His parents waited two years for the hair on his head to appear. When it eventually arrived, it was fine and straight, blonde to the point of translucency. His mother let it grow out, then trimmed it into a pudding basin shape which reached his eyebrows and covered his ears, a little like Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones circa 12x5, only without the heavy-lidded countenance of the doomed guitarist. His hair stayed that way throughout primary school, and became an emblematic characteristic of his identity, his individuality. When he arrived at a single sex secondary school, it became a liability, so he took himself to a local barber notorious for skinning the heads of his customers, and came home with a short back and sides, much to his mother’s dismay.
He was a late developer, one of the last in his school year to become pubescent, still beardless when he left for university. As if to hasten his transition to adolescence, when he was twelve his mother took him to Cookies, the hairdressing salon where she worked after college. Before shopping for clothes in The Potteries Centre in Hanley, his mother treated him to a full shampoo and cut by Joe, a modish young barber with jet black hair who wore a sleeve garter and tucked his shirt in, and who with impeccable technique snipped his fine blonde fronds into a style resembling that of an early-90s male model, before pressing it into position with hair wax. Almost before he was out of the door it fell back into the straight, shapeless mass he’d grown accustomed to.
He returned with his mother for the next few months until one week Joe wasn’t there, and another girl cut it, leaving him with a huge step at the back. The sort of haircut that would entail weeks of torment at school. When he got home, he asked his mother to correct it, and she obliged, closing the door to the study so his father wouldn’t see.
It was sometime in his late teens that he first became terrified of going bald. His blond hair, though plentiful, seemed to fall from his head at the slightest touch. Waking in the morning, he would immediately check the fabric of his bedclothes for fibres dislodged in the night. He became convinced that his hair was retreating at the temples.
There was a genealogical precedent. His grandfathers were completely bald. His paternal grandfather sported a Bobby Charlton comb-over for much of the 70s, while maternal grandfather had the unkempt side hair and bushy eyebrows of a mad professor. His father had been balding inexorably for years. Now he began to fear he would go bald before him, like his uncle on his mother’s side, who had lost almost all his hair by his early twenties. His uncle’s predicament induced panic. If he reached twenty-five with some hair left, he felt he could live with that. He could accept this newly bald self.
Most boys his age sported large bouffants of thick, shaggy hair, but some of his schoolmates were losing theirs. One, whose eldest brother already possessed a gleaming dome, had parted his thinning sandy locks into limpid curtains. Another boy in his class had a profoundly high forehead, which they believed indicated his creeping baldness, but which was in fact simply the by-product of an unusually long distance between his eyebrows and hairline. His closest friends fell into two camps: those who had fathers with impregnable helmets of hair, who would clearly never go bald; and those whose dads were bald as a bollard, who had spawned sons destined to suffer the same ignominy. He fell into the latter camp.
A couple of his friends were already showing the tell-tale signs of male pattern baldness: hair recession at the temples and a thinning at the crown. He compared the progression of his MPB with theirs, and they with his. Conversations were conducted at hairline level, photographs taken and results compared, bets wagered over who would go first. He was convinced it would be him.
He thought of the sobriquets and insults that would be hurled in his direction. Slap-head, desert-head, baldie-locks, hair unapparent, No-Hair Man, Mr Tefal, egg-shaped Fred. Bald-headed cunt. He thought of how he would look in photographs: the chrome dome inching out of the edge of the frame, prematurely aged. He thought of the women who would physically recoil from him in bars, blinded and repelled by the glare from his cranium. He thought of the boy babies born with a full head of hair and wished them ill. He regarded with envy the politicians and news readers and TV presenters and postmen and investment bankers and artists and rock stars, especially the rock stars, whose impossibly impervious follicles would survive not the ravages of lived time, but also the effects of decomposition on the human body, settling like some grief-stricken pet upon their skull. He considered these things, and despaired.
He consulted an array of men’s magazines, with their full-page ads for Propecia and Regaine, then the cutting edge of hair replacement therapy. He contemplated his hairline every evening using his two-mirror system (one to the front and one overhead), massaged his head every night to stimulate growth in the follicles. He contemplated the adverts for Advanced Hair Studios and its miracle cure vetted by former Test cricketers and retired rugby stars and other C-list celebrities who could afford the treatment, or the Premier League footballers who appeared at the start of the new season with suspiciously rejuvenated barnets, and the grim satisfaction he felt when their transplants failed to take root, or were thrown into disarray by stadium cross-winds.
He had always disliked his hair: it was too blonde, too straight, too resistant to being styled with any hair product (and he had tried them all: hairspray, mousse, gel, wax, fudge, pomade, body lotion). Baldness should have been a blessing. Instead he grieved over those dislodged strands lying on the shoulders of his jumpers and jackets, rinsed away each day in the shower like the spermatozoa from his fist. They were his children. Never again would he visit a barbershop, nor shampoo his hair into a Mohican or twine his tresses into dreadlocks.
The very stress of going bald appeared to accelerate his baldness. The only solution he could think of was to shave his head every week, to keep it closely cropped to deflect all scrutiny of his scalp. Baldness self-imposed he could accept; baldness imposed by fate he could not. Shaving his head would preserve the illusion of hirsuteness, of having hectares of golden locks lying dormant upon the barren field of his head, ready to sprout forth in great yield at the moment of his choosing. To beat baldness, he had to become that which he feared the most: bald. Bald as the bare mountain tops are bald, with a baldness full of grandeur.
He read an essay by the American writer and philosopher Siri Hustvedt, titled ‘Notes Towards a Theory of Hair’, in which the writer recounted plaiting her daughter’s long, dark hair before bedtime:
I especially liked the braiding ritual, liked the sight of my child’s ears and the back of her neck, liked the feel and look and smell of her shiny brown hair, liked the folding over and under of the three skeins of hair between my fingers.
Hair, Hustvedt wrote, grows on the border between person and world, and the meaning of the ritual was granted by its liminal status. Braiding her daughter’s hair was not merely a ritual for Hustvedt. It was an intersubjective act, one which blurred the threshold of consciousness between herself and her daughter, as she felt the skeins of hair rub against her fingers and her daughter perceived that tactile process through her own repositories of sensation.
Rubbing hair between his forefinger and thumb used to trigger a tingling through his nervous system, a kind of juddering tremulousness that he couldn’t control, which was akin to hearing pieces of polystyrene being ground together. It was excruciating and made his skin crawl. Now when he cut his children’s hair, with scissors or sometimes with a set of clippers, no matter how careful he was his eldest child would often cry out, It hurts! It hurts! The more he cried, the more hair stuck to his face and body, compounding his agony. Rare was the haircut that passed without tears. As his youngest child endured his without a word of complaint, he wondered if his son had some form of associative synesthesia. The only time he hadn’t cried was when his grandmother gave him his first haircut.
As a child, his mother cut the hair of most of her family members. From childhood to early adulthood, with one or two exceptions, his mother had always cut his hair. Now he wondered if his own mother had enjoyed the ritual of tending to her child’s hair as much as Hustvedt. Somehow he doubted it. The cutting of his hair was a protracted inconvenience for both he and his mother, one which inevitable resulted in a heated exchange of words and the occasional fingernail dug into his scalp. His impatience was inversely related to his mother’s perfectionism. The quicker he wanted it done, the longer it seemed to take. Yet she continued to cut his hair, and that of other family members, as if it was another ritual in her martyrdom to domesticity.
Perhaps he was simply ungrateful, and his mother frustrated. She had trained as a hairdresser at polytechnic after leaving school aged sixteen with a couple of O-levels. Before he was born, she worked full time at a salon. After he and his brother were born, she became a mobile hairdresser, fitting it in around the upkeep of their home. On school holidays and weekends, he and his brother would accompany her to the homes of her clients, where they would watch TV with random nameless children and grandchildren, or if there were no other children, tear around their gardens, wrestle on the lawn or trample their flowerbeds.
He was fascinated by the little grey hairdressing suitcase she took with her, containing her scissors and comb and the soft brush for flicking hair from a client’s neck, or the plastic rollers and the slivers of foil she used to set the hair of the older women on her rounds. The unwieldy floor-standing hairdryer on rollers that she struggled to fit into the boot of her Renault 5. He liked to watch her at work, her face furrowed in concentration as she snipped the slick of wet hair gathered between her fingers, feathered the edges or layered it in sections. She was a natural.
When his father’s secretary retired, she began working for him while he looked for a replacement. Before long, she was handling all administrative duties and looking after their accounts, alongside her domestic duties. After his father was diagnosed with pneumonia, she took over the running of the business while he recovered. Hairdressing became part of her past.
Hustvedt’s nightly plaiting ritual anticipated her reading to her daughter before bed. When he was very young, his mother regularly read to him and his brother before they went to sleep. It was always his mother who read to them, never his father. Neither of his parent were particularly literary, and there were few books in the home. Nevertheless, she read to them most nights and took to the library during the school holidays. Once he was able to read, around the age of six, it seemed that she stopped. Perhaps she still read to his brother, he could not say for certain. But beyond that age, he no longer remembered her reading to him.
So many memories lost from that time. His mother told him that once when he was very little, not yet at school, not yet free from the confines of their house, on an afternoon when she had settled his new brother down to sleep in his cot upstairs, she came into the kitchen to find him playing quietly with his toys on the floor, sat in the blade of light below the window, and when she knelt down next to him and enquired, Can I play with you?, he had said, simply, dismissively, No.
Other memories. Driving back to the Warren in Abersoch many years later, once more in pitiless rain, listening to her old cassettes of The Beatles. Hard Day’s Night. Help! Magical Mystery Tour. His mother had just missed the huge social changes of the Sixties, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but she had been old enough to catch The Beatles, being part of their early target market of course. Like every girl of that generation, she had her favourite. George Harrison. He had the best hair.
Lying on a sofa with his mother watching TV, aged twelve. She had her arms around him. When the programme finished turned and kissed her on the lips to say goodnight. He remembered suddenly feeling abashed, thinking there was something wrong about it. That was the last time he kissed her on the lips.
Another earlier memory, of being bathed at the sink by his mother, her soapy hands running over his hairless body, cleaning his genitals and his backside, the odour of soap and his ordure co-mingling under his nose, a smell he still recognises today. She finishes bathing him, dries him with a towel, dresses him and carries him down the stairs of their old house, underneath the stained glass windows on the landing, the soft morning sun filtering through and casting their roseate colour on the carpet, her holding him close to her, him looking back over her shoulder, gazing up to the ceiling as they descend, feeling the gentle bounce of her feet on the stairs, the warmth of her hair against his face.
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. How often he wondered if his mother had truly lived. Frequently he had found her exasperating. She could be overly sensitive, prone to outbursts and sulks even in the company of friends, her hackles rising at the slightest critical comment. He had witnessed many arguments between his parents where his mother would act the wounded party for hours afterwards, but even on those rare occasions where she was being unreasonable, and not his father, he had never heard her apologise.
She was painfully shy, the quiet host at his parent’s dinner parties, listening in to the conversations of her friends, waiting to be noticed or equally comfortable saying nothing. Subjected to an austere upbringing in a family where elders were respected and children seen and not heard, when addressed she responded with servile gratitude, like an exile being addressed in her mother tongue. Once the ice had been broken, and once she’d had a glass of wine or two, she would let loose a torrent of disconnected thought, with an intensity that made her guests shrink back.
In The Far Away Nearby, Rebecca Solnit described two stories that her mother had told herself: one of wanting to raise a family, the other of wanting to be independent, educated, emancipated, and adventurous. It was her failure to achieve the latter which had left her full of bitterness and regret. All this had not transpired as she had imagined it, Solnit wrote. It had, in fact, mostly taken place, within the limits of her timidities, for she was fearful as well as furious and maybe the latter as well as the former.
His mother’s furies were notorious within their family, but they came from a different place, one he couldn’t put his finger on. She always claimed to have never seen for herself any higher calling, the pull of self-improvement or self-awareness in a feminist sense. Patriarchy was a term absent from her vocabulary. After her early attempt to trail her own small wake as a hairdresser foundered, for years she was pulled behind the larger wash of his father. As the owner of a successful building business and a gregarious, socially active man, his wants and needs ran directly counter to her insecurities and anxieties, her desire to render herself invisible. Naturally his wants and needs took precedence.
He often thought that her life had been one of self-effacement. There was no defining passion in his mother’s life. The existence she had sought had been one of normative simplicity, if not quite The Good Life, then the good-enough life. She was not given to grandiosity, and her ambitions were small, her wants and needs narrowly-defined. She wanted to get married, have a family and be a housewife, and she needed to feel loved, a love which his father showed himself incapable of returning in the way she had hoped. That love was then channelled through her children, two boys with their own problematic neuroses, and how much these were due to his parent’s incompatibility he couldn’t say, but it was a love that sustained her, and a love that she knew would one day pass to another.
He was being unfair. Unkind. He did not wish to belittle his mother. She had given him life, delivered him into the world and fed him, clothed him, comforted him. Made him human, if not a man. Ordinary, loving and devoted, she was what Winnicott had identified in The Child, The Family and the Outside World as the good-enough mother. And as he grew older, she had lowered his expectations and limited his horizons, allowed him to make small mistakes, to fail incrementally. Now he saw in her humble ambitions how his preoccupation that some greater intellectual life lay outside his modest talents, was baseless, sans fondement. In spite of her unhappiness, she had shown him how to live.
She had dropped him on his head as an infant, and she never forgave herself for that momentary lapse of concentration. When his brother was a baby, she left a hot cup of coffee on the arm of a sofa and his brother reached up and tipped it over, scalding his face and arms, and she had not forgiven herself for that either. And between him and his brother, there was another child, whom she carried almost to full term but miscarried. A little girl, she whispered, once. Given instead to the alternative history of his family. A mother’s guilt. A mother’s grief. Her shame at these transgressions. The small things that tear a person apart.
He recognised in her selective mutism, her short temper and the small nucleus of people she called friends the troubled existence of a fellow introvert. He exhibited the self-same traits. Cancer on the cusp of Gemini. The exuberant and the depressive. Pulled between two poles. This was his inheritance. His physicality from his father, his psychology from his mother. But when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see his father.
For a long time he had tried to nourish her consciousness, to stir something within her. Together they had watched the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. Nicole Kidman had just won the Best Actress Oscar for her de-glamorised portrayal of Virginia Woolf, replete with prosthetic nose and unkempt hair. As they drove home, he asked his mother how she felt about the film, if she’d enjoyed it. Yes, she said, hesitantly. Though I do think those women were a bit silly. I mean, you just have to get on with things, don’t you?
After he moved to London, his mother chaperoned his grandmother on biannual visits to the city. He drew up a list of things for them to do in advance of their stay, allowing them to cherry-pick the items which most appealed. The visits had a loose structure, which became ingrained over time. Dinner and a theatre performance after they arrived on the Friday. On Saturday an exhibition in the morning and lunch in town, followed by a matinee performance and then dinner back at his house. Sundays comprised a walk in a local park, or a trip to a fringe gallery, lunch somewhere, then his mother would take his grandmother back to their hotel to share a bottle of wine and watch Antiques Roadshow. They enjoyed their visits, but immersion in art over the course of the weekend left them completely exhausted. And he was often melancholic for days afterwards.
At Christmas he gave her slim and benign works of literary fiction that he hoped she would be undaunted by. The Hours, The Reader, The Marriage Plot. The last Christmas before she fell ill, he gave her a hardback copy of Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men. Mmm, very interesting, she said as she unwrapped it. He found it on the desk in his old room. She never discussed it, leaving no clue if she had read or enjoyed it.
His mother had been acting strangely for months, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. After he and his brother had left home, she largely shut herself off from her wider circle of friends, preferring to see only a handful at a time, or stay at home with only the dog for company. He was certain he mother was suffering from depression but didn’t feel it was a subject that could be broached. Each time he visited home, predominantly for the festive season, she barely spoke to him while he was there, but as he left, she wept inconsolably.
When he told his parents he was going to be a father, their response was muted. After initially appeared disinterested in revisiting the bond of parental responsibility, as if the memory of its musculature had etiolated in their minds, his parents finally recognised that they would have to add the prefix grand to their familial role and accepted the latent infirmity the news conferred upon them. On the day his son was born, he spoke with his parents, who said they would come to visit in a week or so. His mother had a change of heart, and caught the train the next day, arriving on his doorstep with a teddy and balloon, and immediately bursting into tears.
In the autumn after his son’s first birthday, his family stayed with his parents in an apartment they had bought just outside the port town of Larnaca, in Cyprus, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Even in October, Cyprus was oppressively hot, dry and plagued by dust and exhaust fumes, and he and his wife spent much of their time trying to keep their young son cool by bathing with him in the apartment pool or keeping him inside. The apartment was several miles from Larnaca, and as they preferred to put their exhausted son to bed early, it meant they were frequently confined to the apartment.
One afternoon he observed his mother reading a book indoors, his son precariously balanced on the sofa beside her. When his son fell from the sofa onto the hard tile floor, his mother, absorbed in her book, had failed to catch him. When they took him down to the pool, she declined to join them, instead watching their play from the balcony. Christmas Day, a few months later, revealed something was disturbingly wrong. His mother always wanted to celebrate Christmas Day surrounded by lots of relations and friends, something which always entailed a huge amount of work for her. This would be the first year his son, their only grandchild, would spend Christmas with his parents. The previous Christmas they had been in Scotland with his wife’s parents, and when he spoke on the phone with his family, his mother had become upset.
That Christmas, her festive mania mutated into deranged yuletide hysteria. On the day itself, instead of spending time with her grandson, she sequestered herself in the kitchen. If anyone ventured into her peripheral zone, or offered to help, they were yelled at. Everyone bar his younger brother was banished from the kitchen. Then, when taking the enormous turkey out of the oven to baste it, the tray tipped in her hand and spilt hot fat onto her exposed foot. After basting her own skin with after-sun, she carried on cooking. Get out of the kitchen, I’m fine, I’m fine, she said. She was far from fine. He returned to London convinced that his mother was having a nervous breakdown.
A few weeks after Christmas his father sent him a long text message saying that he was worried about her. That she had become increasingly confused and forgetful. That she had been making mistakes at work. That she had been sleeping a lot and crying when awake. He told his father he wasn’t surprised, ascribing it to a culmination of her depressive tendencies, and that she should seek help. But when he spoke to his brother, he learned that she was unable to walk, and had to be helped up and down the stairs and into bed. For whatever reason, his father had neglected to tell him this. In his family, vital information was only ever distributed partially and unevenly.
It’s likely that his parents knew something awful was happening but were in denial. They tried to ignore it, to sweep it under the carpet. They hoped that it might clear up or correct itself, like a bad cold or a grazed knee. His father didn’t believe in depression, and while his mother could be described as depressed, she would never admit as much to a healthcare professional. Even as her conditioned worsened, she resisted going to see the doctor, and his father didn’t force her to go. It wasn’t until she fell in their bathroom one night and vomited over the floor that he finally took her to A&E, and she was admitted to hospital.
They had spoken on the phone on the night she fell. She was sobbing and barely coherent. He tried ineffectually to calm her, told her he was coming to see her. She continued to cry. She knew something was wrong. She was afraid of what it might be. What it might mean.
He travelled up from London alone. His father met him at the station.
How is she?
The Failure’s Father
Your mum’s not good, lad. No, she’s not. She’s really poorly. Really poorly.
I’m sorry, dad.
The Failure’s Father
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, that she’s poorly, that I didn’t come up sooner. I don’t know what to say.
The Failure’s Father
Not your fault. You weren’t to know.
Do we know what it is?
The Failure’s Father
It’s a brain tumour. I don’t know what type yet, but its right in the centre of her brain. One of those. They can’t get it out. Let’s hope they can do something for her.
When they arrived at the hospital, his father led him up to the oncology department. As they approached the ward, his father said, Your mum is in there, and pointed to a bed around which the green curtains had been drawn. He glanced at his father, who turned his face away. Then the curtains opened a little, and a nurse and consultant emerged. On seeing his father, the oncologist approached them.
You must be the husband. She had a bad night last night I’m afraid. We were very worried about her. She was completely unresponsive for a while and had to be woken again this morning. I’ve increased her dose of steroids, which should help to slow the growth of the tumour and stop that happening again. Her condition is still very serious, so we will move her to a private room, where she will be more comfortable.
Thank you, said his father. He looked at his father again. Saw he had tears in his eyes.
They entered the ward. The curtains around the bed had been drawn back. His mother was sprawled on the bed in her hospital gown, lying slightly to one side, slumped down and immobile. She was staring at the ceiling in a distracted and unfocused way, unaware of the nurse attending to her. Her face was composed and showed little sign of discomfort. At that moment, he thought later, she looked a little like a new-born infant, her mind wiped clean of all earthly concerns and emotions, in suspended animation or at the vanishing point of consciousness. Then, as he drew nearer, she saw him and smiled briefly in recognition, before crying out I love you as he walked to the bed and gently cradled her stricken body against his. I know, he whispered into her ear. I love you too.
They gave his mother steroids to shrink the tumour. A few days later, when she was due to be discharged, he returned to his parent’s home with his family. That Saturday, they waited for the hospital to discharge her, rattling around the house and bickering with one another. Eventually, he and his brother drove to the hospital. There they found their mother on the ward, dressed and sat patiently on the chair next to her bed, as if waiting to go on holiday. She still hadn’t been given her medication, because the hospital had been waiting for someone to come and collect her. Finally her medication arrived, and she was allowed to leave.
As they left the ward, she began crying again. I’ve been sat here since morning, she said. Waiting for someone to come and get me. The whole thing’s been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. Please take me home. She looked like her old self, and sounded like her old self, but his mother, as she had been before, no longer existed. He knew that when she came home, everything would be different.
Once she was home, it took a long time for the consultants to agree a course of treatment, as if they weren’t quite sure what to do with her. Then, a week later, his father phoned him as they returned home after seeing the oncologist. The consultation must have gone badly. He could hear his mother wailing while his father explained the situation. The cancer was a lymphoma, a very rare type caused by cancer in the blood. Not common in people his mother’s age. It was inoperable, but treatable with radiation treatment and chemotherapy. He searched for lymphoma online, then checked the prognosis after diagnosis. In all likelihood, it would come back in a few years, maybe before. She had a slim chance of survival without relapse.
His parent’s lives had to adapt to a new routine, one determined by his mother’s regular appointments for treatment. He was living in London and his brother was working overseas in Houston, so responsibility for their mother’s welfare fell upon his father. As she was no longer legally able to drive, his father drove her to the hospital each week, and waited while she had her brain irradiated and her veins flooded with high-dose methotrexate. After she was fitted with a cannula for the intravenous chemo, the line became infected and she was readmitted to hospital for several days. The infection left her weakened, and the treatment made her groggy and fatigued. In spite of this, she tolerated the radiotherapy and seemed to cruise through chemo. Everything else fell apart.
They had been warned the tumour could alter her personality, but that had no idea of the extent of the transformation. She was irrevocably altered. A different person. This was his mother, but not his mother. His mother’s illness, and his response to it, felt like a test, an inquiry into his emotional fortitude. His resilience. And he had been found wanting. His parent’s relationship should have been strengthened by the cancer, but it was disintegrating. So much of what was happening was happening out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. How much emotional space was too much, how much too little? How to do the right thing by his parents? How to be a good son? How to be a good parent? How should a person be? He had no answer to that question.
Throughout his childhood, his mother had restyled her own hair almost every month. The perm, the pixie, the bob, the Joan of Arc, the Tina Turner. Each time trying out a new identity. Her hair, like his, was a source of continual frustration, almost too straight to style, lacking any hint of a wave or kink to give it body. Before he was born, she had worn her hair long and straight, with a fringe, but by the time he was born she had re-arranged her hair in thick, dark curls. One evening after dinner, during her short-lived Tina Turner phase, he had wandered into his parent’s bedroom to find her trying to bleach the ends of her own hair, standing before the bathroom mirror in a plastic cap while holding a smaller behind her. It wasn’t until her late thirties that she settled upon a shoulder-length bob, augmented with highlights when she began to grow grey, a style she kept until she fell ill.
Once she began chemotherapy, the hair fell from her head in thin grey wisps, like smoke made tangible. With some reluctance, she went to choose a wig at the hospital, and returned with an incongruous hairpiece which made her head resemble a small thatched cottage. The steroids caused her to gain weight, and as few of her old clothes fit anymore, she had to buy an entirely new wardrobe. His mother had always dressed well, as a point of principle and a point of pride, concealing her insecurities through the presentation of a stylish alternative self. The vibrant colours and youthful clothes she had worn little more than a year ago were now replaced with muted browns and greys, unflattering outfits which, rather than concealing the change in her, merely served to emphasise it. She had become a different person, and these clothes concretised the fact.
For Solnit, her mother’s gradual disintegration from Alzheimer’s made her disappearance more tolerable, if not more palatable. Her condition would have been shocking if it had arrived suddenly, Solnit wrote, but she travelled so slowly it often seemed imperceptible until we hit another milestone. While the physical change in his mother was almost immediate, other changes occurred more imperceptibly. As with Alzheimer’s, the tumour must have affected his mother’s hippocampus, making her angry and confused and forgetful and constantly hungry, which made him wonder if she could not remember when she last ate, or whether by eating she was trying to make herself physically impregnable, shoring up her ramparts against the invisible enemy that had already stolen inside her.
One of her hands trembled constantly, and her handwriting became unrecognisable. Her temperament, short at the best of times when she had been healthy, was as fragile and combustible as a matchstick. They tiptoed around her, as if walking on eggshells. The broken fragments of her former self. When he visited with his family, she cleaned compulsively and spent hours in the darkness of their living room playing Sudoko, ignoring her grandson save for issuing some instruction or warning at him. When it came time to leave, she wept inconsolably, hiding herself from everyone until the moment of departure. Then she would emerge and clutch at her grandson, sob into his clothes as she hugged him, fearful of never seeing him again.
The five of them returned to Cyprus a year after their first trip. One evening, after putting their son to bed, he and his father had lit a barbecue on the sun terrace. The sun went down early that week. Summer ceding to autumn. They had been drinking gin since the early afternoon and were already drunk by the time they sat down for dinner. His mother was eating quietly, his father expounding on some subject or another. As they ate and talked, his father started played music on his iPhone. Rock and roll riffs music blasted out across the scrubland surrounding the apartment complex.
One particular song came on, Make It With You, a hit in 1970 for the soft-rock band Bread. A regular fixture on regional radio. His mother had a few of their LPs. This is one of your mum’s favourites, his father said between mouthfuls. She used to love this song. Used to play it all the time. His mother sat up and put her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. Sorry, she said, leaving the table. She always does this, said his father, taking a sip of wine and continuing to eat. She’ll be alright in a minute. He put down his knife and fork and followed his mother inside.
Life went on. His wife gave birth to their second son, and his mother remained in remission. Her hair grew back, thick and wiry and grey, like a Brillo pad. She doted on her new grandson. Here was a second chance. She came to visit from time to time, with his father or grandmother, sometimes on her own. When she came to stay, he found it difficult to know what to say to her, even when it was just the two of them, when they had chance to talk. Instead, they made mince pies and took his children to the leaf-strewn park. Over dinner, she told him she was unhappy at home. He just goes off like a bottle of pop, she said of his father. He suggested they should try counselling. She ignored him.
When the day of her return came, he walked his mother back to the station, him pushing his infant son in a pushchair, her dragging her travel case several paces behind. Even when he slowed his pace to a crawl, she maintained a careful distance. At the station, he turned to say goodbye and saw she had been crying again. I don’t want to go, she said. I know, he said, and hugged her. He asked her if she would speak to a counsellor when she got back. I’ll try, she said, meaning she wouldn’t. He watched her pass through the ticket barrier and set off for home. As soon as he left her, he regretted not asking her to stay.
The tumour came back a year later, her behaviour as confused and erratic as before. He had read about radiation-induced dementia in tumour survivors and was convinced that the symptoms aligned. He tried to counsel his father over the phone. Spoke to his brother and grandmother. Everyone had a different view. That spring, his parents came to London to help him build a cabin in his back garden, a timber construction with a toilet and shower which would allow his mother to make longer visits. He had been induced to build the cabin by his father, perhaps to give him some respite. For several weeks, as winter turned into spring, he had stopped working on his PhD to prepare the ground works, digging a trench for services, readying the base for pouring concrete.
Before his parents arrived, his father forewarned him over the phone that his mother was acting strangely. When they got there, she flopped down on the sofa next to his youngest son and proceeded to watch TV for the next hour in her sunglasses and coat. She made repeated visits to the bathroom but was unable to walk up the single flight of stairs. Instead she crawled up on her bottom, one step at a time, using the banister for leverage. After announcing she was hungry, she made herself cheese on toast by lying the toaster on its side and forcing into it a piece of bread topped with a lump of Parmesan. Eventually, his father coaxed her into a chair near the patio windows, where she could watch them working. She fell asleep, occasionally opening her eyes to smile at them, before closing her eyes again.
His father had been invited on holiday and asked if he would mind keeping an eye on his mother for a few days. He agreed and travelled up to his parents’ home a few weeks after their London visit. By now, his mother was using two walking sticks to navigate the familiar spaces of her home, mainly for her frequent visits to the bathroom. Still she refused see the doctor. On the morning he arrived, his grandmother was at his parents’ house, having stayed the night. She fell this morning and was sick, she said. I had a hell of a job trying to get her up. Earlier that year, when she was less confused, his mother booked a summer trip to Paris for her and her mother. Now she was bothered that they were going to miss their flight, which she thought was that day. We’re going on holiday, she said repeatedly.
He phoned the doctor’s surgery and made an emergency appointment. When they got to the surgery, his mother decided she wanted to go to the bathroom. His grandmother took her. By chance, one of his father’s bricklayers was there, a man who had worked for his father since leaving school at sixteen. They had known each other for over thirty years and hadn’t seen each other for almost a decade. He watched the smile vanish from the bricklayer’s face as his mother hobbled across the reception area. He knew. They both knew. When his mother’s appointment was called, she announced she wanted to go to the bathroom again.
The female doctor had round glasses and a straw-coloured long bob. She asked his mother how she was.
Oh, not too bad, she said.
That’s not correct, he said. She fell in the night and was sick.
She’s having problems with her waterworks. And she’s very confused, aren’t you? His grandmother said.
Hmm, said the GP. And how long has this been going on?
His mother didn’t respond. She’s convinced we’re going on holiday, but we’re not going on holiday until next month, his grandmother offered.
For a while, he continued. But the falling over and being sick is a new development. The last time this happened was when she was diagnosed. With a brain tumour. So obviously we are worried.
OK, said the GP. What I’m going to do is write to the hospital and see if we can get her six month check-up brought forward.
He phoned his father. They agreed he should take her back to the oncology unit. He phoned his brother. Oh shit, his brother said. With his grandmother in tow, he drove his mother to the hospital. His brother met them there. They took her up to the oncology ward, where she was given a private room. They waited. After a while the consultant entered. Young, male, balding. Far Eastern heritage. The consultant asked his mother how she was. Oh, not too bad, she replied. The consultant conducted a filament test, then asked her some questions. What day is it? What is your address? Who is the Prime Minister? All of which she answered correctly, but with some fumbling. An emergency MRI was organised, and she was wheeled away.
They waited. An hour later, a young doctor in a headscarf led them through a door marked ‘Counselling Room’, a banal box room designed to limit the effect of bad news. They sat down. The doctor consulted her notes. The scan shows a tumour presenting in the same place as before, she said. So it does appear that the tumour has come back. I’m very sorry. The three of them went back to the private room. His mother was lying on the bed. When they walked into the room, she opened her eyes. He sat next to her, held her hand and told her in a low voice that the tumour had come back. His responsibility. As her eldest son, her firstborn. Her heir. She closed her eyes and nodded. After a while he left to phone his father, and then his wife. Then he sat in the empty waiting area and cried.
The oncologists were unable to give his mother any further radiation treatment, so instead the consultant proposed a stem cell transplant, which would allow a greater concentration of chemotherapy to be used to destroy the cancer cells. Her own blood cells would be destroyed in the process and replaced with autologous cells harvested and cleaned before the chemo began. At first his mother responded well to the treatment. Then she caught another infection and was hospitalised. She became a pale, spectral presence in a dark room, her skin livid in the fetid air. Close to death, the closest to death he had seen her. Then, miraculously, she got better, and was transferred to another hospital.
His mother forgot things. Not places, names and dates, but simple things, everyday things, things most people take for granted, like how to bathe, how to get dressed, how to go to the bathroom, how to read. She forgot how to move her legs, how to put one foot in front of the other. Her muscles atrophied from lying in bed, all the hours and days and weeks and months of sitting and waiting to get better. She was no longer able straighten her legs, because her knee joints had fused together. The skin hung slackly from her bones.
She spent that Christmas in a convalescent hospital for geriatric patients. Her hair had fallen out months before, and there was no sign of it coming back. When he visited on Christmas Day with his family, his eldest son said or did something that annoyed him, so he marched him out of the visiting room and shouted at him, grabbed at his face. Something had made him furious, but he couldn’t say what it was.
She was in hospital for almost a year. She moved from the hospital into his grandmother’s bungalow, where his father had organised round-the-clock care for her. Her hair grew back, grey and wiry. She stopped forgetting things, and things stayed as they were for a while.
Around the time of his mother’s relapse, a novella was published about two boys and their father coming to terms with their mother’s sudden death. Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It was the kind of book he had one day hoped to write, blending fiction and poetry, faintly autobiographical with an explicit nod to a canonical text he admired. He once asked his mother for a copy of Crow for Christmas. Back when he was doing his A-levels. Back when he wanted to be a poet, like Ted Hughes. Each time he passed a bookshop, he paused to see if they had a copy of Grief, and finding it among the displays, quickly flicked through the book, scanned the flashing pages, found a hint of self-recognition in certain passages. Grief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. I was cold. As much as he wanted to, he didn’t buy the book. Money was tight, and he had enough grief to spare.
Grief was the walk from Stoke on Trent station to North Staffs hospital. Grief the sleet collecting on his shoulders. Grief the lunch he bought at the petrol station. Grief was the hours of sitting by his mother’s hospital bed as she slept. Grief a difficult dinner discussing his inheritance with his father. Grief waiting for the last train to London. Grief two beers from the refreshments trolley. Grief longing to be enfolded in his wife’s embrace. Grief kissing his sleeping boys on the forehead. Grief stuffing groceries into a bag in Lidl. Grief finger-painting with his son at playgroup. Grief meeting his PhD supervisor. Grief picking up a book titled Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Grief the surging underground crowd. Grief rushing across the concourse at Euston. Grief telling his wife to Fuck off as he threw their bags on the train.
Grief his father’s small talk. Grief his old room at his parents’ house. Grief a freezer full of ready meals. Grief a wardrobe full of clothes with the price tag still on. Grief his parents’ oval wedding portrait. Grief the empty spaces she had painted and sewn and made home. Grief her handwriting on a slip of paper. Grief taking his children to see his ailing mother in hospital and diarrhoea pouring out under her gown. Grief drinking and taking cocaine whenever the opportunity arose. Grief not being able to put down in words. Grief another empty waiting room. Grief an unfinished conversation. Grief being useless and stupid and feeling like a fucking failure. Grief all the things he had done wrong. Grief a not good enough son.