In her dream she is fourteen, running home from work on precarious little heels, down the paved street, as molten metal plip-plops around her, dotting the cement with perfect silver discs. Her mother lags six feet behind, following her footsteps, urging her to tread carefully. A V2 rocket launches overhead, triggering the timer in her mind. She waits in the signature silence for the rocket to find its mark, as it careens noiselessly through the night sky.
“One,” she shouts, “Two. Three. Four.”
“We have plenty of time, Lizzy, plenty of time.” Her mother is shouting, over and over, no panic, just a calm, reassuring scream.
It is the same dream as always. Lizzy reaches behind and grabs the older woman’s hand, pulls her into the shelter of their porch, watching as the house across the road explodes into a heap of searing, flaming rubble.
My mother, Lizzy, is ninety-seven, and I think of her as a survivor. Of life and time. Not long ago she had a mother, husband, sister and two daughters. Now she has me.
Twice a week I open the door to her house and look left, peering through the curtained darkness, along the hall and into her bedroom. I can see she is still sleeping. Under the formless camouflage of blankets, her shape has diminished and become frail, although her carers joke that she inhales each meal. They also say she is still stubborn, but in a cute way. She has passed the irritating cantankerousness of old age, and drifted without notice into the gentle humility of a disappearing mind.
There is not enough time in a day to see her more often, or so my private narrative goes, constructing a life so much more important, exciting, exasperatingly busy than it is.
“I’m so grateful you look after me, so glad,” she repeats. I accept her gratitude, even though guilt battles with honesty, and pulses through my brain at sleepless midnights.
In her dream, she is eighteen, with the blonde permed hair and arched brows of a movie star. Her husband George, the love of her life, is away at war, and she fears he will never come home. He writes sometimes, although there are no mailboxes in the Pacific, and home is his last thought as suicide planes fall burning out of the sky. The blackened casualties of war sleep beside him in rows on the smoking deck. She wakes sobbing, drenched in fear, and spots the picture of a bride and groom on her bedside. Reassured, she remembers the sixty years of devoted life with him, recalls they had plenty of time, and longs for more.
I try to wake her but she is in a deep sleep. I know the conversation if she wakes. I will ask her if she has eaten and she will say she’s not hungry. I will try to cajole her into the warming sunlight, pressure her to have tea and a chat. She will refuse. She will tell me she is happy to be curled up in her warm bed, that she is tired. She will finally say that I should expect this from someone ninety-seven years old. It’s her own truth and I cannot dispute it, so I let her sleep undisturbed.
In her dream she is twenty-four and very pregnant, so near childbirth that pains come, quick and unbearable. The midwife arrives a true professional; blue skirt, tie and cape, nylons and sturdy black brogues, a nurse’s crisp white cap on her head. Mabel is confined to a home birth, banished from the hospital with an acute case of chickenpox. She is infected, contagious, but her baby does not care about blisters and disease. She is ready to become.
“Should she push harder?” George asks.
“No. We have plenty of time,” the midwife says. It is a lie of consolation.
The baby’s head finally crowns, but the midwife’s face tells a grim story as towel after towel is soaked in red, and Lizzy fades.
She holds the greasy, squirming baby to her breast, and wakes with the sound of an ambulance siren still wailing in her mind.
I have come up with a plan. I will call on her at a random time and she will be whisked away to her favourite spot near the beach. A chair will be taken, rugs and pillows, and she will sit like an ancient empress, commanding the clouds across the cool Autumn sun. Trees will shade us in the ozone rich afternoon, and steaming tea in a thermos will be sipped from carefully transported china cups with matching saucers and silver spoons. Our picnic will be finished with fruit cake and a tiny, delicate stroll along the sand.
I knock as usual, key poised, ready to fend off her refusal. The plan requires myself and a Carer, remembering the stubborn streak, to get her up and out of bed. Washed and dressed, lipstick and eyebrows. She opens the door in pink striped flannel pajamas, hair askew, stares blankly into my face and asks the silent question: Who are you? She pivots on unsteady legs, each step is a danger of falling, but she stands firm, rebuffing my proposal as she perilously shuffles to her room and climbs back in bed.
“No,” she says, “I want to sleep.”
I am my mother’s daughter and I know that tone. I let her sleep and all my fanciful plans collapse. As I leave, the dim hope for a future picnic rings with mocking laughter.
In her dream, she is ninety-three. People sit around her, people she knows but with faces fading fast. They are hushed and without spirit, speaking with the reverence of dying and death, telling her that her older daughter, Jane, is struck down with cancer. Inoperable, impossible, fatal. An unearthly wail leaves Lizzy’s throat and punches out into the room. It is a sound no-one should ever be forced to make, or hear. A parent mourning a child. The ultimate betrayal of life.
Later in the dream, in roles reversed, the dying daughter embraces her mother until she calms, tells her it will be alright.
“We have plenty of time.” Jane says.
Comforted, Lizzy wakes, as her daughter’s shadow bends to kiss her on the cheek, and says goodbye.
I try to organise a lunch for mum but again I fail. Fighting with the ancient is so unseemly. Just let her be. She’s happy in her home, her bed, regardless of what you want, of what you think is good for her.
Other people’s words fly round my head like wild birds in an aviary, flapping and squawking, until I tame them.
Today I will just sit beside her bed and hold her hand and let her sleep. And if she wakes, I’ll make a cup of tea, and tell her about the world outside. And how much I love her. Until she goes back into sleep.
And so I’m here remembering the mother that created us; children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She is not elderly and frail, with unkempt white hair and paper thin skin. Her fingers don’t bend like misshapen twigs. They work and create, hug, and clap with joy. That woman is still there, beneath the most precarious veneer of life, and it is a celebration just being with her.
In her dream, she is ninety-seven and the remaining daughter visits each day. They smile and laugh and talk about the weather, the kids, the little things of normal life. Her daughter is busy, but stays a little longer, until she sees the time and stands to rush away.
My mother urges the woman to stay longer, to sit.
“We have plenty of time.” She says.
“Yes.” I smile, “plenty.”