I had hoped, when I was in the hospital, that my mother would tell me the things I’d always wanted to know, like why she got married at 16 instead of waiting until she was 21. She had promised she would tell me one day, when I got married, then when I married someone she liked, then when I had my first child, then—well, you get the idea. She never did. And I thought that, sitting by her side, with the machines whirring, and the quiet of the night in ICU, that she would say all the things I’d wanted to know. But when she was awake, she was gasping for breath and muttering about the pain in her legs, and when she slept, I was grateful that she was out of pain. The nurse, competent, cheerful, a Jungian archetype of Nurse, adjusted settings and injected medication. Her name tag said “Trish.”
“When she came in she was talking about the stars,” Trish said. “She said, ‘The stars are so beautiful. I have a big bedroom.”
“She was talking about her room at the rehab facility,” I said. “It’s brand new. The rooms are all huge.”
“No, I don’t think so. She said it was a bedroom in the stars and her bed was so comfortable.”
That didn’t sound like my mother. The bed would be lumpy, or too hard, or too soft—that would be something she’d say. “Mmm,” I murmured noncommittaly.
“I lost my mother twenty years ago,” Trish said. “You never forget it. But I still talk to her, and I think she talks back. When the sparrow comes to my window, that’s her.”
“Toronto has a lot of sparrows,” I couldn’t help but say.
She smiled. The Jungian nurse is wise? I wondered. I’d have to look it up when I got home. “Yes,” she said. “But they don’t all have blue beaks. Blue was my mother’s favourite colour. Generally, what I say, when my mother taps at my window, is Fuck you. Don’t think you can get my forgiveness now. It’s too late. You should have talked to me when you were alive.”
“You didn’t get along?” I ask, curious. My mother is out of it again. I can’t do anything for her but sit and hold her hand, which is dry, arthritic, incapable of smacking me one.
“Oh, we got along just fine until I got married.”
“She didn’t like your husband?”
“No, my wife. She didn’t like my wife.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Trish shrugged. “She wouldn’t have liked any wife of her son’s. I always was a Mama’s boy.”
“You don’t look like one,” I couldn’t help but say.
“Thanks!” Trish laughed. “I was a pretty boy. Probably better looking than I am as a woman.”
“You look very efficient,” I say.
“Damned with faint praise.”
“And your wife?”
“She left me. And then a year ago she came out. The irony.”
“Yes,” I said. “Did you always know?”
“That she was a lesbian? I had no idea. Never mind, I know what you’re asking. I did and I didn’t. If I’d been born a girl, I’d have been a tomboy. It wasn’t like I wanted to play house or play with dolls. They’re boring toys. I destroyed my sister’s dolls. Not on purpose you know, but having them act out parts in my game about the Gulag, and then forgetting them in the frozen wasteland. I was very interested in Russia. In a previous life, I’m sure that I was Russian. I loved War and Peace. I think the first sign, to me, was the books I loved. That one, and Anna Karenina even more. I didn’t know any boys who liked the same books. I pretended to be interested in worms, fascinated by them. I wasn’t afraid of worms, you understand. I wasn’t squeamish.”
“No, you wouldn’t be,” I said, “not if you were interested in nursing.”
“I wasn’t then, but I didn’t mind blood or worms. I just wasn’t interested in the things my friends were. I didn’t really want to play with girls, either. Or at least not their games. For a long time I thought I was neither.”
“What changed your mind?”
“I wanted to be a nun.”
“Not a priest.”