Written by Mel O’Connor.
My mother paced fast in exasperated fear, pressing rolled-up bathroom towels to the foot of the lounge-room door. When I clench my eyes closed, sometimes it’s like I’m back there. I can see her. I can smell that highway road-kill in the distance.
They’d been D-sized alkaline batteries from the back of the Space Invaders console—a plastic, yellow handheld with black rubber over worn thumbsticks. The batteries were in my mouth for no reason other than impulse, a copper taste.
Then there were hands beneath my armpits and they lifted me up until I was flying. The burgundy carpet rushed by underfoot, then the kitchen tiles with their grout patterns and dirt, straight to the stainless-steel sink. Mum was crying. Challenges made motherhood a gauntlet and she lacked confidence the same way she lacked patience.
‘Jesus, Meesh, just spit it out!’
Needy and neurotic. Stupid. The batteries were out from behind my teeth, but the feeling wasn’t. It was like a house fire and my jaw was the home, the heat building up inside my skull, pushing water out of my eyes like smoke from windows. Mum made me gargle soap-water to wash the acid from my red mouth as it seared through both saliva and tongue.
I was crying even before the soap. I was crying because Mum was crying.
I look at her now, tucked into the hospital sheets, a matriarch conducting her kingdom from Death’s hand. The Reaper’s clammy fingers clasp around her like prison bars. There is little left of that fierce amateur for me to recognise. Sickness and age have whittled her away, her fretful kindness now disintegrated by this cardboard mood. Her warped sense of humour is untouchable beneath the wires. They run in and out of her veins like tram-lines—tubes, plugs, plastic bags.
I take a breath to speak, but let it go. I try again. ‘Mum, do you remember when I was a kid, and Dad was at work?’
Her reply is instantaneous. ‘The talcum powder?’
Storm clouds weigh down her weary eyes as her glasses slip. Her heart keeps its slow rhythm and the monitors are like metronomes, breathing it back to me in compound metre.
There’s a pillow behind her back. Each nod of her head pushes the spectacles away from her eyes. Her lids close and the flutter of her eyelashes forces the salt out from the corners, the tracks splitting through her powder foundation. Someone must have helped her apply it. I remember her powders and how cracked they were. The empty bed of the family reservoir is cracked now too, but I don’t mention that.
Every breath is involuntary.
That’s when the realisation rips my throat out through my mouth. It crushes my soul and it sits like a barbell in my nauseous stomach.
I promise you this: there are mistakes I have made that I can never take back, but I would confess them all for her. I have never believed in God but I would pray until my knees bled if I could cure her cancer—
or maybe I’d do it not for my mother, but for yours.
I’ve had my childhood dragged out of me by the despairs of reality. There is no reason that you should ever have to have this thought cut through your mind:
My mum is going to die.
Dad’s long gone. They lowered him into the ground the day the drought broke. I watched as the pine wood was lowered down while my youngest niece sang Amazing Grace. She was wearing a silver mini-skirt. She’d always been prettier than me. It was my first funeral.
‘Bullshit,’ I’d hiss at myself, hiding beneath my mother’s arm.
Mum thought I was talking about my niece’s falsetto when really, I’d been talking about myself.
Reprimand hardened her wet voice. She was wearing a two-dollar charcoal dress.
It wasn’t because of my niece that I felt guilty, or even because I disappointed Mum. It was because I had no waterworks to give back to my favourite man.
I used to be able to cry. There were tears in the mornings, forced out by biting separation anxiety.
Outside a rooster crows and my agitation spikes. I am on my bed—not in it, but on it—still in my pyjamas, still recovering from chickenpox. The orange sunlight casts through my window, lighting up the dust drifting in the air. Dad left while I was still asleep.
Mum’s hair is long, shining, and reaches down to her elbows. This is before she’d started cutting it to cheekbone length; when her eyewear was sunglasses, not bifocals. She pitches up to tip-toe in her cowboy boots as she reaches for me with her lineless hands. I jerk backward, shying away as I cry and scream.
‘He’s at work,’ she pleads.
‘No, he’s not,’ I shout back at her. ‘He’s not, Mum. He’s had an accident—’
‘He hasn’t, love—’
‘Yes, he has, Mum!’
Through the film of my eyes I see her expression redefine—her mouth closes, her eyes soften as they jump from me to the window—and it’s as good as any mirror. I am wild. I am inconsolable. Somewhere inside my chest I feel that cold dread, even now, so many years before they will both die. I am too young to listen, but I am old enough to understand this feeling.
‘You have to call an ambulance! He’s had an accident.’ Hysteria fractures my voice. The lingering mucous in my lungs tries to choke me but I cough the words up: ‘I want Dad. Mum. Mum. I want Dad.’
‘He’ll be home tonight, Meesh.’
‘No. Now. I want Dad.’
The scene slips as I draw a quick breath. I haven’t gone anywhere—I’m still by her bedside—though a part of me wants not to be.
‘Where did you go?’ Mum asks quietly. She’s nodding off.
I can’t answer. My mind reeled backwards and took me to a morning where I cried for no reason. Maybe that’s where my grief went. Maybe my childhood hysteria drew all my heartache into the past. I imagine that: each shard of despair is airborne, racing towards the magnet of my childhood.
Mum imagines something else. She’s thinking of lacing the verandah with white powder so she can see where the bastard rattler went. She’s thinking of calling the shire council in a blind panic from the landline. She’s thinking of venom in the summertime, too close to her only child.
She’s thinking of bathroom towels rolled up tight against the base of door.
And then she isn’t thinking at all.