No preamble, no hello.
Brian didn’t know how to feel, he had thought of this moment for years and here it was. He opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah i-how did it happen?” Stupid question, but he needed to know.
“The cancer came back.”
He suppressed a snort, of course.
“Was it…was it quick?”
Gemma sighed, “what do you want me to say Brian?”
“I don’t know. The truth.”
“It was quick. The doctor only found it last week, but it was more advanced than they thought. She didn’t want treatment again, doctor said it would give her another six months; maybe a year if she was lucky. She didn’t want to go through it. She wanted to go on her own terms.”
Brian found himself nodding along, even though Gemma couldn’t see him, it was just like her.
“I’m glad. That it was quick.”
“That she didn’t suffer?” He could hear the surprise in her voice.
“No. That you didn’t suffer.” Gemma had played her nurse the last time and he had a front row seat then, saw how badly it affected her, his mother draining her life force with every laboured breath and demand, day after day after day. Brian remembered his last words to her still, how could he not, “why don’t you do everyone a favour, do the decent thing for once in your life and just die already. Don’t drag it out any longer.” He regretted the words as soon as they were out, not because they were a lie, he meant every single word, but because Gemma had been there and his words had cut her deep, her face crumpling as she started to cry. He had left then and hadn’t been back.
“When’s the funeral?”
“I didn’t think you’d want to come, after…” she trailed off and Brian felt his cheeks burn with shame, he knew she was thinking of it too.
“I already said my goodbye to her, and I meant it. I want to be there for you.”
“It’s next Tuesday. I” Her voice hitched, “I’d really appreciate you being there.”
“I will be. Don’t worry. Someone has to stop Uncle Paul from doing his impressions when he’s had too much to drink.”
Gemma giggled, the laughter was high and slightly manic, he could hear the tears there, bubbling below the surface. Once the laughter had died she sniffed and wiped at her nose, “you’d better. Mom would never forgive him.”
“Maybe I’ll let him do it then.”
“Hush.” There was no malice or anger in the gentle rebuke.
“When can you make it out?”
“Sunday maybe. Monday at the latest. I’ll see what hotels have rooms.”
“No Brian, don’t, you’re staying here, with us.”
“Are you sure?”
“Thanks, you’re a gem.”
“You know I hate that.”
“I know. I’ll see you Sunday, OK? ”
“OK. I love you.”
“Love you too gem.”
There was no response, the line went dead. Brian placed the phone in its cradle. She was really gone. He let out a long breath, waiting for the feelings to hit him, relief, sadness, anger, but none of them came. In their place was indifference and somehow that was worse than them all.
The frustrating thing for Brian was that he could never quite explain himself when people found out he didn’t speak to his mother. Most of the time he hid it, sick of the endless questions that people quick fired at him, one after another. There was never any physical abuse, she had never raised a hand to any of them and that somehow made it worse. Perhaps if he had bruises to show or broken bones it would have been easier, but all the wounds were beneath the surface.
She had taught him that love was not unconditional, that it was something to be given and taken, that it was a weapon, a sharp blade used with expert precision to cut and hack away at anything good and decent in him. To smother any light in his life, to bring nothing but misery, darkness and guilt. In all his life he couldn’t recall a single time she had praised him without any kind of qualifier, all he ever got were snide comments and put downs. “Oh, you got a B? Well, it isn’t an A. I guess you did your best.” “It sounds pretty, but we both know you’re going to give up in a few weeks and where will you be? Out the money you spent on that stupid guitar and I’ll be out the money I spent on lessons.” He and Gemma had reacted differently to it, Brian became more defiant, he knew he would never get her approval so why even try? Gemma was the opposite, trying as hard as she could to gain the meagre scraps of her love. Their own father had tried to live with it for years until finally the weight of it all came crashing down on him and he found his escape in the form of a bullet. Brian suspected it was because his Dad knew that though life was bad now, if he divorced her she’d make the rest of his life hellish. Brian remembered telling her that he knew it was her fault that Dad had shot himself, how she had shouted “How could you say that to me? Your own mother? He was a weak man, I tried, heaven knows I tried, but he was weak.” She couldn’t see it, something in her was broken, made her unable to see, he did nothing to her, he never had, she had always done it to herself. Every perceived wrong and injustice could all be traced back to her.
Brian dreaded the trip home, all those old, familiar faces, all the commiserations, the reassurances that she was a wonderful woman and that she’d be missed. All those people who avoided her as much as they could in life would now come out of the woodwork to mourn her death. He would do it, he had to do it for Gemma. Maybe now that it was over she’d be able to go and live her life without their mothers constant shadow hanging over her.
He settled into his old room with surprising ease, the posters had long been removed and the walls had been painted an inoffensive beige, but still, it had the feel of his room, containing thousands of memories. Gemma had hugged him when he arrived, gripping him tight like she was drowning. He had hugged her back until she pulled away and lead him inside. Chinese food was on the way already, she didn’t need to ask what he wanted, his order was always the same, he could feel it as he walked inside, everyone slipping into their old roles. The food arrived as he was upstairs putting away his suitcase. He didn’t bother unpacking, he wasn’t staying that long.
The days passed in a blur of familiar faces and suddenly he found himself standing at the edge of her grave, watching as they lowered the coffin. Part of him expected tears to come, hot and bitter, but they didn’t. He reached up to his cheek to check, lightly brushing his fingers across it as though brushing away an errant hair. As her coffin disappeared into the cold embrace of the ground he realised he had nothing left to give her, she had already taken it all long ago, leaving nothing behind. Not for her, not for anyone. Beside him Gemma cried silent tears, her hand reached out for his and gripped it tightly, he gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Finally the coffin finished its descent and it was over.
There was an endless parade of faces and stories, hugs and expressions of pity and grief. Part of him was glad for his detachment, but another part wished he could join them, feel what they felt. As the night wore on more stories were told, stories of a mother he had never met, a younger woman who was happy and loving, a woman who laughed, who danced, who told bawdy jokes at inappropriate times, a mother whom he never had the chance to know. As the stories continued his own bitterness and sadness grew, not for the woman she was when she died, but for the woman whom he had never gotten to meet. Instead he was left with a cold, uncaring harridan whose own warmth and love had been sapped out of her until she had none left to give and a need to take it from those around her. Finally the last few people left, leaving them alone in the empty house, to grieve for the woman who passed and for the lives they could have had.