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To hide her unease, she turns to the window and examines the parked cars snaked along the street. I wonder if she no longer understands the wounding power of words, or no longer cares. On a plane home to Perth, row 27, I’m seated next to a middle-aged Swiss tourist who’s flirting with his girlfriend in her window seat. To my left, an old woman in a swimming cap negotiates the stairs to the shallow end, her back painfully humped.
My mother, always the most social of creatures, is becoming gauche. He babbles incessantly, his words a guttural stream of sound. A portly man, toes cantilevered over the edge of the diving board, springs into a clumsy dive with a shudder of white belly. My mother’s athleticism is imprinted on my earliest memories: the knot of her calf, the long sheaf of hamstring, the muscular groove along the side of her thigh, quads taut and smooth. On Saturdays at the tennis club when I was a child, the men would follow my mother with hungry eyes.
The winning smile, the playful demeanor, the erect carriage, her body petite now but still muscular from a lifetime of exercise. It’s someone trying to scare you into giving them money.
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There would be no guts or gore, just the smack of bone on bitumen and that would be that. Naturally it found her, just as we feared it would. “I have a neurological condition,” she’d say matter-of-factly if someone asked after her health. “Don’t worry honey,” she began to say with unnerving regularity. It was our little joke, a pact to be made good between mother and daughter.
The bus driver (thoughtfully edited out of her fantasy), would feel nothing, see nothing. “I have short term memory loss,” was her stock reply, if they asked for specifics. The daughter would palliate the indignity of her mother’s illness by failing to intercede in her master plan. She refused all offers of a birthday party, a family dinner, even an afternoon tea. “And no surprises,” she added, frowning and wagging an arthritic finger at me. It makes me anxious.” In almost fifty years of daughterhood, I’ve never seen my mother anxious.
The next morning, her routine would remain unaltered.
She’d eat a small bowl of sliced banana with yoghurt and drink milky tea from her Noritake cup.
In the last few years, peripheral neuropathy has inexplicably taken all sensation from her feet, but not enough of her balance to stop her riding her bike.
And yet it’s the 2-percent of her muscle mass residing in her skull that will ultimately do her in.
Turning left, she’d walk along Montgomery Avenue until she was downwind of bus stop No. At the mid-point of a sweeping bend, she’d park herself on the verge and wait calmly, the sun toasting her back.
When the bus loomed into view, she’d count to five, step off the curb and let the number 28 take her for one last ride. I want the short cut to death, not the scenic route.” We would snort, the two of us.
She’d arranged her snappy exit, the two of us, when she was 60 and I was 30.
The number 28 bus was our contingency plan in case Mum’s golden years were robbed by dementia. Dementia had stolen her mother, her brother, both uncles and a brother-sister combination of first cousins. Nobody died of anything else – except mum’s father – who’d been felled on the kitchen floor by a heart attack, aged 50.
On the outside, she remains a perfect likeness of my mother.