Mum is about sixty. She speaks with her doctor son, aged thirty. He’s still a bit wet behind his medical ears.
Mum: One of these days I’ll have stroke darling…
Son, provoked: How can you know that, Mum? I’m a doctor and I’m not able to predict that. You can’t know you’ll have a stroke.
Mum: Well, I do have high blood pressure and my cholesterol is high. Those are the factors. Anyway, when I do, I want you to slip me a Mickey.
Son: You mean kill you? No! I won’t.
Mum: Alright, darling.
Son, contrite: Look Mum, if you do have a stroke, I’ll come and visit you every day. I’ll read every word of Dickens to you. And after that, I’ll read all of Shakespeare to you.
Mum: Thank you darling. That would be nice.
Son, six months later: Mum, remember how you asked me to knock you off if you had a stroke? Would you still want me to do that?
Mum: No, certainly not.
Son, triumphant: You see Mum, if you’d had a stroke, I’d have killed you – and you wouldn’t have wanted to be dead.
Mum: No, darling – I’d have been dead and happy, and you’d be alive and feeling guilty.
Fifteen years pass. Mum goes to see the Australian Ballet and suffers a mini-stroke. Her doctor – a specialist, not her son – starts her on aspirin. She suffers a cerebral thrombosis, a full sized stroke. Her hand is weakened and her memory is patchy. Her specialist decides she needs warfarin – rat poison – to thin her blood. After watching ”In the Name of the Father” with her doctor son she vomits suddenly. Son helps her to her feet, but she falls, a dead weight. Her son and her daughter in law heave and drag her to the car. They drive to hospital.
Mum’s blood has become so thin she’s suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Her specialist doubts she will recover consciousness. She does so. While she remains in her coma someone in the hospital relieves her of her engagement ring. She never sees it again.
Mum wakes up. Half her hindbrain is demolished and with it her balance and her ability to walk. Her champagne voice loses its sparkle. She speaks huskily now, coughing often, searching for sounds to carry her meanings.
She says to her doctor son: I reckon the next stroke will get me.
What do you mean?
It will see me out. Dead.
Son, not irritably: I don’t know, Mum. How can anyone know?
Mum: I’ve had two strokes now. Isn’t that what they say – ‘three strokes and you’re out’?
The son laughs. The old lady laughs too. A stroke is a nuisance – “boring” is her word for it – but time spent with any of her children is recompense.
Belatedly the son recalls his promise – Dickens! Shakespeare! Mum, remember I promised to read novels and plays to you?
Did you darling?
I did promise, but I never came good.
Never mind, darling.
She squeezes his hand with her own – the one that still works.
The son launches into reminiscences of the time, more than thirty years distant, when they lived in the country. His stories bring back the days when her young body obeyed her quick mind, when it was she who nurtured the stumbling child. He finishes his vignette. The mother smiles, squeezes his hand again and thanks him: That was lovely darling.
Son: You know what, Mum? I’ve got lots of stories from those times. How would you like it if I were to write them all down and read them to you?
Mum: I’d love that darling.
He starts to write the stories. He supplies them to Mum and to her oldest friend from those days. The two old ladies feast their tear glands on the stories.
Mum needs a helper now to shower herself. Sometimes the helper takes leave and bathing her falls to a son, the oldest one, not the doctor.
Mum: Isn’t this awful for you, darling? Bathing an old wreck?
Eldest son: When I soap your back, I remember with my skin how you soaped me. It’s a return, a coming home. I bless myself for the privilege.
The stairs in her old home are beyond Mum. The doctor son and his grown son carry her up and down on wrist-linked hands. Mum asks: Don’t you boys want to euthanase me?
Son: At last I can do something for you in return for carrying me all my life.
Mum and Dad settle into their new single storey home. After a time, the doctor son asks: Mum, do you remember a conversation many years ago? You wanted me to give you a fatal overdose of a sedative if you ever suffered a stroke. Now that you’ve suffered a few of them, do you still feel the same?
Oh no, dear. Certainly not. Do you know why?
Her emphasis makes her wheeze and cough.
Son waits for the squall to pass: No Mum. Why?
Mum: I thought if I suffered a stroke I’d be handicapped; and I was right. And if I was handicapped, I’d lose my independence; and I was right. I thought if I lost my independence I’d be a burden; and I was wrong.
You know – I’ve never been happier in my life.
He stares at his mother.
Mum: And the reason is I am surrounded by people who love me.