A short story by Annalisa Mastronardi
Francis, my husband, is a creature of habit. Every morning, he wakes up early and makes breakfast for everybody. Since retiring from having worked as an architect for forty years, he has helped me out with the housework: he makes our bed, clears the table, does the washing up. In the evening, he reminds me to take my blood-pressure meds and makes sure they are always well stocked. He isn’t a flowers and chocolate type of husband, that’s true, but all these small gestures are to me the greatest proof of his love.
I, too, am a creature of habit, or rather, life has made me so. Every morning, after having barely slept for a few hours, I go to John and Matthew’s old bedroom and take care of my mother: I wash her and change her urine-soaked sheets. Every day is the same. Despite the diaper and the waterproof bed pad, the liquid always reaches the linens, wetting not only her nightgown but also her hair sometimes. Long parts of each morning are spent washing her bedsheets. The smell of urine and faeces lingers with me for a long time, even after taking a shower and changing my clothes. It invades my nose and gets into my brain, following me everywhere like a faithful friend.
I performed that nauseating ritual this morning too, then went to the kitchen. Francis was sitting across from my daughter Julia. I sat down at the table with them and took a bite of my slice of toast with black cherry jam. The eight o’clock newscast announced that the stock market was continuing its downward trend.
“If I make money one day, I’ll buy a house and rent it to students,” Julia said, dipping a biscuit into her milk.
“Go on. How are you going to make this money?” I asked.
“I’ll find a good job and get rich,” she muttered with her mouth full.
“That won’t happen.” I started stirring my coffee with a teaspoon. “Very little of what you wish for in life works out.”
“Maybe if you stay at home the whole time…” she retorted.
“That’s no way to talk to your mother!” Francis intervened.
“But she started this!” she protested.
“I’d like to see you in my situation,” I said, staring at her. “You would have abandoned me in a hospice. That’s for sure.”
“We can’t all play Mother Theresa, mum. Why do these facilities exist then? it’s got to mean something?” She stood up. “Not everybody can afford to look after their parents. Or do you think we should be all like you?”
“If you’re not happy with it, get out of this house,” Francis barked, pounding his fist on the table. “You’re big enough, aren’t you?”
Julia looked at me and her father for a few instants, her lower lip shaking, then put her glass in the sink and went to her bedroom.
I said nothing. It was pointless to keep arguing. Peaceful relations were impossible with her. We always ended up fighting. She scolded us for not having loved her enough, for having made all our experiences with her siblings while leaving her only crumbs. She lamented that we never took her on holiday, to the cinema or, simply, to have a pizza together. We told her we were tired or busy. We got too old for that sort of thing. She said we didn’t want her, that her birth wasn’t planned, it just happened. I tried to explain to her many times that being a parent wasn’t easy at all, especially when you already have two grown sons and you’re now in your sixties.
I had Julia when I was forty and Francis was forty-five. There was another pregnancy before her but I miscarried after only three months. We wanted a girl, so we tried again and, two years later, she was born. We did our best with her but she was right, our energy and enthusiasm were no longer what they used to be. But, I swear to God, there has never been a time Francis and I loved her less than her brothers, and I do hope she realises that one day.
After the brief argument with Julia this morning, I did some final chores before getting ready to go out with Francis for the groceries. Julia had no morning class, so she was available to stay home with her grandmother. Since the progression of her dementia, we can’t leave her alone anymore. If Julia isn’t home, Francis and I take turns looking after her: when I go out, he stays at home and vice versa. Occasionally, my cousin comes and gives us a hand, allowing Francis and me to run errands together. Every moment afforded to us to spend some hours outside and enjoy our yard time together is precious.
While giving the kitchen a quick clean, my eyes alighted on my old university card that I had stumbled on some days ago. Academic year 1976/1977. Stapled on it was a black and white picture of me when I was more or less Julia’s age. Now I could see that, despite not liking myself very much at the time, I was beautiful. I studied Business for one year and took three exams. Calculations have always been my thing. I married Francis that summer and immediately got pregnant with John, so I dropped out of university and completely devoted myself to my family. When I was a child, my mother worked all day. It was my grandparents, or sometimes some neighbours of ours, who took care of me most of the time. Her absence was something I felt deeply. With that in mind, I decided to be as present a mother as I possibly could, I would look after my children myself. I didn’t want them to grow up without me. In other words, I did the opposite of mine. And Julia, I could see, was on course for a life very different to the one I had lived. And she could be very cruel at showing this to me. She often thanked me for being what I was because at least now, she said, she knew what she didn’t want to become. Who could blame her, after all? Isn’t it what most of us do? Distance ourselves from our mothers?
I put the card back and took breakfast to my mother. Francis helped me lift her and put her in the wheelchair. I gave her some bread soaked in milk on a spoon, in which I had blended her pills, so she could get them down easier. Having no teeth, she wasn’t able to chew, and in the last few months, she could barely swallow. When I finished spoon-feeding her, we put her back to bed and were finally ready to go out.
“Be sure to watch your grandma,” I pleaded with Julia before leaving.
“Okay.” She was lying in bed, staring at her book.
We drove to the supermarket, then went to the greengrocer and finally stopped by the pharmacy for my mother’s drugs. I was glad to breathe fresh air, at least for a couple of hours.
When we got back, Julia was already dressed and ready for college. She had class at 1 pm and had already had lunch. Francis and I would eat after we had fed my mother first.
“Everything okay with your grandma?” I asked her.
“Yup. As usual, she talked to herself,” she said, putting on her jacket. “Speaking of, I heard her last night. She gave me a fright when she yelled.”
“You’re telling us.” I answered sarcastically. “I’ve forgotten what it feels like to sleep without being continuously woken.”
At least now she doesn’t get up at night and wander around the house anymore, I thought.
“What time do you get home?”
“Today we finish at 5. Afterwards, I’ll be tutoring. I’ll be back at 7, I think.”
She waved and shut the door.
I admired my daughter. She always tried to keep busy: she studied, gave private classes and babysat during the weekend. She was tireless like her grandmother, meticulous like her father and, deep down, had a good nature just like me. I never paid her compliments, not even when she got the highest marks in college. She complained about that, that’s true. She wished for our approval, but we didn’t want her to flatter herself. “Keep your feet on the ground,” Francis and I always repeated to her. She got furious, she couldn’t comprehend that, if we held back in our praise for her, we did it so that she would remain a humble human being.
I put on comfier clothes and went to the kitchen to make lunch. Francis had already put the groceries away and showed me a photo that my daughter-in-law had sent him on WhatsApp.
“Look at them,” I exclaimed, moving the screen close to my face and putting my glasses on my head. “How lovely they are.”
Like young small toy soldiers, my nephews were standing next to each other in order of height. Luckily, I have them. Children always bring great joy to a family.
After contemplating their tender little faces, I gave the phone back to Francis and took from the fridge some vegetable puree I had prepared yesterday. While busy arranging the pots, the telephone rang. It was Sylvia, a neighbour. She said it was a while since she had heard from me. She asked how I was doing, how was my mother?
“Well, she just breathes.” I responded, pouring the puree into a pan to warm it. “It’s all that she can do now.”
She said that I couldn’t keep that up, that I needed some help.
“Have you ever considered bringing her to a nursing home? Or, if you’re not feeling like it, you could always hire someone to help you at home. You know, lift her, wash her. That sort of thing.”
“I never liked the idea of having a stranger at home, actually. Francis is already a great support.”
“Oh, he is a saint. I always have to fight with my sisters. None of them seems to care about their father. It’s always me who has to bring him groceries or collect his medication.”
“Thankfully, I don’t have any siblings. I don’t have to argue with anyone, at least” I said, sniggering.
“Yeah. But, seriously, it’s worth considering sending your mum to a nursing home. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up getting ill at some point.”
“I don’t know… With everything that’s going on…” I exhaled deeply. “Have you heard what they do to these poor old people in these homes? They would immediately lose patience with my mum.”
“But there are facilities for non-self-sufficient seniors as well, you know,” she said, “I can ask around, if you want.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I’ll have a think about it.” I took my leave and hung up.
I don’t know if I could do this to my mother. Putting her in a nursing home. God, she did so much for me. After all, I don’t work and my children are grown enough. I could make this sacrifice, couldn’t I? How longer would she survive? The disease was in its final stages. Either way, it was far better than living with the guilt for the rest of my life. If she was capable of knowing that I could consider this, she would never forgive me. No, I couldn’t do that to her.
When the lunch was ready, we moved my mother onto the wheelchair. But first I tasted the puree to make sure that it didn’t burn. Francis held her head so that it didn’t tilt back. Never a complaint and he often tells jokes to her. I wonder where he finds the courage to be this way.
“Open your mouth,” I said, lifting the spoon to her mouth with one hand while holding the dish with the other.
She didn’t move. Her lips were pursed. She looked straight ahead.
“Open your mouth,” I repeated.
“Open your mouth,” I shouted, trying not to spill the puree on the ground.
“Do you think she understands you better if you scream like that?” Francis asked, staring at me with a serious look.
“I’m exhausted, Francis.” I placed the dish on the bedside table and moved my hair off my forehead.
I tried again.
I brought the spoon to her mouth and pushed it to her lips.
“Open your mouth,” I said, calmly this time.
She opened her mouth and I finally got the first spoonful of puree into it. I cleaned her face with a tissue. It took me around twenty minutes to get her to finish everything, then I moved to the fruit mousse where I had put one of her pills.
While spoon-feeding her, she started coughing and ended up vomiting the lunch over herself.
“Mum! No!” I yelled.
I wanted to die. Now I had to clean everything again from scratch. I felt the urge to throw the dish into the air.
I took some rags and washed the floor. Francis helped me clean her with a wet towel, then we changed her clothes and put her back in her bed.
I had a shower, made lunch and, finally, we sat down to eat. I felt worn out. I wanted to run far away. Is this really what life is? Why did the Lord give me this Cross? Questions crowded my mind.
“Go take a nap,” Francis suggested once we finished our meal. “You need to rest. I’ve got this.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking his hand and bringing it to my cheek.
He was an extraordinary man. He could have left me, lived a better life but, for my sake, stayed with me, burdening himself with all this.
I left the kitchen, Sylvia’s suggestion was on my mind. Maybe it would be best for everyone if I put my mother in a nursing home. I tried my best. I did all that I could for as long as I could.
I walked by my mother’s room. The door was open. She was there, lying in bed, her eyes closed. I sat down next to her and remained silent for a few minutes looking at her.
“Mum, are you feeling better?” I asked.
She didn’t reply.
“How tired I am, mum. How tired.” A tear ran down my cheek.
At that very moment, I felt her hand feebly holding mine. Her eyes were still closed, but she was smiling.
Annalisa Mastronardi viene da Roma. Ha ricevuto una Laurea Triennale in Lingue e Culture Straniere a Roma Tre nel 2016 e completato la Laurea Magistrale in Letterature e Traduzione Interculturale nel 2018. Dal 2019 vive a Dublino dove sta svolgendo un dottorato sulle eredità Joyciane nella narrativa contemporanea femminile irlandese presso la Dublin City University. Le sue precedenti pubblicazioni sono apparse su HeadStuff, Writing.ie e contemporaryirishlit.wordpress.com.
Altre sue short story le trovate qui.