For My Mother
By Hannah Sloane
My fear first manifested itself when I was six or seven. Lying in bed, listening to the stir of noises outside, I tried to visualize a life without her. I heard her descending the stairs and called out, realizing one day I wouldn’t be able to, and by the time she appeared in the doorway of my box-shaped room I was in tears.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, stepping into the darkness.
“I don’t want you to die,” I sobbed. “Ever.”
She laughed. “Don’t be silly. I’m young!”
It was true. She gave birth to me, her third and final daughter, at thirty-two and was hardly old when I confessed my sudden gaping fear to her. I didn’t think about our conversation for a long time, tucking my macabre fear into a shadowy catalogue of childhood memories that emerged unexpectedly three years ago.
It was a Sunday and I was scanning my blackberry out of habit, a fleeting glance that left me stunned. She apologized for emailing, explaining she couldn’t call her daughters simultaneously, nor decide who to call first. And then she explained she’d discovered a lump on her breast and the doctors had confirmed it was cancer.
“Are you ready?” My roommate asked.
I glanced up. It was her birthday and I’d suggested we have brunch together, not revealing the surprise part: I’d arranged for twenty-five of her friends to join us. I read the email again. I thought of my mother. I thought of the twenty-five people waiting expectantly, fresh mimosas in their hands, cameras at the ready. I tucked my blackberry away. It was easier to delay this, the sickening reality of a situation I didn’t want to confront. It was better to focus on the surprise I’d planned, the one I had an element of control over.
When we arrived at the restaurant I shouted happy birthday like everyone else. I clapped. Someone handed me a drink. I took a sip and grinned for cameras as too many photos were taken, commemorating a day I didn’t want to celebrate.
My mother was born in the 1950s and radiates a demure femininity so typical of that era. My sisters and I turn to her for guidance on the wonders of domesticity that all of us lack. We’ll call when we can’t get a stain out of a dress—But you NEVER put water on silk, she’ll gasp—or when we’re ill and she’ll tell us which vitamins to take. She rarely drinks and never swears. She takes baths rather than showers because when she was young, five or six maybe, she was crossing a frozen pond when the ice cracked, plunging her into its icy depths. Unsurprisingly she hasn’t enjoyed being under water since. When we go on vacations we’ll dive into the pool or race into the ocean, but she prefers to sit at the side and enjoy the fun from a distance. Also, she doesn’t like to be the center of attention.
She’s old-fashioned in cute ways. She has a pay-as-you-go phone that she bought in Asia. Its instructions are in Chinese so she’s not sure how to use it. But, for us, it’s a vast improvement on the previous one that made a high-pitched bleeping noise each time she pressed the keypad. We suspected she deliberately typed rambling texts during long car journeys because it drove us all insane and reduced her to mischievous giggles.
Before she grew accustomed to using hotmail I’d look forward to her emails because they were simultaneously hilarious and cryptic, dotted with random indentations and speech marks, and then she’d accidentally hit the caps lock button half way through a sentence and SHOUT THE REMAINING DETAILS OF HER DAY AT HER INTENDED RECIPIENT.
“Your mom is the warmest person I know,” my friend told me one time.
I agree. She’s beyond altruistic. She adores welcoming friends into her home. Her memory is terrible for statistics, facts and figures, but when it comes to friends she’s elephantine in her recollections.
“How’s Sophie’s ex’s younger brother doing?” She’ll ask over breakfast.
My mouth full from overloading on scrambled eggs and coffee I’ll shrug, annoyed by the random question. “Honestly Mom, I’ve no idea. We lost touch years ago.”
But for her, each friend we bring home makes a long-lasting impression, their presence lingering fondly in her memory long after they’ve waved goodbye.
I decided at a young age that other mothers weren’t as beautiful as ours. They were frumpy or overweight or graying, whereas ours rocked her looks: blond hair, slim waist, fashionable navy pleated skirts and chocolate-colored knee high boots. I grew up watching her slip into glittery, sequined outfits. It was the 80s and they attended a lot of cocktail parties. They loved dancing; I remember lying on the wooden floor of our living room watching them sway effortlessly to the crackling vinyl of Stevie Wonder’s: I just called to say I love you.
She used to work as a part-time teacher at my school, filling in when other teachers were sick. When she called our names from the register everyone answered “Yes Mrs. Sloane,” but I’d say “Yes Mom” and the whole class would erupt. It’s a joke that eight year olds never tire of. After school we’d spend an hour alone together before my older sisters returned. We’d sit in the kitchen, she’d have a cup of tea and we’d discuss our respective days.
One time after school I bought a He-Man at a yard-sale. A boy in the year above said I couldn’t have it because it was a boy’s toy and I turned a deep shade of crimson and stared at him aghast. But then from behind I heard my mother snapping at him, saying he was wrong. She grabbed my hand, marched me to the car and told me not to let silly boys upset me. I think I’m getting better at listening to her advice these days.
I moved to New York five years ago from London. I fly home for weddings, christenings, Christmas, but I’m missing in the family photos and birthdays, and there are more of them these days since both my sisters became mothers. Naturally when I learnt of my mother’s breast cancer my guilt deepened. I wondered how quickly I should move back. After leaving brunch I called her from the safe cocoon of my home expecting hysterics but she was calm, perfectly normal. While I was reeling she had had two weeks to adjust to this news. They had taken a sample from her breast and were testing it.
“Should I fly home? I can take time off work,” I said, hating the crack in my voice. I didn’t want to be emotional and all those mimosas weren’t helping.
She was firm. She wanted to retain a semblance of normality. So I stayed in New York, waiting for the news, and couldn’t help but embrace my childish fears. My mother would turn sixty later that year…or would she? I had flashbacks to the times I acted like a sulky brat. I’d been petulant and sarcastic and all the while she’d selflessly endured my behavior.
We learnt it was stage two cancer. She didn’t want attention, didn’t want to open the door to bouquets of flowers or stacks of cards, so we barely told anyone. I shared the news with my boyfriend and he was supportive until one day he wasn’t. And when we split up, who did I call? Even in her darkest hour I burdened her with my problems.
“You know the best decision of my life was marrying your mother,” my father told me last year as we were driving into London.
“You should tell her that.”
And luckily he can, again and again, including last summer when they celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary. The tumor was smaller than the doctors thought, they removed it safely and she underwent radiotherapy. She was given the all clear and our family exhaled a collective sigh of relief. We could watch her grow old and wrinkly and gray and slow, completing life in a predictably routine way without unwanted intrusion.
I still live in New York. We speak on Skype, waving through grainy cameras attached to our computers. I’m blessed, when so many others are less fortunate. And yet I’ve regressed in the short time since she was given the all clear. Yes, I tell her how much I appreciate her on Mother’s Day and on her birthday. I say it more ardently than before, the flowers I send her are super-sized, wildly over-the-top. But still, ridiculously, there’s a cynical, sarcastic side of me that finds it difficult to express how much I love her, finding those words shamefully corny or schmaltzy.
And I know this is absurd. She won’t always be on the stairs and able to hear my cries. It’s a bleak thought, one I try not to dwell on late at night.