We were asked to write this one for someone special, so I’ve chosen my mum. I don’t think I need to say anything else.
“The stitches are quite hard,” my mother says. “Have a feel.”
The last thing I want to do is to stretch out my hand and feel the place where she had her cancer surgery three days ago, but I feel guilty for being so selfish and so I place my fingers near the spot she’s shown me and try not to think what lies beneath her nightdress.
I found out a week ago that she had bowel cancer – only days after she’d received the news herself. Although I know that it’s inevitable she’ll die one day – she’s 76 this year, for goodness’ sake! – this has all happened too quickly, without any of us having had the chance to prepare for it.
She sits on the hospital bed, suddenly old, suddenly small. I used to think she looked like my grandmother: her face plumped out as she grew older, but she was still the mother I remembered from my childhood. Now, though, she reminds me of my great-grandmother: her face has been ravaged by age, and illness has carved deep furrows into the once smooth skin. She seems tiny – as if the cancer has sucked all the life out of her, leaving her like a deflated balloon.
She’s speaking again, telling me about the lady in the bed opposite – “Philomena,” she says, “like the film with Judi Dench.” – and how she has trouble sleeping when some of the other patients start screaming in the middle of the night. I listen to everything she’s been through and feel guilty for wanting to cry earlier in the day when I got lost on my way to the hospital. Her suffering is real and raw – something grown ups go through; whereas mine seems childish and petty by comparison.
The nurse arrives and asks my mother if she can check her stoma. I’ve already googled colostomy bags and ileostomy bags and know my mother has the latter: they removed part of her lower bowel and now all her waste trickles into the bag in liquid form. She told me she tried to change it earlier but she made a mistake and the waste seeped out over her dressing gown and slippers. I feel embarrassed for her when she tells me this: it’s a role reversal of all those times when I was a toddler and didn’t make it to the potty fast enough.
I offer to leave to give her some privacy, but she and the nurse are quite happy for me to stay with them behind the wall of curtain. Here, in this little world they’ve made for themselves, we’re cut off from the rest of the world: it’s an adult version of a fort or a tree house.
To begin with, I avert my gaze, not wanting to see the bag or the wound – or even my mum’s face as she struggles to decipher the written instructions on the printed sheet in front of her. I hand her her glasses and she reads each line slowly, pausing to let the words sink in. She sounds amazingly detached and practical – almost as if she is reading a recipe or a shopping list. When she removes the emptied bag, I wince involuntarily, half-expecting to see a gaping hole; but instead, a red blob of jelly looks back at me: a children’s dessert where I had thought to see guts and gore.
Independent to her core, she cleans her wound carefully with a dry wipe followed by a wet one. I long to help, but I know she won’t let me: she has to do this on her own. So I watch, and marvel at her bravery, and wonder how long it will be until she can’t do this on her own anymore.
She’s missed her evening meal in all the excitement. An orderly brings her a bowl of soup and a bread roll. Both remain untouched. She’s hardly eaten in four days and yet she isn’t hungry. I’m about to leave when her face twists and she asks for a bowl. Holding it in front of her, I watch her vomit an almost clear waterfall. Her stomach’s empty: she has nothing to bring up except the jug of water she’s drunk since I’ve been here.
I help her back into bed, pulling the sheet over her legs and tucking her in. This is what it means to be grown up: to care for the woman who gave birth to you; to realise that you are now the parent and she the child.
I’m 53. I’ve had three children of my own and two grandchildren; but until now, whenever I’ve been with my mum, I’ve felt like I’m still a teenager. “Don’t touch the iron – it’s hot” and “You can’t go out looking like that” still fall from her lips as easily as they did forty years ago.
I’ve always been the child in our relationship, but now our roles are reversed. I wonder how long it will be before I am feeding my toddler-mother and seeing to her personal hygiene.
“Sleep well,” I tell her, kissing her on the forehead and preparing to leave my childhood behind.