By Caroline Williams
My daughter feeds ferociously, then playfully, then tenderly, and then she sleeps. Now she’s willing to release her favourite breast and the piece of my teeshirt she’s been rubbing between her thumb and her forefinger. Her bare feet, two sensors pressed against my thigh, are less co-operative. I shift my leg slightly and they find it again. I leave the bed gradually, the right thigh last to exit. Downstairs the kitchen bears the signs of an eleven month old’s solo dinner party. Three spoons and a fork lie captured on her high chair, all yoghurt-tomato-banana splattered. Another spoon ties on the floor amongst slices of apple she flung aside in anger until a whole apple was peeled and presented. “App!” she said delightedly, after saying the same word ten times as an instruction.
I make a cup of tea and start to think of dinner. I open the fridge and close it again uninspired. The cupboard is better – pasta, jar of pesto – perfect, effortless. I put a pot of water on to boil and sit down. This is the fourth day since my mother’s stroke and she is stable. They cannot tell us yet how much damage has been done or whether recovery will be possible. She has lost her speech, some power on her right side. She is angry. Today the nurses help her sit up in bed. She looks around the ward and scowls at the clutter, nine beds, drips, heart monitors, flowers. She’s allergic to some cut flowers. I sit with her and talk, ask her questions. She tries to talk but the words won’t come. She throws her arms down on the bed and shakes her head. I notice her arms are badly bruised from copious blood tests. ”More vampires?” I ask, and she grins and shakes her fist at the nurses station.
We hear the clatter of a food tray. “Will they throw me out?” I ask. She shakes her head and grips my hand. “I could just wait down the corridor.” She grips tighter. She’s watching the trays coming round. Her eyes bright as my daughter’s, they miss nothing. Bacon and cabbage arrives at the next bed, one of her favourite meals. “You hungry?” I ask, and she nods. Then she looks at me questioningly. “Me, no I’m fine. I had an early lunch.” Then I remember I’m starving. My daughter took so long to settle for her nap, I just grabbed a bit of bread and cheese on the way out the door. We’re next. Mum looks at me conspiratorily – the nurse is friendly – I’m welcome to stay. The tray is put down: mince and mashed potato slop, a yoghurt and an empty plastic beaker with lid. Mum scowls and mutters ”fuck” or “feck” or some f-word the nurse chooses to ignore and moves on.
“You going to try some?” I coax. She shakes her head. “Will I see if they’ve any bacon left?” She shrugs. Better than a refusal, so I go to the nurses’ station and wait until someone is free. The nurse is tired, patient: “Your mother is on liquids. The stroke has affected her swallowing. She could choke on bacon.” I return, defeated, the daughter, the fixer the producer, empty handed. “All gone,” I lie and then approach the truth. “They thought this would be easier for you to manage. Will you try some?” By now the gravy’s congealing slightly. She shakes her head. “How about the yoghurt?” Has my mother ever tasted yoghurt, I wonder. Dessert at the next bed is jelly. She loves jelly. I head off to the nurses’ station again. The ward sister is there this time and she tells me my mother is being ”difficult”, that this is a common reaction in stroke victims and now that she’s stabilized they’re going to try her on Prozac. They say I’ll be amazed at the difference it will make. I tell them that she nursed her own mother through a stroke – that she always dreaded this happening to her.
I return with lime jelly and cream. She picks up the spoon and looks at it like she’s never held one before. She pokes with it and misses the bowl. She pokes again and it’s in the jelly but upside down. She’s giving up. “I’ll have a go,” I say, a little unsure if she’ll agree. She does. I raise a spoonful of jelly and cream to her lips and she eats it. First I’m too fast – hassling her by having the next spoonful ready too quick, then I’m too slow – how dare I make her wait?. Be patient, Mum. Eventually we finish the bowl, a victory. More nurses come. “Tea?” I look at Mum: she drinks coffee, red label instant coffee, black. The nurse fills the beaker half milk, half tea and snaps the lid back on. Mum is getting agitated. She points to me. “I’ll bring a jar of Maxwell House tomorrow.” No, no, no she’s still pointing at me. Then I guess correctly. “No, mum I’m fine, sure I’ll be going soon.” She’s insistent. “Would you have a spare cup?” I ask. No bother. I drink my tea. Mum smiles, satisfied.
My dinner is ready: a large plate of pasta and pesto, crusty white bread, a tall glass of milk. There’s a stirring upstairs. If I go to her quickly, with a few sucks on the breast she might resettle. When I reach her she has fallen back to sleep. As I return to my dinner, I marvel at the simplicity of breast feeding her through these very difficult few days. How so often I’d return from the hospital tense, angry, numb. Yet when I put her to the breast the tears flow like milk.