Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

An acknowledgement

I am never very good with dates. Unless it’s a significant one, like January 1st or Friday the 13th, I tend not to notice the number on the calendar. So it was only late yesterday that I realised it was January the 18th, the fourth anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. She was 67.

It was very sudden: one Friday morning, she passed out in the kitchen and the paramedics were unable to resuscitate her. The doctor who had examined us for our Australian visa application had picked up arrhythmia the previous month; she had been to see a cardiologist only ten days before. She would need a pacemaker in the next two years, he told her. Nothing about less than two weeks to live.

I still have flashbacks. The paramedics looking for a kettle cord for the defibrillator, being called aside to be told that they were going to stop trying, my then husband’s shuddering torrent of grief. Helping him take off her jeans and T-shirt and dress her in a smart outfit because he said she wouldn’t have wanted the undertakers to see her in her sloppy housework clothes. How resolute he was in the face of death, and how I fled from the room, a coward, heaving. Choosing a coffin, deciding on the hymns for the service; the lily green scent of bouquets crowded on the coffee table, like after a wedding, only not.

I don’t think she was ever aware of what happened to her, which I’m glad about because she would have been very resentful at having her life cut short. I grapple every day with the realisation that with each passing year the possibilities before me recede into if-onlys and never-weres. She was 30 years older than I am now when she died, and I know that she was not happy. She had reached an age where most of her life had been lived, and if she had wanted something different for herself, it was too late.

She had not completely surrendered her expectations of anything better, though. I think it was that loss of possibility that needled her, that sent her clattering and banging against the confines of her life like a moth in a jar. She was beautiful once, and rich once; now she was an addendum to the lives of her only son and his wife. We had once rented her garden cottage; now we annexed the house in the wake of extensive renovations and remodelled it in the image of our educated, discerning selves. We did have such excellent taste. Her autonomy had been steadily eroded, and her once expansive kingdom was now a spare bedroom and a study.

I cannot imagine the wrenching pain my husband felt. It was as though all grieving had been allocated to him, because throughout all of this, I was horribly conscious that at the core of my sorrow was an absence of feeling. A blankness where there should have been an unbearable ache. So the guilt lodged in the pit of my stomach where it stayed. Somehow, in all those years his mother and I had known one another, we had never truly connected, not in the way I longed for. There was always a distance, something missing. I could never define it, but I don’t think I ever had a real conversation with her, the kind where you know that you are in the presence of the raw unfiltered human being beneath the platitudes. A lot of the English are like that. Though she married an Afrikaner, she never took South African citizenship; she always used to say to me, “The Afrikaners are very emotional.”

I did get a sense of the depth of her feeling, once. We were watching some old cine footage of her with my husband’s father, before they got married. It was the early 60s and they were dressed up to go to the July. She was sexy and glamorous and beautiful, and in that moment of confrontation with her former self, I could see that she was knocked off balance by the weight of her loss. “I was beautiful and thin then,” she said, her voice quivering with grief, but I think it was about more than youth and beauty. It was about the loss of promise, of how the years that once unrolled before her like a carpet of gold had become a life of marriage to an angry man, his death from cancer, of having to sell the farm and move to Johannesburg, where her expensive Mercedes would gradually morph into an old heap and she was destined to spiral gently into a life of having to be Careful with Money.

You might ask why I am writing about this here – why I am posting something so personal to be perused by strangers, half of whom only read this blog for the pleasure of disliking me. I considered posting this on my writing blog, to be read by one or two fellow authors, if anyone. But that would not be public enough, and this needs to be public. My mother-in-law had subsumed herself into the ambitions of my ex-husband and me, but she bridled at the notion of not mattering any more. I want her to matter. So this is an acknowledgement of you, Kaye. You can’t read this – what remains of you is gathered in photo albums and stowed away in memory – but others can. I took you for granted. But I also saw the truth of you, a woman who wanted a different life for herself and sacrificed it for us. This is just to say that I knew, and I will never forget.

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