She was tall and slim and had a coloured band around her
His son avoided using the word 'dying' when he rang to say that his mother had gone into hospital for one of her regular blood transfusions and that they were keeping her there for observation. She sounded very weak, he said and he wondered if she might be on the way out.
He rang her on her mobile, she was pleased he'd rung and although she sounded a bit tired she was quite lucid and they talked for twenty minutes. She just couldn't manage by herself anymore, she said, and they were trying to get her into a palliative care place. She told them that she'd had a good life and didn't want to be kept alive, that there was a time to go and she was ready! She clearly meant it and was in as good spirits as anyone her age lying on her back in a hospital bed would be! And she wanted him to know that she bore him no ill will about the past.
It was only after they'd stopped talking he realised she hadn't done her usual number about all the important people she was seeing that usually irritated him so much he hastened to end the conversation, and this absence made him think that she really might be dying.
He reflected that it was over 30 years since they were divorced. They had married young and been together for over 32 years, they'd had their wanderjahre in the 50's when they were young, working and studying, in Europe first and then in North America; six years of life and love and growing up before returning home.
She was born at the start of the Depression, her father was a poor immigrant and her mother was a country girl from a hard scrabble farm on the way up to Gloucester. She had left school early, went to art school in London and her ceramics are now in most of the State collections.
Their conversation brought it all back, so he looked out the photographs taken during those sixty year old travels around Europe on a motor scooter, camping in a small Paddy Pallin tent. The one he liked the best was of her standing in front of the walls of Mycenae, walls that were built over a thousand years before the birth of Christ and are mentioned in Homer's Odyssey; she was tall and slim then and had a coloured band around her head.
She was his first love and the mother of his children, yet after 32 years together he had left her. He couldn't remember that poem about love fading like a summers day but their children had finished school and left home, they both had busy careers and had simply drifted apart. After all those years they just weren't the same people who had fallen in love so many years before! Things are as they are, she was his first love and the mother of his children, yet after 32 years together he had left her!
It had been his initiative to divorce, sparked by an affair initiated by one of his clients. She had always joked that he was too busy to ever have an affair and it had been true till then; it was a so-called mid-life crisis and after the divorce they didn't speak for years. He wasn't happy about the way it all happened, but leaving that dead marriage was something he felt he had absolutely no choice about at the time. She took the separation hard and didn't ever remarry.
Her hospitalised situation was of course a sharp reminder of his own impending mortality. Increasingly he had a sense of consciously cutting off from some things, ceasing to be bothered about others, of winding down! At the same time he wouldn't be dead for quids!
He felt concerned that she should know how grateful he was for their early life together, grateful for her presence and love at the walls of Mycenae, for sharing the Piero della Francesca paintings in the National Gallery and walking on Hampstead Heath at weekends, going to Mass in Borromini churches in Rome, and living in that tiny apartment in the East Village and eating piroshkis at the Ukrainian deli.
He had long accepted the Buddhist view that understanding deep down that nothing ever remains the same is the beginning of wisdom; that what happened is what happened. He was only too aware of the pain he had caused when they had separated, but his concern had nothing to do with being apologetic or feeling sorry about what happened, they were too old and had both moved way past that. What it was about now was acknowledging and celebrating their shared life together.
A few days later she was moved into a palliative care place. When he rang she told him firmly in a pleased voice that it wasn't a nursing home, that it was like a luxury private hotel, and this ember of her old attitudes made him think she must be feeling better. Their daughter had obtained leave to be close to her mother until the prognosis became clearer, and she reported that her mother had a constant stream of visitors and was enjoying the attention and might have been a bit lonely at home.
She's from tough stock, he thought, and will hang on for a while now she's being properly looked after; he'd go up soon to hold her hand and talk about their years together; he'd like to share it all with her again at the end of their lives.