All these years I have dwelled on what she didn’t do, but it’s only now that I remember what she did do
I complain a lot about my mom. Not really to other people; mainly to myself. She is getting old now and her health is what you’d expect from someone who is getting old and who has lived as she has lived, and it frustrates me because I have always imagined that as I get older and she gets old we will evolve and I will learn how to help her and she will learn how to be helped. I have always just assumed that things will somehow change as a kind of alchemy of age, but of course age isn’t always alchemical, and sometimes the patterns we’ve laid down for ourselves don’t ever change at all. There’s no law in nature that says things change because we want them to. There’s nothing that says things will change even if we try our best to change them.
My mom is uncomfortable around people, even people who love her. She doesn’t know how to speak to them or how to be spoken to; she feels lacking and obscurely ashamed. I don’t know this for a fact because she has never articulated it to me, or anything close to it, because these are conversations we cannot have with each other, but I think that she feels as though merely in the act of existing she is somehow letting people down. As a consequence, she feels most comfortable when she is not around people, and that wouldn’t be so bad except that she feels so lonely on her own. I find it difficult to forgive my mom her failings because it is always difficult to forgive in others the failings we can’t overcome in ourselves. Anyway, it’s always easier to forgive people we do not love.
I despair sometimes of knowing how to help my mom grow old and live out the rest of her life, how to repay her what I’ve taken from her. We find it hard to speak. I do, and so does she. Each time I leave her after an awkward afternoon visit I feel relief at escaping, and shame at the relief, and guilt for not having done better this time, for not being easier and talking more, for not letting her see the better sides of the man that she helped to make. For some people, guilt is a motivating factor. It makes them apply themselves, try harder, make things right. Not me. If I am not doing something perfectly I feel guilt, and guilt leads to shame, and then I tend to do nothing at all. You don’t need to tell me that this is not a smart way to be – I tell myself on a daily basis.And then I remembered something that happened when I was very young. We lived in a quiet street in a somewhat shabby seaside suburb in Durban. We knew our next-door neighbours but not very well, and the people on the other side of them, but even less well. Three doors down lived an English woman named Joyce, and her husband Errol, who worked very long hours and nightshifts as a mechanic at the docks. Joyce became seriously ill – the ill that makes you draw your curtains, that makes other people in your street lower their eyes and drop their voices as they pass your house, that makes the neighbourhood kids try to sneak up to the fence and peer inside to see what a dying person looks like.
Someone tried to organise the women of the street to take it in turns to go and visit Joyce, to sit in her darkened room and chitchat and keep her company while Errol was at work. It was a kind thought, a kind gesture, and I remember the panic in my mom’s eyes when they came to ask her if she would take her place on the roster. She couldn’t do it. She never said this, but this is what I think: she was afraid that she wouldn’t have anything to say, that her company would be worse than being alone. This is the insane thing that lives in the heads of people like my mom and also me: she couldn’t bring herself to give comfort to a dying woman because she was afraid that her presence would make things worse.
And all these years I have dwelled on what she didn’t do, but it’s only now that I remember what she did do. Every day she went over to Joyce’s house and she gathered up the bedclothes and brought them home and washed them and dried them so that each day Joyce would have clean sheets to lie on and clean pillowcases under her head. She did that every day for months and months and after Joyce died two of our sheets and two of our pillowcases were still at her house and my mom could never bring herself to go and ask for them back because she knew Errol was there and she didn’t want to disturb him.