The Last of the Ladies

When. Are. You. Coming. When. Are. You. Coming.

Her words, uncharacteristically persistent, drumming into my ears, over the phone.

I book a flight, last-minute.The cheapest fares are early morning. Get up at 4 to catch it, the taxi driver speaking in a singsong Arabic on his hands-free phone, the dark sky blooming into purple and pink sliced with neon shards of the remaining night.

I’m. Coming.

I don’t even remember that flight. Did I watch a movie? read a book? Sleep?

Nieces at the airport, faces open with expectation, we hug in a tangle of arms and hair. I can smell fruity shampoo and cigarette smoke. The long, beautiful drive through prairie landscape, horizon straight and sharp as a knife, to the city where I was born.

My mother, bursting into tears when she sees me. Her perfectly set hair, her frail , stubborn body in my arms.

Somehow, she has managed to prepare chicken stew and perogies for me, my favourite dish, her traditional welcome for me. There is a message embedded in her food: I’m. So. Not. Giving. Up.

Cancer. Again. That old environmental scourge, chasing her down the hallway of her final years.

The freezer is full of pureed soups, stuff my mother can eat, in individual containers labeled with masking tape and magic marker: ASPARAGUS. LENTIL. PEA. SALMON BISQUE. My brothers have done this. I want to cry. I can sense their love, their fear.

I take her to physio, to the doctor’s, pile organic vegetables and fruit into shopping carts, make more soup (SQUASH), ladle it into individual containers. I make raw juice with carrots, spinach, pineapple, cucumber, parsley, pears. I talk to homecare workers, do laundry, wash dishes, take out garbage, rent DVD’s, go to the farmer’s market, make mushroom sauce, pick up kleenexes off the floor.

We go on small excursions. To The Bay, her small warm hand on my arm. She finds her independence in that safe, brightly lit environment, walks off on her own, to proudly buy the fancy skin cream that she’s been using for twenty years.

To “Group”, the laryngectomy support group she’s attended since her surgery eight years ago. A roomful of mostly working-class men, guys she’s never had occasion to hang out with before. They don’t really talk to one another, they are there to worship Leah, the angelic, hyper, Ear-Nose-Throat therapist. She makes them talk, exclaims over their vocalizing ability, gently scolds or excitedly praises them, hugs my mother as she manages to swallow liquids for the first time in a week.

Here, my mother can relax. She is with her own unlikely tribe. She loosens the scarf she wears to hide the stoma in her throat, sits back, and smiles as everyone, at Leah’s urging, recounts where they were born, in turn.

To a cafe on my last day, with my niece and my brother. It’s a strain for her to eat her roasted potato and leek soup in public, but she does so with determined elegance. She is one of the last of the ladies, with manners and dress sense to kill.

I go home, my plane moving towards the setting sun, enter into plum and scarlet, fire, and then soft darkness.


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