by: Altea Solari , October 5, 2020
by: Altea Solari , October 5, 2020
Through a series of domestic portraits, Altea Solari describes her relationship with her mother during their final months together. These vignettes, played out between home and temporary care-oriented accommodation, and mediated by the constant presence of daytime television, explore how the most mundane familial moments and settings can also be the most poignant and precious.
In the kitchen, we sit in the way we have rehearsed. She has won her rights to the armchair, so the rest of us take some chairs from around the table. We are never late. If someone calls or wants to visit, we kindly ask them to come at another time.
The game show starts and we are all transfixed. With unspoken permission, a bottle of wine and a bag of chips are opened, the reward for a long day of studying or working. She has stopped drinking, but she does love her chips. It is the only junk food she used to consume.
We are all hooked on the final game, trying to guess the mystery word. The host drops clue words one at a time, along with trivial jokes and references that everyone understands. She insists upon how much better the other host was. He died one month ago. It was the first time a celebrity’s death made me cry.
Whoever guesses correctly is cheered by the whole family and feels like the smartest person in the world. We speculate about who should go to the television studio and win us so much money that we never have to worry about anything again. My father guesses most of the words but she refuses to accept it. He is just too awkward to be on television, so my brother is made to be the game show guest. He has it all: the face, the voice, the cheeky sense of humour that would make every mother wish he was their son. It’s a pity that he would fail at even the most basic general knowledge questions. She glances at me; we know it would have to be one of us.
We turn to my father: ‘It’s your turn to make dinner, right?’
This apartment is smaller than the previous one. But the kitchen is spacious, with a sofa and a table facing the window. The furniture is neutral, though the room is plagued with pictures of animals wearing clothes; generic, black and white city skylines; an unbearably detailed portrayal of two children paddling in a canoe, bathed in moonlight. After several AirBnB rentals, these mass-produced images are no longer a surprise. In the double bedroom there are soft pillows.
When we return from the hospital she sits on the couch. I sit at the table, open my books and pretend to study. The medical terms on the pages are sharp, like threats.
I used to lead an uneventful life; I could read about illness and despair and automatically distance myself. Now it is tangible. I remember what Joan Didion wrote about her MS diagnosis. The problem isn’t just the bad news itself: it’s the opening up of possibilities. If something so awful can happen to you or your loved ones, anything can.
She turns on the television. We have a fixed schedule. At 11.30, a high-school teacher helps the police solve mysteries, usually thefts or missing person cases. The culprit is always found. At 14.30, a short lady materialises at a time of necessity, and acts as an angel-therapist. I mock her obsession with low-quality TV, but I secretly enjoy half an hour in a world where everything is circular and comes to a conclusion.
Our rhythm is perfectly in sync now that it is just the two of us. We tell each other how relaxed we feel without the rest of the family around, just as we would have been on all the weekend trips we should have taken on our own. In my sleep, I am tormented by nightmares of medical emergencies. I imagine she is, too. Each morning we wake up, get dressed, eat our muesli, put on a big smile, and go back to the hospital.
There is an extra bed, a wide table, and a large window that overlooks a park. They say green is soothing. I try to scroll through Instagram but there is no signal. Every nurse has a different theory about which corner has a better connection. I keep walking up and down the room. Nothing works. I wonder if in five years it will even be possible to run a place where one goes to die without a Wi-Fi connection, and start walking in circles again.
There are about twelve rooms in the hospice. Every single patient is doomed, and the visitors are all in the same mood. The hospital was infuriating. People were recovering, people older than her.
She doesn’t interact with us much at this point. She sometimes lets me know she’s angry. I cry for half an hour before returning to my usual numbness. I never manage to study or read, but the small TV that we brought from home is on all day. There are reality show marathons, as it is summertime now. I watch an unnecessarily cheerful man eat in four different restaurants and judge which one is the best. Does she hate watching the consumption of fancy food while she can only eat soup and ice-cream?
I love feeding her. For a short while, I don’t feel like a burden. Otherwise, I count the minutes until another relative can come for their shift and I can go. When I go, wherever I go, it’s not nearly as good as I imagined.
Two months pass before I am forced to be back at our family’s house. I had almost forgotten about what it means to live here with the absence. With nothing to fill it but the shock of finding things she owned, or little notes she wrote. Nobody has even considered moving anything, and I will not be the one to do it. The clutter hugs and chokes me.
She comes back in dreams, far more than she used to. Sometimes she is angry at us; sometimes she just wants to take me for a ride in the car. When she is happy, she doesn’t look sick. She wears her light pink summer nightgown.
If I come across a game show on TV, I change the channel.
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