Washing the Body

I carry my mother inside me now as she once carried me

By Karen Connelly

While she was dying, there was often silence-without-silence. We wanted it to end. Yet we could not bear the thought of it ending. Agonized breathing repeated its small history. Smoking. Years working in a lead-contaminated police headquarters; the lead from the bullets in the basement firing range filtered up, circulated, entered the nose, the throat, the lungs of everyone who worked there. She used to come home with the bad news of a workmate’s miscarriage, a stillbirth, another baby born with cerebral palsy.

The flesh inside her throat was ruined. The radiation stripped off what the cancer didn’t destroy. It was like slag coming away inside her. She coughed and choked it up, but the mucus came back quickly, stretched its sticky web through her throat. None of us could escape the belaboured, painful sound of her breathing.

Sometimes we sat and looked at each other, but sometimes we talked. Or she would be asleep and we, any number of her five children, would discuss, or whine, or argue, and she would surprise us by chiming in, “Oh, the garden; it’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” Though she could not see it. She expressed often and easily her love for us. “Hers is a happy textbook case,” said the head nurse, and I wasn’t sure whether to be gratified or insulted. My mother? A textbook case?

But it was true. She had set her house in order. Literally. She had returned to her irritating god and her irritating sisters, from whom she’d been estranged for years. She had forgiven and been forgiven. I admired that she’d waited until the last possible moment to rejoin the religious fold; it was kind of her to spare us, her children, the headache of a bossy god and difficult aunts. But, dying, she loved them again; she made peace, and prayed, and smiled often, even through grimaces. Once she entered Rosedale Hospice and had better pain medication than at home, she fairly glowed. Not because she was on a drug high—she was allergic to morphine—but because she was so happy to be poised at the edge of death.

She was not sentimental or upset about leaving her little home in northeast Calgary; her belongings were already labelled with names, parcelled out to her children and friends. Rosedale Hospice is a big, beautiful house, formerly a seminary, its high-ceilinged chapel still intact. She loved being there because it stands on a high northwestern rim of the Bow River valley. If she could have stood on the chair behind the garage—as I often did—she would have had a view down the steep bluffs to the river of her childhood, the neighbourhood of Sunnyside where she was raised, the four stone lions guarding the Centre Street Bridge. When she was a child, her uncle used to walk with her over that bridge, tap his cane against one of the great plinths, then give her the sweets that the lions had magically placed in his pockets. 

She couldn’t see any of it anymore. She could barely get out of bed. She would never see any of it again. But she knew exactly where the hospice was. We had told her that the big house was surrounded by trees, by gardens. She had been a great gardener; it was a fitting place for her to die.

And for us to sit and wait. There is a guestroom for out-of-town visitors, so I was able to stay there for a couple of weeks, and walk the bluffs, and meander down into Kensington for a look at the foreign, busy world of the living: espresso machines and cars, gorgeous young summery men and women, bookshops. Though I saw people I had gone to school with, no one recognized me. I did not recognize myself.

My siblings were amazed when I told the hospice attendant I wanted to help wash and dress my mother. “You don’t want to help? I said.

I had never felt so regretful. I was the responsible but geographically distant daughter. I had been away from the country for many years, and now lived, of all traitorous eastern lands, in Toronto. Why didn’t I take her to Greece? I tried. The tickets were booked, the hotels. It was the summer she got sick. I had waited too long. Why didn’t I bring her with me again to Thailand? She laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I never felt like you abandoned me. You’ve all been such good children. I’ve had such a treasure in my children.”

I smiled indulgently, turning my head away to roll my eyes. What about the drug addict? And the quasi-professional thief? What about the years of prison visits and stolen money?

She seemed to read my mind, and sighed, “You’ve all turned out so well.” She could afford to let everything go, after all; she was on her way out. But she had always been like that. A classic enabler, when it came to addicts, but also honestly, deeply generous, to almost everyone. Some people have nothing, she used to say. Look how rich I am. She had five children, three grandchildren. A small two-bedroom townhouse, an old car. Her garden. A few friends. She meant her happiness. And, practically, three meals a day, a winter coat, a safe home. Her riches were the riches many people have, but which do not suffice, do not staunch greed and restlessness. Though a lapsed Christian for decades, she was actually an animist Buddhist by nature. It was hard to live up to her essential goodness, though the gratitude seemed like a genetic trait she had passed on to us. We have each of us felt blessed to have been born, and, especially, to have been born her children. There was a significant measure of misery in our childhoods, but while she was dying we remembered almost exclusively her joy, the joy and kindness we learned from her. She smiled at me, her eyes shining, her polished-looking knuckles under my fingers, cool and round as marbles. I stroked them compulsively. “Now, especially, I only see what is good in each of you. I love you all so much.”

Frankly, I wanted to be loved the most. The child I had been strained against my adult skin, wanting to crawl into bed with her mother. But there was no room, and the tubes got in the way. I pulled my chair closer and searched her thin, unfamiliar, familiar, beautiful face, thrilled because my other siblings weren’t there. Of all the minutes yet to come in my life, I could have my mother to myself for 35 more of them. 

Soon after that, she dropped into unconsciousness. Her struggle for breath worsened and sent us each, in turn, fleeing from her room, agitated or angry or in tears. “Can’t you do something?” we asked—we begged—the nurses. “She’s suffering!” Yet looking back at that time, just a year and a half ago, I don’t know if she was suffering all that much. But we certainly were. The worst fights erupted then, the most awful accusations were levelled. Who had loved her more, who had neglected her when she was sick. We carved it up, the five of us, and gave each other a portion of our loss. 

The late summer garden of Rosedale Hospice grew and grew. In between the bouts of intensity and taking distracted, hasty care of some of the business of life, we sat out in the back garden, behind the garage, where old wicker chairs stood in various stages of collapse on the small patio. The attendants told us to go ahead, eat the raspberries, eat the tomatoes, and we did. We had halting conversations with other dying people, and hilariously black-humoured chats with the attendants, who came to sit out back on their breaks. There was a week of that, our mother inside unconscious, not eating, not drinking, all the tubes except the pain relief pulled out. She was trying hard to die, but her heart was strong and her body stronger. As at the unknowable beginnings of our lives, we were once again suspended inside her strength, waiting. We waited through afternoons that seemed endless and evenings that opened, deepened, became bluer and bluer until that shocking made-in-Alberta blue bloomed above the city and night breathed out the scent of dry grass and dust. It came from the hillside, that smell. When I stood on one of the chairs (fearing at every moment that my foot would break through the ruined wicker) I could see the river below, glinting darkly under the lights of downtown. It was so beautiful, the city, the sky, the night, and our mother was almost gone.

We were sitting out there one afternoon when a nurse called us in: “She’s going.” I thought of a boat moving away, how it gets smaller and smaller, disappears. The person left standing on the dock has nowhere to go. Is there any other horizon that means more than that one? We came into the house to kiss her and hug her and hold her hands as she went. Throughout my life, sitting at her kitchen table, she had taught me how to travel well.

I thought her body would become silent and cold almost immediately. I thought some part of me would become cold and silent also. But it takes hours for the heat to leave a newly dead person. My siblings were amazed when I told the hospice attendant that I wanted to help wash and dress my mother for the funeral home. I said to my sister, “You don’t want to help?” Possibly inspired by the criminal element in our family, she has become a cop, so she regularly sees the corpses of those who did not want to die. I thought she’d like to spend more time with our mother, who had been anxious to depart, and well-prepared. But I was wrong. “Are you nuts? I’m going out for a smoke.”

“I’ve had such a treasure in my children.” I turned away to roll my eyes. What about the drug addict? And the quasi-professional thief?

The hospice attendant was also surprised, but tremulously pleased, despite her anxious expression. (Did she think I would howl and tear my hair?) I undressed my mother. Her body looked pretty good. “I’m so healthy except for this damn cancer,” she often said, rightly. She wasn’t very old-looking for 69, though the recent surgery and the work of dying had exhausted her. As I gazed fondly at her pale stretch marks, the small, loose breasts that had nursed us, I thought again how much the work of dying resembles the labour of birth. I had given birth to my son less than two years before and the experiences shimmered side by side in my consciousness, two fresh-caught fish on a sunlit table. 

The waiting, the sleeplessness, the altered sense of self. The bloody hard work of it all, the extraordinary task, so grand and so mundane. The way it brings everything up, like existential peristalsis, unstoppable: the buried family darkness, the longings and fears, the physical weaknesses and hidden strengths. All is vomited onto the hard surface of those extreme moments. Even if we succeed in hiding it, it is still there. And at the end, there is a prize, a gift. Everyone who comes to this place receives it. Twice. For those attending to the labourer as well as for the one crossing the threshold, the sharp awareness of breath is central. Simple breath is the force that accomplishes all, and, in ceasing, ends all. 

How oddly comforting I found these similarities, partly because they proved how true poetry is (I knew it!): metaphors are everywhere, in everything. Metaphor is encoded in us. There is an almost scientific indivisibility in human experience. Loops and loops of connection hold us together as individuals, as a race, even as a species in the ecosystem. Life itself becomes the placenta that feeds us as we begin to die. I wished that the hospice had a poetry section in addition to their thriller, mystery and new-age library, because I wanted to reread the whole of T. S. Eliot’s “The Gift of the Magi.” But the few lines I knew by heart served me well: 

I had seen birth

and death

and thought they were different. 

Were we led all that way

for birth or death? 

All that way. How hard my mother’s life had been. How far she had walked. Yet she had the most beautiful legs and feet, like a 30-year-old’s, more shapely than my own. Not a single varicose vein. I laughed as I washed her legs, her feet, wringing the cloth in the plastic basin of warm water, drying her with a towel. “Look at how great this nail polish looks,” I said to the attendant, gesturing at my mother’s toenails, which were painted gold. “She’s still so warm,” I said again. We had to use lotion to loosen the rings on her fingers. They still wouldn’t come off. We pulled and twisted; her hands had swelled. We used soap. I had the big amber antique-looking one and the attendant worked on the yellow gold one. It seemed impossible to me that all that rubbing and yanking didn’t hurt her. But she didn’t cry out. In death as in life, she remained stoic.

But not silent. She was dead, finally. She had told me that what I needed of her I already had. She said that when she was dead, I would begin to feel the shape of her, a sort of template, a presence I would carry around. “The same thing happened when my own mother died,” she told me. I had nodded a lot, thinking she was getting nostalgic. But I suddenly understood what she meant. The rings slid off her fingers unexpectedly, one after the other, as if she had decided to let them go. The gold one was for my niece; the amber one was for my sister-in-law, whom I don’t like. So I wished it had remained on her finger. But I slipped them both into my pocket, prepared to fulfill my daughterly duty.

The attendant and I changed the water in our plastic basins. I made sure it was warm. I carefully washed her face. It was the last time I would see her face complete, fully her own, because someone was going to come soon to remove her eyes. Typical. Waste not, want not. I could almost hear her say, “Well, I don’t need them anymore, do I?”

I stroked her cheek with my fingers. The attendant turned away for a moment. Then she put her hand on my arm and looked into my eyes. She was in her early 50s, with shoulder length dark hair, an attractive, almost girlish face. “I want you to know that this is the best way you could honour your mother.”

Honour. Such a neglected, old word. I smiled and said, “I love her. I love this body.” I put one hand on my mother’s shoulder, the other hand on her head of short, dry hair. As if the attendant might doubt my provenance, I declared, “I came from this body!” The adult now, I wanted to gather her whole into my arms, embrace all that she had ever been. Keep her. The gift, the gift! She had made me from her blood, from the darkness at the crux of her; she had spun my flesh and bone. 

Once, when I was a child, she told me about a walk she took along the Bow River. She thought she was about eight years old then, which was the age I was when she told me how something had happened to her that day. An event took place that sustained her for the rest of her life. Even as a small child, she often walked by the river; her family lived just across Memorial Drive. But on that day, something stopped her on the riverbank. She smelled wolf willow and felt the cold water hurtling by. The moment caught and held her still. She felt in her skin and her bones that she belonged to the bright morning air and the shining trees. Like the fish she couldn’t see, she was part of the river. “To know this,” she said, “meant that everything would be all right. It was as though God was standing beside me. God was standing everywhere.” 

Jackie Lebbert Henry was her name. “Everything will be all right” was the practical motto of her life. For months her ashes rested in a box in my sister’s closet, beneath her uniform shirts. We sent some of them to my brother. I kept a box myself. Then, last October, I returned to Calgary in the midst of a big snowstorm. As usual. My mother’s two daughters, her best friend and her granddaughter slipped and slid down to the Bow, snow in our shoes, our noses red and running. The day before it had been summer, but now the water was black and the sky low with grey clouds.

We scattered the last of her ashes on the riverbank, into the river and, after a particularly familiar gust of wind, onto our trousers. An earnest pair of mallards came to investigate the offerings. After sampling some ash, they abstained for the rest of our brief, simple ceremony. When we were done we tried to shoo them away, but they refused to return to the water. They waddled up the steep bank, struggling over snow and rocks; they came along behind us on the path.

My mother had been right, as she often was: I carried her inside me now as she had once carried me. I could hear her say, “See how hungry they are? I know just how they feel; it’s bloody freezing out. Why in hell aren’t they flying south?” When we began to cross Memorial Drive, we were afraid they would follow us into the traffic. As though on cue, her best friend turned and said, loudly, “Why aren’t you flying south?” But they remained on the curb, looking as crestfallen as a pair of ducks can look. They quacked and quacked as we walked away. #

Calgary native Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her most recent is Burmese Lessons (2009).


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