My friend Annie’s mother passed away recently after a long illness.
Annie was so incredibly strong about the whole thing. Almost English in her efficient way of compartmentalizing her emotions. Saffy had lunch with her several times and would report you would never have known there was anything wrong.
“Not like that dreadful Marcia!” she said once, rolling her eyes. “Honestly, you could not speak two words without that girl turning somehow turning the conversation back to her and her dying mother. Say that it’s so hot outside and she’ll immediately tell you the heat gives her mother bed-sores! Say you’ve just seen this movie and she’ll start weeping about the last movie she saw with her mother. I’m so not inviting her to my birthday party next week! It’s just too much!”
Which explains the boundless admiration for Annie. “Such a rock!” Saffy pronounced.
As if she wasn’t already juggling a busy career, a husband who’s always travelling for work, two dogs, three children and a maid who’d just decided to quit, Annie seemed to effortlessly shoe-horn dawn to dusk visits to the hospital.
As Amanda pointed out, “I can barely cope with a facial and a conference call on the same day! I'm so useless!”
Then came news on the grapevine that Annie’s mother was finally dying. Of course, her friends rallied, but at such a private moment, there isn’t much anyone can really do except offer trite support from the emotionally safe distance of SMSs and Facebook messages.
And so, we went about our days of normality, a little guilty and always with one eye cocked nervously at our phones.
When the message finally arrived – “My mother passed away last night” – there was relief and a great deal of sadness in equal measure.
Saffy immediately burst into tears. “I don’t know why!” she sobbed. “I only ever spoke to her once when she answered Annie’s phone because Annie was driving and all I said was, ‘Can you ask her to call me back, Auntie?’ I should have said something more meaningful!”
Amanda delicately dabbed her eyes, careful, even in moments like these, not to ruin her make-up. “Poor Annie,” she said. “She’s an orphan now.”
I sent off a silly, completely inadequate SMS of condolence. “Honestly, what do you say at a time like this?” I complained to Amanda.
“I know. You can’t not say anything because that would be just plain rude, but ‘Sorry to hear about your mother’ just sounds as if she just failed her driving test, or something!”
A message pinged on my phone. It was Annie: “Thank you, my friend. I'm exhausted and sad but relieved at the same time. It's funny how you fight it all your life, only to realise that, in the end, you are so much more like your mother than you ever thought possible.”
When she heard the message, Saffy cried even harder.
Amanda, on the other hand, was mortified. “I should certainly hope not! I am nothing like my mother!”
“I miss my Mummy!” Saffy wailed as she picked up her phone to grief-dial her mother. “Mummy? Mummy? Is that you? Oh, Mummy, I miss you! And I love you, and I really want to…What? No, nothing is the matter! I just rang to say that I…What? No, I’m not dying!...But…Oh, what, so I can’t call you without there being…No, I’m not pregnant! Oh my God, what is wrong with you? It’s no wonder I don’t call you!...Oh yeah? Well, listen, you…”
In the background, Amanda and I listened with our mouths hanging open. As I later said to Sharyn, I’d never heard anyone talk to their mother like that. “And it wasn’t so much what she said, but how she said it. It just seemed so rude!”
“Aiyah,” Sharyn began, her eyes disappearing into dots behind her Coke bottle-thick spectacles, “different people got different re-lay-shun-sheep with their mah-dur, lor! You ever hear me talk to my mah-dur, or not? Wah, shout, shout, shout, ah, I tell you! But then, hor, afterward, we say bye-bye and later I drop the kids off at her place and you nair-ber know one hour ago we shout, shout, shout. Aiyah, mother and daughter always like that one!”
“My mother is a real piece of work, let me tell you,” Saffy confirmed later that evening when things had calmed down a little. “She is the most irritating woman I’ve ever met in my life, but I do love her to bits. If something ever happens to her and she leaves me an orphan, I think I would just I die!”