After my experience last Sunday I’ve decided I like Mothers Day. I enjoyed sharing vignettes of my old Mum. One of the first that I ever published, appeared in my first book, a memoir which I called “My Father’s Compass”. The vignette, a story about my 92 year old father battling the extinguishment of his great powers, and my mother battling nothing and accepting all, was titled: Falling gums.
“The phone rings at midnight. I walk towards the answering machine and listen for an urgent message. I do not pick up the receiver because it is Friday night, my Sabbath – Shabbat – when my soul visits paradise. When I am in paradise I do not answer the phone. There is no message.
Though puzzled – who would want to speak to me at midnight if it were not an emergency? – I begin to relax, then the phone rings again. Once again my machine offers to take a message, once again the caller is mute. I grab the phone. Dad’s voice says, ‘Mum is on the floor …’
‘I’ll come now,’ I say, and hang up. Dad and I have responded to the situation with the least possible desecration of the Sabbath.
Minutes later I let myself into my parents’ house. There, on the bedroom floor, in a tangle of limbs, is my mother. ‘Hello darling,’ she says. She looks up at me and gives me a grin. Recently, Mum’s front teeth have begun to desert her. Those teeth that remain are a picket fence, stained and in disrepair. Mum’s former serene smile has given way to a seven-year-old’s grin – all mischief and careless abandon.
I peer down at Mum’s legs. They are thin, too thin, except for her ruined knee which is swollen and misshapen. In the half light her skin is ivory. I crouch and put my hand on her leg and feel its cool and its smoothness. I touch my mother’s skin and I am her small child again.
A short time passes. ‘Does any thing hurt, Mum?’
‘Can you move your limbs, Mum?’
Dad’s voice breaks in: ‘Mum’s not hurt – she didn’t fall. She was reaching for the commode chair and she pushed it away instead of holding it still … she just slid gently onto the floor … I couldn’t stop her falling …’
Dad’s voice subsides. He sits on his bed and holds his head in his hands.
Mum speaks: ‘I’m quite comfortable, darling. It’s quite a nice floor, really.’ Another grin. I look at my mother. Her limbs are splayed and folded beneath and before her like so many pick-up-sticks. I wonder how I will pick them up.
‘If you like it on the floor, Mum, would you prefer to stay there until the morning?’
‘If you wish, darling.’ She extends a hand and pats my face.
I bend and begin to take her weight, my hands beneath her arms. Dad gets up to help but I knock him back because his heart is worn out and failing.
He recoils, recedes and sits down opposite me, his face wrought of grief and care. I feel a pang for my abruptness.
An in-drawing of breath, a grunt and Mum is aloft, her legs a pair of white flags hanging limply beneath her. Her arms are around my neck and we are locked in our accustomed embrace that has become so familiar since she began to suffer a series of strokes.
We know this moment well; each of us knows the sweetness of this slow dance. Neither of us would readily trade it, not even to make Mum whole again.
A moment later Mum is in her bed, covered up, wheezing, speaking breathily, her voice ravaged by stroke and by time: ‘Thank you, darling, what a treat!’ – and beaming with the simple pleasure of being tucked into her bed.
Dad, contrite, distressed, is saying, ‘I am sorry, darling. I hate to disturb you.’ And I am saying how pleased I am to come, and how come he didn’t speak into the machine when he rang. And Dad says, ‘I don’t know.’
‘Shabbat Shalom,’ I say, kiss them both goodnight, and go home.
Back home, but not yet in paradise, I sit a while and recall a conversation my friend Lionel reported to me. While driving with my father in the Flinders Ranges, Lionel asks this indestructible old man a singular question: ‘What are you afraid of in this life, Myer?’
My dreadnought father has fought all his sixty-seven years as a doctor against illness and injury. Of all diseases, I know that cancer and stroke fill him with terror beyond naming. And I recall, too, Dad confiding to me his fears for Mum: ‘I am grateful for every single day that I have her; and I am so frightened of the day that …’ He falls silent, his voice drowning in the grief of his imagining.
When Lionel asks his question, Dad looks up and out and away from inside him, and he sees those silent, massive and beauteous living things, so inviting in the outdoors and so treacherous. He answers, ‘Falling gum trees.’
The day after the ‘fall’ Mum and I are alone in the kitchen when she begins to laugh. The sound has a gasping quality. You have to pay close attention to discover whether she is choking again, or simply amused. She laughs louder then tries to speak at the same time.
Her voice is a concerto for bagpipes and windstorm. I lean close, into the teeth of the storm, and Mum says, ‘When I was on the floor last night, and I couldn’t get up, I started to laugh, and I couldn’t stop … and Daddy was furious!’”