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Portrait: Mum

“It’s been over ten years since she died, and still I often dream about my mother”

Mum was first diagnosed with cancer in 2003 on my eleventh birthday. My brother Petar and I didn’t find out for a few months, until after I’d settled into Year 7 at my new intermediate school. It was the first time I had to wear a uniform — a grey shirt with grey shorts and stiff brown Roman sandals.

Perhaps the grief started then, when I didn’t even know, in the conservatory at home where most evenings I’d interrupt Mum’s reading to tell her about all the things on my mind. She often read as the night pressed in at the side of the house, her thoughts encased in glass. There I told her things before she found out some other way. Some were trivial, like how I’d fallen in with the cool guys at school who smoked cigarettes and looked at porn mags at lunchtime. Or about the detentions I’d had. How once, for example, I was placed in a different class for a morning under strict instruction to sit silently in the corner until the bell rang. I was punished for being talkative, and punished again when I broke my silence to explain how Greek and Latin roots served as clues to the meanings of words. The next day I found a five-dollar note under my muesli bars and Nutella sandwiches with a note saying, ‘there for just in case xx’. In the conservatory I believed in her fully. It was the place where we shared the kind of conversations in which each cumbersome worry becomes a little bit smaller.

If things were more serious, we would talk into the night. She told me about the specialist cancer lodge in Hamilton she had to go to for weeks at a time, where she had a specially made mesh mask that fitted so tightly that she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Every day at the lodge Mum sat with this mask on as the radiation treatment killed off her brain cells. She worried that she couldn’t concentrate or read like she used to. Worst of all, she said, was the fear that she would no longer be able to drive.

Years later we stayed up talking about metastasis, the way cancer breaks away from the main tumour and travels through the bloodstream into other parts of the body. After about five years of treatment Mum’s tumour had moved into her bones and organs, her spinal cord and even her blood. It was no longer just a single tumour refusing to leave. With every heartbeat it was slowly enveloping her body from the inside out. The dim reading lamp next to the chaise longue held the glow of her eyes, glassy and strained from the effort, when she told me this. All the darkness of the house seemed to sit behind her. And it was then, late on a school night, right there in the conservatory, that it hit me: she was going to die. The cancer was in her blood and she was going to die. I had just started Year 12.

*

That year, not knowing how much longer she had, Mum wrote diaries for Dad, Petar and me. “Tim, I don’t know what I’ll write in here,’ mine began, “but I feel I should share my thoughts with you, worthless they may be.”

In it she told me things I’d never known, such as how she and Dad first met. Dad was the eldest of four in a family of Croatian immigrants. He was born in Graz, Austria, after his parents escaped from communist Yugoslavia in 1957. By chance they ended up in New Zealand as refugees, living to begin with in Whanganui and then in Auckland. Dad was the first to go to school and taught his family English each afternoon. He went on to complete a master’s in history at Auckland University, then started a master’s in philosophy at Cambridge.

“Your dad and I are opposites in many ways,” Mum told me. “I don’t know how we got together. I was too much like Petar, loved to drink, smoke and leave work as early as I could.” She first noticed Dad in a lecture on something to do with the origins of World War One. He was well liked by the professor. Mum dropped out of the paper, thinking it was too academic. They met again years later, in 1983, in a queue at a bank in Wellington. Dad was working at the Department of Trade and Enterprise and needed a chequebook; Mum was a low-paid clerk at the Department of Labour and needed an overdraft. In the diary she talks of Dad’s adopted English style of dress that day. She saw something in my Croatian father, who wore “his favourite corduroy mid-green jacket with a thick black moustache”. She wondered if this was his way of trying to negotiate his heritage. A way of fitting into the English-dominated culture at university.

Mum was born a year after Dad with her twin brother Mark, in Dunedin in 1959. Her Presbyterian father was studying theology at Knox College before becoming a minister and eventually taking up a parish in New Plymouth. Mum grew up in a strict religious household and was expected to be the model minister’s daughter. Her liberation came at university in Auckland where, like Dad, she completed a master’s in history. In her first year of university Mum shared a room with her best friend Kay, who placed a line of tape exactly in the middle of the floor between their beds to prevent Mum’s messiness overrunning the whole room. Mum wrote of how she won the Tequila Olympics in her hall of residence that year, out-drinking the boys; of how she helped organise anti-Springbok Tour marches in New Plymouth when home for the 1981 holidays; and of how she became the president of the history students’ association just to spite Dad’s friend Paul, who desperately wanted the position.

In her diary she also wrote of things she struggled with. One entry began, “Today I found out definitely that the cancer has gone into my brain and I have no idea when or how to tell you. Only 6% of breast cancers go to the brain so yet again I’ve had bad luck. I’m scared about how I’ll be affected and what you’ll have to witness. If there was any way I could change the outcome I would.”

*

One morning I spoke with Mum as she planned her funeral. There was absolutely no way, she insisted, no way her father Reverend Tom Woods would take over as celebrant. Instead she chose her aunt Joan, who knew Mum’s aversion to the sombre preferences of the Presbyterian church. We talked about how everyone expected me to say something at her funeral, because that’s what you did: “You have to speak,” my friends told me. “You just do.” There would be eulogies from Dad, Petar and Mum’s best friends, but I didn’t want to add anything. I said to her that morning, “I’ve told you everything I ever needed to, Mum, and that’s enough.” And it was. All the conversations we shared in the conservatory, the evenings of reassuring chatter—it was all enough.

Her funeral was on New Year’s Eve. I’d come back with my friends after three nights of partying at Whangamatā. We were silent that whole winding drive, listening to the static of the aux cord. Mum had been an English teacher at Otumoetai College, the school my brother went to. Her pink casket sat on the stage of her school hall; the aisles were lined with friends, former students, people I’d never seen before. She left the hall to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. My right hand gripped her casket tightly.

*

I sometimes talk about Mum with Dad and Petar. We wonder what she’d make of certain situations, of the three of us finally visiting Croatia when I was eighteen — Dad’s homeland, the place she visited with him in the late 1980s; how the men still drank shots of rakija every morning at breakfast just as they did back then. Sometimes we even talk of how proud she’d be. But we never go as far as to say we miss her, never say anything about the emptiness, there’s no way we could ever risk that.

When she passed away Dad suggested we each see a psychologist to help process our grief. I was seventeen, heading into my last year at a traditional all-boys’ school — the kind that’s full of rugby analogies, where everyone seemed to communicate through grunting. I might have enjoyed reading and writing poetry but I’d still spent four years subscribing to its atmosphere of guarded vulnerabilities. Not only did I refuse the suggestion of counselling, dismissing it as a weakness, I ridiculed my older brother for taking up Dad’s offer. I couldn’t bear the thought of explaining myself to a stranger, a stranger who couldn’t bring Mum back.

Our inability to communicate, however, stretched beyond my adopted stoicism. The risk, even now, is a return to the void — the very place inside us in which we confront how meaningless our lives are without her. Each of us offers a different take on the past that the other two thought they’d let go of. All it takes is the return of one repressed memory to suddenly deflate our bodies once again.

*

Although the three of us became closer after her death, we also drifted without Mum glueing everything together. In a way I envied my devoutly Presbyterian grandparents, who had a higher power not only to justify the loss of their daughter, aged fifty, but also to anchor them to something beyond themselves. Dad sold the family home in Matua, Petar moved to Melbourne and I to Wellington, as if our family dynamic had been rebuilt upon shifting foundations, now absent of any recognisable centre. Perhaps it was this absence that made me try to revisit her world in any way I could, ascribing meaning to things that weren’t necessarily there. I wanted to know everything about her. What was she like as a teenager? How did she view the world at the age I am now? Sometimes I looked at old photos of her. Sometimes I read Mum’s favourite books — Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield — where she’d scribbled in the margins, as if I could actually read what she was thinking. Every dog-eared corner was a special insight into her mind, something she had left behind. Occasionally the exact tone of her voice came back, and in those moments the words spilled out of their pages and I couldn’t do anything but miss her.

Without realising, I did everything I could to see parts of my life reflecting parts of hers. I started making my bed a certain way: her way, with the pillowcase openings facing inwards and the top sheet folded over the duvet. I read more. Mum was an English teacher, after all. She made me memorise Shakespeare when my teachers didn’t go into enough detail. She recited to me Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, without sharing his dread of the afterlife: “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns …” There was the time she asked to see my Year 13 subject selection for the next year. I was over English by that point, over school. She was dying when I showed her the form, and I couldn’t believe she cared. But there she was at the kitchen table, calmly replacing 13PE with 13ENG with only a month to live. The next year I topped Year 13 English. I went on to complete a Master of Arts in English literature followed by a Master of Creative Writing. Without realising, I’d constructed an entire identity from that one moment. I’d held onto that piece of paper the whole time, as if it was still crumpled in my pocket.

*

Mum’s diary ended abruptly. The last entry was on my seventeenth birthday, November 19, 2009. A Thursday. That afternoon I’d finished a Level 3 stats exam and we were going out to dinner to celebrate. Harbourside, probably. Our favourite restaurant as kids because the wait-staff gave us bits of bread to toss over the balcony for the fish to gobble up below. We’d grown up since then. Mum no longer needed to shake her head as we ordered pork spare ribs from the kids’ menu, or warn us that we wouldn’t be allowed out for dinner next time if we didn’t use a knife and fork properly.

Earlier that week we’d found out that the cancer had spread to her spinal cord. I came home after school to find Mum vomiting. We talked through her closed bedroom door about how she was too unwell to go out but how we would celebrate properly soon enough. She wrote in my diary that evening, “You didn’t even get to go out for your seventeenth birthday because I ended up sick. Losing your mother to cancer is wrong, unfair and I feel anger and grief. But some things we can’t change. Drinking more fruit juice won’t help, Tim.” It wasn’t long before she was admitted to the hospice, the point of no return. Our harbourside dinner eluded us.

That night, for the first time, the tone in Mum’s writing shifted into something more instructional. In urgent syllables the sentences became shorter and snappier, as if she was scrambling to get it all down in time. The last paragraph ended:

I refuse to say cancer is a journey that makes us stronger. It’s one I’d rather our family wasn’t on. So you need to take care of yourself. You are bright. You have a great group of friends. But soon you’ll face the hardest situation yet. I’ve wasted many opportunities, but I think many of us do, thinking we have all the time in the world. Our lives would be so much different, Tim, so much different, if we had all the time in the world.

The diary still sits in the top drawer of my bedside table. Her large sprawling loops only made it through twenty pages or so before the writing got too much, before her days started to loosen, to become too hard to keep hold of. For a long time I could barely open it because it was the closest thing I would ever have to her actual thinking. As she got further in, her sentences read like they were taking on water. Inconsistencies and odd grammatical mistakes became the sign that she was struggling to come up for air, each one mapping the coordinates of a sharp mind finally losing its grip on the world. Her last line hung at the top of a page with dozens of white pages waiting on the other side beyond it — the blank space she would never fill.

*

Tauranga’s Waipuna Hospice lies on the Wairoa River off State Highway 2. Thousands of people drive that road every day and don’t even realise it’s there. The hospice sits alone on a plain overlooking the water, surrounded by empty paddocks. Whenever I’m hitching a ride with a friend from Auckland, I look out for it on the left as we enter the city. I never say anything. I don’t really know why I do it. She wasn’t even there for long — a few weeks, perhaps? Months? But I can’t help it. Right there, I think, the last spot on earth where she stood.

*

It’s been over ten years since she died, and still I often dream about my mother. It’s the same dream over and over — Mum and me at our first family home, a large powder-blue villa in the Avenues. In it she twirls my hair as she did when I was a child, lightly so her fingers never tangle, firmly enough so the knot never falls. Strange light filters through the leaves outside, hazy in the late afternoon, latticed with flecks of something that my brother would have insisted must be dry leaves swirling around in the wind or even bits of dead cicadas that had shed their loose skin. Maybe both. Mum doesn’t say anything in this dream. She can’t. And no matter how hard I try to warn her about what’s coming, she just sits there indifferently twirling my hair. Her face is a shadowy blur of itself, perfectly distinct and muddled at the same time.

From the essay “Drinking More Fruit Juice Won’t Help” by Tim Grgec, published in Strong Words #2: The best of the Landfall essay competition selected by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $35), featuring the work of Shelley Burne-Field, Siobhan Harvey, Ingrid Horrocks, Himali McInnes, Tuck Ming Tan, Mikaela Nyman, Nina Mingya Powles, Matt Vance and other writers.



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