My mother used to pretend that she was dead.
I’d come in from outside and she’d be lying on the couch, one leg and arm hanging over the side, her eyes closed and her tongue stuck out, her apron split and folded over the drawstring in the middle beneath her still, unmoving bosom.
I’d say, “Mammy.”
She wouldn’t react.
I’d say “Mammy” again.
Still, she’d do nothing. So I’d poke her cheeks and pull at her eyelashes, lifting the lids and looking into the still brown irises, all the while saying “Mammy, mammy, mammy” over and over again.
Sometimes I’d stand back away from her, next to the hot range, and say “I know you’re only messin’.” Nothing.
I’d leave the room and come back.
I’d leave and come back again.
I’d leave again, especially angry that she wouldn’t get up, and especially frightened that she might be really dead this time and I wouldn’t know what to do… but I’d come back into the kitchen and she’d be standing next to the range, stirring soup or whatever it was that she had in the pots.
Maybe stew. I learned to hate stew because it smelled so much like Shepherd’s Pie (my favourite) and was cooked in the same pots, and when it arrived on my plate after school I’d be double angry at my nose and my mother for the olfactory guarantees that they had made to me and reneged upon.
I don’t recall how I reacted when I realised that she was alive, or how she carried herself. I imagine, knowing her as I did, that she pretended nothing had happened, not even pointing a dry smile or a twinkling eye in my direction.
And I remember sitting beside her in the hospital ward, red-eyed not from crying but rather from sneezing at the disinfectant used to clean the corridors. I remember the sawdust rasp of her breathing, the brittle heaviness of her limbs, and the nicotine colour of eyelids that’d never open again. I remember meeting the eyes of the other sons and daughters in the ward, the reciprocated sympathy of meeting together the ultimate of childhood fears, but here, as a man, when it’s supposed to be easy.
The point is not that my mother was cruel, nor that she damaged me (everyone’s mother does, that’s what they’re for). As a child, I could’ve decided a lot of things, something about trust or about death or about love or about something else, some story that really I can’t imagine as an adult.
But what I decided, somewhere along the way, with this and with the library of other memories that I won’t recount right now, was that my mother had a great sense of humor.
Now that she’s really gone, I remember this and she can be alive again for as long as I want.
I do this with my own children, sometimes. I wonder what they’re deciding.
Photo by Massimo Danieli from London, UK (Dormi dormi) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.