I look at her, walking around the back garden, eagerly, tentatively, freedom regained but now possessed of a new knowledge, a new measure of fear, of caution: an accident may happen again, and I might not be as lucky as I was this time… I can see it in her now, the different way she does the simplest things — walking, for one — or her newfound respect for stairs.
Her gait has changed. I’ve noticed it before, in fact many times since that very first time she managed to get out of bed, and demanded I brought her out to see her beloved garden — and, in her own words, ‘assess with her very own eyes what had survived and what had perished during her absence in hospital’. Or while I was there, a prisoner lying in bed, unable to move or do anything. Outstanding, especially as votes of confidence go.
The fact is, she is now quite unsteady. There’s no two ways about it. Faltering, even. How many times I’ve wondered whether that could be some of the permanent brain damage from the accident. Though of course it could be nothing at all, I’d then tell myself. It may just be because it is still too early since it happened, I’d tell myself. I would try not to dwell on it, not to speculate, but it was hard not too. At night, when I was having a bit of quiet time for myself after I’d put her to bed, it’d become impossible not to: that was when I would start thinking about the future, about the two years of enforced separation from my husband I have ahead of me.
But how fragile she looks, now. A little doll made of the finest, egg-shell bone china. She looks — breakable. I watch her from across the garden, as she makes her way towards the two fruit bushes we planted at the end of last winter. And suddenly I realise what’s changed: she now has the gait of an old woman, instead of that energetic, electrified won’t-stop-for-nothing gait she has had all her life. Until now, and despite all the shaking and the almost imperceptible momentary hesitations.
There she goes, in her little butterfly steps. It’s just that now they are not the same steps as before. Now they have old written all over them. She reaches the fence and steadies herself there for a second, then lets go of it and spins around, and then turns left, towards the two growing things. How fragile she now looks — that’s the only thing I can think as I watch her go. My mother is fragile. She’s no longer that solid, unshakeable column of strength we all leaned to for support and sustenance.
— I’m not getting in there, Mom, I’m still wearing my sandals and I don’t want to ruin them too…
On said firstly-out-of-bed day, on a run such as this one, I had unexpectedly been commanded to pick all ‘those lovely strawberries’ from the patch she’s planted right in the middle of that half-plot of land. And this despite my protestations that I was wearing a pair of ballerinas and it had rained the night before… with the expected results: £80 ballerinas 0 v. 1/2 lb homegrown, slug-and-bird pre-tested organic strawberries 1. No re-match: the ballerinas are ruined.
— That’s alright, don’t come, then. Stay there and listen. Listen. Just listen to everything I am telling you, because it’s very important.
And I do. Stay. And listen. I do as I’m told. Always. What else can I do? She’s made it so clear: while she lives, she’s the matriarch. She rules this realm and roost, unflinchingly and with an iron will. And I, I’m not even the matriarch in waiting. I’m just her daughter. The big disappointment. The failed vicarious living experiment. The one they all know what I’m like. Or maybe it’s just me feeling that way. But I don’t even go there. Not now. When that wind starts blowing, I just empty my mind. It’d be too painful, and too dangerous, not to. I can’t afford any of that right now.
I take a step towards the plum tree, trying to grab something to steady me for the two steps separating me from the cemented path, and on cue my foot promptly sinks into a mole tunnel. Together with one of a pair of nude-coloured, flower-embellished, suede toe-thongs. Garden 2 v Footwear 0. And that’s that.
What enters my mind is unprintable in either language it came dressed in. For once, I’m glad she’s too hard of hearing. When she turns around towards me, I’ve managed to recover both my composure and my foot from the jaws of the mole tunnel — together with accompanying sandal. Which is not unsalvageable. I suppose I should be glad for such small mercies as the temperatures in the high 20º Celsius of the last few days. And the lack of rain, let’s not forget that either.
— Oh, look! Look! Oh, it’s got berries! Look, we’ve got blackberries already! Here!
And she moves one of the guides away, to show me what I deduct can only be a bunch of little green berries. I’m supposed to see them from six metres away. Or cross over to her. And those berries. With my nude suede sandals. That I’m still wearing, I remind myself, because she was in a hurry to go take a look in the garden and give me her instructions for when the gardener comes tomorrow. Too much in a hurry to wait their substitution by a pair of wellies.
The next second she’s turning towards me, a huge smile all over her face and eyes. She looks suddenly more alive than I’ve seen her at any time in these last few weeks. And that smile. It’s almost like those of the old days, when there wasn’t so much bitterness, so much distrust, so much hurt between us. When things were simpler, because life was simpler, because we hadn’t lived through the things we lived through that changed us, because it was before such walls were built between us. Before she allowed someone else to replace me. To take my place in her heart and her life. The thought comes, unbidden. It’s not bitterness, for once. Honestly, it isn’t. It’s just a fact begging to be faced. Fleetingly, as it might be, as it turns out it all is. Because in the end love conquers. Always conquers.
From my side of the patch, I smile back at her. I’m slightly stunned to see her this happy, this suddenly, after so much dourness. But that too is only fleetingly — I know how much she loves this garden. How much she loves her hands on the dirt, the weeds, the little flowers she nurses as if them too were made of the finest egg-shell bone china. It is not the first time I’ve watched it make her come alive. This alive. My god. I love her so much. I could just stand there all day watching her, my heart overflowing with tenderness for her, and with the happiness and fulfilment she suddenly exudes. Yes. I’d be happy to just stand there all day, watching her finally be happy after such a hard, trying time.
— It’s over here somewhere…
I hear her say, as if she was still talking to me, when in fact she has already turned around and is already looking for the next thing.
— I know that’s in here somewhere…
And she parts the tall weeds I’ve been instructed to instruct the gardener to uproot by hand, not the least because the graves of all her little companions are to be found scattered amidst them, with only old fluted roof tiles for headstones. She doesn’t want them disturbed, she reiterates, and that’s why the other gardener wasn’t allowed to get anywhere near that part of the garden with the rotavator. They really need to be pulled by hand, one by one, she tells me again. I’ve taken the instruction.
— What, Mom…? What are you looking for…?
She doesn’t hear me. It’s too far for me to see the berries, too far for her to hear my words. I don’t want to shout. It would spoil the moment, and I don’t want that. I just want to stay there, leaning against one of the low branches of the plum tree, watching her communion with what she loves best in this kingdom she’s built. She’s been waiting for this for six weeks, since that day she took a tumble down the stairs because she insisted on taking the drapes down herself while I was away, and bring them downstairs herself, in one big bundle. That must have been punishment enough, I tell myself. No wonder the withdrawal symptoms. A full six weeks, not being able to garden. Not being able to do… as she is doing right now.
We went to the hospital today, for her first neurosurgery check up since her discharge from hospital. The restrictions on movement were lifted, and now she can do whatever she pleases, within reason and bearing in mind her dizziness, her eyesight, her tiredness and sleepiness, and the fact that her right arm is half shattered to bits and only held together by more than half a dozen bits of metal, and a chest brace pinning it to her stomach which she has to wear at all times except when in bed.
She’s… exultant, I think it’s the right word. She can move. She’s allowed to move. To move. She can do stuff, now. And to prove so, she bends over and plucks out some weeds whose presence in that particular spot must have happened to offend her. When she stands up, she is panting slightly and her fingers, clasped around a handful of weeds, are brown with caked soil. But she’s happy. She exudes liveliness. Her face is beaming. She exudes happiness. Real happiness. And joy. And yes, a measure of surprise. Just like a child who has just taken her first few steps, and can’t quite believe it, but can’t wait to do it over, and over, and over again.
She looks at me once more, an even bigger smile stamped all over her face. Then she looks at the weeds in her hand. And then she looks at me again, and she smiles even more. It’s a handful of happiness she’s got there, in her hand full of weeds. In her open, unbound smile. Her sparkling eyes.
And I too, even if just perennially fleetingly as it seems to be my constant fare, have happiness by the handful — and just for the watching of hers. By the handful, and the heart-full, and the world-full. My world suddenly seems complete and concordant. No longer dissonant. No longer jarring. But full, harmonious, luminous. Just for the watching of her happiness, I too am full of happiness.
Even that stubborn little tear welling out of my eye is of happiness, though I quickly erase it out of existence. There. Gone. Last thing I want is a panda eye. It’d give her ideas, dangerous ones at that, I’m sure — and I’ll have none of that, most certainly, and thank you so very much.
image found here