I was five, and crying in the bath because my Mum would only live until one hundred years old. It meant the timer only had sixty years left. I had learnt about death. Diplomatically, she told me that sixty years was a long, long time. Neither of us knew then that we had seventeen years.
She said she had always dreamed about her future daughter. The dresses, the dolls she never had and brushing my hair as a fun bonding exercise. I was difficult and emotional. I cried when we went shopping. I wailed with the pain of brushing my hair. At the end of every fun day, I screamed until I sobbed until I fell asleep. And she would vow to never take me somewhere fun again, because all I do is cry.
The first time I saw her fallibility was the first time I saw her cry. I was eleven and she was losing the smart and lovable little girl to a puberty that was leading me into depression and destruction. I was refusing to go to school again and after screaming at each other in the car, she slammed the steering wheel and sobbed. I looked at her in shock and said nothing. When the woman with all the answers succumbs to tears, the world of your childhood collapses.
When I was in a hospital, she got me through the days by poking fun at the nurses. We beaded bracelets and made plans for after my discharge. She didn’t like to hug my tiny twelve year old frame, it felt too much like sickness. She held me anyway, and the smell of cocoa butter on her skin took me away from the chlorine and sterile, back to my home nine weeks away.
That was the home she made. Every room was her fortress. The tasteless reclining sofas, green, leather and working class luxury of the living room. This was where she entertained the world. This was where she watched the soaps, sneaking in lengthy phone calls to her friends in the space between Coronation Street and Eastenders. She alternated between patois and English depending on whether the caller was black or white. This was where we decanted our day, her work and my school.
The kitchen was the tiny restaurant from where she cooked for all the Black people in Birmingham. A pot of fifteen litres or more boiled pea soup for our family and yours too. Her repertoire blended soul and small island into the cuisine of a country she called home since ’65. People came on Sundays, specifically to eat her food. She picked the peas out of my rice, and I picked the topping off the apple crumbles she made for guests if I knew she wouldn’t notice.
The bathroom door locked, and for ten minute intervals each day she locked herself away there to smoke Benson and Hedges and play a scratchcard.
The second time I saw her fallibility I was thirteen. I had learnt attitude, swearing and emo clothing. I had been sent to bed, but returned downstairs to collect something. She complained of a headache, and when her arms and face began to lose sensation, she told me to call 999.
“Which service do you require?”
I was thirteen, I had no idea. I had only called 999 once before at three years old to report the children’s character Wizadora.
“An ambulance, police or fire?”
“I don’t know.”
My Mum took the phone from my hands and the ambulance came in minutes. They took her away when they realised her blood pressure was abnormally high and I stayed at home with an Aunt, and Jack’s Mannequin on repeat.
The call came from the hospital. She had survived a brain haemorrhage. If I hadn’t gone downstairs, and she had tried to sleep it off she would not have lived. I thought about the thirteen years of travels, both real and in the stories we told. I thought about our dinners together. I thought about where I would live if she died. I thought about her face, and my god I cried. There was no way I could survive in a world where she was not.
After the operation to stop the bleeding, I saw her in the ICU. She lifted her finger with the vital signs monitor.
“I’m here, Mum.”
“Look, E.T.!” She said, waving the finger. I had never seen that film.
The brain can never quite recover from a haemorrhage, and sometimes she would forget our phone number or address. She would forget simple things and I would become frustrated, but she shone just as brilliantly. She finally quit smoking, and we saw the world because she realised the fragility of life and her own mortality. We took cruise boats around Italy and Greece, flew to Ibiza to see the hippies and the sunset. We saw Wicked on Broadway and when she saw Les Misérables asked me “if the whole bloody thing will be in French?”
“They’re singing in English, Mum.”
As I grew, my friends loved her as they loved me. My childhood friends had called her Second Mummy, and my teenage and adulthood friends shared the jokes with her in the car trips together. We sang songs in the wrong lyrics, she was The Oracle and came to friend’s family weddings. They laughed when I told them we had watched Clueless, and when Tai called Cher “a virgin who can’t drive” my mum looked at me with a big smile and said “that’s you!”
That she welcomed my friends and loved the world put her at odds with people in her life. She took me to Pride parades and drag shows and welcomed my bohemian lifestyle. I explained my views on LGBTQ rights and she scolded those who were disgusted by a TV gay kiss, and corrected those who insulted trans people. Her gay students came to her and she came to me to ask guidance. “You’re doing just fine.” She understood autism and Down’s, and her kindness shaped my loudmouthed leftie opinions.
In the weeks before my eighteenth birthday, my brother told us he was going to be a father. There was a tiny little newborn girl and my mother was her grandma. She was ready to be a grandma. She knitted pastel cardigans and spoilt the girl with hugs and treats and compliments.
“She’s so funny, you know. And she’s going to be so quick-witted when she grows up.”
“She’s a baby, Mum.”
“Are you jealous?”
“She’s a baby!”
If, as the youngest daughter, I was jealous of the adoration this heart-stealer got, it did not detract from how we equally doted on the little girl. Together, for the whole year before I moved away, we played with her on alternate Saturdays and sent her home with a little sadness, and the house quieter and messier.
Every night, we hugged goodnight. We sang “goodnight sweetheart, well it’s time to go” from the commercials, and she’d kiss me on my forehead and me on hers. She said parents kissing their kids on the lips was weird. The day I moved into my new London flat, we hugged goodnight and cried. It was September 2012.
Every evening after she had been at work and I had skipped classes, we Skyped. Near the end of the call, she’d check the time and try and round it to the nearest ten minutes.
“Anyway. Anything new with you?”
“Nothing at all? Seven minutes left… as I was saying about Linda…” and the chat would last for another thirty minutes. She was so busy that winter as her own mother became sick. In February 2013, my Grandma died. My Mum gave a beautiful speech and cried at the graveside. We held hands tight and sang “don’t you cry, when I say goodbye.”
She came to my London flat to eat new recipes I was trying and leave me food when I was scared of cooking meat. She would tidy my cupboards so well I could never find the plates and pans I needed, but when she left the kitchen of my tiny studio flat would sparkle, and she replenished all my groceries. Every so often I too returned home to be taken care of, sit in the bath, watch a movie and braid my hair.
Living away from home made our relationship volatile. I was heading into my adult years now and navigating the world of dating and employment. They were no longer fields where my Mum could call and sort it on my behalf. I was shaping my own opinions about the world and they didn’t always align with hers. At the same time these realms were completely foreign to me and I needed her guidance more than ever. This push and pull reminded me of my teenage years, the discord between needing and not needing, and we both struggled to strike a correct balance. Often, we clashed.
A year before she died, I told her I was one month into “seeing someone”. I was fiercely private about my relationships and crushes throughout my life. This was because every time I mentioned a new male friend more than once, she’d ask if he was my boyfriend. Mostly, they were gay but I dreaded any fuss or cooing about boys who became more than friends. When I went to see my new boyfriend whilst he was visiting family in Italy, at first I told her I was seeing a female friend.
She liked seeing me in a relationship. She took me to Victoria’s Secret to buy “tantalising underwear” and the whole trip was humiliating. She left pots of limoncello dessert “because he is Italian” and they met at my graduation. Both of them speak without a filter, and that worried me. Instead they hit it off drinking champagne together and that was the only time they met.
Each Christmas we built up the table she had owned since the ’80s. It was a shaky pine contraption that was too big for our house, so out of season we kept it tucked away in the understairs cupboard. There were bolts and slats missing and if you leaned on it too much it would collapse. Dishes of rice and peas, roast potatoes, chicken or pork, pigs in blankets, stuffing, pasta and cheese and seasonal vegetables were placed on top of the Christmas tablecloth, and crackers scattered around.
The final Christmas, she could only take a few bites, then she went to the bathroom to cough. My brother and I joked about it, until we fell silent and discomfort hung in the air. On Christmas Night, we argued. I called her selfish and she called me spoilt and I saw tears in her eyes. I had been in bed, sick and in pain all day and I returned to bed after the argument.
The following night, I googled “symptoms of lung cancer” and cried. She had been sick from November. Food had become bland, she was coughing and losing weight and the doctors suspected asthma but the tests were inconclusive and slow because of the season. I went downstairs and stood on her plate twist exerciser. We hadn’t spoken since the argument.
“Do you really think it’s asthma you have? Are the doctor’s sure?”
“Pretty sure. Maybe it’s a chest infection.”
“But not anything serious? You’re not coughing up any blood, are you?”
“No. Would that mean I have cancer?”
“Yeah.” I said quietly, and we looked at each other.
My niece came the night before I left for London. We played hide and seek with my Mum, and I took my train in high spirits. My Mum wasn’t getting any better, but I had a hope it was a strong infection and she’d be better soon.
I was wrong. In the second week of January, she would receive her results. She said she would call me as soon as she got them and it was 4pm. I was in Golders Green, buying potatoes in the Sainsburys and I knew something was wrong.
“The tests are still inconclusive. Why don’t you come home on Monday and we can go to my appointment on Tuesday together?”
I came home and her aunt had cooked us dinner as she was too weak. We sat down and she said “I’ve got cancer, bab.”
I didn’t think about the weakness and vulnerability in her voice at the time. I just thought, I know this so how are we going to beat this thing? You can be the five out of one hundred, I know you can. You’re my Mum and you have all the answers.
She seemed more at peace with the inevitability of death. She had cheated it once before. She said I was her little bird that she had raised, and now she has to let me fly. She was now more concerned with what happened next. She worried about her religion and if she had done enough to secure a peaceful afterlife, she worried about my brother and me, and she worried that my young niece, three at the time, would forget her. What lay ahead of her was an uncertainty that she had no control over, and as the disease overwhelmed her, life itself became less in her grasp. All I could do was remind her, and myself, that everything would be fine. Now was her time to find her peace.
She found it four weeks later. I had not been able to hug her throughout her sickness, so I hugged her and held her tight and hoped there was some part of her left that felt it. Those sixty years I cried over as a child in the bathtub felt like a dream in comparison to the twenty two and a half years with her that I got.
I had spent so much of my teens fearing this moment. I controlled my world in irrational and fantastical actions which would protect my mother against death. Reading a page twice, reading a word five times, locking doors and knowing it makes no sense but never chancing it. I called her back if we forgot to say “I love you” because if something happened to one of us, those had to be our last words.
They were. I left, and came back into her hospital bed to say that I loved her and in the night she became unconscious.
When my Grandma died, my Mum found that all her bras would come unfastened for no reason. She took comfort in her Mum playing tricks. I’m not superstitious. I don’t take comfort that she is watching over me, or guiding me. I don’t believe in that kind of death, but she comes to me in my sleep. Night after night, we are at the door of her house, or on the stairs, or in the lounge. She looks healthy as we talk, but I know she will die and I think
“Please no, I can’t survive losing her again. I barely managed it the first time.”
At that moment I wake up with the same feeling, then it sinks in that she is already gone. It’s a bittersweet pain, knowing I don’t have to lose her again but knowing she is not here in the first place. We cannot stand on the doorstep or sit on the stairs. Her goneness is complete, and I’m ready for these dreams to stop coming.
On her birthday, they proposed a toast with her favourite drink, ginger wine. She wasn’t there to toast it, fifty eight years and counting. She wasn’t on the end of the phone line for them to sing “one and fifty, two and fifty, three and four and five and fifty, fifty seven! Fifty eight! Happy birthday!” like my family had done the past fifty seven years. She wasn’t there, and those times make me feel her absence so hard. Other times, I don’t feel like she has gone. I feel like she is right there and we have a long overdue Skype call. I have so much to tell her.