I had never had any training in slowly losing a mother.

Today's Story


A Frosty Tree by the River

By K.K.Bodis

I could have killed the tree. It was standing indifferently between the hospital and the river Mum used to love. The beauty of the tree was unbearable. The river was disloyal, too, with mist hovering over and large tablets of ice slowly swimming towards the border. Soon there would be one continuous ice surface and brave or foolhardy people would walk across not paying attention to the warning, ‘It’s strictly forbidden to walk on the ice.’

Mum was unaware of the season, the cold and the warning. She had a series of falls and her second stroke. After the first one a few years before, she had learnt to speak and write again and to hold a spoon. I thought she was invincible. The second stroke incapacitated her and she became so weak that when they took her to another building for some tests, her head swooped down and she almost slipped out of the wheelchair. They wrapped her in a coarse blanket which I kept adjusting as it kept falling off. She had stopped dying her hair when she turned 70 and it was magnificently white and still stylish.

The previous summer we were swimming in her beloved, so called ‘blonde river’. Although it was a hot day she was shivering when she came out and I had to rub her bony back with a towel. I didn’t like to look at her body; she was small and skinny like a little bird. She had lost a lot of weight and what I envied so much because I didn’t have those: energy and stamina and  the defiance against all odds. Even the camp didn’t break her. I often wondered what I would have done in her place and I always ended up thinking I wouldn’t have returned because I would have given up hope long before the liberation.

I went to see her every day and she was weaker and more fragile. She had lost her appetite and didn’t even touch her favourite; the stuffed eggs I took in a plastic bowl. ‘It’s too bitter,’ she said and pushed away the bowl as much as she could. She told me about her dream, black flowers in a black vase and I pretended not to understand. Christmas was coming and we put up a tiny tree for her  but she didn’t notice it. I told her stories and stroked her hand and remembered the time when it was the other way round. She was sitting at my bed telling me stories until I fell asleep. I didn’t like the reversal of roles at all. When she thought I had fallen asleep, she would lower her voice, which meant she would soon leave the room, so with the typical egoism of a child, I would force myself to wake up and I shouted at the top of my voice: ‘Don’t whisper, don’t whisper!’ And she would start another story.

She faintly smiled when I entered the overheated room which reeked of disinfectant and medicines. Her bed was close to the window but she couldn’t stand up to say goodbye to all the summers we spent swimming, rowing and sunbathing. She was a much better rower than I was and she wouldn’t stop as often as I wanted to so I was angry with her for being stronger – again.

It was all over now. This time I had to be stronger not only physically but mentally as well. I didn’t know if I could cope with that. I could not ask anyone for advice and I had never had any training in slowly losing a mother. She was half way to the other end and no one told me what to do.

I reminded her of the time when we rowed up to the place where the two rivers unite: the blonde, slower Tisza and the dark, boisterous Maros. There was a fish restaurant there and we would moor the boat, put on a T-shirt and sat on the terrace. We had fish soup and fried fish. She drank beer and looked around with total satisfaction as if it had been her empire. The sun was dancing on the waves and it was hot even under the trees. The oil from the seats of the boat left marks on the back of our thighs and somebody always remarked on this with a smile but she didn’t care. After lunch we went down steep, rickety steps to the boat and slowly drifted down. This was the best part. We only had to steer to avoid other boats and swimmers. Sometimes we didn’t stop at the restaurant, we had a picnic higher up on a sandy bank of the Tisza. We hid the picnic basket in the boat and went for a long swim. The police boat rarely came  so our swimming was almost undisturbed. Luckily water carries the sound well so when we heard the murmur of the motor boat we would quickly get to the shore. When they caught someone they made them climb in and took them back to the station. Mum was furious, ‘Just because the policemen can’t swim, they shouldn’t deprive good swimmers of the joy.’ She couldn’t change the rules, so we had to break them, which added to the delight. The Tisza was like a gentle stroke on our body, a sweet embrace with heavenly scent – the mixture of mud, fish and the sun.

I knew she would never be able to do that again and I was wondering if I would ever get in the water. ‘It may seem like betrayal’.

The last time I saw her she wasn’t present any more. Even the faint smile was gone and we couldn’t exchange memories ever again.

I slowly walked out of the hospital and turned my back to the tree and the river. I was struck once more by their behaviour. I expected more. Still, I went back several years later and I swam not only for me but for her as well. I felt her swimming next to me and she was smiling in utter delight. I was taken back to the time when she was healthy and superior. I even went to the fish restaurant; not in the boat because we had sold it when she wasn’t strong enough to row. I drove there and had the same meal. I had a glass of beer and watched the waves dancing exactly the same way, with the sun on their crest.

I forgave the tree and the river in the end.


K.K. Bodis is a retired university lecturer and private tutor in Wolverhampton, England.


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