Christmas Eve. Mum curled tight and tiny in her hospital bed, like she’d already passed into the rictus phase. Wires and leads trailed from her arms and chest to monitors stacked on her beside locker which bleeped and blipped a wild flamenco underscored by the pedestrian rhythm of saline which drip, drip dripped doggedly into the back of her sinewy hand. A paper garland billowed across the top of her bed unit and someone thoughtful, or thoughtless, had strung up a twist of fake mistletoe on the oxygen outlet above her head. A Christmas card from the West Auckland Hospitals Multi-Faith Team offered anodyne best wishes for the holiday season and ominous assurances that we watch over you.
How ludicrous and yellow and small she looked, my mother, the woman who everyday went out and shouted down life and who backed the world into a corner when it got too unruly. I ran my hand over her sticky brow. This was the woman who every year took on the hypocrisy and sordidness of the commercial Yuletide season; the woman who every year wrestled it into submission as she devised another batshit crazy way for the two of us to celebrate the day she considered uncelebrateable – her word, not the Oxford dictionary’s.
She called it Xmas. ‘Like Ex-Mass, Lexie, don’t you see? We don’t do the church thingy.’ Each year she devised a theme – ethnic, historical or book inspired. We would improvise costumes and decorations, like putting on a play. She scoured the markets and out of the way shops in the ethnic communities for foods that had not yet become fashionable. The Blue Hawaii debacle the year before I tried to rebel had been easy if wildly inaccurate but then when were any of her themes authentic? In the south Auckland markets, she’d bought us big flowered muumuus – blue for me, green for her, plastic frangipani leis and green flax head wreaths which scratched and had me thinking Christ got off easy with a simple crown of thorns.
Mum’s idea of Hawaiian food was trawled from the whole Pacific and was truly multicultural and truly awful. Pork burgers topped with tinned pineapple rings, chicken in a sticky sweet mango sauce and most disgusting of all, something she called e’ia ota. The fancy name didn’t hide the raw tuna which had been brined before being smothered in coconut and lime. Desert was crystallised mango and more pineapple served with condensed milk. From plastic coconut shells decorated with pink parasols made of pleated paper and toothpicks, we drank mahana cocktails – she had the real McCoy with vodka and Cointreau mixed in tinned pineapple juice and ice, I got the juice and ice. Even she wasn’t so irresponsible as to ply a nine-year-old with booze. By rights we should both have ended up with diabetes after that Christmas dinner. Days later, my teeth still ached.
She paid Kainano Safuiane, our Samoan paper boy (and I’d always thought his name was Patrick), and his two brothers to come over with a ukulele and guitar to sing a couple of hokey songs after they’d finished their big family lunch.
‘What didja have to eat? Suckling pig,’ I asked him.
‘Na. Mum likes lamb,’ he said.
I was ten years old before I dared complain, my complaints fuelled by a) jealousy after hearing from the kids at school what their Christmas Days were like, b) wanting fun presents and chocolate instead of gold-tooled Readers Digests classics or Time-Life series on Empires in History or Great Cities of the World bought from the Rajit Singh’s Used Book Emporium in Parnell, and c) fear of a repetition of the previous year’s disgusting Ex-mass Day menu. So, when I whined Why can’t we have a traditional Christmas, Mum? she kicked off her kitten mules with their fake-fur pompoms, tucked her gorgeous legs under her bum and lit one of those small cigarillos she’d seen some German actress smoke in one of the foreign-language films with subtitles she like to go and see.
A couple of puffs in she said, ‘Explain traditional.’
‘I dunno. Lamb and pavlova, I guess.’ I shrugged. ‘Maybe Christmas stockings, Santa Claus…’ my dreams gathering speed and hope, ‘…and lotsa, lotsa presents.’
‘It’s all bullshit, Lexie,’ she said. ‘Religious hocus pocus and outright theft and deceit by the commercial dictatorship. Tradition for Christ sake. As you rightly mumble, here in New Zealand it’s roast lamb on the beach. Turkey if you’re from the US. Carp if you’re a Czech. Goose if you’re German. Forget pavlova, what about Christmas cake or Stollen or gingerbread or dried fruits? And when exactly does this mythical day fall? Is it Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or the 6th January if you’re a Copt?’ She pulled me close and smiled. ‘Listen up babe, we laugh in the face of their duplicity and this year Alexandra Gloria Delaney, we will go Japanese.’
The last of my overdraft took me by Malaysia Air from London via Seoul home to New Zealand. The home I abandoned years ago because it just got all a bit too much trying to climb up to live with Mum on her high moral ground. This journey back was the beginning of officially being alone in this world. I wasn’t pleased. I knew how alone felt. It felt as cold as the other half of my hopeful double bed in the middle of the night with no solid back or hairy calves to warm my feet. It was the over-rated luxury of being able to decide what you would have for supper or where you would go on your summer holiday. Or how the hell you would spend Christmas. When you’re free to choose, nothing seems desirable. But somewhere in the background of those years, I did at least have “family” albeit a family of one. One eccentric, often crazy, lesbian mother who taught Women’s Studies at the University with a ferociousness few students survived unscathed even as they loved her madly despite the scars she tattooed into their psyche. My one and only family. Literally. And, after years of going nowhere dates or going all the way dinners, my loneliness smelt as stale and dry as the reheated turkey leaking through the vents, into the corridors of St Agatha’s, Mum’s assisted living residential home. I hadn’t known she’d been so debilitated by her rheumatoid arthritis, nor that a liver malignancy had been poked, prodded, cut out several times and generally gassed, zapped and poisoned to no avail. That’s how long since we’d communicated beyond birthday and Christmas cards. Now I was here, in St Agatha’s assisted dying residential home.
I followed Sandy, not a nurse, they seemed in short supply, but maybe it was the season or maybe it was that St Agatha wasn’t a very good patron saint, neither of nurses nor cancer patients, in fact she appeared to be failing spectacularly on both fronts. Though God knew why the nurses needed protection, because from the smell of boiled Brussel sprouts and overcooked bird it seemed like it was the patients who needed protection. Protection at the very least from an institutional Christmas. Hah! We never did try that one.
Sandy, whatever she was – orderly, auxiliary, health care assistant, professional bum washer – led me past a pint-sized Christmas tree with fake snow and mauve baubles by the nurses’ station which looked like it had already lost the be-of-good-cheer fight.
‘The Sally Army children’s choir will be here soon,’ she promised over her shoulder. ‘We can wheel your mum’s bed out to hear them if you think it might help.’
‘What, as in help bring her back from the brink of death?’ I said as we waited for the lift.
‘No need to be sarky. I know this isn’t easy for you, it isn’t easy for any of us. Some of us quite liked Mrs Delaney, even though she had her moments.’ Sandra tugged at her too tight uniform and stepped into the lift, leaned back against the floor to ceiling mirror and watched me haul in suitcase, cabin bag, laptop, a bunch of flowers that smelt of cheap potpourri and a plastic bag of B-, C-, or possibly D-list celebrity gossip magazines I’d stupidly thought would give Mum a laugh; despite the phone call three nights ago from Mother Juliana, the head nun in this Catholic facility (oh, Mum what were you thinking?) who made it very clear there wasn’t much laughing going on. Sandra was not in the Christmas mood to help beyond reaching out to press the door open button just in time to prevent me losing an arm.
‘And it’s Ms Delaney,’ I said to her rolling arse as she strode out of the elevator and set off down another endless stretch of corridor.
Mum lay in her bed, still and empty like a marionette with her wires cut, no longer singing, no longer dancing, just crumpled under hospital whites, starched and stained. After a few hours, I put the magazines in the day room; let someone else do the questionnaires and have a laugh. We used to do them on Sunday mornings while other people went to church. You know the sort: Are you a giver or a taker? Are you – insert any big star, heart throb actor’s name here – so and so’s perfect woman? That would be a no. Is he a love rat? What sort of lover are you? What is your ideal job? Are you a wild creative spirit or a sexy, blue-stockinged academic? And if we were lucky, something scandalous like Ten red-hot ways to keep your lover – and Mum would approve that the press had gone gender neutral and didn’t make assumptions about whom, she’d say with a twinkle, we love.
The flowers, a riot of hot gerberas with a couple of pink roses thrown in to justify the thirty dollars went in the bin. I should have remembered – Mum hated cut flowers. By way of atonement, I took the half-eaten bar of Cadbury’s Chocolate Caramel from my bag, my favourite not hers, she preferred Turkish Delight – well she would – but this was the best I could do, and smeared a little chocolate over her spittle spotted lips and on her tongue, which felt like a mummified banana under my fingertips. The chocolate and caramel disguised the sour smell of death riding her shallow breaths.
‘Why didn’t you call me sooner?’ I asked the Unit sister when she popped in. ‘We could have had more time together.’
‘She wouldn’t let us. Your Mum was adamant. She didn’t want to disrupt your life. She finally agreed when it was clear she wasn’t going to recover. I’m sorry, she’s failing faster than we thought.’
What I’d meant was why couldn’t I have more time. One last crazy Christmas to make up for these past years of neglect. Where the world has engaged in mindfulness, I had engaged in mindlessness. I hadn’t been home for nine years. Hiding out as far away as I could so that Mum wouldn’t have had the chance to say I told you, Lexie, men are a disaster. Miserable Christmases, alone in London, pretending on the phone I was having fun, that I had so many invites I couldn’t keep up. ‘Friends, Mum,’ I lied. There had been a Carl, a Frank and one horrible year a twat called Kit whose parents I told her had invited me down to their country cottage. Neither boyfriends nor their parents had ever invited me. ‘Work dos. Parties. I can’t say no.’
‘Oh well,’ she’d sigh. ‘I’ll do a monastic Christmas this year, gruel and mead I think and a CD of Gregorian chants.’ It had been a Bear Grylls-type survivor in the wilds the year before (I hate to think what dishes she came up for that – hope the hedgehogs in her garden survived). I don’t know what she did the first years I was gone.
I sat and listened to her breathing through the night. Staff bustled in and out wearing reindeer antlers, their red-nosed Rudolph earrings flashing like tiny beacons in the subdued lighting. Some wore tinsel in their hair and everyone smiled, but not too hard. Smiles that said so sorry, tough luck rather than Merry Christmas. The night Supervisor brought in a tin of Quality Street, shook them in my direction and said, ‘Take a handful. Keep you going.’ He disconnected the monitoring, there’s no point he said, but we’ll leave the saline, so she doesn’t get too dry. A blessed quiet filled the room but for the soughing of Mum’s lungs.
Later someone brought me in a tray and I was almost afraid to look under the plastic dome and scrunched tin foil. I was right to be afraid. Hospital issue Christmas dinner was not a thing to be prized. At least Mum would be spared that small thing.
I settled for cooling her mouth from time to time with honey and lemon lollipop swabs from a small fridge in the room after being told off about the chocolate. Somewhere around midnight the rhythm of her breathing changed. Between each breath, the pause got longer. I held my breath with hers and gasped with relief when she exhaled. Then she stopped breathing. Panicked, I pressed the nurse-call button. Before the no nonsense Sri Lankan staff nurse arrived, Mum gasped and began to breathe again.
‘Cheyne-Stoke breathing,’ Neela said. She laid a cool hand against my neck. ‘I’m sorry dear, but it is the beginning of the end. Call me if you need anything.’
‘Mum, please, please. I’m sorry.’ I barely heard my own whisper. It was too late for sorries, regrets or truths. I kicked off my shoes and climbed on her bed. As gently as I could I cradled her in my arms and felt the intermittent rise and fall of her sparrow-like chest against my breast. I wanted her to feel my heart. To know it was strong. That I would be okay. Because at that moment, in that night, I knew I would be.
‘You know, if this is your idea of celebrating the uncelebrateable, it’s a humdinger. You’ve excelled yourself this time. Food’s crap, but no change there. Remember our Japanese stroke Chinese Christmas? That was such a relief after the Pacific debacle.’ I heard a giggle lift in my throat. ‘Remember the Kimonos?’ I’d worn my blue terry towelling dressing gown with her plum-coloured Hermes scarf tied around my waist, she swanned about in her black satin robe with a fierce dragon embroidered in reds and oranges on the back – a parting gift of some lover years before. From the two-dollar shop on Karangahape Road, Mum found a cheap Chinese looking vase and filled it with “silk” cherry blossoms the colour of pink marshmallow. She threw our sofa cushions on the carpet and we ate our dinner off a low coffee table under lit candles in the green, yellow and red Chinese lanterns, concertinaed and painted with someone’s idea of Chinese writing, thumb-tacked to the ceiling. I spent the whole meal wondering if everything would go up in flames. She’d found a recipe for chicken teriyaki and duck breast in plum sauce which were marginally better than the previous year’s dishes.
‘I didn’t have time to prepare sushi,’ she said with a straight face followed up with a wink.
The chopsticks were a challenge, and when the same piece of chicken fell three times into her lap, we collapsed with laughter. She threw the sticks down.
‘Dammit. You have to be brought up with these things. We don’t stand a chance.’ She scrambled to her feet and did a Mikado maid shuffle out to the kitchen for knives and forks.
We used glass sundae dishes for our drinks, poor man’s champagne glasses she called them – Saki for her, flat Coke for me, and later some foul jasmine tea while we watched White Christmas on the television, and crooned along with Bing and Rosemary.
She gave me a mah-jong set, and I gave her a Hello Kitty cushion I’d found in the op shop.
When a couple of night staff came in to turn her, I surrendered her hand and went to the toilet. Back in the room I perched on her bed, slipped my hand under the sheets and rubbed her legs the way she used to beg me to do for her. In the low glow of the night light she opened her eyes and turned her head towards me.
‘Mum?’ Her eyes closed. I rubbed my cheek against her hair, kissed her clammy forehead. ‘Remember the Ancient Rome Christmas?’ I relived them all with her through the night; the Russian and blood red borscht, the Sound of Music extravaganza with her and me singing, badly, all the parts, the spoof Enid Blyton Five Go Camping Christmas where we slept out in the school fields behind the house in pup tents and had lashings of lemonade and cream with our tinned fruit. During the remembering of the Indian Christmas when we wore white sheets, blackened our privileged white skin with shoe polish, her breathing didn’t start up again. But this time I wasn’t panicked. I finished the memory.
‘Oh God Mum. The curry. When you mixed tablespoons with teaspoons. You damn near blew our brains out.’
Only then did I press the call-button.
Shannon Savvas, a New Zealand writer, divides her life and heart between New Zealand, England and Cyprus. She has been published online (2015, 2017, 2018) and made it to three print anthologies (2017) with a fourth due in 2018. New Year’s Eve 2017, she learnt she’d won the Autumn 2017 Reflex Flash Fiction competition, which gave her delight and encouragement in equal measure. She’s been told to never mention her dogs or cat or husband in bio blurbs..
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