There are those who know me and those who don’t, but everyone knows I never got on well with my mother. We are very similar in temperament but she projected on me all the anger she felt towards my father who used to beat her senseless. Who knows why… I was a hereditary curse. Our relationship was a web of misconceptions: we were mutually convinced we didn’t love each other.
The last time I saw her was during the summer of 2011. I met someone special and he asked me to marry him. I was 43 and deliriously happy; I wanted to be properly married the third time around, so we went to visit S.’s mother and mine too, to ask for their blessing. S.’s mother was overjoyed but mine decided to make sure my future husband would not see me through rose-tinted glasses. I don’t want to hurt myself again by remembering all her accusations but as it goes it all ended in an outrageous fight and my mother pulled a kitchen knife on me and told me to get out of her house. If my brother hadn’t taken that knife out of her hand… who knows.
I never went back home again. I knew about her anyway, my brother told me all I needed to know more or less regularly. When she moved to a care home I talked to the director. I offered to cover her expenses but they didn’t accept it, the director told me my mother’s pension was more than enough to cover the costs. She was in hospital before, when I talked to her once (I mean before she moved into the care home). I wanted to visit her but then she asked me to take her home in the weekend and help her make twenty-nine kilograms of pickles and I told her I just didn’t want to do that. She couldn’t accept that I had a job to do and that after four hours of travelling I didn’t want to spend my time making pickles, I just wanted to talk to her, so she hung up on me.
Last year or the year before my mobile rang on the 9th of September, I saw “Mother” on the screen and picked up really fast; it was my birthday but what a disappointment, the call button on her phone must have been pressed by accident because she didn’t say anything, all I heard was her hoarse voice in the distance, shouting at someone. I held the line for a while but she didn’t speak, she didn’t answer, so I hung up.
This week I had a call, something happened, she was taken to hospital and there she had a stroke. I took some time before I travelled as I had just returned from a trip abroad, my leg was injured and my house was in total chaos.
I took a train to Veszprém on Thursday and went to the hospital with my brother and my sister-in-law.
The last time I saw my mother she was in intensive care and I barely recognised her. All my pain, my anger, my resentment vanished in a single second. She lay on the bed next to the window. Her face was disfigured, only those two stern lines remained unchanged. Her eyes were sticky. She struggled to breathe through an oxygen mask, her veins were shot, there was a tube up her nose with some yellowish fluid, her hands, her feet and her neck were all puffy because of the injections and water retention. The drip was attached to her foot. Her left heel boosted a blister-like, greyish patch half the size of a hand… the first bedsore ulcer. She was surrounded by a strange, sickly sweet smell despite having been cleaned, her skin was scaly and peeling on her upper arm, there were traces of talcum powder around her, a large syringe was placed on the bedside cabinet… perhaps they had been trying to feed her through tubes. My brother is a paramedic, he squeezed the mattress. “Anti-decubitus mattress”, he said. “Very good.” A simple Ringer’s lactate solution was administered by IV, nothing else. There are no patient notes on the bed these days, all the documentation is kept with the doctor, lots of laws govern confidential information exchange and the nurses just mumble that they are not allowed to say anything. Mother was lying on her side (the nurse told me they regularly rolled her from one side to the other to avoid bedsores). It was hot outside, really hot, and her body was scorching, I could tell she had a high fever. We talked to her. I washed my hand and I started to wash her face. When my cold, wet hand touched her eyes to wash away that sticky stuff she rolled her eyes, she snorted loudly and started to breathe differently, she felt that I was there, or perhaps just felt that someone was there, anyone, anything, something cold. Irén bought some lotion, some miracle cure for bedsore ulcers and we applied it as best we could but we couldn’t move her inert body. And I was on crutches, hobbling hopelessly around her bed.
The nurse was only allowed to say that Mother had a fever but her condition was stable. She admitted eventually that Mother was given an Algopyrin at six, her doctor was nowhere to be seen, the doctor on duty was not familiar and didn’t know my mother but we were told we could talk to her doctor on Monday. We panicked of course and tried to think of something to do. My brother and his wife had been health professionals for over two decades but they only shook their heads. The doctor told us the previous day to prepare for the worst. Eventually I was told by an oxiology specialist I knew from Budapest that my mother stood practically zero chance. Friends never lie, they tell the gravest truths if they must; that’s why they are friends.
On Friday night I walked to the lower church where I was christened but it was closed. I was mortified by the signpost on the choir gallery door and I felt I really, really had to find a quiet place. When I was a child we rarely entered the upper church, we only went there to look at the Nativity scene and my favourite, the „nodding negro“ as we called a little black figurine which nodded every time someone dropped a coin in the charity box and of course we always begged for a coin or two just to play with it. When I was at secondary school I loved to walk here because there is a little rock chapel next to the church and I used to pray to the Virgin before exams.
On my way to the pilgrimage church I saw cars stopping, the church door was open and some sort of preparations were going on. An elderly lady was just getting out of a car, I asked her about it and she explained that they were gathering for the Feast of St. Fatima and I was also welcome. I didn’t remember her name but I recognised her face. Auntie Erzsike hugged me and led me inside through a side door.
I walked along the old corridor, the statue was still there, I found the marble plaques on the walls, one sent by my grandmother, the other one on the opposite wall sent by my father, and I lit four candles. I said the Lord’s Prayer and I was wondering what I was praying for. Did I want that helpless woman lying feverishly in intensive care, taking rattling, laboured breaths to pass away peacefully? Did I want God to have mercy on her soul and let her depart, or did I hope for a miracle, to let her survive even if would remain partly incapacitated? I was told she would be paralysed on one side and unable to talk for the rest of her life if she survived. My mother. Well, that would never happen, she could never hold her tongue (just like me).
I had a nice chat with my brother on Saturday morning, he was just leaving for work and he even told me I’d just missed the half past six bus, but I didn’t want to think about it and now I will never forgive myself. Had I taken that bus I could have been by her side.
I didn’t want to turn up at the hospital empty-handed so I went shopping, to make two small gift baskets for the nurses at the intensive care unit, then I went back to the house to pack up, I looked for Mother’s Bible, I thought I would take it with me, along with a letter I wrote long ago and I wanted to read out to her. My little luggage was ready to go, I glanced at the clock at around 10:50 and thought, well, I still had an hour until the next bus was due. And all the while she was dying! My brother called me just past 11 to ask me where I was, because Mother was dead. My sister-in-law Irén and my nephew drove me to the hospital.
And now for the worst: there is nowhere else in the world but in a Hungarian hospital where one would have to say farewell to the departed so coldly, so distantly. The nurse offered well-practiced condolences, at least she was graceful enough to try to refuse my gift but I told her I had it prepared specially for her so she would not offend by accepting, despite the circumstances. She asked me whether I wanted to see Mother. Of course I did. Would I be strong enough? (What a lame generation we are… scared of the dead?) I asked her to lower the bedside rail so I could embrace Mother. When we were finally left alone I said goodbye, I told her all I wanted to say and I hugged her and kissed her. Her cheeks were still warm but her hand, bunched in a fist, was cold as ice. The nurse told me (my God, I suddenly remembered Polcz Alaine) they had been drawing the fluid out of her lungs and she fell asleep peacefully… I knew she was lying because I removed the covers and saw the bruises on Mother’s chest.
Two assistants came, blue rubber gloves, would the relatives please leave now, this is going to be unpleasant… What is going to be unpleasant? Is there something I mustn’t see? This guy talked to me like I was some imbecile and my sister-in-law tried to explain this was how it was, I screamed at her and told her I didn’t care about how it was, this was my mother, but I wasn’t allowed, no, not even this much, we mustn’t see it, mustn’t see anything, only they have the right to touch the departed, I had 5-10 minutes, this is Hungary, I must respect their work (???) and step out of the way. Well I hope this man will be shooed away like this when it’s his mother’s turn.
There is no room to say farewell, no place where the deceased would be left for a little while to receive flowers, prayers before she is taken away. Nothing.
Mother is gone.
God bless you, Mother, I didn’t have time to tell you I had brought something for you from Norwich. A few days earlier, before I came back home, we went to Norwich Cathedral. Attila, the head of my host family is an atheist, I told him that was allright, I’d say a prayer for him and for his family anyway. Then I went back to the candle box and took another candle, wrapped it in a piece of paper and as we left the cathedral I told Attila I felt such a deep inner peace I was perhaps ready to forgive my mother for all that had happened before.
In the morning I talked to the florist while she was making the flower arrangement and I told her this was the time I wouldn’t mind if Mother had just told me to go and f*ck myself, I only wished she would say something, anything at all.
I thought I wouldn’t be able to cry. Wrong… I am pacing up and down my flat and I burst into tears suddenly, from time to time.
Are there ever enough tears to mourn a mother?
Translated by Veronika Goitein