First thing every day, I count out the same colorful cocktail of medications into Mother’s four containers: morning, midday, evening meal and nighttime. Two pink pills shortly after waking up, and another one right before going to bed; two different statins with breakfast; an aspirin in the morning; one tiny blue antacid pill with each meal; and on it goes... The same as yesterday and the day before and the day before that.
I woke a few minutes ahead of the alarm and forced myself out of the comfort of my bed, pulled a robe over my nightdress, and prepared for another morning with Mother.
Even before the fluorescent tube had flickered to life, my hand was reaching for the medicine cupboard. It’s the one to the right of the shelf displaying Mother’s collection of crosses and figures of Jesus and pictures of various popes, as well as coronation photographs and other royal trophies – a Charles and Di wedding plate, another of the Jubilee, and a mug with a picture of Andrew and Fergie. Nothing for William and Kate: illness and age had sapped her vitality too much for her to mark that occasion with her earlier enthusiasms.
As I close the cupboard door, I glance at the faded photograph pinned to the outside, two young women on a Val d’Isère ski slope. I don’t have to turn it over to recall the writing on the back, “Together forever, Maggie and Renate.” While I wait for the kettle to boil for Mother’s morning cup of tea, I gaze past my reflection in the darkened windowpane, staring across the years to that week in France.
Everything is white apart from the skiers’ bright clothes, though I see only you. I hear your giggles mingling with the swish of skis as you glide across to help me up from yet another undignified fall. Along with the chill of the air, my own laughter reddens my face. Later on, the warm smell of the log fire has replaced crystal clear pine scents. Your breath, as you whisper Ich lieb’ dich, caresses my cheeks, flushed again. I feel the soft brush of your mouth on mine...
The kettle clicks off and I find myself snapped back to the present, regarding my reflection, with its fingers touching its lips. The brightness of the ski slope and comfort of the cabin have been replaced by kitchen drabness in a house occupied by two lonely women, the fragrances of Val d’Isère ousted by the insistent smells of dishcloths that never have a chance to completely dry.
I had moved out a few months after Father died, leaving Mother alone – no, not alone. She has always had her religion, her steadfast Faith, the stubborn spark that ignited many disputes. I stopped being Mary and became Maggie, stumbling around European capitals, working as a waitress in tourist areas where speaking English was an advantage. I met Renate while she was a barmaid in Berlin’s Hard Rock Café. My time with her was the most blissful period of my life. But that’s over now. It was shortly after that skiing holiday that Mother suffered a stroke, leaving her semi-paralyzed and unable to talk for almost a year.
I didn’t have time to think about Renate while I looked after Mother in those early days. When she was able to speak again, I tried to build up the courage to tell her about us, but I failed. And kept failing.
After she regained some mobility, the picture on the cupboard door was joined by the Lord’s Prayer, the Carer’s Prayer, and a rosary, in her hope that I would absorb the message.
It’s been four years since I moved out of our flat in Berlin, precipitating our first and last argument…
“I just can’t handle this right now. I’m too busy dealing with Mother.”
“You and me, we’re just ‘this?’ Is that it?” Renate crossed her arms tightly.
“She needs me. I’m all the family she has left. It’s my duty.”
“Where’s your duty to me? Why can’t you at least tell her about us?” Renate’s accent always intensified when she became angrier – “Ver’s your duty... Vy can’t you...”
The idea crept into my panicking mind that she sounded like the foreign villain in a second-rate film. Except, in this quarrel, I was the villain.
“I will, soon, but I’m afraid how she’ll react,” I stammered. “I could... could introduce you as a friend...”
“Is that all I am?” she shouted.
I reached towards her. “No, of course not–”
“Are you so ashamed of me?” Renate thrust her hand in her bag and threw the first thing she retrieved. I flinched and she took a step forward, arm still outstretched.
“No, I’m...” I choked out, tears coming, as she turned and left. The door closed and I continued internally: I’m not ashamed of you, I’m ashamed of myself.
It was an eyelash curler that barely missed me; I still have it in my bedside cabinet, part of my meagre box of memories from Berlin. I didn’t even know such a device existed until I met Renate. I was always fascinated by her morning make-up ritual and would sit on the bed, leg drawn up and head resting on my knee, simply watching her in the dressing table mirror as she carefully applied layer upon delicate layer to a face I already thought perfect. Occasionally, when she moved her head, I would catch a glimpse of the reflection of my own plain face, made beautiful by my contentment. I couldn’t help but smile every time she used that strange looking lash curler, biting her lower lip in concentration. Every day, when the artwork was complete, I sealed her lipstick with a soft kiss. I can still taste it.
I squeeze my eyes shut for a moment and open them again. Father Mulligan will be visiting today. I’ll need to fetch down Mother’s best china, make sure it’s gleaming and that we have “his favorite biscuits,” as she refers to them. I don’t see what’s so special about Viennese Fingers, but he does seem to eat a lot of them when he’s here.
These social calls are usually tense: Mother unsubtly hints that I need to “mend my ways” and that I am an embarrassing disappointment to her and to The Church. Perhaps that’s her major concern, even now, the embarrassment. Father Mulligan is more accepting of my inclinations than Mother is, but he seems to be mainly concerned with demolishing the plate of biscuits. I wonder if keeping his mouth full is his way to avoid having to contribute much more to the conversation than mumbles, nods and sympathetic hand gestures. I expect that as he takes his leave, he’ll tell me to “be strong” and that “she does need and love you, really, you do know that, but she’s an old woman fixed in her ways” or something comparable from his collection of well-used homilies.
We receive few other visitors. Most of Mother’s associates have passed on or have similar limited mobility. A professional caregiver comes in once a day, to help Mother with her morning ablutions. These activities are too intimate for she and I to perform, but somehow less troubling to have a stranger assist with. The young women, Julie or Susanne or Jessica, depending on their shifts, are always cheerful and chat much more happily with us than we can manage between ourselves. I’m not sure if we actually think of them as real people. Mother welcomes their assistance but dislikes needing them, while I treat their time here as an opportunity for a quiet coffee. Once the door has closed behind today's caregiver, daytime television provides background noise as Mother half watches, half dozes.
Waiting for Mother to wake up, I look at the photograph again. Perhaps this time. I find the phone number for her parents in Bern. Renate has surely moved several times, but her parents will know where she is. I lift the receiver. I’ve got this far before, but this is the first time I dial. My spirits lift as I listen to the ring tone.
I hear a movement elsewhere in the house. I sigh, replace the handset and straighten my back.