The View from the Middle: If, When and How
by Susan Street
In their wills, our parents requested their ashes be scattered from a lookout high in the mountains and specified that it take place on an autumn evening.
The night before our extended family arrived, I walked with my husband and our two sons into the local village for dinner. Our sky-scraping sons don't so much walk as lope in long, effortless strides. Our younger son was telling a story, and as I turned my face upwards to hear him, I thought of my mother as I saw the Milky Way spiralling across the sky above his head.
As part of our younger son’s gap year, he and a friend had travelled through Morocco. He was recounting the night they were befriended by locals, invited to a wedding and then driven for several hours to a half demolished village in the desert before realising it was all a scam. They were threatened and robbed before escaping.
As he told the story, his older brother chuckled and I experienced mild chest pain. A technicolour, what if movie was shooting inside my head. I am directing from the POV of every mother and our oeuvre is disaster movies. The script is dense with worsening scenarios. What would have happened if the knife fight (a knife fight!) hadn’t broken out allowing them to escape? What if the kind family hadn’t picked them up by the roadside at dawn and driven them back to Marrakech?
For my sons, of course, this was nothing more than a frisky adventure, which is their speciality: to celebrate our younger son finishing school, his older brother took him skydiving. This was despite—or perhaps due to—me telling them what I had witnessed as a child.
Our family had been driving back to the city from the mountains on a blue domed spring day when we saw a small plane far above us strewing a rainbow of parachutes across the sky.
‘Let’s watch them land,’ my father said, turning off the highway onto a side dirt road.
The first few skydivers were already landing in a nearby field. We joined a small group of onlookers, the family of one of the skydivers. His girlfriend held a pair of binoculars to her eyes. As soon as he jumped, they knew it was him despite his parachute not opening. As his family and girlfriend screamed, he careened toward the earth like a tightly roped and bound exclamation mark before spearing into a distant dam. Its surface, molten in the sun, swallowed him with barely a splash. We stayed long enough to watch an ambulance speeding along the fence lines in a plume of dust, stopping to open various gates before reaching the dam.
In choosing skydiving as a celebration, I’m not sure our sons consciously thought, remember that story of the parachute not opening, that’s it, that’s the one we should try! but saw it merely as a challenge to be experienced with the sense of invincibility unique to the young, the same reason that eighteen year olds are the perfect age to send to war.
I asked them to ring me when they landed. I was driving through the city when they rang and pulled over at the sound of their exhilarated voices. There was a pause as our eldest son asked, ‘Mom, are you crying?’ Laughing in disbelief, he said to his brother, ‘Mom’s crying!’ They both gently chided me, ‘As if we were going to die!
Someone asked me how it felt to be an orphan, as if I was a child in a Dickens novel, after my parents died within three months of each other. My parents were in their nineties, they had been lucky enough to have led long and rich lives and I was in my fifties.
According to a Guardian article, “When does old age begin?”, Britons feel elderly before their time, most believe they'll hit 'old age' at just 59. The Greeks (perhaps it’s their Mediterranean diet before they clear the tables to dance on them) believe your twilight years don't begin until 68. The French start to feel grey at 63.
Although I didn’t feel old, any delusions of indestructibility were long gone and whether I liked it or not, it was no longer a matter of if but when. I was at the front of the queue, the next in line. One of my nieces said to me with a tone of incredulity, ‘Wow, you’re an elder now.’
I began to have a comically unambiguous dream. A gloomily lit conveyor belt covered with tiny figurines was inching forward through the darkness. A sudden, merciless torchlight illuminated the figurines cartwheeling off the edge as their turn came.
Bargaining has become the hallmark of my when stage. With whom, I’m not too sure. Throw me a spanner! It must be possible, surely, to slow this conveyor belt down? Is another thirty years too much to ask?
The how for my parents came down to random luck. Both had falls in their later years and while my mother, graced with good health, had bones of rubber, my father, after already surviving a stroke and innumerable operations, finally broke his hip. Weeks in hospital were followed by another six weeks in a rehabilitation facility.
When I picked him up, “busting him out of prison,” as he’d called it, a nurse wheeled him out to the car. As we eased him into the passenger seat, I thought how with time, our sizes had reversed. He sat with his gnarled hands crossed loosely in his lap, his face blooming with contentment as I drove through the familiar streets toward home, toward my mother.
‘Why are you turning right?’ he asked, in a small, quiet voice. He’d forgotten that the week before and again the previous night he’d agreed to this, that he’d understood that my mother, at 93, was barely managing her own mobility, let alone the heavy lifting and the level of medical care he now required.
We sat in the car outside the nursing home. Although the health professionals advising us could see no other solution, it felt like the cruelest of betrayals. Finally he said, ‘Okay, take me in but I just want you to understand that this is a temporary arrangement. My plan is to be home soon.’
I’d found a high room with a view of a park-like garden. It was something. As the children of an award winning landscape photographer, my brother and I reliably complained when our holidays were interrupted as our father painstakingly composed yet another photograph. Only later did I realise how, wordlessly, he led us to perceive the significance of the world outside the grandeur of ourselves.
He did not go gently, he raged and raged. We received fourteen calls to his bedside before the garden receded from his view.
My mother was a lifelong and dramatic fainter but after exhaustive tests, we knew there was no cause for concern, apart from catching her as she silently crumpled. We had the routine down. Someone fetched a cushion, someone else elevated her feet on a chair, someone else found a blanket. Remarkably, she never broke a bone, but eventually, she had a fall that hospitalised her.
I was travelling at the time and when I returned to bring her home, she sank back into the pillows of her own bed with a look of bone-tired relief. I didn’t realise it at the time but she had made a decision: she was going to die at home. She stopped eating and eventually drinking. My father along with her two siblings and all but one of her closest friends had died.
I slept in the spare room in those last few weeks. We fell into a pattern. I would wake around 4am to check on her, she was always awake, and then I would lie beside her to watch the sunrise. Watching the dawn together felt like a final call to wonder from my mother, she was always drawing our attention to the sky, to the light at any time of day.
The ancient saying of the threshold is a sacred thing could not have been more evident. When our family congregated around her bed, she smiled and closed her eyes as we talked as if gathering and storing every voice. She was between two worlds, lucid and aware of death's imminence yet unencumbered and brave. Mainly, it seemed, she was curious.
In the grey, pre dawn light the morning she died, she asked me, ‘Do you get to go home?’
I was startled. Having been raised in a zealously religious household, she had turned her back on religion at seventeen.
‘I’m sure you do,’ I replied, wondering, what does she mean by home? Does she know her final destination?
We cannot predict the how but the afterward, at least, we are able to plan. When we stood at the edge of the escarpment that autumn evening, we realised they had known the angled light cast the river far below like a pearly bracelet linking the mountains to the sea, and the bird’s looping calls throughout the valley would be the only sounds in the stillness and the last of the sun would see the sandstone cliffs torched like a ring around us and when nightfall was complete we would know.
About the Author
S.E. Street’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published in the UK, Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand. She is the recipient of the Dymocks Short Story Prize for fiction, the Hunter Writers Award for nonfiction and is the SCWC HARP winner for poetry.