My father knew that March would be a long month this year so he died on the last day of February. Nobody expected it. My mother had said that he would outlive her and become a hundred. He was eighty, recently retired from his medical practice, and still indestructible, or so we thought. We should have paid attention to the sudden liking he took that winter to staying in bed with the cat on his knees, reading one of the books usually strewn around him. In January he got a bad flu, three weeks later it had turned into pneumonia and most of February he spent taking antibiotics and sleeping. We talked a great deal about his new infirmities, but none of us did anything because Karl had always been the one in our family to make medical decisions. And then his heart stopped on that last night in February, leaving us to guiltily explain the enigma of his final days to at least three dozen insistent relatives who all felt they had had a stake in his life and death.
They came to the closing of his coffin and the outpouring of grief and rage shook the minister who had come prepared with his usual gentle words for the departed elderly. It was early March, the weather was Russian, and we fought through a blizzard to get his coffin into the gaping hole in the ground. At the church, every civic and sporting organization in town staked their claim to him by setting up their banners draped in black. My sisters had chosen thundering German organ music, a lot of Bach, and then it was done. At the wake, there were all the people who had come to his eightieth birthday party the summer before, including the president and the prime minister. Everyone looked confused and embarassed to be together again so soon and with him absent, as if the birthday celebration had been a bad joke he played on them, having plotted his imminent death all that time. There were plenty of self-righteous virtue touters there who knew very well that both Karl’s virtues and failings rose to a greatness so far above theirs and that he had often made jokes about them, as if his doctor’s eye saw them as the stark-naked human creatures they really were.
Karl was a self-tamed natural force, his tempers and his loves fierce beyond the rest of us. Since he was unfathomable and since, as a doctor, he was crucial to so many people’s lives, he became, in the eyes of the town, beyond the scope of ordinary death. Not until we got home and sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea did any of us realize that in the last moments of his life Karl Thorsson had been cut down to human size, as a result of which his heart had stopped, like all human hearts do, and he had died.
After the wake we sat together in the kitchen, my mother and my two older sisters, Johanna and Margaret. Their children and their husbands ate pizza in the living room while watching TV. I have no wife and no children. I just have my mother.
I watched my sister Margaret who lives in Oxfordshire with her professor husband and two accomplished daughters, scan my mother’s kitchen with distaste. It was March and by that time in Iceland the light is already strong and lasts into the evening. But instead of giving hope for spring it illuminates the chaos and destruction of a winter still in full force, ready to last well into May. Outside, everything had been dead for a long time, and inside, the full ruin of my mother’s kitchen was revealed for anyone to see. Twenty years ago she had come back from one of her sanatorium stays to find her old white kitchen gone and in its place a nasty assortment of brown cabinets with stained glass fronts and brown and orange linoleum covering the floor. Karl was very proud of it and made everyone tell him how much they liked it. But in a few weeks he too seemed to have forgotten about it and on they plodded, the two of them, cooking and eating and doing dishes as this brown and orange world crumbled around them. I sometimes wondered if the renovation had been my father’s silent revenge for my mother’s ways. She never mentioned it.
Johanna, my other sister, sat in Karl’s chair, eyeing his copy of the Sturlunga Chronicle, his favourite tale of medieval Icelandic clans spilling each other´s blood. It sat on the windowsill, where for more than forty years, Karl had opened it every day at a random page when he came home for his lunch, always delighting in discovering some new detail or character that had eluded him before. Johanna was undoubtedly thinking about how she would get her hands on it before Margaret did.
While Margaret turned the act of making coffee and getting cups into a bustling process that highlighted her important role as caretaker of everybody else, my mother, minute and elflike with her silver hair, bright eyes and bouncy movements, sat up very straight in her chair.
‘Stop buzzing about,’ she said to Margaret. ‘I have something to tell you all.’
After my mother had said her words and while Johanna and Margaret made a show of their gasps of surprise and terror, I thought about a journey I had taken with my parents some years ago to Spain and Morocco. One morning, as we touristed through a grand vizier’s palace, I watched my mother stare at the the faded patterns of red, yellow, green and blue tiles as we crossed a large room that led into a courtyard of orange and lemon trees. She moved carefully around the room, her eyes fixed to the ground. After a while I went up to her and touched her shoulder. She looked at me with shining eyes. ‘It’s like they have a secret,’ she whispered. ‘It’s like they have always known what beauty is and we don’t because we’re too far from the sun.’ Her eyes were red and brimmed with tears. In the meantime my father looked intently at the ceiling and speculated about the tools and skills required to mould the clay walls and cut the timber. He fixed me with his burning eyes for a few seconds and then lost interest and moved on to check the orange trees in the courtyard.
I watched the thoughts go through Johanna’s head. I knew that with Karl gone she had plans. She would take our mother to the hairdresser’s and to doctors’ appointments and to the mall to buy stockings and underwear. All these things would be credit in Johanna’s bank of daughterly frustration. She was about to enter into a period of abundance, of finally being my mother’s power broker after all these years of knocking on the door and being refused. ‘Your father can do it, Karl can take me,’ my mother would say, ‘I don’t want to take your time, you have enough on your hands with the girls as it is,’ which was really her way of saying that she couldn’t stand being the object of Johanna’s furious attention for too long at a time. But now there was to be no more of that: there would be quiet acquiescence on my mother’s part, a final acknowledgement that Johanna’s moment of power had finally come.
Then I heard my mother say it again.
After the silence that followed her second proclamation, my sisters demanded to talk to the doctor. Why hadn’t she told them? Had our father known?
When she nodded, they expressed their sense of betrayal. How could he not have told them? It had been his responsibility to tell them!
She gave us the name of her doctor. Then she reiterated her decision. It was firm. She would not change her mind. There was also the priest. He had helped her make the arrangements. There was nothing we could say to make her change her mind.
It wasn’t her decision to make, my sisters said. If things stood as she said they did, well then it most certainly wasn’t! They had to decide on her care and they certainly could not do that if she was far away, locked up in a convent in the Tuscan hills.
The place she was going to, my mother said, was very capable of taking care of her. She would sell the house, pay out our inheritance, which would be handsome as Karl had been very clever about investments and savings, and she would use her portion to pay for her care. It probably wouldn’t take long before the end: a year or two at most.
Convents. My mother has always been obsessed with convents and nuns. She has a huge collection of academic books, picture books, and novels about life in convents. She told me some years ago about a convent in Arequipa, when my parents went on a side trip from their Galapagos cruise. She showed me photographs of a maze of little streets and tiny houses, all painted blue and red, encircled by a wall and flanked by a church. They had hired a local guide, but as soon as they began to navigate this miniature city of women Karl began to feel intensely claustrophobic. ‘A lonely and cramped life,’ he muttered and excused himself to get back out on the street to get some air. My mother said that Karl was right: it must be lonely being a nun, but unlike all the other lonely people in the world, at the very least you live with other nuns who are lonely like you are and yearn for God. It makes a community, this common loneliness and yearning, like putting scores of women in love together and locking them up behind walls. My mother said she knew why Karl felt so claustrophobic: because he was the loneliest person on earth, the man who knew everybody in our town and spoke to at least a hundred people a day, to get back exhausted late at night and retreat into the disorder of his room, the only place he felt at home.
‘But you’ll be walled in!’ I heard Johanna shout. Behind her, through the kitchen window, I saw the swirling white vortex of the blizzard, snowflakes pasted on the darkening canvas of the evening.
´Daddy knew, and didn’t tell us?’
Margaret, who thought faster than anyone else, thought it was Karl’s turn to be blamed.
My mother turned her face to the snow-covered window. My whole life my mother has been averting her face from people to stare out windows. She brought the coffee cup very deliberately to her lips, taking her time and when she finally took a sip it was disappointingly short. Then it took her an equally long time to put the cup away. Her half-closed eyes made things blurry that otherwise were too clear. This has always been my mother’s way of expressing her disgust with the frenetic pace of life going on around her. It’s how she makes it stop, her slow movements hypnotizing those around her, holding them in her spell.
‘I’m tired,’ she said to the window, ‘I’m going to lie down. Tomorrow you can come with me to see the doctor. He’ll confirm everything I’ve said.’ She did not add, ‘since you don’t believe me.’ She never added such things because she thought them cheap.
I saw Johanna begin to rise and I knew she meant to intimidate our sitting mother from her standing position, like the times when our mother was stuck in bed and couldn’t get away from her.
‘I’ll help you up the stairs,’ I said. My mother did not smile or say thank you for that would have given my sisters their old grievance to chew on. We left the room hand in hand. When we got up the stairs and to her bedroom door she squeezed my hand. ‘You may visit me,’ she whispered in my ear, ‘but you mustn’t let anybody else know that you’re allowed.’
The next morning we drove up to the hospital in Johanna’s car. The blizzard had passed and it had started to rain, turning the pristine white snow blanket that had covered the streets after the funeral into a tattered grey rag. The sounds the cars made as they drove through the sludge grated on my ears and when I watched them pass by us on the road it looked like they were dragging soppy, grey strands of wool, our national winter sadness, behind them.
At the hospital Johanna deposited us at the main entrance so that our mother would not have to walk through the sludge before she drove around the large parking lot looking for space. My mother was walking with a cane then because she had never really recovered from breaking her thigh the winter before last. It had happened at this time of year, when she had worked up the courage to venture out onto the icy streets after months of staying in her room, reading in bed. But my father, who had always been light and steady on his feet, never put sand or salt on the icy steps and she had only taken one cautious step out into the world when she fell and landed on her side. As we walked slowly, attentively by her side I thought she looked happy with her cane, relieved, like she’d finally been given the help she needed to get through life.
When we came into the hospital vestibule, she looked around with approval. I remembered how at ease she had looked after the thigh operation in her pristine hospital bed with morphine pumping into her veins, having nothing to do but exist. That was when she had first met the priest, Father Alvaro from Argentina. He had a rough, handsome face, smoked cigars all day and carried a small flask of brandy in his trouser pocket. His faded jeans hung on his tall, gaunt frame, and I only ever saw him wear a torn black cardigan and some sort of a black priestly shirt with the white collar that was not buttoned so that it hung open around his neck. He came to the hospital every day to speak with terminally ill patients and anybody who wanted to talk to him, which was not many with the exception of the Catholic immigrants. But my mother fell flat for him, and after she came back from the hospital he would stop by for coffee every morning once Karl was out of the house. He called her flaca, or skinny bones, and she called him padre with a flourish. Their relationship was the butt of Karl’s jokes, but given what our mother told us in the kitchen after the wake, I was beginning to understand what they might have been talking about.
Therefore I wasn’t surprised when she planted herself firmly at the center of the vestibule and looked about expectantly.
‘Father Alvaro is meeting us here. We’ll wait for him.’
Margaret began to protest that we did not need a priest with us to talk about a private family matter, but my mother did not listen to her. She stood, holding herself erect and yet stooping a little over the cane. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Johanna speaking vehemently with Father Alvaro out on the sidewalk in front of the entry. He towered over her in his old black parka and nodded courteously at every exclamation she threw his way. He looked cosmopolitan and out of place and this made her look even smaller, more provincial in her comfortable roundness. I hurried out to greet the priest before Johanna had said something too rude and brought him in to see my mother.
He was very physical this priest. He didn’t seem to think it was unpriestly for him to hug my mother tight, there in the middle of a public space, when they had only been apart since yesterday. My mother had her sparrow’s arms tightly wound around his waist and she pressed the side of her face into his chest, closing her eyes and smiling a little.
We walked behind them along the upward-sloping corridor with its glass walls and white, highly polished linoleum floor. Outside, a few bare aspens stood at regular intervals inside circles cut into the dead grass. My mother had once commented on the sadness of these aspens, standing like a guard of honour as sick, grief-stricken, worried people, tired doctors and nurses made their way up and down the space. She couldn’t understand why they had not tried to plant something more cheerful, like bushes and flowerbeds, anything but aspens, so stilled and mortified. But now she didn’t notice the aspens for she was too busy chatting away, hanging onto the priest’s arm.
In the main building we took the elevator up to the fourth floor where the doctors had their offices. As we walked down the narrow corridor, my sisters made me stop and backed me up to the wall.
‘You’re with us on this, Karl,’ Johanna hissed. ‘We’re not letting her go, ok? We have to be united on this. If you’re with us she won’t be so confident. She’d never want to do anything to upset you.’
‘She’s her own person,’ I whispered. I hated having my sisters so close to me. Their matronly shapes, their worn-out bodies, made me feel very anxious.
‘She’s not her own person, not anymore. Not when her brain is being eaten up!’
Johanna leaned into me, so close that I could smell her morning cup of coffee on her breath. Margaret hovered behind her, darting glances to the end of the corridor where I saw my mother standing with the doctor on one side and the priest on the other, watching us.
Margaret nudged Johanna forward and I followed, dragging my steps.
The doctor was young, athletic and handsome, like so many doctors these days. The doctors I remember from my childhood looked tired and crumpled, with piercing, weary eyes. This was before the concept of professional manners with patients existed and so they just were who they were. This doctor’s professionalism was an armour shielding him from our real-life problems and he was too young to be one of Karl’s disciples. I began to think that my sisters, with their sense of entitlement as Karl’s daughters, would not get very far with him.
Inside the office we scrambled to find enough chairs for four. We crowded around the young doctor’s desk, my mother and Johanna in the first row, Margaret and the priest behind them, while I stood by the window. From where I stood I could watch the traffic moving along the artery that runs along the hospital, the sounds of wheels splashing in the grey slush again producing in me an intense melancholy.
The doctor began by summing up the purpose of our visit. We were here to discuss the test results that had led to my mother’s diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer’s disease. It was important for families to be well informed and feel free to discuss these matters amongst themselves. Knowing what lies in store was crucial for relatives, both for their own well-being and for the quality of care they can provide for their loved ones.
‘Yes, but my mother only wants us informed so that she can get us to consent to let her go and live out the rest of her days in an Italian convent!’ Johanna shouted and instantly the polite atmosphere in the room disappeared and the usual strain that hovers over our family entered the room.
‘And why,’ Johanna continued, ‘do you need a priest by your side when we’re discussing something that only concerns us? And besides, our father has only been in his grave for twenty-four hours!’
Red dots appeared in Johanna’s cheeks. She looked like she might be about to have one of her breakdowns, when she worked herself up and then spent hours in bed, crying, making us all feel bad, taking turns to go into her room to apologize for whatever murky crime we must have committed.
‘Sshhh,’ my mother said, not like she was trying to shush Johanna but soothe her, like she used to do when we were children. ‘Padre Alvaro is my friend. He’s helping me. I consider him a close member of our family.’
My mother turned around and looked at me plaintively.
‘It’s fine to have Father Alvaro here,’ I said quickly and averted my eyes to continue to look out the window. I didn’t really want to see the thing that was breaking down inside my mother.
‘That’s not your decision to make!’ Johanna shouted. ‘You move back after living away for years and just because you’ve been staying with our parents for two months now you think you have a greater say than we do!’
‘Stop arguing.’ Margaret said in her firm Mum’s voice. ‘I’m so sorry, doctor, we’re here to learn about my mother’s disease and all we do is argue. Please explain to us what to expect and what we should do.’
The doctor looked relieved. He turned to Margaret and launched into his briefing mode. I didn’t hear what he said about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. I didn’t think I needed to know since I wouldn’t be taking care of her. Some Italian nuns, with the light of God inside them, would be walking with her in fragrant, sunlit gardens, wheeling her chair to a shady spot by a fountain, giving her baths, creaming her skin, combing her hair. I superimposed this image on the grey netherworld below the window and felt much better.
My mother and the priest were not paying much attention to what the doctor was saying. They already knew and their alliance was out in the open. I saw Johanna watching them as she listened to the doctor. I thought my mother had miscalculated in telling us so soon after Karl’s death. She must have thought that her daughters would be happy to get rid of her because isn’t that what all children dread? Having to take care of the remaining parent when the stronger one suddenly dies? I knew Margaret would probably be fine with it. She barely visited anymore and was completely wrapped up with her life in Oxfordshire, driving the children, being on committees, doing charity work. She didn’t even look Icelandic anymore. I thought she looked uptight and tired, hard on the inside from her genteel, draughty life in the countryside in a way that Icelanders, with their crazy dark winters never are. Until some months ago, when my longtime partner broke up with me, I had lived in New York since I left high school. Only Johanna stayed in Iceland, to marry, have children, complain and have health problems, involving her old parents in every minute detail of her children’s lives. She was the obstacle to my mother’s future years in the sunlit Italian garden.
The doctor had turned his large computer screen towards us and was showing us pictures of our mother’s shrinking brain. It looked like old cheese or a punctured sea sponge. The cortex was showing significant changes that affected my mother’s thinking and planning skills. She was already experiencing short-term memory problems. He pointed to shady areas on the picture that he said were ventricles, fluid-filled spaces that would become larger with time. The hippocampus, the area in the brain that was associated with the formation of new memories, was already quite damaged. Had we not noticed any changes in our mother’s behaviour? Problems with remembering where she had left things, how to get to places?
For the first time since arriving at the office, I exchanged looks with my sisters. I think we all felt slightly guilty. None of us had noticed anything out of the ordinary because the truth was that our mother had no responsibilities and no field of action within which she operated during the day. Ever since her fall and hip operation, she had spent most of her time in bed while Karl took care of the grocery shopping. Even when we were children our mother did not have the responsibilities that most homebound women were stuck with. Her own mother and a pair of housekeepers who lived in the attic took care of the laundry, the shopping, the cleaning and the cooking. For most of my childhood my mother was busy working towards her soloist piano exam and taking a university degree in French. My sisters’ complaint has always been that when she should have been teaching them how to do their toilette and their hair, or mend holes in their socks and help them out with their homework, she was locked up in her study with her grand piano, working through some particularly difficult part of Rachmaninov’s Third. They do have a point for I have memories of the two of them knocking on my mother’s locked door, screaming and shouting for her attention, and when no response but the piano music came from the other side, they would slide to the ground, crying, making do with banging on the door now and then in their despair. And whenever Karl left the house for more than a night, he always said to us: ‘Take care of your mother’ instead of telling her to take care of us.
So it had never been expected that our mother should remember things for us or for herself beyond what immediately concerned her. I know that people in our town would talk about this strange domestic arrangement. They didn’t think it was fair that such a catty, egocentric woman should have caught Karl, who took care of everybody else. Who was to take care of him? And who did she think she was? Studying French as if she had any use for it or playing her thundering concertos at the town’s only concert hall, rented for the purpose by Karl at great expense! None of the other doctor’s wives had such aspirations. They met twice a month for ‘sewing club’ sessions that were really nothing more than drinking binges under hazy clouds of smoke, ashtrays full of lipstick-kissed cigarette stubs. I disliked all of them intensely. I thought their clothes were uncouth and their voices high-pitched, their words dark. My mother, dark and foreign in her elegant clothes, partook with a word here and there, but it was impossible to tell if she was in the game or standing outside the circle, privately mocking them.
‘I suppose we weren’t really paying attention,’ Margaret said carefully. Johanna stared fiercely at the doctor, as if it was his fault that we did not know our mother better.
‘If this is happening to her she needs qualified doctors to supervise her treatment. Not nuns!’
The doctor drew a deep breath.
‘That’s presuming that medical treatment can slow down or reverse the cerebral changes. But I’m sure you know that such treatments are still only a future prospect.’ The doctor sat back in his chair and put his hands on its arms. He had the last word, because he was in that chair and not Johanna.
‘The doctor knows all about the convent,’ my mother said breathlessly, as if she had to hurry before she forgot what she had been about to say. I had noticed of late that she would say things really fast, like machine gunfire, whereas I was used to her speaking slowly, taking her time.
‘Karl and I have been here, to this office, three times already to discuss my treatment. We were going to wait to send me to the convent until Karl could no longer take care of me, but now that he’s gone I think I should go now, so that I won’t be a burden . . . .’
My sisters leaned towards our mother in unison.
‘Daddy knew you wanted to go into a convent?’
‘He knew I wanted to die in a convent,’ my mother corrected them with that sly triumph I had seen in her from the moment we entered the hospital. ‘And he agreed with me.’
She put a hand on the priest’s arm. The priest was watching all these proceedings with hawkish attention. I knew I should be imagining that his interest stemmed from the money he would bring into church coffers with my mother’s entry into a convent, but I honestly believed he just cared about her soul in some old-fashioned-man-of-God way.
‘Do you have that in writing?’ Johanna said sharply.
My mother’s tiny shoulders slumped.
‘I have a power of attorney where I sign myself over to your father’s discretion at the later stages in my disease. But the doctor can confirm that I am still able to make decisions on my own. And this is a decision I have made.’
‘And who’s your new power of attorney letter going to name?’ Johanna fired back.
‘It will be Karl,’ my mother breathed, her voice hoarse. ‘I just haven’t told him yet.’
She turned slightly towards me and smiled, a little apologetic. Margaret looked at me doubtfully and Johanna just stretched her arms towards me, shaking them, mute with indignation.
‘Him? He’s never taken care of anybody! Look at him!’
My mother looked at me, rapturously, her love for me as always mercilessly on display for my sisters.
‘He’s taking care of me,’ she said. ‘And he’s very good at it.’
‘Well . . .’ the doctor cleared his throat. ‘Do you have any questions for me? Otherwise I won’t be of much help here. I can confirm that your mother is still able to make decisions for herself, but that’s where my involvement in your family matters must stop.’
He said this firmly, and even Johanna, who had been about to speak her mind, closed her mouth. For long moments we all looked at the doctor, none of us moving, as if we did not want to leave the safety of his office.
‘How about a coffee,’ the priest offered, ‘over at the priests’ residence.’
Johanna burned through him with her gaze.
‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘We have things to discuss, between ourselves.’
‘That’s true,’ Margaret said. ‘We do. And our mother must be very tired.’
In Margaret’s caretaker tone I thought I could hear great relief at the thought of our mother’s imminent demise. Margaret found all of us a nuisance, save for our father, of whom she was very proud. I had heard her telling many stories of our father at dinner parties in Oxford, funny little stories of ‘the local doctor’ with his brilliance and eccentricities making his mark on an adoring provincial society. I got the feeling that that was all he was to her: great stuff for an appropriate anecdote and I hated the bemused expressions and polite laughter that inevitably followed her stories. She was the dutiful, the elder daughter on whom Karl had counted while I avoided him and Johanna raged at him. But I never got the feeling that she cared about him in the way that we cared. Really caring about Karl was a messy affair and Margaret’s life was all about tidiness.
‘I’m not tired,’ my mother protested, ‘not at all. I want to have a coffee with Padre Alvaro at his residence. That’s what I want.’
‘I know that’s what you want, Mum,’ Margaret said, ‘but right now you’re exhausted. I can see it in your face. And you’ve forgotten that the girls and Neil are leaving today and they’re waiting for us at home to say goodbye. Afterwards you can have a nap and then Gudrun and Emma are coming with dinner, in case you’d forgotten that too. We’ll have coffee with Father Alvaro tomorrow. When you’ve had a rest.’
Johanna stood up briskly. ‘Indeed. We’ll be in touch to discuss future plans. Come along, Mother.’
As we marched out I exchanged glances with the priest. He was looking at me like he was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t really fathom what that might be. It had started to rain again when we came out of the hospital. The steely, heavy sky lay draped over the rooftops and on the pavement the brown sludge swirled around our shoes. Johanna announced that unfortunately we could not offer Father Alvaro a lift back to the church, which was only two blocks from our house as the car was full. The priest politely offered that he was on his way downtown in any case, to meet a friend. We watched him walk away from us towards the bus stop, his tall frame stooped against the weather. Johanna looked defiant in her rudeness and our mother, as was her habit when she could stand Johanna no more, pretended that she was not present with us in the car on the way home.
When we got to the house, we found Margaret’s husband Neil and their two children, a girl of twelve and a boy of ten waiting for us. Our mother exchanged the minimum sentiments required with her grandchildren before she announced that she was tired and needed to sleep. Her son-in-law she barely noticed, which didn’t surprise me, as it had always been a challenge for any of us to really see him. He disappeared into his environment, as if he were an insect that could instantly camouflage itself so that it looked like part of a branch or a leaf. I would even have a hard time describing his physical appearance if I tried. All I knew was that he was a man of modest proportions, that he wore glasses, that his face was narrow and pale and that he was balding. He also always wore V-neck sweaters and shirts. His careful, academic language made my mother dizzy with boredom. The children already spoke like him. They were pale and composed beyond their years, as opposed to Johanna’s children who were ruddy and loud, always arguing, beating each other or rolling about the floor in an embrace, hanging onto their grandmother, fighting for her attention.
When Margaret’s family was gone and our mother had gone to bed, my sisters sat me down in the kitchen. How was I to be our mother’s agent when I did not have a home or a job, or even a family of my own? I had never taken care of anyone and I was too much under our mother’s thumb to ever be able to make the right decisions for her. I had to make our mother understand that she had to give all her children a joint power of attorney, for only between the three of us could sensible decisions be made on her care. And the priest, I must not let the priest get to me. He was something of a Rasputin; they were convinced of it.
To throw them off my scent I agreed with everything they said. By the end they seemed content that they had me where they needed me. They busied themselves going through the condolence letters and telegrams that had arrived and composing a thank you note to be published in the newspaper in the morning. Outside it continued to rain and the north wind whipped up the water so that it beat the windows of the house from all directions. In the late afternoon, the strange, high angle of the March sun finally flooded into the living room and for some moments the colours of the flowers were illuminated and it felt like winter might be coming to an end after all. I did nothing much to help except clean the kitchen and move flower vases from one table to another in the living room. The entire dining table was covered with them, as were all the coffee tables. We discussed what should be done with them. Margaret argued that some of them should be taken to the hospital, to enliven the days of the patients. Our father would approve since his life, after all, had been about easing other people’s sufferings. Johanna countered that our mother loved flowers, loved them so much that when we were children our father had had to close her account at the florists because she spent most of his monthly wages on extravagant, fragrant bouquets at a time when even the wealthiest of families in Reykjavik only bought flowers on special occasions. Margaret took a deep breath and said she would let Johanna decide. Her face was more crumpled than usual, as if the strain of all the things that needed doing was hurting her more than the loss of the central person in our lives.
At six o’clock the doorbell rang. Gudrun and Emma, my mother’s closest friends from high school, had arrived with dinner. They came up the stairs in a fussy way, talking over each other about the inadequacy of the food they had brought, how complicated their day had been, how worried they felt about our mother on this first day after the funeral. Such an empty time, after the flurry of activity and the emotional roller coaster of preparations and arrangements!
They were both tall and stout. They moved like frigates in a heavy sea, grinding their heavy heels on the ground as they walked. Their hair was cropped and exhausted in the way of many old women, and their faces, once handsome, exuding charisma, had started to resemble certain animals: a horse and a chicken I thought. In their words and their bearing, they seemed to acknowledge that this was what age had done to them for they moved about without self-consciousness, insensitive to the private spaces or anxieties of others. They had always played the part of my mother’s guardians and I had often heard them speaking in hushed tones to my father in the kitchen when my mother was not present about her nervous condition and what had to be done about it.
Now they began opening drawers and cupboard doors, turning on the oven to heat up their potato gratin and their roast beef. I went upstairs to let my mother know they had arrived, but when I opened the door I found her wide-awake in her bed. She put a finger to her lips as soon as she saw me and shook her head to say she was not going down there. I nodded and slipped back downstairs to tell them that our mother was so deeply asleep that I was afraid to wake her up. The four women in the kitchen considered this and then agreed it was better for her to sleep, given her state of exhaustion. Besides, this way they could talk about what to do about her crazy plans, which my sisters had outlined for the two women, to sounds of indignation and horror as their story progressed.
‘An Italian convent! Such a ridiculous idea! When she has us and the best doctors in this country.’ The four women sat around the kitchen table and exchanged looks to say that they were all in agreement on what had to be done.
I said I needed a walk and they barely nodded in my direction as I put on my coat and opened the door.
On the way to the church I noticed that a little after six in the afternoon the sun’s angle was where the high noon sun had sat when I arrived three months earlier, the day before Christmas, or just above the rooftops. I passed the hospital where my sisters wanted my mother to spend her last months. I knew it well because my father had worked there his entire life, pacing up and down its corridors on his way to see a patient or conduct an operation. He was always in a hurry, as if he was on his way out even if he had a twelve-hour shift to complete. I knew why. He hated the atmosphere of hospitals, the languid, pale patients, resigned to their suffering and whittled down to nothing more than living creatures tending to their basic functions. He had once told me that he counted on me to see to it that he never ended up in there. The only way he was ever leaving his home, he said, was with his toes first. And so it had been. A late-night call for an ambulance, two hours in intensive care before he needed to get up to go to the bathroom. As he was reaching out to the nurse who had come to help him his heart stopped and he was dead. A good way to go we all agreed, and merciful to him who had seen so much prolonged suffering.
The church and its residence looked indifferent to my arrival in the gloom of the early evening. There are all kinds of architecture with all kinds of defining labels, but Icelandic architecture, in my opinion, should be called indifferent architecture. It is built simply because it is needed, but it shuns any interaction with the people living in it or with it. Its purpose is not to elicit emotion or even an intellectual response from the viewer. It’s just there, bland and gloomy, not even really wrong, just indescribable, as busy erasing itself as the interiors of our Lutheran churches that have always given both my parents the shivers.
I wondered how my mother’s Argentine priest love was faring in this vacuum of Protestantism. It could not be easy when you came from a place where everything was a story, no matter how bad, that had colour, smell, texture and sound.
I knocked on the carved mahogany door and was admitted by a young priest into a grey, tiled hallway with trapped potted plants and pictures of exemplary priests and nuns on the pale walls. He told me to wait and entered a room from which came sounds of conversation and food smells. I had interrupted the community’s evening meal.
Father Alvaro came out, holding his napkin in one hand. He didn’t seem surprised to see me and smiled a little, expressing his sympathy at my plight. He took me into a room with bookshelves and several desks as well as the standard potted plants and pictures of priests and saints. His desk was piled high with papers. From the top of one stack he took a laptop and turned it on with ritual flourish as if the fact that such a machine existed and waited for his command still astounded him.
‘I’ll show you the photographs,’ he said, peering closely at the screen while he hit the keys with intent.
‘Here. It’s a ten-minute drive from Todi, in Umbria. I don’t know if you remember it. I doubt it as your mother said the last time she took you there was when you were six.’
I told him I had never been to Umbria before, let alone to a convent ten minutes outside of Todi. I didn’t even know where Todi was.
‘No, of course you don’t remember,’ he said quickly and turned back to the screen. He scrolled through the picture gallery. I saw buildings, walls, gardens, vistas of burnt umber hills, fountains, tiled, high-ceilinged rooms with vaulted windows, saints’ statues and chapels. I saw blue skies, oversized flowers, lime washed walls, close-ups of purple grapes and yellow cornflowers. I saw tree-lined driveways, vine-covered cottages, and a limestone building with green shutters in front of which sat a group of old people in wheelchairs with nuns in crisp grey and white habits standing beside them. I wanted to be sick and have to live there myself so that at last I would have a life I could explain to other people. Instead of saying when asked what I did, that I did this and that, I was a dancer, did a bit of teaching, I could just say: I’m sick and I’m under the care of some Italian nuns.
‘Your mother says it’s her favourite place in the world. I do hope your sisters will let her go. I know they’re acting out of love and a sense of responsibility that is intensified by their grief for your father, but I do hope that in due course they’ll see that in granting your mother her wishes they are acting selflessly and out of pure love for her.’
He explained that the convent and its hospital were run by an order of nuns specially trained in the care of elderly patients with dementia, Parkinson, Alzheimer’s and such illnesses. They were professional, gentle, humorous and loving with the elderly. The reason he had first connected so deeply with my mother was that when he had met her in the hospital, somewhat delirious with the morphine, she wanted to tell him about her secret place, the sort of place everyone keeps close to themselves and tells nobody about. He had been stationed in Rome for almost a decade before coming to Reykjavik so he knew the place she was describing, as it was quite famous in Italy. My mother had apparently stayed there every summer for many years as the nuns also ran a small bed and breakfast alongside their praying and gardening and taking care of their patients. They had started to talk about the convent and the nuns and that’s how they had become friends. My mother, he said, was someone who had lived a life of the soul. He cared for her very much and wanted to see her happy and at rest in that convent.
It didn’t feel to me like the priest was describing my mother. I could neither imagine my mother in a convent, nor living a life of the soul. I had always thought that her fascination with convents was an expression of her mental isolation, her feeling of being an outsider in our little town, the way I had always felt like an outsider. But my mother had been a material person; she adored clothes and spent the kind of money on clothes that one usually does not attribute to a small-town doctor’s wife. She also spent money on beautiful objects and books and she subscribed to various expensive cooking magazines even if Karl hated any other spice in his food than salt and preferred to eat the same thing over and over again. My mother had a hard intelligence and a willful desire to enjoy the good things in life, but I had never seen her as a soulful person, no matter how much I loved her.
‘I don’t think I ever came with my mother to this convent,’ I told the priest. ‘I don’t remember any Italian journeys, and I’ve never been told I ever went on one. I’ve traveled with my parents, but never to Italy.’
‘Of course,’ the priest hurried to say. ‘But I do hope that you’ll convey to your sisters that this is a safe place, where your mother will have the best of care in the manner of her choosing.’
When I came out of the priest’s residence, the sky was ink blue and I could see that the clouds were clearing because certain patches were lighter in colour. The lights from my father’s hospital shone warm and golden, as if the hospital was a lighthouse casting its glow on the dark world around it. I saw my father in there, the lapels of his white doctor’s coat flying behind him. Everybody loved him: patients and nurses and doctors. He was reassuring in his manic, eccentric way; his patients were bathed in his intense, full attention for the few minutes they had him to themselves, the kind of penetrating, caring attention they did not get from any of their loved ones. He could always be depended on and he was more often than not able to intuit what was wrong with people before their lab results came in. But when he came home, his mood usually fell at the sight of my mother’s face and together the two of them sat down to their dinner, which my mother abandoned as soon as she had eaten the little she had on her plate, to busy herself at the stove. This is how I remember them in their old age, stuck together in a big, empty house. But now I looked at the hospital with its lights blazing, as if trapped inside the building and bursting to get out, and I thought it was a sign from my father that it was time to release my mother from her bondage.
At the house my sisters were drinking coffee with the two friends. They told me to sit down and have my roast beef, but I said I had no appetite.
‘You’re just so terribly thin,’ exclaimed Gudrun. ‘It can’t be healthy.’
Johanna put some beef on a plate and ordered me to eat. While I forced the thing down my throat, the two friends quizzed me. Was I going to move back to Iceland permanently? If so, was I going to live with my mother? Had I thought about finding a job? I was a good teacher, they had heard. And they had heard something about a breakup?
I was used to this Inquisition. If you leave the island there will always be questions waiting for you when you come back, not questions about the place you’ve been, but how long you’re staying home, why you’re leaving again, when you intend to return, what you’re doing over there, and some indirect probing of whether it’s of any value, because at home people have a hard time believing that it can be of any value to live abroad if you just have regular life. It’s ok if you go abroad and conquer the world, become rich and famous, but to go abroad to live when you were born to do just that on your island is something most people find hard to tolerate. It’s considered escapism and it reeks of failure. My new tactic is to be brutally honest and this usually stops the inquisition in its tracks. So I explained to my mother’s friends that my partner, who is a man, left me suddenly one day because he said I was emotionally strangled. I also told them that for some months before that I’d been unemployed and living off my parents’ charity. I also told them that I had not looked for a job in Reykjavik yet. Considering that I am over forty and do not have a university degree because I spent those years training as a ballet dancer, this is rather embarrassing information. The two friends thought so too and for a moment a pregnant silence hung over the kitchen table. It was resolved by Johanna, who thankfully would not tolerate any deviation from the problem at hand: my mother’s planned flight from her home and family and the Catholic Church’s robbery of their inheritance!
With the bright overhead lights pummeling my head and the black box of the night menacing the kitchen window, I began to break out in a cold sweat under Johanna’s stern gaze.
‘Karl, do you have any idea why she wants to do this?’
‘We know why she wants to do this,’ Margaret said impatiently and threw a significant look at the women while ignoring me. ‘It’s pure nostalgia for all those summers when our father paid for her to leave us for three months, year after year, to frolic in Italy at her pleasure. She even took Karl there with her when he was a baby. She couldn’t bear to leave him.’
The rage in Margaret’s pursed lips and glassy eyes was rather a relief from her usual mild, matronly persona. For a moment I thought I recognized the sister from our youth, the one who threw screaming fits so loud that the entire street could listen, who tore her hair out and hit her head against the wall so that we had to restrain her while our mother retreated into her room, utterly vanquished by the force of her daughter’s rage. With all her sulking and bossing everyone about, Johanna had never reached Margaret’s level, but to everyone’s mind it was Johanna who was the difficult one, not Margaret. It was as if Margaret’s madness was a secret that was our duty to guard.
‘I don’t remember ever going to Italy with my mother,’ I said defensively. ‘I honestly don’t.’
‘You were too young to remember,’ Gudrun said. Her large bosom heaved and dropped to demonstrate what a disappointment her friend had been in her role as Karl’s wife and our mother.
‘I can’t believe he let her do that, for so many summers!’ Johanna exclaimed, content with that fat bite of disapproval to chew on. ‘I don’t know any other family that would ever let that happen unless the mother was mentally ill and needed to be hospitalized.’
Her eyes opened wide at the implication of what she had just said.
‘Well, Elsa was always unstable,’ Gudrun said. ‘It started in high school and was at its worst when the three of you were little. It got better once she was past forty. Karl did everything for her. He was so understanding, so patient. He knew she needed long summers of intense heat and sun to be able to survive the winters here.’
Gudrun sighed again to acknowledge Karl’s plight. I thought of all the times my father let his rage loose on my mother, how my mother sometimes lived in her bedroom for days to emerge with a bruise on her arm or the faint spread of blue against her cheekbone. Once, when I came back for a holiday from my ballet studies in Munich, I found that the lock on her door had been broken open. ‘Oh, it was my fault,’ my mother said. ‘I did something to it and we had to break it open. I keep forgetting to call a locksmith.’ Another time I found out from the woman who came every day to clean and do laundry that my mother’s mattress had been soaking wet for days. She believed Karl had come into my mother’s room with a bucket full of cold water and poured it over her head. But Gudrun was also right in some way. Karl had always kept my mother in style; he had bought her expensive jewelry and clothing, sent her off to spas in Switzerland. I always thought these were gifts to relieve his guilt, but I had also believed that some part of it had to do with his understanding and love for her difference, for what set her apart from everyone else we knew.
‘Well, whatever,’ Johanna said. ‘It’s just an illusion she has. Tomorrow we’ll find a good elder law attorney, not someone who knows our parents. We must have rights and we’ll need a second opinion from another specialist. I really don’t see how anyone can judge our mother to be of a mind sound enough to make these kinds of decisions.’
The women nodded in unison.
‘She needs to sleep through the night,’ Gudrun said with the authority of a head nurse. She’s still in shock. It was just so sudden, a two-week flu that ends this way. Who would have thought!’
She looked with sympathy at my sisters, but not at me. Johanna crumpled into her chair while Margaret tilted her chin up a little as she turned her face away from us. Gudrun’s dramatic look signified that my sisters had shown the appropriate reaction, but as before I was totally ignored.
To my relief Emma stood up and began to put dishes and mugs in the sink.
‘Don’t worry about that’, Margaret said. ‘Karl will do it. He stays up late. He likes doing it.’
With another sigh Gudrun gathered herself. ‘Well then, we should go. I have the day off tomorrow. I’ll come in the morning and check on Elsa. Maybe she’ll tell me what’s behind this new fantasy of hers.’
When my sisters had thanked the two women profusely and the chaos of manically polite goodbyes had subsided and the heavy downstairs door had closed, I again faced my sisters. I decided to ask questions, for once.
‘Can you tell me why our mother took me to Italy summer after summer when I was little?’
‘Probably because you were too little to realize she was seeing her lover all those summers,’ Johanna threw at me. ‘And she was too fond of you. She never could do without you for too long. She still can’t.’
To emphasize her point she threw dirty dishes from the counter with some violence into the sink.
‘Oh please, Johanna, don’t feed Karl this old nonsense.’ Margaret stormed out of the kitchen and found her coat and hat in the front hallway. ‘I’m exhausted. Are you coming? We’ll deal with this in the morning. Karl, make sure Mum eats something if she wakes up before you go to bed. I’ll be back in the morning, probably around nine.’
‘Me too,’ Johanna said quickly. ‘There is so much to be done. And Mum has to be put in order.’
They were still talking between themselves as they descended the stairs and opened and closed the front door.
When they had left, a grateful silence pervaded the house and I took two steps at a time on the staircase to the second floor and my mother’s bedroom.
It was pitch-dark in her room, but I discerned that she was fully under the covers and turned away from the door. I was about to close the door quietly, feeling somewhat disappointed, when she turned around and sat up.
‘Turn the light on,’ she said loudly. ‘They’re gone, aren’t they? I’m starving!’
Downstairs I made her a pan of scrambled eggs and fried some bacon and put a couple of toasts in the toaster. I put the kettle on and brewed some tea in her teapot. She followed my movements with childish anticipation and when the food was on a plate before her, she devoured it quickly before she put three teaspoons of sugar in her tea, just like Karl had always done.
‘They’re not going to let me go, are they?’ She fixed me with a wry smile and I felt a surge of fury at my sisters rushing blood to my face. My mother was so beautiful at that moment in her elegant burnt umber turtleneck, her silvery, wavy hair cut in a fifties bob around her dainty face. I thought about her joyous appreciation of all things beautiful. My sisters wanted to put her in a velour gym suit and sensible shoes and eventually they wanted to park her in that hospital that my father had made me promise never to send him to. There she would slowly shrink and grow into a ghostly apparition in a hospital gown with fluffy slippers on her bird-like feet.
‘I’m going to call the priest,’ I said and kissed her on the forehead.
When the clock struck midnight, we were in her bedroom, taking things out of her closet. She chose carefully. She wouldn’t need much, but what she took had to be her absolute favourite pieces. Mostly she took wool and silk trousers, a few turtlenecks and cardigans, some patterned shirts, a bit of jewelry and three of her soft cotton nightgowns. I recognized much of what she took as her purchases from voyages past with Karl, pieces that she rarely wore at home where the bare rock and angry sea waiting outside one’s house didn’t exactly elicit a desire to wear a gold and aubergine silk shirt.
The priest was due to arrive at three o’clock. At two we were ready with our suitcases and our passports. Our flight to London was scheduled for seven in the morning. My mother had taken a bath and was wearing soft wool trousers and a sweater. Her coat hung over the edge of the sofa, covering her handbag that contained her passport and her credit cards. I made more tea and we sat on the sofa in silence, looking out over the dark shapes of the tall trees that Karl had planted when they moved into the house, a year after the war ended.
My mother put her head on my shoulder.
‘Is it true that you took me to Italy every summer before I was five?’ I asked.
‘You don’t remember?’ She sounded surprised.
‘Did you take me because you had a lover there?’
I felt her smile on my shoulder.
‘And because this lover was my biological father?’
She smiled even more. ‘So, you’ve heard the rumours. You being so dark and petite and your sisters so big boned and blond.’
‘Johanna said something to that effect his evening. They’re trying to figure out why you want to leave them and lock yourself up in a convent.’
‘Well, I’m going so that I can be in the place where it is easiest to remember, before I forget. And if I did love someone, somewhere else, it was my right,’ she said firmly. ‘Karl knew that. It was a question of my right, as a human being. But your sisters would not understand because they don’t like people to have rights to things that are good for them. Least of all themselves.’
The priest arrived punctually and we set off in the dark, going slowly down our sleeping street as if we were the Von Trapp family escaping the Nazis in the War. As we left the outskirts of town and headed into the empty lava field and saw the distant lights of the airport, we felt more relaxed and the priest chatted in his smoky, deep voice about this and that. He was going to Rome in the summer and after that to Florence. He would visit on the way. My mother appeared very happy about this. The priest said I should come and spend the summer in Florence, learn Italian: discover new possibilities for the future.
I said I would think about it.