“I can’t do this,” my brother Michael says.
He shifts uneasily from one out-turned foot to the other. He is short, just 5’6”, but wide. Now he rocks back and forth on his heels, taking in shallow breaths between clenched teeth. What on earth is going on? I think as I watch something akin panic widen his eyes behind his glasses. My big, older brother. My tough guy, salesman, take-no-bullshit brother is turning pale in this linoleum hallway, which reeks of the awful, hopeless smell of urine. Jesus Christ, is he going to faint?
Michael and I are at Sea Vista, the fifth nursing home we’ve visited today. Two more after this, and then we’ll decide where to place our mother. In a remarkably short period of time, she has gone from having lived in total, though lonely, independence, to needing to be parked. What her inept GP had thought was just another bout of severe bronchitis, has been revealed to be untreatable metastases of breast cancer. Given this diagnosis and the fact that our mother has about $700 to her name, the powers that be at the Flinders Medical Center, just outside the city of Adelaide, South Australia, have told us that she can no longer have a bed. For different reasons, neither Michael nor I are in any practical position to have our mother live with us. Michael and his wife Sandy are of modest means and work crazy hours. I live in the United States. So, here we are doing what she expressly told me she never, ever wanted: putting her in an old people’s home. “I’d rather be dead,” she often told me when I was growing up.
I was surprised to get an email from Michael at my university address in July 2005. It was terse. “Suki: We need to talk about our mother. Send me your phone number.” I did. And, a day later, there was my brother’s voice traversing half the globe into my right ear as I sat in the red IKEA club chair in my upstairs study in Maryland. This was the first time Michael and I had spoken in two decades.
He cut straight to the chase. It was impossible to engage in small talk or pleasantries after so long.
“Mum’s in hospital. I think it’s serious. I thought you should know.”
“What is it? Is the cancer back? What are they saying?”
“Yeah.” A long pause. “I can’t. . . I can’t talk to the doctors. I don’t know.”
Something in Michael’s voice told me that the issue wasn’t about not being able to get a doctor on the phone. What I felt from him was deep reluctance.
“Could you, Suk?” he asked, the further abbreviation of my familial name signaling how much this request was costing him.
Those two words were out of my mouth before I knew it, propelled by guilt. I felt guilty because Michael and Sandy had maintained regular relations with our mother, taking her to the movies, on day trips, and having her over for dinner, while I had hardly even picked up the phone to speak with her for years.
The next day, having checked and re-checked the time difference between the United States and Australia, I called the hospital. Putting on my best ‘important-person-calling-from-the-States’ voice, I was connected to Dr. L. – as it turned out, the most junior member of our mother’s oncology team. She sounded sweet. Dr. L. told me that Mum’s estrogen-dependent breast cancer had responded well to the five-year Tamoxifen plan, which had ended about six months previously, but that there was simply nothing to be done now that the cancer was in her lungs.
“How long does she have?” I asked, as I stared out through a narrow dormer window at the top of the white oak in the front yard. I was aware of a sort of oily sweat inside my shirt and at the same time, I felt preternaturally still.
“We don’t like to say,” said Dr. L, “because we don’t really know. But . . . if you can get away from work for a bit? Um, I think now would be good.”
I heard that for what it was. She’s dying. Could be any time. And my first thought was, At last.
Is it a bad thing to be relieved to learn that one’s mother will soon be no more? Despite all that transpired between my mother and me, I never wished her harm or wished her dead. I just wanted her out of my life, and I expended a great deal of psychic energy to erase her, putting thirteen-and-a-half thousand miles between us when I left Adelaide for graduate school in the United States in 1986. Within two years, without warning and without explanation, I broke off all communication with my mother. Eventually, our bi-monthly phone calls resumed and she traveled to Boston for my graduation and to meet Paul, the man I would marry many years later. When we did marry, I did not let my mother know. I was not setting healthy boundaries of the kind therapists recommend. I had become a veritable fortress, whose walls I vowed she would never breach.
And now here was cancer, as a gift. It could do the job I could not do alone.
I called Michael right away after speaking with Dr. L. and told him that our mother was terminal and that I would start making plans to come back to Adelaide as soon as I could.
“I’m thinking I could do a month,” I told him.
Again, my decision was swift and direct. Love and comfort were not on my mind. Sheer, bloody obligation was. This is what an adult child does. There would be practical things to deal with. And, again, I felt that somehow Michael needed me. My good-in-a-crisis instincts had kicked in and I was ready to act.
Michael suggested that I stay with him and Sandy. They’ve already discussed this, I thought. Do they know who they are welcoming into their home? Really, after almost a quarter of a century, I was as much a stranger to them, as they were to me. It was obligation on their part too, I supposed.
“You’re so thin.”
These are the first words my brother says to me as I walk towards him waiting in the tiny arrivals area in Adelaide Airport. Pulling a small suitcase behind me, I think: He looks so old. Michael’s beard is white, his sparse hair is short and gray.
I try to smile, though my throat has seized up. My heart is hammering away in my chest. I sense a tremor in my knuckles. As soon as I am close enough, Michael pulls me into a fierce hug. What I hear close to my cheek is not a sigh exactly, it is more a puff, a momentary letting go before clutching for control again. I am utterly taken aback by this display of affection, and before I can even begin to react, Michael has let go to grab my bag and we make our way to his car. It is a grey late model sedan and so spotless inside and out that I feel grubby getting into it.
I watch Michael as he settles himself into the driver’s seat. He pulls up the creases of his suit pants. Then he rolls his shoulders back, pulls down the visor mirror and raises his left hand to smooth down his moustache. With great care, he plugs in his phone, setting it just so in a pristine compartment between the front seats. He adjusts some carefully placed post-it notes on the dash before reaching back for his seat belt. He looks over to make sure that I have secured mine. And there it is again, that little tight-lipped exhalation.
One March afternoon in 1967, a few months before he turned eighteen, Michael walked up the hill from the bus stop to the house at 44 Murrell Road. It was a brand-new bungalow our parents had bought shortly after our family emigrated from England to South Australia eighteen months before. The Dwyers had no relatives here and had made precious few friends. Michael was looking forward to a cup of tea and expecting to find his mum ironing in the living room, and me, ten years younger, reading and eating cake, while the Grundig radio played. On this day, he turned right from the front door towards a silent living room, and what he saw stopped him dead in his tracks. The room was almost empty. The low-slung settee with its green wool upholstery, the matching teak sideboard, and the elaborate camphorwood chest that our parents had shipped from Malaya to Germany, to England, and finally to this house in Para Hills, they were all gone.
Michael walked through the dining area and into the galley kitchen. No one. He moved down the hallway to the bedrooms.
“Mum? Suki?” he called out. Nothing. His mother and little sister had simply disappeared.
Number 44 was the last house on the street before the desert. Nothing was beyond it but sand and rocks and spiders and snakes. Not a tree in sight. There was no through traffic. There was no telephone.
There was also no note.
Michael told me these bare bones of how our mother had abandoned him over a late lunch at his house, when I had taken a break from sitting with our mother at the hospital. I realize now that this was the only time during my month-long stay in Adelaide, that Michael and I were utterly alone and free to talk. I vividly picture how he assembled things for sandwiches. He removed the mustard and mayonnaise from the fridge and set them on the kitchen counter, perfectly aligned with their labels facing out. He laid out a small plate, a knife, and a neatly folded napkin for each of us. Some perfectly sliced ham and tomatoes were arranged just so on a platter. As we made our lunch, I watched Michael spread mustard evenly to the edges of the bread. He carefully cut his sandwich diagonally in half and looked at it for a second or two before starting to eat.
I honestly don’t remember which of us first started talking about the past. I think it was Michael, because I remember feeling surprised that he was opening up to me. While he and I had managed a few evenings of sibling banter, mostly about politics and people we didn’t like, we had not talked about anything serious, even our mother’s impending death. Michael got on with his work. I was an efficient machine, talking to doctors and running errands.
As I listened to his telling, to my deep regret, I did not ask him the obvious questions about that awful afternoon so many years in the past like, “What did you do?” “What did our father do when he got home?” “How did you ever find us?” “How long did it take you to find us?” I did not ask these questions because they were not obvious to me. They were not obvious to me because they presupposed certain things that our mother’s secrecy had rendered invisible to me as a child. She never explained why she left our father. She never mentioned that Michael had been living in the house on Murrell Road when we disappeared. What was my eight-year-old self to do? It was safer not to ask questions, and I never did.
Of course, I had known that Michael was alive, and once or twice, he visited our mother and me in some mean little flat or other, but then he took off to Western Australia and did not re-enter my life until I was just turning thirteen. By then, it was a given that three of us would never talk of about those events of 1967. It was a habit I couldn’t break, even now that my brother was right there at the kitchen table with me.
Michael got up to make tea and I began to tell him about the men who traipsed through the places I had lived with our mother. How I knew she was fucking the butcher to get free meat. I told him about having to sleep on the sofa while our mother had loud sex in the bedroom next door, sometimes with men I had met, sometimes with strangers. I told him how scared I was by this, and how one night, I had stormed into the bedroom shouting tearfully, “Can’t you behave like adults?!,” which, of course, was exactly what my mother and her lover du jour were doing. I told Michael about how our mother had eventually settled into a long-term affair with a married man, who would come to our flat, often with another woman, while I was at school. These threesomes filled that space with cigarette smoke and the stink of booze, and did what they did in the only bed there was: the one I still shared with my mother. Michael had not known any of this. Our mother had given him to believe that my life was wonderful, full of school and sports.
As the sun began to set, enveloping Michael and me in shadows, our words gave out. I guess we were both exhausted and perhaps overwhelmed by how deliberately our mother had kept us ignorant of each other. No wonder we had been so estranged. I do not know how long we sat like this, but it was almost completely dark when I shifted in my seat and told Michael I had to get back to the hospital. He walked me to the front door. In the light from the porch lamp, I could see he had teared up. Michael embraced me.
“I’m so fucking sorry, Suki. You were my little sister and I didn’t protect you.”
How can I describe what felt I in that moment? What I felt was that I was in a vast white room empty except for me and this utterly novel idea I could hardly make sense of: Someone could have helped.
About a week after that conversation, here we are in the sad hallway at Sea Vista, Michael almost 60, me almost 50. I’ve done the research and made the appointments and I am quite prepared to make the decision about which home our mother will go to. However, Michael has said that he wants to visit the options. Why then is he so pale? Why is he so, well, scared? Michael starts to walk away from me. He stands, hands in his pockets, facing a hallway wall. I can hear his breathing from twelve feet away. He comes back and stares at me, eyes pleading. And then it dawns on me. Michael, the child our mother abandoned without a thought, is desperately concerned for her. I, the apparently favored one, feel nothing.
I try to make sense of this now, so many years later, during which time Michael and I have fallen out of touch again. When our mother walked out of 44 Murrell Road with his little sister and half the furniture, my brother, who had spent most of his life in boarding schools before our family landed in Australia, was just getting to know her. At nearly eighteen, he was finally at home living with a much-longed-for caregiver, a mother. She could not have left him at a more vulnerable time. I, on the other hand, had shucked any illusions about maternal love before I was a teenager. I always wanted less of our mother. Michael always wanted more.
Susan Dwyer grew up in Adelaide, South Australia and came to the U.S. in 1986. She is an academic philosopher, writer, and yoga teacher.