The morning I woke up to discover that my mother had died, my first instinct was to feed the cat. I woke up later than I usually do – that is, 7am rather than around 6am – and succumbed to the dispiriting habit of checking my phone before doing anything else.
Appropriately enough, it was my father who delivered the news – on a Facebook Messenger thread shared by him, my siblings and myself. It was short and emphatic, and sent two or three hours prior.
I gasped in shock, but the cat was unperturbed and blissfully ignorant – whining for her routine delivery of early morning wet food. My father told me to call him as soon as we get the message, but I knew that this would not have been in any way viable before Olivia had her breakfast.
I peeled off the thin sheet that I was using as a coverlet – anything else would have been too heavy for the early August heat – and rose mechanically, Olivia sauntering steadily to happiness, the trademark fluff that frames her jiggling its way from the bedroom to the corridor before finally reaching the living room.
At this point, the apartment is no longer really a home – with V. away on a long trip to Rome, I was left to take care of an imminent move from one flat to another: from the South of the island to its centre, by dint of our landlord wanting to sell the place that had served as a home for V., Olivia and myself over the past half-decade.
I crack open a satchet of food for Oli and place it in the bowl. I lie down on the living room sofa and I make the call.
It wasn’t covid – at least, that’s what the final analysis said. That clarification feels jarring, like a sop to topicality in a story that had encompassed years, that had touched me in ways that are truly universal.
My mother, Jasmina, suffered a stroke and fell into a coma just under 10 years before she finally passed. This happened in early November of 2010, just as I was about to graduate from my Masters degree in Contemporary Literature and Criticism within the English department, and just as I had started to embark on a full-time career at a local newspaper.
I mention this to illustrate how the decade that followed would be crucial to me in many ways, and in some ways may even have laid out a fairly conventional trajectory of academic and professional training, peculiar for a family in which the conventional pathways might not always have been the ones we ended up taking. But that all of this happened without my mother watching on the sidelines altered things irrevocably, in a way that I’m only ready to accept and explore further now.
That is, now that a degree of closure has finally been made possible, now that the strange limbo state in which she was plunged for nearly a decade has come to an end.
“And how is your mother? Have there been any changes?”
This question would understandably crop up every now and then, from concerned friends and acquaintances who knew about our situation and would want to show they’re keeping tabs; and, of course, who cared for us and wanted to share in at least a modicum of our grief. But it was always a strange question to answer, even if the facts of it were simple: ‘No’ was always the long and short of it.
What is interesting is that in answering it, I always felt at least a twinge of shame come over me. Like I could have been more specific in my reply. Like that ‘no’ should have been qualified somehow; that it should have come with contextual and conditional clauses.
‘No, but we’re doing all we can’
‘No, but there has been some sign of improvement’
‘No, but the doctors say that we might see progress in a few months or so’
‘No, and we’re preparing for the inevitable’
Any of these would have felt more satisfying somehow, conforming with a narrative of life that we have all learned to expect and somehow also predict: birth, effort, tragedy, death; birth, effort, shortcoming, improvement, final outcome. For someone who would subsequently begin to place great stock in narrative structure my mother’s situation was particularly disorienting: she was in a proper limbo state, a purgatorial condition whose ‘true north’ was nowhere in sight.
This is, however, only an abstract adjunct to the more visceral truths of this experience. Whenever I’d allow myself to think about what she may be experiencing during this weird time, I would feel a stab of pain – part guilt, part pity, but all-encompassing in its ability to metaphorically bring me down to my knees.
The sheer unfairness of it all: her, alone in the hospital bed, with no respite from whatever discomfort or pain she was feeling at the time. We would visit, but no visit would ever feel like it’s enough. Even if we had moved in to the hospital – and, later, the old people’s home – to live by her side full time, it would not have done anything to bridge that chasm of consciousness that now existed between us.
My mother was a respected and much-loved seamstress and in many ways, it was thanks to her skills that this immigrant family managed to ingratiate itself into its host community in Malta all those years ago. She was hard-working, talented and beautiful – a scintillating presence at social events and parties – the latter of which she would begin to organise herself in later years, and whose mantle my sister and I would take on at least in part.
She was also my closest confidante in many ways.
I would visit her studio – now my father’s film photography darkroom – as she would thread needles over tracing paper that would in turn be placed over pieces of fabric. One of my regrets is that I never inquired into the details of her profession all that much. (As a writer, I constantly disappoint Henry James by failing to follow up all that much on his principle of ‘solidity of specification’ – my instinct tends to be towards arcs and moods, so the details I fill in dispassionately later).
But our conversations certainly encompassed the implications of what it means to devote oneself to a creative pursuit. My mother had gone to art school back in her Belgrade years and struggled with climbing that particular ladder: becoming a seamstress was that oblique pursuit that she wasn’t expecting but which, in the end, gave her the most satisfaction.
She was 19 when she had me – her eldest – and it’s only now that I’m starting to fully realise just how much she came of age while raising us. The clear arcs of growth that I’ve experienced since, she experienced during the years we were all very much around: some of which are not just faint miasmal memories of formative infancy but the solidified impressions of late childhood and even adolescence.
The weavings, longeours, deceptions, depressions and compressions of time are at the forefront of my mind whenever I think about my mother now, in my memories of her walking and talking and in the more recent period when she was bedridden and unresponsive, lost in a vortex where time had no meaning and neither her nor us could assume there would be any parameters to the experience.
But parameters, check-points and life-markers would form part of our conversations on a fairly regular basis. My mother would be the person I would go to when I’d need frank perspective on pretty much any issue.
Ensconced in that focal point of her studio, and when not consulting clients, she would be receptive to me walking in and plonking down on the nearby sofa: a stolid piece of 60s/70s furniture the likes of which we would later find valorised as a bona fide piece of modernist fare in a local exhibition, but which now mainly doubled up as the archetypal ‘therapist’s couch’.
My mother would be occupied in focused but non-verbal labour – again, that mysterious-to-me set of measurements and markings on tracing paper over fabric, sometimes with a soap-like, hexagonal piece of chalk – so I would let my anxieties in a way I knew she would understand.
Her feedback would often be encouraging, but it would also be tinged with focused and pro-active tough love. The lesson was that all troubles are actionable. Every situation has an exit if you train your mind well enough to look for them at each turn.
Of course, this makes what happened to her all the more tragic. The root causes of what happened remain frustratingly vague to us to this day. ‘Stress’ is the only real factor, and it feels both lacking and entirely appropriate. She was an overworked perfectionist who wanted to be the best at what she does, and work to deadline to continue supporting her family.
Was she looking for an exit of some kind, herself? Was she not waving but drowning while we looked on all the while?
She would likely chide me for dedicating so much time to such a non-actionable emotional trajectory. There is work to be done, and I shouldn’t waste time wallowing in regret. But I would contradict her on this point. She deserves this space. This emotional oxygen in her direction, too little and too late as it may be. Pressured into working all her life, albeit in a profession that she loved and excelled in, she dedicated a lot to others and very little to herself.
Neither is it entirely true that her predilection for the actionable and productive came at the expense of a more ‘holistic’ approach to life and her surroundings, though.
Some years back, when we were far from the studio and had embarked on a sunset walk at the holiday village in Serbia where my maternal grandparents have a summer home, my mother laughed amusingly when I commented that I wanted to crystallise this sunset somehow, that I wanted to do something with it and not let it go to waste.
‘That will pass,’ she told me, smiling in recognition.
It still hasn’t, really. There’s still a nervous, grasping tendency in me. I am not as ‘zen’ as I wish to be. Perhaps that’s true for most of us.
But that doesn’t change what she continues to teach me. Because her lessons aren’t definitive, finite, dogmatic. They contain true wisdom, which is not marked by clear targets and trajectories, but which swirls in a circle of awareness, challenge and comfort in equal measure. I’ve been lucky enough to absorb some of it, having been in her orbit during her all-too-brief time on this earth.
Ten years of mourning is both a long time, and not nearly enough. But time will do its work, and the rest will pass.
It’s true. Nisam baš možda sve razumela dobro, ali suštinu sam shvatila. Lepo. Hvala ti. Vesna Nikolić