by Gwen L. Martin
Read her story The Fragility of Bowls here.
I wrote The Fragility of Bowls while my sister and I acted as caregivers to our mother, who died at home in April 2019 after many bedridden months. The first draft emerged one afternoon in a whirl of pattern recognition, exploring the concept of bowls and wombs as containers of emotion, symbols of creativity, and sources of loss.
At the time of writing, my largest challenge was to respect the fact that my sister had an adored and adoring relationship with our mother. Mine was detached and complicated. How to respect my reality without damaging my beloved sister and her memories? How to face the truth that sometimes a parent and offspring are simply a poor emotional match? And that the best they can expect is a wry and wistful affection that brings equanimity but never intimacy?
Writing the story was an attempt to reconcile the painful chasm between my mother and me. As such, I convinced myself that it succeeded. It appeared to lay ghosts to rest, as did a shorter piece (published in Funny Pearls) that satirized the chasm using dark humour. I got on with life.
But three years after our mother died, I underwent major abdominal surgery for uterine cancer. The diagnosis represented a terrifying, ironic sequel to – and metaphor for – The Fragility of Bowls. All the maternal rejection, thwarted child-bearing, and stilted feelings featured in the story had lodged in my womb as a somatized reality. So much for pacifying ghosts! Obviously I still had work to do in releasing suppressed emotions.
Post-surgery, my sister temporarily became my caregiver. Recalling the challenges of managing our mother, I vowed to be a perfect ‘caregivee.’ Lesson 1: Don’t be fussy. If the soup is tepid, smile sweetly and say it tastes grand. Lesson 2: Limit demands but humbly request help when needed. It saves confusion. Lesson 3: Communicate generously about how serious illness has shapeshifted your engagement with life and transformed you into a curious participant in the mystery of imminent death. My sister and I shared several talks about my uncertain future that brought us even closer. Sadly, such conversations did not occur with our mother, who refused, as she said, to “do feelings.”
We create caregiving stories to make sense of the past, to witness the present, or to guide the future. But in doing so, some writers reveal a narrative subtext that whispers I could have done more or I am too impatient or I still feel guilty. To those writers I say, be kind to yourself. You were there. You gave what you could. Your caregivees could not have asked more of you, nor of themselves.
Gwen Martin has jumped freight trains, played pub piano, prospected for gold, edited science reports, and authored forgettable history books. Her creative work appears in Geist Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Mom Egg Review, Funny Pearls, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in rural Atlantic Canada and, despite the tone of her “Reflections” here, she intends to live until age 92.