Marisia (M), a young Slovak woman working in Vienna, tries to find her bearings in life as she comes to terms with her mother’s terminal illness. In this excerpt, the narrator has just learned that mother has passed away in a hospital in Bratislava.
It seems unbelievable, but my mom’s death caught me unawares. Despite my conversation with the doctor, who gave me the prognosis in the hospital corridor, even as Mom was lying bald and emaciated in the hospital bed with the bloody spots from her cracked skin on the pillows. Because dying is one thing, but death is something else. I had come to terms with dying, I accepted it as a part of life. It was a new, unknown situation, but sometimes dying is like that, life is change, you have to take things as they are. There was nothing I could do, death has entered our lives, we simply have to deal with it. And that’s why—although it seems unbelievable—Mom’s death caught me unawares when they called me from the hospital that Sunday morning at the end of May: I regret to inform you that your mother died this morning, my deepest sympathies.
I spent the night, like every night in Mom’s apartment, on the couch, the TV remote lying on the floor, where I had tossed it when I turned the TV off at night after watching a film and fell asleep curled up under a blanket. There was a phone in Mom’s apartment, a landline, but it was in the bedroom and the door to the bedroom was closed. Maybe I didn’t want to see Mom’s empty bed, although I had never seen Mom sleep in that apartment, as it wasn’t the apartment I had grown up in, so it didn’t hold any memories for me. But perhaps I felt that the bedroom was Mom’s territory, a private space that I shouldn’t intrude on. I hadn’t lived with Mom for years and I was always telling her how I had my own life and she shouldn’t interfere in it, for God’s sake would she not stick her nose into everything. All my life I’ve defined my own space and that’s likely why I had the feeling that the door to Mom’s bedroom should stay closed, and in the evening I wanted to watch TV. Anyhow, sleeping in the bed of my mom, who was in hospital with her failing kidneys, dying in the hospital, sleeping in her bed just didn’t seem right.
So on Sunday morning, I was asleep on the couch in front of the TV and I didn’t hear Mom’s phone ring. I guess when they couldn’t reach me from the hospital, they found my cell phone number in Mom’s health record. Now that I’m a nurse myself I know that in the patient records there’s a column headed Address of Next of Kin, with a phone number. Doctors prefer it when there is a cell phone number, because often nobody answers the landline, the relatives might not be home, they might be in the garden, at work or by the pool, and then you have to call back every few minutes to check if they’re back yet. And then the doctor tells the nurse, you give it a try, I’m going to my office to fill out the discharge form, call the exchange, and when you reach them, put me through, I’ll be on extension five three five nine. With a cell phone number there are fewer worries, the relatives will answer a cell phone. But sometimes the only relative might be an eighty-year-old husband, the children might be abroad, or there may be no children in the family, and the old man doesn’t have a cell phone, only a landline, and no one picks up, because the old man has just gone to the grocery store for some bread. Patients who have children usually have a cell phone too. The children usually buy them a cell phone and teach them how to use it; when it rings, you just need to press this green button, see, it has a picture of a phone. And the old people act like it bothers them, these young folks, they can’t let go of their phone for a minute, back in our day. . . So they pretend they don’t care about cell phones, but in fact it’s their link to the world. And it’s not just a matter of being able to call anyone anytime, but also of being a part of this world. A world where everyone has a cell phone and computer, from which they could easily be excluded, but they do belong to it at least a little, they participate in it, my daughter bought me a cell phone, look, maybe she’s sent me a text message telling me if she’s coming today, now where did I put it? And later the cell phone numbers of the relatives are in the health records in the address of the next of kin column, just like my cell phone number must have been in Mom’s records.
So that morning, even the fact that they had my number surprised me, at that time I didn’t yet know how things worked in a hospital, I’d never been in a hospital in my life except the one where Mom was staying. How did they get my number. . . ? Although it seems unbelievable, I didn’t realize that they had to be prepared. In the ward, they surely knew that they would need it someday, and surely they knew I was only in Bratislava on weekends, so that was the only way they could reach me. I’m sure that the chief physician asked while making his rounds, and do we have the daughter’s number, and the attending physician nodded immediately, of course, Doctor, here it is. On their rounds, when the whole staff of the ward stood round Mom’s bedside, because at the hospital, who knows why, they say “bedside”: the doctor has a calm bedside manner, the patient is immobile, she’ll receive bedside treatment. They don’t say “bedside” anywhere else but at the hospital, except maybe in a furniture catalog that sells “bedside lamps,” otherwise people just call it a bed. And so during the chief physician’s rounds, they all must have been standing round Mom’s bedside, where there was nothing else to say, the chief physician looked at her records and nodded. Mom had been in the hospital for a long time, everyone already knew her, the attending physician didn’t need to recount her whole medical history. The chief physician probably just glanced at her medical record to check the creatinine level, and before the attending physician could answer, the chief physician had already registered the results, I see, I see, well then, and do we have the daughter’s number, yes we do. At other patients’ bedsides maybe plans were being made, the best treatment strategy was being discussed, why don’t we give a little more of this and maybe we should consider surgery. When making their rounds, doctors have to be careful what they say in front of patients, instead of speaking, it’s better just to point to the records, see, show the relevant indicator, this is up a bit, but this is down. And then to explain everything to the patient, not to leave them guessing, to make sure worrying assumptions don’t grow out of all proportion. Mrs. Mozsarová, I’ve just been saying to the doctor that everything seems fine, if this trend continues, we may go for the operation as we discussed before. But then there are bedsides where there is nothing left to say, and that’s how it must have been at Mom’s bedside. Here we have Mrs., what did you say her name was, the chief physician asked quietly as he went from one bedside to another, although Mom was alone in the room and the attending physician was whispering to him in the corridor as they left one room and entered into Mom’s, this is the teacher, ah, she is the one. Everyone already knew Mom, she had been in the ward for several weeks, here we have this lady, yes, this won’t take long, how are we today, the breathing is good. And how does the creatinine level look, we really need the daughter’s number, and otherwise we’ll continue as before, this is just a palliative matter, said the attending physician quietly.
So of course I knew this, no one had lied to me, no one had kept anything from me, and the doctor was very clear about it during our conversation in the corridor. I wasn’t blind either, I saw Mom and I have some common sense. Yet despite all that, on that Sunday morning I was caught by surprise, how did they get my number. Despite the fact that I had always made sure I had my cell phone on me, in case they called, when they finally did call, it caught me by surprise. Luckily, I still had some credit on my Austrian cell phone. After they had tried several times to call Mom’s landline, which rang behind the closed bedroom door, they called my cell phone, and it rang before six o’clock on Sunday morning. The ringing woke me up, I was still dazed and sleepy, who’s that bothering me on Sunday morning. Hardly anyone ever called me, sometimes a short phone call from work, asking if I could stay longer on Tuesday because the place needs tidying up before the parents’ meeting, or Janut would send me a text message, but since Janut moved out, I hardly ever needed the cell phone. In fact I hung up on the first call, it must be a wrong number, they should all leave me alone. But when it rang a second time, I looked at the display and saw an unknown Bratislava number, and I think that’s when I already knew. I wasn’t alarmed, my heart didn’t even beat faster, everything seemed to happen too quickly, and besides, I had just woken up, I was still in a daze and in the first moment I didn’t know where I was. But when I saw a Bratislava landline number blinking urgently on the screen, I must have realized what had happened. In Bratislava there was nobody who had any reason to call me. And when I picked up, I’m very sorry, I have to inform you, the doctor stammered, a sentence that the doctor on this ward had well rehearsed. Like a recorded message, when you call the police department after hours, we’re sorry, our operators are ready to assist you during working hours, please call back between eight and four o’clock, and that’s all, nothing to add, if you don’t hang up we’ll just repeat the message, you don’t get any more information. And so when he said, your mother died this morning, my deepest sympathies, I asked the stupidest possible question. So what did she die of? That’s the pointless question I asked the doctor. It was the first thing that occurred to me, I couldn’t imagine the mechanism of death, did she have a seizure, did she start to spit blood, did she have convulsions, how did it happen, what did she die of? This time I caught the doctor off guard, this time I managed to catch a professional off guard, what do you mean, what of, he must have thought, why, she spent three months here in the hospital, what kind of question is this? Of course this is not how he put it, but it’s what I heard him thinking. I don’t know what kind of questions he was used to, what kind of questions relatives ask at a time like this, it wasn’t the first time he had done it and people must have asked him stupider questions. What do people say at such times . . . Thanks for letting me know, what a pity, and what do I need to do now? I forget what he answered because I immediately I realized how inappropriate my questions were. It’s even possible that I actually apologized to him right away, and then, I suppose, came the formalities, come to the ward, to sign for and take possession of her things, we’ll have the discharge forms ready for you.
So what now, another turning point, which despite everything, I didn’t expect. They said to come to the ward as soon as possible, they’ve already contacted the undertaker. Fortunately, they gave me these instructions, at least basic instructions for the next few minutes, that is to say, to take a shower as usual, get dressed, brush my teeth, make sure I had my keys, because the worst thing at that moment would have been to lock myself out, and then have to look for a locksmith on a Sunday morning, no one had another set of keys to Mom’s apartment, and I had Mom’s. So on the last day of May I took my usual route to the hospital. I don’t remember what the weather was like on that particular morning, that year there was a lovely sunny spring, so I guess it was warm, it certainly wasn’t raining, I’m sure of that. The streets were empty on Sunday morning, but in front of the elevator on the first floor of the hospital several people were already waiting, what floor are you going to, the third, I’m only going to the second. In Mom’s ward, the staff were just changing shifts. I know it from my own experience now, that great feeling when you change shifts on a Sunday morning. They shook my hand, our deepest sympathies, come in to the nurses’ room. Above the table was a cork bulletin board and with the room numbers from one to seven along the top. Under each number, in columns, there were labels with patients’ names, little tags stuck behind transparent strips of plastic, so they could be taken out and changed. Mom’s room was no. 4 and the slip of paper with her name had already been pulled out and put back vertically, the room would be cleared out in a moment. The nurses were very kind and sympathetic although I could see that they were in something of a rush. Their shift had just ended, they had to finish off everything before handing over, deal with all the paperwork. From a drawer labeled “Forms,” they took out a sheet of paper headed “What to do after a relative’s death,” the first line said again “our deepest sympathies,” followed by a list of formalities, addresses, and telephone numbers. Everyone in the ward was prepared for death, a certain protocol had to be followed, every step in a prescribed sequence, as I now know myself from my job. Sign here, the nurse held her finger on the dotted line, and also here, and that’s it, you’ll want to see your mother again.
So that Sunday morning when Mom died, I finally left the hospital carrying a plastic bag with Mom’s things in it, a couple of items: a watch, a cell phone, and they even put in it a page torn from a lined notebook with “Still hiccupping” written on it in Mom’s handwriting. It was likely a message for the doctor, a reminder to herself to mention this to the doctor on his rounds as the organs expanding in her abdomen pressed on her diaphragm. This slip of paper was also in the bag with the watch, the cell phone and some toiletries that I later threw away at home. So what now, the day has hardly started, on Sunday you can’t deal with anything, take care of anything, on Sunday you just have to wait until Monday. Several people told me that it was Mom’s gift to me, dying on a Sunday, because she knew I was in Bratislava only on weekends, so she waited for me, she kept living until Sunday, she didn’t leave it until Monday either, she timed her death for me, so I wouldn’t miss it, so I’d be present. But of course I wasn’t really present, although I was as present as I could possibly have been. Whereas I was already used to dying, I didn’t know how to deal with death. A person grows into dying, dying is nevertheless a continuous process that allows a person to adjust, but death is a turning point. Someone who once lived is suddenly no longer alive. Death is binary, yes or no, zero or one, without decimal points, it can’t be expressed it on a scale from completely to not at all. Someone is either dead or not, you can’t be just a little dead, you can’t be more dead now than a little while ago. And so I found myself right in the middle of this new situation, in a new life without Mom, with a whole free Sunday ahead of me, so what am I going to do now, I thought. But I didn’t think this in any high-flown way, I didn’t throw my arms up, what am I to do now, what do I need to do now, how will I handle everything now. I thought this in a completely routine way, what do I have to do now, how do I fill the hours until Monday, when I cancel Mom’s phone number and start to arrange the funeral. And so I did what I used to do every Sunday. From Mom’s balcony I took down my bathing suit, which had dried from the night before, I put a towel and goggles in my bag and caught the tram out to the swimming pool. When I got there, the snack bar was already open, I spread out the towel on the terrace, and I swam, I sunbathed and swam.
From Obrazy zo života M. © Svetlana Žuchová. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Charles Sabatos. All rights reserved.