets and had started to complain about her pill-popping regimen. It upset me to see her endure the agony of having to ingest umpteen pills of various sizes and colours, knowing that her condition could never be reversed; only prevented from getting worse. No matter how much water she gulped down, it was never enough to swallow those monster capsules which had to be cut in half, so she wouldn’t choke if they got stuck in her throat.
Her last tablet was normally taken late at night when she was already in bed. I would then kiss her forehead, tell her I love her and tuck her under the covers while reciting the popular bedtime rhyme: “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” She always smiled and thanked me as I reached to switch off the bedroom light. I responded by saying that she was reaping the rewards of a devoted mother. The endearing nightly exchange between us was testament to the depth of the mother-daughter bond we shared. There was no indication that that fateful night was going to be any different from all the nights that went before.
“Mummy, wake up. Here’s your last tablet.”
She opened her glassy eyes, scowled and said:“I took it already.”
“No you haven’t.”
“I took it already,” she insisted, raising her voice in a belligerent manner.
“No you haven’t. Look, it’s in the pill organizer.”
She wasn’t convinced. She was adamant she had taken her quota of tablets for the day. I continued to stress, without success, that she hadn’t. Holding the tablet firmly between my thumb and forefinger, I reached for her mouth. Despite much coaxing, her lips remained pursed. Without a doubt, her obstinacy was testing my patience.
“Do you think I’m trying to poison you?” I yelled, penetrating the silence of the midnight hour. By this time, I had lost not only my patience but also my temper. Reluctantly, she relented but not before glaring at me and muttering under her breath.
“Mark my words mummy, from tomorrow you’re on your own. I’m not putting up with this nonsense anymore,” I said, wagging my forefinger in her face.
She stared at me in defiance so I issued the warning again in staccato style, my wagging forefinger keeping beat like a metronome. Overcome with frustration and unprecedented rage, I stormed out of her bedroom, slamming the door shut with all my might. That night I had proved how strong the door hinges were to have withstood such a powerful bang.
It was passing strange when, at almost ten-thirty the next morning, I had heard no movement coming from her bedroom. Still furious from the night before, I never bothered to investigate, choosing instead to listen to my favorite Sunday morning radio program while relaxing in bed.
Nonchalance turned to concern, however, when my mother had not emerged from behind the closed bedroom door half an hour later. Certain that she was again being difficult, I flung open her bedroom door shouting: “So mummy, you’re not getting up this morning!” What I witnessed will stay with me forever.
My mother’s body was slumped across the edge of her bed in a kneeling position. Her face was buried in the rumpled sheet, arms outstretched palms down. Save for the ticking of the analogue clock on the dressing table, not a murmur was heard or a twitching muscle observed to erase the unthinkable going through my mind.
“Mummy, Mummy!” I exclaimed as I inched closer and closer. I touched her body; it was cold. I examined her extremities; they were blue. Kneeling beside her, I wrapped my arms around her as I often did, giving her the tightest of hugs. She did not respond. There were no signs of life since life had already expired from her body. Resting my head on her hunched back, I wept.
“Why didn’t you call me? Why?” Tears streamed down my cheeks, dripping drop by drop on to the creased bed sheet. Her unmistakeable scent pervaded the air. My body was racked with grief and guilt. I was inconsolable.
Two weeks before, we were discussing death at the dinner table becasue there had been two recent deaths in the neighborhood.
know they say death occurs in threes. I wonder who’ll be next?”
I remained silent. If there was to be a third death, then it’d most likely be the ninety-two year old neighbor who was bedridden and who needed twenty-four hour care. To break the silence and lighten the moment I said:
“Mummy, let’s make a pact. If you die before me, promise you’ll come back and tell me the secret of death – what it’s like to be dead. If I die before you, I’ll do the same.”
“What nonsense are you talking? How can that happen?” she replied with a giggle.
My mother’s death completed the triad.
So many times she had begged me to lie with her because she felt she was dying. Yet when death came, she was all alone because I had slammed the bedroom door shut in a rage, out of frustration. Why couldn’t our last conversation have been the loving interaction we had had every night, without fail?
Notwithstanding assurances from friends and family that my mother wanted to die in private, that she didn’t want me to see her take her final breath, and that I was a good daughter up to the very end, I was not reassured. How I wished she’d come back from the great beyond to tell me she was all right and still loved me despite our bitter battle the night preceding her death.
Confirmation of this came two weeks after her burial when she appeared in a dream. The dream seemed so real that on waking up, I had to pinch myself and stare at my surroundings to see if I was still in this world or had joined her in the next. “Mummy, mummy,” I exclaimed, thrilled to see her looking so happy, and overjoyed that she had returned to let me know, in her own way, that all was well.
She was standing in the middle of a group of relatives and friends who had passed on. The old, sick, frail, gray-haired woman that I had buried had been rejuvenated. In her place was a gorgeous young woman, full of verve and draped in a floor-length dress with a slit at the side that I remember her wearing to a wedding when I was a teenager. My mother looked every inch the beautiful woman she was in her youth. She smiled and gazed at me without saying a word, but with immense love in her eyes.
Death, poverty and old age have been my three greatest intangible fears throughout my life. Since my mother's death, however, I am no longer fearful of death. I am convinced that when it’s my turn to die, she’ll be there to receive me just as she was welcomed by the group of friends and family surrounding her in my dream. Moreover, I have been able to rid myself of the fear of poverty because past challenges have cemented in my mind that Providence will always take care of me. I shall never want. Old age? That’s another matter. To quote Meat Loaf from his Bat Out Of Hell album: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”