Making lunch for my mother
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –
When I arrive in Canada in mid-April, my unstoppable mother is barely walking, exhausted, foggy, lonely, anxious. In January she resigns from a national board, stops speaking in schools, turns down the request to teach an open university course. By March, she has a diagnosis – not an autoimmune disease she let us know with relief - most likely long-covid. I book flights.
Not knowing what was going to unfold, I come for three months. Enough I reasoned to either organise a stairlift and in-home care or begin to move her into – into what? The first weeks were uncertain. I make sure we have groceries and start on the garden. The house - usually a pulsing nerve centre of constant activity - subdued. I make soup for lunch, replace the fading house plants, avoid thinking about her passionate life captured in papers, photos, slides - dozens of boxes. In archival science this has a name, Fonds - a group of documents, unpublished - an outgrowth of the daily workings of an individual. She starts to feel better. One day she says - when I die if my papers aren’t sorted, you will just have to throw them away. We clear the table.
It's week six - the archiving has a rhythm now and is moving at a pace. Our system - pour a fresh cup of tea and open a box or a binder. Keep the speeches, letters, invitations, articles, awards, journal entries, and editorials. Referencing the most current CV any un-dated pages are reigned in, assigned a date, connected to an event - a peace march, a war, a treaty, a conference. I take the pile and slide each piece into tabbed hanging files – 1985, 1992, 2004 – The number of tabs grows - some years the pages can barely be constrained in two or three folders – some years, the years she was caring full time for my stepfather, the dated tabs hang neatly, pressed together.
We take breaks - walk the dog, read Virginia Woolf, watch Isabel Allende, talk about the arc of a story the shape of a poem, have people over. I think about mothers and daughters and wish my own daughter was here - she would love this.
We uncover my year 12 essay that she quotes in a TEDx Talk – I really did write that 'the day my mother started medical school was the last day she made my lunch'. She finds the address she gave in Paris at an International Medical Congress – she remembers a friend raved about the speech - if you had been a man, he enthused, you would have got a standing ovation - it's 2002.
Suddenly she roars with laughter - a cartoon that she had cut out and stapled randomly to an undated letter to the editor - a family photo, a postcard from a grandchild, a sibling’s Christmas letter. She picks up a handwritten letter, posted a few months before the young woman's death, moves to the computer, searches the daughter’s name, now a medical specialist herself, sends her a message. We go out for a meal and take two binders of mounted photos with us – 1987 and 2002-03. While we wait for the tempura she sorts – chuck, chuck, chuck – remarking to the server - I’m practising the gentle art of Swedish death cleaning.
We get a smart watch that will call for help if she falls, improve the wifi signal in the house. We book flights - she will consult about a special project at the Calgary Centre for Dialogue. We plan the ferry and bus routes to Vancouver - she will be at my son's convocation. I start to surface, think about Queensland. Will the rain have stopped by July?
To my fellow swimmers:
Here is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift,
That there are those who will be afraid,
Who will try to hold on to the shore…
Push off into the middle of the river,
And keep our heads above water.
And I say see who is there with you and celebrate…
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.
From the Elders of the Hopi Nation
Dr Mary Wynne Ashford, Karen Barnett's mother, an educator, medical doctor, and peace activist has given more than 250 lectures in some 20 countries and was the recipient of the Ghandi Prize in 1997. Her 2013 TED X talks can be found at these links
One More Step