My mother lay on her back on her kitchen floor. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth was almost open, as if she had been about to say something. Through the window, the morning sunlight skipped off the sink and found her face. Her skin was a shade of grey I had not seen before. My mother was dead.
Her arms were at her sides, her legs straight, her feet more or less together. There was no sign of distress, no mess, no evidence of injury. No-one could have died more neatly if they tried. Heart failure, the coroner would say once the rituals began.
But in that moment there was neither reason nor room for ritual. There was only my mother and me. An exquisite peace kept out everything else. The world had stopped for us to say goodbye.
I knelt at her side and bent down and kissed her forehead, touching her hair as I did so. She felt, to my lips and my hand, as grey as she looked. Her lifelessness was undeniable.
I don’t know how long I stayed with her, together and alone, but I know it was long enough. When I stood up, I had accepted that my mother was dead and I had satisfied myself that I had bid her farewell. Grief followed in the coming days and weeks, but my closure was complete even before I turned away from the body and felt the world start to move again.
The life of the woman I knew to be my mother had ended but her life was bigger than that. She was 41 when I was born and I was 32 when she died. I had been part of her reality for less than half her life. I knew her soul as well as my own, but there was so much I did not know about the years before I was born. What I did know only prompted bigger questions that had not been answered.
I knew one of her sisters was an alcoholic who stayed one step ahead of her husband’s attempts to dry her out by hiding a bottle in every room of their house. Another sister married a Royal Air Force pilot after World War II and moved to England. Their first child was born at sea.
One of my mother’s brothers, who had lost a leg in a car accident, insisted on eating his desert before his dinner. Another was taken prisoner at the battle of Tobruk and escaped by bribing a German soldier with a loaf of bread. He subsequently suffered from what is now called post traumatic stress disorder. To my mother he was simply “bomb happy”. Both had relationships – and children – with women of colour, a truth not often spoken of in my family, and always awkwardly.
My mother herself was married with five children when my father came into her life. They never wed. That makes me a 60s love child, a bona fide bastard.
I have always worn that status like an expensive suit. It fits my personality and, for a long time, it was a defence against the disgust at my existence that seethed at me from most of my semi-siblings. How could they not despise me? I was the fracturing of their family made flesh, a walking, talking reflection of their hurt.
Or maybe I was an easy target for their guilt. My mother, a nurse, left her family because they shunned her after she contracted tuberculosis from a patient. She was quarantined in her own home, made to use separate cutlery and crockery and kept away from her children. According to her, they did not see what was wrong with that.
My parents, a man who had grown up in a reformatory after being abandoned by his family as a boy and a woman whose utterly normal life had dissolved in someone else’s spit, might have made a magnificent love story. Instead their relationship was less about romance than it was about trying to be what could be called respectable.
My father was an intermittent presence in mine and my mother’s lives, not least because he was jailed for drug dealing more than once. My mother earned money, and quite a reputation, as a fortune teller. I grew up between those nonconformist poles, unafraid of the weird, wary of what was deemed normal.
We lived in small towns in the Eastern Cape and spent more than one night sleeping on East London’s pavements. For several years we stayed in a corrugated iron shed in the backyard of an old German woman’s house. There was no garden, no electricity and no running water when we moved in. We brushed our teeth at an outside tap. But, thanks to my mother, all that changed after the first few months.
“Nobody is better than me,” she would say whenever somebody gave her cause to think they thought they were. I never did. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could.
When I was 20 someone smashed my father’s skull and left him for dead. He survived, but as an unsteady, frail semblance of the surefooted man he had been. My mother and I were the only people he could turn to for help, and help we did. She gave him a place to stay in the small, tidy home she had finally bought. I bathed, shaved and dressed him, and cleaned him up when he suffered the seizures that were a legacy of the attack.
When he was well enough he wobbled out of our lives and towards his next drink, his next hit, his next dice with delirium. I saw him once after that, months later when my mother called to say he had turned up demanding more help. I went to her house and spent an hour or two telling him why he was no longer my father. A few years later I received news of his death. I felt nothing. I did not need closure to get over my father’s death because I had nothing to get over. He was, in every way, not my mother.
She was a long way from perfect. She smoked 60 Lexingtons a day for most of the years I knew her. She added a tablespoon or three of butter to everything she cooked. She voted for the National Party because she believed that if she didn’t “they will take my pension away”.
Her politics were trapped in the white fear of the time. The thought of Nelson Mandela being released terrified her. She could not fathom how we would one day be ruled by a government that looked like our nation. But she was fluent in isiXhosa – which she learnt during her early years, which were spent on a farm in Komga – and eternally grateful to a woman called Ida Booi, who donated the blood that saved her life during her battle with TB. Some of her blood, my mother would enjoy saying, was black.
She taught me that nothing is without its contradictions, and that they should be celebrated. She also simplified complication with bracing directness. I was never in doubt about what my mother thought about anything. No-one was.
And yet, despite me knowing all that, the woman who lay dead on the floor in front of me remained a mystery, a story untold, a life lived richly and poorly and everything in between. Without more of the facts of that life, a photograph taken in my mother’s twenties has become the focal point of my unknowing.
It is, to my mind, a picture of happiness, a snapshot of a woman in love either with someone or with life itself, or both. This was my mother before she married, before she had her first five children, before TB, before my father, before me.
She is standing in a garden wearing a sleeveless dress hemmed midway between knee and hip. Her left foot is thrust outward, toes kissing the ground. Her hands are firmly on her hips, elbows poking defiance at the world. Her head is tilted to her left. Her blonde bob dazzles like her smile. Just like it would do decades later, the sunlight has found her face.