The following piece appeared in the Readers Write section of The Sun last month. The Sun is my favourite magazine, jam-packed with strong writing. I recommend it very, very highly. You can read excerpts from each issue on the website, and also find subscription details there – yes, they do post to Australia. If you want to hear the piece below read as a podcast by the kind folk at the Audio Internet Reading Service of Los Angeles, click here; then click on 'The Internet Part 3 / Forgetting Part 1'. My piece begins at 10.33 – but why not listen to the whole thing!
At my mother's funeral, a family friend took me aside, gave me a hug, and said, "You'll soon forget all the illness and be left with just happy memories."
She's a good friend, but she was wrong.
When I was a teenager, my mother worked seventy- and eighty-hour weeks, and I went days on end without seeing her. At the age of seventeen I moved out, feeling I barely knew her at all. A year later I went home for my first visit. While I was there, my mother woke one morning to find she had no feeling in her left leg.
Within eight years she was dead from a particularly vicious form of multiple sclerosis: Eight years of burning pain, progressive numbness, and creeping paralysis. Five years of wheelchairs. Two years of quadriplegia. More than a year of hearing loss and vision impairment. And, at the end, nothing but a tiny voice squeezed out of lungs so weakened by paralysis that they finally stopped expanding.
I'm now thirty-six, and I can barely remember my mother when she was well. When I try to think of her walking, it's a blur; images of her standing are summoned from photographs. Instead I remember crooked hands, swollen feet in orthopedic shoes resting on the footplates of a wheelchair. Her skin was dry and sloughing off (a side effect of her medication). The bright-eyed, inquisitive mother of my childhood had become lethargic, heavy, and dulled by pain. I can't even remember her original voice. The illness was all-encompassing. In frustration and grief I have largely given up trying to remember; instead I look for her in me.
When I wash dishes, there are her hands, setting the dish rag out to dry. When I hang laundry, there are her fingers, clipping pins to the corners of my sheets. I sit at my desk and feel the resolute set of her jaw. I look in the mirror and see her eyes looking back at me, kinder now than they often were.
It's not quite remembering, these little glimpses of my mother in me, but it's enough. I think of it as a friendly haunting — painful at times but infinitely better than no memories of her at all.