SHE WHO SITS at her kitchen table across from her mother who has flown in for the birth of this child; who hears her mother’s rattled shaky cough, a chesty, phlegmy obstruction that sounds like guns popping as her mother’s face turns red; she who gets up to fill a glass of water, to find the tissue box (which is empty because her household just finished a round of colds); she who passes her mother a torn paper towel instead, who lets the water run cold so that it will refresh as it pushes back against the nagging cough, but really she who stands at the sink doesn’t want to watch her mother spitting up the phlegm into the napkin, horking and gagging to battle against this cough which has probably been lingering for months. She who doesn’t look, does not have to see.
She, who just started maternity leave, finally returns to the table and wonders when the wrinkles beneath her mother’s eyes became as deep as bird footprints in snow, for how long has her mother’s hand shook like that? Exactly when did she turn into an old woman? She who takes a deep breath and feels the air moving unobstructed in and out of her lungs, silent and smooth. She who has managed this pregnancy without nausea, whose hair has grown thicker and shinier as the child develops within; she who looks at her mother’s hair and sees where it is thinning, where her mother has teased and sprayed to give it body, to puff herself out, to mask what she is losing.
She who asks dumbly, “Have you seen your doctor?” and then wonders how many doctor’s appointments will there be back home in the winter, her mother coughing at her own kitchen sink, and spitting out gobs of green gunk, spitting it down the drain willing it to slide away, willing her head to stop spinning from breathing too fast and too shallow, standing there in an empty house counting the steps to her car parked in a garage that is detached even though in the winter temperatures reach -40C. She who thinks of her mother driving herself to her appointments, listening to the doctor’s instructions for puffers and narcotic cough syrup and lung X-rays, and nights of not sleeping as she sits up in her bed in her dark, still house, coughing against the echoes of colds and flus and dry coughs she once nursed for years before, the pulse of a house that at one time burst with the rhythm of a family healthy, then sick, then mending; children calling out to said mother in the middle of the night, “Mummy? Come lie with me.”
She who remembers steamers and hot showers running for 15 minutes in a closed bathroom, and Vicks Vaporub and medicine that tastes like sour cherries or spiked lemonade. She whose own house pulsates like that now, who baby will be #3; whose mother, settled now from her coughing spasm sips the lemon water with honey and says, “I’m fine. It’s not that big a deal.”
She who knows her mother is lying. She who is suddenly tired of being lied to. She who says back, “Why haven’t you seen anyone? You can’t breathe, for God’s sake!”
Whose mother replies, “There’s no one left to take me!”
She who sighs because they have always fought like this, blowing out hot puffs of air, wordless notes on scales of frustration. She who can think of nothing else to say except, “That’s not an excuse;” who wants to pound the table and yell, “You don’t get to choose not to look after yourself!” She who does not want to upset her mother in the first hour of this visit, who instead sits back in her chair, rubs her swollen belly while her mother starts coughing again, while she spits out honey lemon water that lands in droplets like blinking eyes on the table between them.
She who thought they would walk the Promenade Mall this afternoon to try and induce labour, who had pictured her mother flying in to rub her back against the Brackston Hicks contractions; she who has two best friends who have both buried mothers, who drove mothers to appointments, who took notes, who made soups and spoon fed their mothers in hospital beds set up in childhood bedrooms; who were exhausted at the end of each day from waiting and resisting and knowing and wishing and praying and hoping and fighting and carrying and caring and soothing and witnessing and rubbing and crying and counting and waiting.
She who for the first time wonders which visit will be her mother’s last.
She who walks her mother up the stairs to her daughter’s bedroom, to a bed overflowing with stuffed animals, whose daughter will sleep in her room on the floor in a sleeping bag; she who takes an armful of stuffies off the bed and piles them on the floor so that they look like a cartoon shot of zoo creatures piling up to escape an enclosure; she who pulls back the covers to her daughter’s bed, as she does every night, but she who tucks her mother inside it, whose mother’s eyes are closed before they hit the pillow; she who leans over to kiss the side of her mother’s face, the wrinkles like a map of pathways that have brought her here to this bed, the lilac duvey cover, the unicorn poster taped on the wall above, the blind she is lowering so that the sun does not disturb her mother whose shoulders shake from the cough that clings to her insides; she who leaves the room and closes the door and tries to remember where she put the humidifier and if she’s changed the filter lately and whether she should fill the basin with water from the tub and then plug it in to steam her daughter’s lilac and blue room that they just painted last summer because her daughter is eight now and has opinions.
She who wonders about calling her sister in Phoenix, her brother in Chicago, who thinks it’s time to say what do we do about mum? She who imagines her brother on his bad cellphone connection saying, “It’s just a cold.” Her sister saying, “She should use oil of oregano,” but pronouncing it o-re-GA-no because she works in a health food stood. She who feels her baby shift and push against her insides which are tightening around his growing limbs (She who knows this baby is a boy but has told no one, but now wonders if she should tell her mother, just so they can share something). She who feels like pushing and pulling her way out of this house, even as she crouches by the bathtub, moves the plastic toys away from the faucet, fills the steamer so that she is doing something, hears more coughing from her daughter’s bedroom and with each gasp wants to bolt. She who carries in the steamer, the Vicks, more pillows to prop up her mother’s pale head; she who says, “Mum, let’s give this a try.”
She who dips her fingers into the eucalyptus Vaseline, who coughs herself from the sharp scent, who spreads the jelly on her mother’s chest across her collar bone, who pulls down the V-neck T-shirt so as not to get it dirty. She who wants not to look but sees anyway, her mother’s breasts, shriveled and empty from nursing a long time ago, deflated against her pretty bra; she who feels both sadness and relief that her mother would still choose such a bra—an eggshell blue, a vine of flowers from the padded cups to the shoulder straps. She who keeps rubbing, stays away from her mother’s breasts and instead kneads the leathery skin stretched across her chest, the top of her rib cage. She who feels the jagged breath rattling in and out of her mother’s cage and presses deeper into her flesh as if the pressure might suppress it. She who begins to feel the humidity in the room rising, who watches the droplets form on the base of the window beneath the blind, who feels her mother relax beneath her touch, whose mother takes her first deep breath, who lets one tear roll down her cheek at the joy of having made a difference.
Sidura Ludwig is a writer living in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Her novel HOLDING MY BREATH was published in 2007 in Canada, the US and the UK. She was most recently a finalist in the 2017 Little Bird Writing Contest. Her work has appeared in Canadian and British publications, as well as on CBC Radio.