I would squeeze the densely soaked sponge above her head and let the warm water run over her face so that she could squint her eyes and I could see expression show on her face.
Bath time was always at 7pm, early enough for me to start and finish my homework and late enough for her to sleep straight after she had eaten. Sleep was important to my mother and crucial to her mood, I believe she enjoyed it so much because it was the only time she could not consciously feel the pain.
Her pain, she had told me, was ever-present, in her chest, it was fixed there, like an old, thick tree trunk, it could be stunted and poisoned, but it’s roots were always in place, below the surface.
I would rather describe what my mother called pain as a sadness, she had the kind of sadness that could only be numbed, and never removed. She had tried everything to rid herself of this ‘cancer’. My mother endured major depression throughout her life and for years this had been a great source of embarrassment for me.
I was ashamed because the person who had delivered me into the world, my mother, could not be a mother. I was ashamed because from age twelve I was caring for someone who ought to have been caring for me. I was ashamed because no matter how much time I spent with my mother and how much I was told about her malady, I could not understand it, I could not understand her.
The severity of my mother’s depression was brought to the fore by my grandmother’s death. We had lived with Granny Wylo since I was eight, she had offered to accommodate us after my mother lost a string of jobs for persistent truancy.
There was a sense of guiltiness to the way my grandmother dealt with my mother, as if all my mother’s errors and flaws were her own or if not, a reflection of her own. Her love for her child was an overcompensation for what had gone wrong and what she could not right.
When we moved in, I got a sense of what my mother’s childhood had been like, my grandmother fussed incessantly over her.
The night of the day we moved in I was shocked to see my grandmother running my mother’s bath water as my mother sat quietly on the single-seat couch with her legs outstretched on a stool. It was not often that Granny Wylo was her feet. She cooked and cleaned, she ironed our clothes every morning and laid them on our beds, she ran countless errands for my mother, and hovered obsessively around her, waiting to be needed.
My mother was apathetic towards my grandmother, she never uttered a thank you or offered any help and my grandmother did not hold her breath either, there seemed to exist a mutual understanding at the base of their relationship that outlined my grandmother as the caretaker and my mother as the cared for which was never to be altered or conversed by age.
By attempting to make life easier for my mother, by being at her constant beck-and-call, my grandmother crippled her, when she died she left behind a person who was miserably ill-equipped to take care of herself, let alone a child.
Following my grandmother’s death my mother fell into a somber state. She began sleeping in my grandmother’s room and started a self abusive pattern of taking sleeping pills each time she woke. Due to a combination of self neglect, her refusal to eat and drug abuse she was admitted into Nazareth Hospital one week after my grandmother’s funeral for overdosing on sleeping pills.
My uncle who had been staying with us during the time of the funeral, had found her slumped on the bathroom floor. When I walked into her room and saw laying weakly on the hospital bed I felt a discomfort in my stomach, I did not want to be left alone with her. When my uncle shut the door I was afraid, I could not recognize the bantam figure staring at me from the bed.
She had the same look on her face, the figure said.
She still sounded the same,
Your grandmother, she had that same look on her face the first time I tried. . .the first time I tried this.
This has happened before?
She looked afraid of me, my mother said, chuckling a little, afraid of what I could do, not to myself, to her , there came a solemnness to her voice, I had found yet another way to hurt her.
Why were you in hospital? I asked.
I stole her prescription pills.
What’s pre-scrip-tion? I inquired, but I saw from the look on her face that I had lost her attention, she would withdraw now, lost in her past, always lost in the past.
Granny Wylo’s will assigned everything to us. Unemployed for months now, my mother’s impetus to look for any kind of work vanished - the family matriarch had died.
Looking back I see that my mother never held a purpose in life.
One’s Life must have purpose, even if it be a small one, even small purposes can liberate you from apathy; can give your life meaning. My mother had lost all purpose, even the small ones - she was not awake by the time I left for school and she would not be bathed by the time I came back.
I was not certain if she ate while I was away but her limp skin laid flaccid on her bones.
She did not respond when I spoke to her, but I would sit beside her bed and mumble irrelevant facts as she lay inert, in a coma of despondency.
One Sunday afternoon after returning from a school trip, I walked into my mother’s room and vomited on her carpet. A smell attacked my nostrils immediately, becoming more pungent with every breath. My eyes began to water, not because of the strong fumes, but from sorrow, because the frail thing laying bent on the bed was my mother and she smelled as if she was already dead.
The thought made me dry heave and another breath made me vomit. I washed my mouth and put a peg over my nose. I went back in to clean my spew and revive my mother. After cleaning the carpet in silence I opened the curtains and there came a moan from the figure on the bed. I heard a muffled voice saying, close, from under the sheets. I dragged the once-white linen off the bed and found her underneath, she looked 12 rather than 30, weathered, rutted and torn, like and old Rand note.
When I pulled her up she did not resist. She sat slumped on the toilet lid as I ran the water, I stared at her, accepting that I was not enough to give her life any purpose, I alone could not provide it with meaning or give it worth, I know now that nothing could.
It’s Father’s Day today mum, I said as I ran the soapy sponge over her back, I wish I knew where mine was, I mumbled, more to myself and an unseen live studio audience than to her.
So what? she asked impassively, I stopped moving and stared at her, dumbfounded, as my eyes filled with tears. She spoke to me! She spoke! I knew that I could ruin this opportunity by speaking frantically, so I waited silently for my body to regain its composure. When I was sure I could say it calmly I said, It hurts not knowing, it came out in a tremble, Everything hurts us in some way, she said staring vacantly at the tap.
That’s not true, I said too quickly, love doesn’t hurt, real love it doesn’t hurt us, I was not thinking before I spoke, I spoke impulsively, I just wanted her to respond. And she did, she imparted more than I had wanted, she began to tell me about my father.
After her third suicide attempt when she was fourteen, Granny Wylo sent her to another school, believing that she had been bullied. There she met my father, he had an untidy handsomeness, she said smiling for the first time that year, a faint smile, one I would not have seen if I wasn’t watching her so intently, anxious that she would decide to stop. The first time we spoke he came up to me with a cigarette behind his ear and asked me to run away with him. He was only asking me to bunk class with him, but what he said that day, it was so special to me, he was offering me an escape as if he knew I that needed it. She was squinting now, looking straight ahead, like she was watching her life replay itself in front of her. She told me about their momentus attachment to one other, how Granny Wylo called their relationship toxic, how she had moved in with my father after he matriculated and started working, she never completed her grade 11 year. I was obsessed, not with him, with how he made me feel, he made it go away. She paused for a while after she had said this, I realised that my father was only another tool, another crutch for her to lean on, to numb what was bound to come back. Then I told him I was having you, she said, smiling with her eyes, and he told me to leave, he didn’t want a child, she turned to me, it was the first time she had met my gaze, the first time, in a long time, that she acknowledged me, he didn’t want you.
She displaced her gaze with a blink and her head slowly turned back towards the tap. I felt like a small child who had received the gift they had nagged for, but didn’t like it when it came, realizing it was much better from afar. I opened the towel and wrapped her inside, ignoring the tears cascading down my face.
I never heard her voice again, the next week I came home to find her dead in the bath, she had opened her wrists with a Minora blade. She could have chosen to overdose on her many pills, something peaceful, but she chose agony, a painful death for a painful life.
Her life was what I mourned, I knew, and perhaps she knew too, that this was how she would leave, that there would come a time when she couldn’t bear the heavy sadness in her chest a moment longer, a time when she would be set free and at last escape it, that in the end death would be her only escape.
I do not resent my mother and I was not left bitter at her decision to kill herself. There was no other way out. Her fight could never have been won. I don’t know if mother loved me or if her long tussle with depression overwhelemed and incapacitated her to such an extent that she could not love me.
Had I been a source, even a small one, of happiness to her?
Today, looking into her coffin I thought she looked more at peace in death than she did in life, happier, and I am at peace because as with her life, her suffering has come to an end.