I am pretty sure my mother had an amygdala; every one of us does. If my friend Joe, who seems to know his amygdalas, is correct, Mum’s must have been smaller than most. He tells me the amygdala is the seat of fear in the brain.
Joe is a barrister. I remind him I am a doctor. “It’s fifty years since I last had need of any knowledge of the amygdala. How come you know about it?”
Joe says: “In my business it helps to keep up to date with neuroscience. Such things as the organ of fear can be important in court”. Which all makes sense for a criminal lawyer; but Joe does compensation cases only.
For a while I consider my mother. Then I describe her to Joe. Joe smiles. The more I speak of my mother the wider Joe’s smile.
“Mum lost her father to cancer when she was twelve. Then three years and one day later her mother died – “Mummy had rheumatic fever in her childhood. After Daddy went, she died of a broken heart.”
From the age of fifteen Mum and with her younger sister Doreen were raised by her widowed grandmother, “Gar”, a tender and enlightened and emancipated lady who taught her granddaughters to feel inferior to no-one on this earth. Nor superior, for that matter.
Mum failed her Intermediate Certificate, Year Ten in today’s language. She concluded she was a dunce (making no allowance for the effect on learning of the abrupt loss of a pair of parents) and left school. She attended secretarial college, worked as a bookkeeper, saved her salary and at the age of twenty set sail alone for Europe. The year was 1939. Her correspondence through that blithe passage via the Dutch East Indies into Western Europe is punctuated by increasingly urgent letters from Gar to hurry home: “There is going to be a war.”
Mum prepared for the war by sleeping on deck – “in case we were torpedoed” – on the last night at sea. Her ship made port in Fremantle on the day war was declared.
My parents raised us children in the country town of Leeton. Once a year we visited the great city of Melbourne where there were trams. Mum took me on a tram ride along Hawthorn Road, past the cemetery. “Mummy and Daddy are in there”, she remarked affably, indicating a long red brick wall. Behind the wall I glimpsed stone statues and crosses. Mum’s remark made no sense to me. ‘Mummy’ was on the tram with me and ‘Daddy’ was back home in Leeton. Mum explained: “It’s a cemetery. People who have died are buried there. That’s where my parents are.” Mum’s voice, warm with affection and remembered pleasure, sounded as it always did when she spoke of her mother and father. I heard no note of sadness. At seven years old I could only imagine losing parents as the absolute of perdition, of aloneness. A thought like the abyss. Mum seemed to think dying was a natural part of living; it happened but death didn’t spoil life. Not for Mum.
Mum told me once of a tram ride she took one night from Fitzroy Street to the home of her uncle (and co-guardian) in Beaconsfield Parade. “I was visiting a friend in St Kilda. I stayed later than I intended and I almost missed the last tram. I just caught it. In the morning I read in the paper that a young woman was murdered overnight at that same tram stop. She was killed some time soon after the last tram – my tram – left… Ever since I was fifteen I’ve known that people die. Last night just wasn’t my time.”
When we children were teenagers, now living in Melbourne, Mum sailed to Britain or Europe. She always stayed in the cheapest hotel, choosing the cheapest room that had private bathroom facilities. Invariably her accommodation was in some seedy district. One time she discovered she was staying in a brothel.”I was safely locked in my bedroom, when I heard a sound from the door. I looked up and I saw the door handle turning. Then the door that I’d locked opened. I sat quietly. No-one came in. The door closed and I heard footsteps walking away. Next day a man I didn’t know asked me to sleep with him. He couldn’t speak English but he showed quite clearly what he wanted in sign language. I couldn’t speak his language – which might have been Kurdish. But I showed him in sign language the answer was no.”
“How did you ‘show’ him?”
“I took out my photos of you four children. I told him your names and your ages. Your faces must have changed his mind.” I picture Mum recounting with delight details of her brood, regaling a puzzled predator with biography, smiling and brimming with goodwill in her natural belief that blood was thicker than semen. I think Mum’s sunny innocence would dent anyone’s carnal ardour.
Another trip, this one around the time of the Cuban missile crisis: mum decided to travel to Yugoslavia. Friends tried to talk her out of it, reminding her of the Cold War. Mum said, “I know it’s an Iron Curtain country, but I don’t think it’s very iron.” People in Tito’s concentration camp in the mountains probably felt both the iron and the cold. Mum, blessed in her innocence, did not sense the chill.
One week before her 92nd birthday, Mum lay in her bed in Cabrini Hospital and breathed. Breathing was a labour as Mum’s heart was failing. Between small gulps of oxygen Mum chatted cheerfully with me and Miriam, a neighbour. Suddenly she coughed. And coughed again and again. Wordless now, Mum at up straight and took great desperate gasps, one after another. Quickly Miriam excused herself and left. I turned up the oxygen flow and called a nurse, who raced in and injected some diuretic into Mum’s drip. Minutes later Mum was gulping comfortably again. She pulled off her oxygen mask and grinned: “Miriam and the nurse both thought I was going to croak, didn’t they?” – huge crooked grin now, now laughing – “Well, I didn’t!”
After that Mum and I talked seriously: I asked her if she had any late – possibly last – wishes. Day and night in the hospital she had her two living sons and her daughter and a tribe of grandchildren with her. Mum never wished for more than that.
Even the smallest amygdala will not save you when your heart is shot. Mum lived a few more days before falling asleep and dying without fear.