HELENA WIŚNIEWSKA BROW
There was a time, not so long ago, that June was a month stranded in the centre of my calendar. This year its arrival is the start of a six-month countdown.
How to mark the days? Today I help my sister empty the wardrobe our mother shared with our father, lifting the clothes she wore to the light, sorting them into piles: one for binning, one for charity. We haven’t been in her wardrobe since we chose the clothes to give to the funeral director all those months ago, but everything is just as it was. Her clothing is lined up on hangers in no particular order – pants with skirts, summer with winter – as if she might return at any moment to retrieve a forgotten cardigan or scarf. Being in there makes me remember those early days after her death: how anxious we were, how busy. We had decisions to make and things to do that required grit rather than contemplation. But nothing in that wardrobe had seemed fit for purpose. We could recall her wearing almost all of it, but the birdlike body that was waiting to be dressed was much too small for the clothing of its earlier, fuller, life. The colourful shirts and scarves we were faced with felt inappropriate and upbeat. In the end my sister and I had applied a formula – high-necked, long-sleeved, not too bright, clean – to get the job done. Did we rush it? Those clothes were all she was taking with her; did they represent the woman she had been? (No, I hear her saying to me now, gently pushing me out of the way, squeezing past me to get to her things. I think I’ll wear this.)
Perhaps my father had understood. He’d watched, pale, from the doorway of the wardrobe while we chose. ‘She always looked so nice,’ he’d said. ‘She always looked good.’
Today he leaves us to it. We start at one end of the rail and work to the other. Dry cleaning tickets fall from unemptied pockets and balled-up stockings tumble from shoes still scarred with the outline of her toes. The sky-blue dress and jacket she wore at my sister’s wedding more than 20 years ago are put in the charity pile. The elastic-waisted pants we’d shopped for on a more recent rainy beach holiday are finished – too pilled, we decide – and binned. My sister tries on her grey wool coat and poses in front of the mirror in the bedroom. It had been a favourite, but now its shoulders droop, as if disappointed. My sister takes it off with a shrug. ‘Nope. Too big,’ she says.
We sift and shake. The piles get bigger. In the end, her side of the wardrobe lies bare, apart from a few balls of dust. My father’s clothing, meanwhile, seems to have swelled while we’ve worked. The coats and pants on his side of the wardrobe look jammed and dark. I shift his shoes to where hers used to sit, move a few of his coats to her rail. Then I shut the door.
On a Thursday morning one year ago, I had a call from the carer who visited my mother twice a week. ‘When did you last talk to Olga?’ she asked me. It was a simple question, followed quickly by one that was more ominous. ‘Was she speaking okay?’ I knew then what Brenda was going to tell me. The whispered discussions between my sister and I, our fears for our increasingly frail and confused mother, were coming to pass. I listened to Brenda’s story, noting her determined brightness, the deliberate absence of panic. ‘It might be nothing,’ she was saying. ‘She’s feeling pretty chirpy now, aren’t you Olga?’
It took five minutes to drive to my parents’ townhouse, and I arrived out of breath. My mother sat in the green vinyl chair that had come from the living room of the house I’d grown up in. Brenda hovered, smiling, but fiddling with her hands. Mum looked up at me, her face distorted and slumped. ‘Oh Mum,’ I said, ‘what have you done?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she said awkwardly, slow with effort. I could see her trying to focus on me and to fit the pieces together.
‘I just feel a bit sleepy.’
By the time the ambulance arrived, my father had come home. It was warm inside, but he didn’t remove the fleece jersey he’d worn on his walk earlier that morning. He turned his cap around in his hands. The living room filled with people wearing high visibility jackets and heavy boots, all of them asking questions. ‘She was fine this morning,’ my father kept saying, over and over. ‘You were fine, weren’t you, Olga?’And then, when the ambulance staff wheeled in a gurney, and one of them asked us if we wanted to travel with Mum or follow in our own car. Dad made a low groan. ‘I knew it,’ he intoned, to no one in particular. ‘I knew this would happen.’
I climbed into my car with my father and followed the ambulance to the hospital. As we drove through the city streets, pedestrians seemed aware of our cortege: a dark-haired teen not much older than my son sipped coffee from a takeaway cup at a pedestrian crossing and lifted his eyes to us as we passed; a woman bent over a pushchair to adjust her child’s woollen hat, as if shielding him from an unpleasant view. Yes, we probably should have known this would happen. But it had taken us by surprise anyway. The day had begun and the world had shifted. We would follow, in our own car.
When we arrived at the hospital, she was smiling and upright in a bed, stripped of her clothes and dressed in a hospital gown. The nurses chatted to her and to each other while they took her temperature and blood pressure, asked her to lift her arm, put one finger on her nose. Dad and I watched from our seats by the curtained door and she did as she was told, uncomplaining, until she seemed to have had enough. ‘I need to go to the toilet now,’ she announced. A nurse lowered the bed and helped her swing her legs to the floor. I felt relieved to see her stand. She was only a little wobbly, I thought, not much more than usual. As she walked across the linoleum to the toilet, holding onto my father’s arm, she pulled at the gaping gown that exposed her backside, its familiar roundness enclosed in high-waisted off-white undies. She’s okay, I told myself. People who are truly sick don’t care if anyone sees their behind.
A doctor with flushed cheeks called me over. ‘We’ve been looking at the results, and I’ve talked to the consultant,’ he said. I watched him push his fringe away from his eyes while I waited for what was next. ‘We don’t think she needs anticoagulants. Given her age. The risks. We think it’s a minor event, a TIA. But we’d like to admit her, overnight, just to keep an eye on her.’ Now I wonder why I didn’t take a breath and see that moment for what it was: a potential turning point. Tell me about those risks, I should have said then, looking straight back into that doctor’s young blue eyes. Let’s have a second opinion. I wonder now why I didn’t do more than nod and retreat, reassuring my father on his return with my mother that it was a small thing that had happened; that this overnight stay in hospital meant only that she’d be coming home tomorrow, not today. ‘Look at her,’ I said to him instead. Mum was still smiling, back in her hospital bed. Perhaps she was actually happy, even in these circumstances. Perhaps, at the centre this room’s urgent bustle, it was better for her to be here with us, with everyone, than at home in the quiet. ‘She’s looking okay,’ I said. ‘She’s going to be fine.’
But the following day – the day we’d thought she’d be coming home and while we sat eating sandwiches in the hospital café downstairs – my mother had another stroke.
My mother’s clothes will be disposed of, but that’s only the beginning. We’ve already discussed it, my sister and I: we will take the rest of it slowly. It will be a long unpicking: room-by-room, cupboard-by-cupboard, when we can.
In the meantime, my father lives with her things as he’s always done, as if her photographs, bags of wool and collections of old papers are something separate from him. I see he has put his new bottles of supermarket moisturiser and prescription creams alongside her old cans of hairspray on the bathroom shelf; the knickknacks on her bedroom drawers gather dust. It’s inconceivable that the rugs she spent years making and which lie on floors and hang on walls like testimonies – I did this, I made this – might ever be removed.
‘He doesn’t want to live there any more,’ my daughter told me after dinner with her grandfather a few weeks ago. ‘He says it’s too big, that everything there is Grandma’s, everywhere he looks.’
‘But where does he want to go?’ I asked her.
She shrugged then, widened her eyes. Where her grandfather lived was not her issue; she was simply reporting a situation. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I didn’t ask him.’
I’m worried I can’t remember what my mother was wearing when she left the house last June. My father was right, she cared about those things. The clothes she had on that day must be somewhere. Perhaps they’re in the black plastic bags in the back of my car, somewhere alongside the remnants of her well-dressed life. Tomorrow, when I take those bags to the Salvation Army store, I’ll tell the women who work there that they hold my mother’s clothes. I’ll tell them there are some lovely things in there. Then I‘ll tip the contents into the wooden bins by the entrance and I won’t wait for them to say anything before I leave.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helena Wiśniewska Brow is an IIML MA graduate and Adam Foundation Prize winner from 2013. She is the author of Give Us This Day, a memoir about her father’s childhood deportation from Poland during World War I (VUP, 2014) .