They called me from the hospital to come and get my mother. All I could manage was a quiet groan as the woman at the other end of the line impatiently shouted ‘Hello? Hello?’ into the phone. I immediately called my lawyer who, following the ancient tradition of his profession, danced around the issue at first, but eventually managed to tell me that I had to go for her since I wasn’t just her next of kin, but also her only relative. At first I was going to simply send my secretary, but I changed my mind in mid-sentence and told her instead to cancel all my appointments for that day. A new parking garage had been built in front of the hospital, but I still spent quite some time driving around looking for a parking space, and only went to the garage after I realized that I was simply postponing the inevitable.
How had they gotten my number? Could I sue them for invasion of privacy?
They hadn’t. My mother had my number written on a bit of paper, together with my name and a note that I was her son. Where she had got my number was something I would never find out, according to the doctor who I had a little chat with. My mother had been admitted suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. Her dementia was so severe that she had forgotten to eat and drink and was therefore unable to live on her own. After a few regular meals in the hospital, she had managed to regain some weight and they were now able to release her, but she needed care. The doctor left to arrange some other paperwork, while I called my secretary to urgently, and I stressed urgently, find a place in a home for the elderly anywhere in the country. Or outside of it.
When the doctor came back, he warned me that my mother had serious memory problems and that she would probably not recognize me.
They brought her in a wheelchair, she was asleep and her thin hair fell over her face as her head lolled forward. I was split: a part of me knew immediately that it was her, while another part had to work hard to recognize her. I remembered her as a tall, strong woman, masculine in both the way she dressed and the way she swore. She’d always end her orders with a flat blow to the table. During the decades I hadn’t seen her, she had imploded, withered like one of those wild oranges that hang unpicked on trees in Mediterranean towns in the middle of winter.
I signed the form, and a nurse moved away and let go of the wheelchair handles. I slowly started pushing it towards the exit, and I couldn’t believe what was happening-I thought I was fully in charge of my life, but then a single phone call changed everything.
While I was walking towards the car park, my secretary rang. She had found a home that could take my mother in two weeks, and by the sound of her voice she expected me to congratulate her. All I did was ask if it could happen sooner, but she said no, unless something unexpected occurred. Like somebody dying, she added after a short pause. She had, however, hired a nurse with excellent references who would look after my mother to ease my burden. I wanted to growl at her, but instead I just told her to try again and that money was no obstacle. And that all my personal contacts might come in helpful, too.
I opened the back door of my car and looked at the wheelchair. It probably folded down, but the question was would I be able to manage the technicalities. My mother was still dozing with her head forward. If I had a delivery van, I could easily put her in the back, wheelchair and all, but as it was I would have to lift her and place her in a car seat. I reached for her and stopped. A strange feeling: disgust, fear? I forced myself to touch her. Her skin was wrinkled, but warm. Had I expected something slimy and cold? I remembered the advice about lifting heavy objects and I squatted with my back straight, pushed my hands under the body in the wheelchair, counted to three and quickly lifted her, on the exhale. She was literally propelled into the air. She was lighter than the smallest Christmas gift I had ever given my son and daughter. The jerking motion woke her up, she looked around in confusion and her dull eyes focused on me. A shiver went down my spine.
“Are you taking me for a check-up at the hospital, young man?”
“Yes,” I finally said.
“Oh, thank you, that’s very kind of you,” she said as I positioned her in the seat, and then her head fell forward again.
* * *
I put her in my daughter’s bed. Both my children were at university abroad and wouldn’t be back before the mid-term holidays, while I had years ago exchanged my wife for shorter, external relationships, as I liked to have peace and quiet in my own home. My secretary let me know that the nurse was on her way, but with regard to the home, after all the effort, a mixture of promised favors and money, she had managed to shorten the waiting time to a week. And the home was in the center of town, she added, pleased with herself. She couldn’t have given me less reason for happiness, but I was careful not to spoil my image and abstained from commenting that she should have sent her abroad instead.
I looked towards the closed door. There was a witch in my apartment, how had that happened? Eight years of psychotherapy, all that expense. For the first three years, twice a week, that’s how urgent it was! Once a week after that, then once a fortnight. I had started calculating how much it was all costing, but then decided to stop. Once I happened to catch a horse race, and the owner of a very noble stallion had the same surname as my therapist. I watched the magnificent animal, the rippling of its muscles, and said to myself: my money was in at least one of those mighty legs. Followed by a sigh: all that luxury had been facilitated by my mother and those like her. All that expense! However, it did help. It was all clear now in my head. That I was an accident, that she had had a poor image of herself and wanted to be a tough guy, strong and decisive, and that she had never developed any maternal feelings towards me as she herself had never truly grown up. As a child, she had socialized with boys and became a proper tomboy, similar to the ones I had known in my generation. Most managed to get over it during adolescence, but not my mother. She grew up into the sort of woman who always competed with men and treated me like one of the guys she always had to prove her superiority to. I could do nothing right and she never praised me. Sometimes I had to stand in front of her, and she just shook her head as if to say nothing good would ever come of me, I was just a waste of space. She thought me stupid, thick, clumsy, ugly and worthless. After she had bought the things I needed when I started school, she arranged them all on the table and kept shaking her head while repeating: All that expense! All that expense!
Suddenly I remembered why I had spent so much time getting ready to transfer her into the car seat. It was because I had had to lift her when I was a child-to grab her around her thighs, flex my muscles, and try to lift her. What kind of a man are you if you can’t even lift a helpless woman? When I had grown enough to be able to do it she, of course, stopped provoking me. But by then I had already moved out and forgotten her. After a few relationships with women who despised and humiliated me, I realized that that wasn’t what I needed-relationships with the same kind of women-so I finally said to myself that I really didn’t want to carry on like that but obviously couldn’t help myself. I tried martial arts first, then psychotherapy, and now the source of all my troubles lay in the room next door.
She had come from a past I thought had long been settled and finished. It was a terrible feeling: to try and break with your past when it doesn’t want to break with you. It was a feeling of helplessness, child-like helplessness that totally overwhelms you and only allows you to moan pathetically about the injustices of this world.
Should I go and strangle some poor old soul in order to free a bed in a home that very moment?
I chose to call my secretary instead and asked her to book a hotel room for me.
I heard movement from the room. Maybe she would fall and break something, ending up in hospital again? My hope was unfounded. She slowly shuffled into the hall.
When she noticed me, she asked, “Have you been waiting long, young man?”
I sat there with my mouth open.
“I won’t be a moment, I’ll just pop to the toilet and then you can take me for that check-up.”
She set off in the wrong direction, so I got up and showed her the way.
Every time I touched her I was amazed at how tiny and fragile she’d become. I hoped that she would know what to do in the toilet, and luckily she did. When she shuffled along the hall again, I directed her back to my daughter’s room and went to pack my things.
* * *
With my bedside light on, I stared at the hotel room door. After a few hours, I put the light out, but continued staring. Occasionally, I would drift off, then I dreamed about a corridor and bedpans arranged in a line along it, I twitched, woke up in horror and stayed awake. I knew where the dream was taking me-the time I had spent in the hospital. My mother vehemently claimed that I had just gone there for a short check-up which would only take five minutes, but it didn’t seem like that to me. It wasn’t until the middle of my therapy, when I was remembering more and more details from the hospital, that I went to look at my medical record. Five weeks she had left me in hospital. Five weeks! She was in the middle of an exciting and, as always, catastrophic relationship; she was so busy with herself that she had simply not come to pick me up. They probably called her, but there were no mobile phones in those days. And now that same woman was sleeping in my apartment, while I lay awake in a hotel room. Paying for both at the same time! I was such an idiot.
What if I just pushed her out of the window? I had deliberately bought an apartment in the center of town, with a large roof terrace, for the view, without realizing that the height could come in handy in just such an instance.
Was that humor? Was that the only weapon with which I was able to at least slightly disarm my mother? To stop her in the middle of a movement, in the midst of action, by amusing her? So that she didn’t look at me as if I was a stinking pestilence but a court jester?
There she lay in a room in my apartment, half the town between us, and I wasn’t asleep, just like I had never been asleep when one of her relationships was coming to an end, fearing the moment when she would burst into my room completely beside herself and take it out on me because I happened to be a man. I kept telling myself that all that was in the past, that I was stronger than she, but I still couldn’t get to sleep.
It was getting light when I threw her over the fence. She fell slowly, she was so skinny, and I was worried that her flapping nightdress would act as a parachute. I leaped up drenched in sweat, comforting myself that she was falling fast enough, then became aware that I was lying in bed and didn’t know whether it had all been a dream or not. I nervously turned on the light and found that I was still in the hotel room.
I changed my damp pajama top and understood why I had moved out while I was still in high school. Because I was becoming increasingly afraid of not being able to contain my strength and aggression any longer, afraid that I would simply cut loose and kill her. Not consciously, but somewhere deep down I knew that doing that would fulfill her prophecy and I would end up in prison, with all other doors closed. I would never have become a reputable economist and businessman.
And now they had handed her to me, leaving her to my mercy, or lack thereof.
With her brain stuck at the moment of waiting for a driver to take her for a check-up at the hospital. Everything else was gone-was that possible? She was twenty-seven years older than me: would I vanish like that one day, too?
In the morning I immediately went to the pharmacy and bought a bagful of various supplements and alternative medicines.
* * *
I spoke to the nurse on the phone every day, although her reports were always the same. A pleasant old lady, who looks after herself, only forgets to drink and eat. She stops in the middle of the apartment, stares at an invisible spot, sometimes staying like that for an hour or more, and then asks when the driver will come. She is not aware of having a son. My secretary went there every day to get the things I needed, and soon she started giving me funny looks. It was clear that my conduct had led her to expect a dragon, but instead she found a nice old lady.
I tried to continue my work without interruption and realized that I usually used my apartment only for sleeping anyway, which I could easily do in a hotel, in spite of the expense. The subsequent nights were calmer than the first. Nevertheless, a few days later I paused on the pavement opposite my apartment and looked at the terrace. The parapet seemed somewhat low, my mother could easily fall over. I wiped my brow with my hand. Enough. She won’t fall over and I won’t throw her over. If I should have found myself in front of her during one of her outbursts as I was now, instead of my childhood self, she would have been flying through the air in a broad arc. But that was no longer possible, that woman had gone, all that was left was a dried-up old lady, wandering around my property. She must have noticed that the apartment was much roomier and the furniture more expensive, but couldn’t know that it had all been financed by her useless son. Her decaying brain had already erased me, I had never existed. Revenge is our anger at an unpredictable future. So we return to the past, wanting to replay that which we had been unable to prevent in time. I believe that murderers should be killed, even though I don’t announce this politically incorrect belief publicly, but how do you take revenge on your parents? When they have the power you don’t, and vice versa, so it can never happen that we meet them at the moment when power is equally divided on both sides and revenge would be a pleasure. Things are even worse if our parents’ brains have disintegrated and they no longer have the same body or spirit. Moreover, they now have a past in which we don’t even exist.
I stared at the sheen on the metal fence.
Not only was I unable to kill her, I couldn’t even talk to her anymore. And that hurt. That I couldn’t show her around my home, tell her about my savings accounts that my wife didn’t even know about, accidentally walk her past all the diplomas hanging on the walls in the hall, take her to the garage to see my car.
With all my strength I wished for a single moment when my mother could have her former mental faculties, even if it also meant her old body; I wished for a moment when she would notice me, recognize me, and I could see in her eyes that she was ashamed of everything she had said and done.
I put my briefcase in my other hand and left.
* * *
For the Tuesday 11 a.m. entry in my day planner, my secretary wrote “settling your mother into the home” and reserved a whole two hours for this. She added a red question mark, and I started gently tapping with a stylus on the display of my telephone. If not as an economist, I as a business man was so much in the public eye that I had to think about this seriously. Especially if I wanted to be more directly involved in politics, which was something I was considering. The fact that my mother was being taken to her pre-grave accommodation by my secretary and a nurse would not go down well in the media. I also felt it was a challenge-I could surely spend a couple of hours with her, I was big and strong and she was weak. Our roles had changed. The little stick fell apart in my hand. I hadn’t even noticed that I was squeezing it. I would have to count my breaths, do relaxation exercises. I had attended a couple of relaxation classes, for a while I was even paying a personal counselor, as gurus were now called. With the tip of my toothbrush handle I erased the question mark and confirmed the appointment.
* * *
The nurse was already waiting for me with my mother in her wheelchair in the garage beneath the building where I lived.
“Oh, young man,” said my mother, “are you taking me for a check-up at the hospital?”
Fuck the young man, I was fifty years old! She had never used that expression, where had she got it from now? Was the old bat blind as well?
“Yes, yes,” I nodded and put on a forced smile.
“Your mother is as bright as a button today,” said the nurse, “I haven’t seen her like this before.”
We put her in the car and again I had the feeling that I was moving a multi-layered bag of bones. The nurse had parked the wheelchair in front of the passenger door, and if I was doing all this for my public image, I couldn’t really move it to the back seat.
I drove off and couldn’t believe what I saw in the mirror. The nurse was waving.
* * *
I know the streets of this town very well, and I knew exactly where the home was, but I still checked the map and planned my route. My mother nodded off for a bit, only for a few minutes, and it was just then that I had to stop in front of a Do Not Enter sign. The street had been closed off, and the detour sign pointed to the left. I followed it and found myself in a part of town I didn’t know too well. I desperately racked my brain to remember a road that would bypass the building site, and I found it, but it was one-way. Not in my direction. That’s ridiculous, I said to myself, even though I didn’t feel like laughing. Sweat poured down my forehead, I wiped it with my jacket sleeve, felt drops running down my back. I threw a sideway glance at my mother.
She wasn’t asleep!
I drove, holding the steering wheel firmly, looked at my two strong hands, the graying hairs, I knew I was fifty years old, but I was still a child, in spite of my body. I was full of a desire to prove myself, to finally do something right and receive praise. So that for once in my life she would say, ‘Hey, well done!’ Or that she would at least nod with a smile. Had I ever seen her smile? She used to growl and bare her teeth as if she was going to bite me any moment.
Why hadn’t I let someone else do this? Fuck the media!
“Young man,” she said, “don’t get upset if you’re lost, just ask somebody and we’ll manage to find it!”
Good job that the driver of a Mercedes started blowing his horn long before we collided, and I was able to tear my eyes away from my mother in time to put my foot on the brake and turn into a parking space. The Mercedes driver flipped me off, while my mother just shook her head sadly.
“How impatient some people are. And if they have children, think how must they be with them.”
Luckily, I hadn’t driven off yet and was able to stare at her.
Was she fooling around? Making fun of me? Was that former woman from my memories really just behind the mask of a helpless old lady? Was her head OK? Or had she once more proven cleverer than me, only with cynicism this time, as she could no longer overcome me physically?
I tried to focus on my breathing, but my nostrils were working so hard that I expected to be able to see them in the middle of my visual field any moment now.
“Here’s the thing,” I hissed, “I graduated, got a Masters and a PhD. I’m one of the leading economists in the country, I lecture at leading universities around the world, I advise corporations, I write editorials in the leading financial newspaper, and one day, I’ll be a member of the Academy. I travel around the world, I have two successful children, I own five companies, women throw themselves at me, I speak five languages fluently and two to an adequate level, I’m a member of various national committees, international societies, the Rotary Club, charitable organizations, I’m a black belt in karate, I can run a marathon. . . “
I was running out of things.
“. . . ehm. . . I’ve enrolled with the Esperanto society and am a supporting member of the animal protection league. And I laid the second brick, immediately after the Mayor, for the new shelter for dogs!”
Now she was staring at me.
“Oh dear,” she sighed.
Ha, she’s staring! Just look at me, you bitch, I’ve become all that in spite of you!
She shook her head.
“And after all that you still work as a driver, taking old ladies to the hospital?”
I was opening my mouth like a fish out of water. After a while, an initially rather feeble ‘aaa’ started emerging, which then grew louder.
She put a hand on my knee and patted it.
“You deserve a better job, you know. Somebody must have put it into your head that you’re not capable of being more than a driver.”
Her smile was kind. I’d never seen anything like it. How I had wished, as a child, how I had imagined the corners of her mouth lifting, her eyes glowing like they were now. The violent man who, in the image of my mother, had tortured me throughout my childhood, had now disappeared, old age had worn him out, and there emerged a kind and tiny being, that had been hiding in that hard body, unable to break out.
“Mother,” I whispered.
She waved her index finger.
“I thought it had to be your mum.”
In an instant I became a child again. No, she didn’t hit me. I told myself-as instructed by my therapist to do at moments like that-that I was big, grown up, strong, and that it was all just memories, that it was over.
She added angrily, “Mothers who humiliate their children should be thrown in prison, I’m always saying that!”
She patted me again.
“I tell you what, take me for my check-up, then go and find a suitable job right away.”
She smiled at me encouragingly.
At first I didn’t know what was happening. It had been so long. . . First, a pressure in my chest, I thought of a heart attack, but then it moved higher, to my neck, no, it couldn’t be true-an asthma attack. I hadn’t had one for years, the worst episodes had ended after the first year of psychotherapy, then taking up jogging finally got rid of them completely. I grabbed my left pocket for my inhaler but, of course, it wasn’t there. It hadn’t been there for years.
I would die and she would watch me. She would see that I really wasn’t capable of living.
All I could do was wheeze and squeal, my eyes bulging out, I struggled for air, but unsuccessfully. I knew that I had to calm down, stop fighting it, let go, but I wasn’t able to, I couldn’t. But I would rather die wherever else, just not in front of her.
She hugged me.
I pressed myself to her and closed my eyes.
Her smell. First, old age, then my apartment, then the hospital and somewhere beneath it all, the smell of childhood.
The spasms decreased, I was slowly relaxing.
My mother was hugging me.
As I cried and my bronchi opened up, letting in more air so that I was able to cry more and more strongly. So that I was able to inhale her scent.
I moved away and looked at her through the tears.
“Mother, my mother!” I exhaled.
She looked at me with interest, nodded, sighed and said, “I hope, young man, that this has helped. Now let’s go back to what you’re here for. Can you take me to the hospital now?”
“But make sure you do find another job! Socializing with old people isn’t right for you.”
* * *
The manager herself was waiting for us in front of the home. As I was transferring her to the wheelchair, my mother asked me if I was the young man who . . . Yes, yes.
I had to have a look at the room and a chat with the manager, and when I had finally left my mother in the care of a nurse, she turned and looked over the back of her wheelchair, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. I started shivering, but when the words finally came, the shivering stopped.
Before they took her away, she said, “I’ll be done in five minutes,” and then asked: “Will you wait?”
“Yes,” I said and, knowing she would never see me again, and I was able to add, “Thank you.”