Do you remember, Mum, what I said to you after your mother’s funeral? I said “You’re free now. It’s going to be OK. You’re free.”
It was such a long time ago. I remember stroking your hair, stiff with styling spray. I remember the tilt of your head, a damp hopefulness in your eyes. And a vague discomfort at offering comfort to you. Inauthentic is how I felt. Partly because, by then, I had begun the process of unpicking myself from you, stitch by tight stitch. Partly because the words felt threadbare. I knew that your freedom could not be so casually gifted.
In adulthood, your mind remained caged by a childhood that required you to become nothing more than your outline in order to continue living. You were chastised, screeched at, berated, neglected, controlled, coerced, blamed, mocked, and punished with scalding silence. Not permitted to disappoint, denied the means to succeed. I try to imagine what it was like to be a young and frightened you, in that bare house with the blank eye of a porthole window halfway up the stairs.
Even today, I feel a deadening in myself when I see a round window. There is a ghost behind each one.
That house was sticky with a silence so greedy that it drained the colours of their pigment. Your mother’s shadow inhabited every corner, at all hours of day and night, and the walls were damp from the chill of her indifference. You told me once that she took your father’s breath away. “The most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on.”
(With the wide-eyed adoration of a pilgrim, you loved your father, a man whose flesh had been chewed off by your mother, then by the prisoner of war camps, leaving you with only bones to covet.)
Your mother’s startling white-blonde beauty was more brittle than the shell of an egg, its innards turned ferrous. Oh, she was breathtaking alright: in her arrogance, her temper, her premeditated viciousness. Never have I met anyone so bloodless, a bleached flint of a woman. Even the air around her was anaemic.
You, Mum, were properly beautiful, with your hair the shade of turning leaves, your eyes the colour of a sky forever on the brink of winter. You were unpredictable, sometimes unkind. Yet (I have always made sure that people know this, because it really matters, Mum): I understood always that you loved me. On the good days, there was no refuge like the contours of you, no sound as soothing as your voice.
Here’s another thing people should know: you were clever, so clever. You knew so much. You could have been anything you wanted.
To dwell on what you might have become is uncomfortable. I can feel something pulling beneath my skin, a tightening, a constriction. I have to cut off those thoughts. Discard them. Slam the lid on them. I’ve had to do that, I’ve had to sever myself from you, because your sorrow, your regret, your white-knuckle grasping at the past, as if scraping away at it would ever erase it, all of that deposited its gritty film on me. Your scratching broke my flesh, too, and the grit, and the sharp edges, settled in my softness and festered there.
You couldn’t help that, Mum. I accept that now.
And anyway, how could it have been otherwise? I carry you beneath my flesh, in my veins. You are in the texture of my hair, in the crooked outline of my mouth, in the curve of my hipbone. Our likeness is sometimes exclaimed upon but can be distilled into a smile. We have the same smile. As a child, my smile was tethered to yours as a kite to its handler. (You have a beautiful smile, Mum.)
Your pain became mine. That is the way of birth and life, of loving and hurting. I accept that now, too.
God it’s been messy at times, Mum, hasn’t it? But you did it, Mum. You lived and you loved and you raged and you fragmented and you cried and you gave up and then you carried on. Always, you were so afraid. Always, you tried. Goodness, Mum, how you tried.
Do you remember, Mum, what you once wrote? “How I wish that I could like that river be, flowing so wild and free?”
This is what I want to say to you now: Mum, you were wild, you were free, just not in the way that you wanted. Your freedom, your river, was the never giving up. That freedom flowed into me, I see that now. Freedom does not mean being free of what hurts you, it means flowing around it, over it, through it.
Your river pummeled its banks. It was spectacular. Your torrent swept us both through! Intact, almost.
Now, I watch you, watching me, sitting quietly in your chair, your lap blanketed, your eyes expectant. Two tarnished pennies in a wishing pool. I want to reach in and haul you back out, Mum…
Your stillness is disconcerting.