Two years ago on this day I was feeding my mother breakfast. I was sitting beside her bed tearing toast into bite size pieces and wondering how it was possible for anyone to chew so long on a miniscule bit of scrambled egg. Watching as she reached for her coffee or juice, her fingers shaking and the whole thing taking so long I just wanted to grab the cup, hand it to her… but I resisted. Reaching for her own drink was one of the few things she could still do.
I remember that the radio was on and they were talking about it being International Women’s Day. I expected my head to fill with thoughts of strength and achievement in this celebration of voices, past and present, loud and clear against the best efforts of those who’d prefer they remain silent. Suffragettes. Women who climbed various mountains to change the world.
But on this morning, two years ago, I found myself considering a different aspect of womankind—I thought about all those women everywhere who are caring for women, and how that’s often the way it goes… how the women so often outlive their men and how it’s the daughters, sisters, granddaughters, nieces, friends, that you see in the hallways of nursing homes, arriving with fresh nighties or flowers, a case of Ensure, a toilet frame… visiting, care-giving, and then I thought how it’s my mother’s hand I recall on my five-year old, eight year old, fourteen year old forehead when I had a fever, bringing me something for an upset tummy, a sore throat—my mother’s hand that comes to mind whenever I smell Vicks VapoRub. I remember my dad’s part in things too, how he’d thunder in at the end of the day and I’d hear his voice, anxious, asking how The Little One was, then a few minutes later appearing at my door trying to look casual, smiling, telling me I’d be up and at ’em soon. He’d cough, say Okay, get some sleep now! then escape to kitchen for a smoke—god bless him and all that, but it’s my mother that slept on the floor beside me one year when I was so young I can’t remember why.
And so there in my mother’s room on International Women’s Day two years ago, instead of thinking about a century or more of feminists who paved the road so that we could all walk more easily, I was thinking about the time I saw my mother-in-law leave the hairdresser with a friend. Both of them in silver perms, frail, careful of every step, helping each other to the car, and how I knew that to have intervened, to have offered my arm, would have taken away what they still needed to know they could give each other.
I thought of the woman who came to the nursing home every day and on Wednesdays took her mother’s laundry home in a basket to wash and hang on the line, even in winter, for the fresh smell.
And as I helped my ninety year-old mother with her breakfast and waited as it took forever in the washroom and got her back to bed, I glanced occasionally at a picture by the window where she no longer sat because even sitting took too much out of her. The picture is of her and my dad in the alps, at the top of a mountain they’d just hiked. They’re all smiles and twenty-something gorgeous against an endless sky.
Both my mum and my mother-in-law have since died. I don’t know about the woman with the fresh laundry.
I want to celebrate strength on International Women’s Day but I find myself celebrating love instead.