In The Last Days of My Mother, a woman in her 60s is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and decides to travel with her 35-year-old son to the intoxicated city of Amsterdam to enjoy the short time they have left together—and to decide the terms of her death. A conversation between Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson and fellow Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson can be read here in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
I had decided to take Mother to die in Amsterdam. The terminal echoed the discords of the northern gales outside and behind us herds of drowsy people trudged along towards the security gates. Mother stood next to me in silent conversation with the cosmos while rummaging through her handbag. She believed in the maximum utilization of carry on luggage and made sure I carried my weight, and hers. I’d suggested sending a box or two by mail or simply paying for the extra weight, but she wouldn’t hear of it. As if there wasn’t enough extravagance, it was simply depressing at times to watch how I squandered money.
“Like that apartment you shared with Zola,” she continued while we fed our things into the scanner.
“Remarkably high maintenance, that woman. And then she just takes off with some Frenchman.”
“That’s not quite what happened.”
“Mind you, you’re much better off without her, Trooper. I know that you don’t like to talk about it, but let me just say this once and for all: she didn’t deserve you.”
As Mother walked through the security gate, she was stopped by a young woman in uniform who ran a metal detector up and down her body. “Anything in your pockets? Belt?”
Like always, when astonished by something in my presence, Mother turned around and stared at me.
“Just take off the belt and go through again,” I said.
“What nonsense. I suppose I should take of my shoes too?”
“Well, yes, I see you have a steel heel,” said the officer.
“I’ve never met anyone so rude in my life, and I’ve been all over.”
“It’s standard procedure. Heightened security after 9-11.”
“Nine-eleven? Do we all speak American now? Or do you mean the 9th of November?”
“No, I mean it. First you’re asked to strip and then you’re ordered about in gibberish.”
“Let’s just get this over with.”
Cursing under her breath, Mother walked through. The officer turned to me with a tiny jar of hair gel that I’d recently bought for a small fortune.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you take this on board.”
I snatched the jar out of her hands, scooped the contents out and smeared it into my hair.
“Hah!” Mother roared with laughter. “Look at you, Trooper! Quelle coiffeur! It defies gravity.”
I was about to crack a joke about exploding hair gel but managed to bite my tongue. There was no way of knowing what Mother might get around to if this dragged on any longer.
“Mein Gott!” she groaned as we headed into the passenger lounge. “Finally, Trooper, we’re on our way! Well, I do think we deserve to sit down and have a proper drink. How about it, Trooper? Ein Schnapps?”
My life had not always been like this. Just a few months earlier I had been living with a woman who’d have sex with me with the lights on, found comfort in a double bed and dishwasher, still hopeful that the future would roll out at least a faded red carpet. But Fortune turned her back on me. Love kicked me in the groin. Over the course of a single disastrous week in January a seven-year relationship went down the drain. I found myself lying stark naked in a hotel room in Dublin, blinded by toxic levels of alcohol and total ignorance of who lay next to me. My intoxication was such that I had difficulty telling the gender of the person and didn’t realize until I was alone again that whoever it was had been sexually stimulated by flogging me with a furry animal. The experience was unpleasant, but necessary for my personal growth. I was slowly coming to the understanding that the various doubts I’d harbored about my relationship had been based on misunderstanding. I had squandered my happiness. The lesson was terrible and all I could do was head back home.
The grey spring of 2008 hung over Iceland like rotten debris from the murky depths of history, threatening financial devastation, sleep deprivation. And Mother was diagnosed with cancer.
I had accompanied her to the hospital, less than a month before we embarked on our journey. She wore a red, fitted wool two-piece, as if she believed that the better she looked the harder it would be for the doctor to deliver bad news with any conviction. A woman who looked like this at her age could hardly be at death’s door.
The doctor, however, seemed grave. He held a pen up to his chin and gave the desk a small tap before he spoke. The test results were back and as we could see on the x-rays, the grey area on the shinbone was growing. “We’re convinced that what we have here is sarcoma of the connective tissue.” Mother gave the doctor a cold stare and awaited further explanations. “Fibrosarcosis is one type of osteocarcinoma, which is in fact rather rare in patients your age. We do see this in other mammals, cats and dogs in particular, but it’s extremely rare to diagnose this disease so late in life.”
“Really now. And is there a prize?” Mother asked.
“No. Spare me the circus act, Herr Doctor. You tell me I have a disease that is only found in children and pets, as if I’d won the lottery. Ridiculous!”
Mother’s impatience was palpable. She would mutter about the medical corps being comprised of sadists who flocked to medical school fascinated by stories of Mengele’s ghoulish experiments. To her the nurses were variations of Herta Oberhauser, that Nazi nurse who murdered her victims by injecting them with kerosene. Mother had played Herta in a controversial play in a small theatre in Montparnasse and knew what she was talking about. I ignored these rants. After all the sentiment was not a recent development. Mother had suffered from a phobia of hospitals for as long as I could remember, and made several efforts to cultivate in me a similar distrust of the medical profession. It was wiser to follow the example of Great Aunt Edda when you were under the weather: Have a wee dram to ease the pain, and then another just for luck. I pointed out that strong spirits were hardly the cure for cancer and that she had to be a bit more understanding of the hospital staff. And I suppose she tried even though she failed fantastically.
“Maybe I should have gone to the vet, Herr Doctor?”
“No, no, not at all, Mrs. Briem,” the doctor stammered. “Cell division in people your age is not very rapid, which means that the disease spreads more slowly.”
“Right. And so you will, of course, fix this before that happens.”
“Well,” the doctor began, breaking into a long speech about the matter being slightly more complicated. There certainly were cases where doctors had managed to surgically remove sarcoma in connective tissue, but a very large team of specialists was needed for such an operation. Unfortunately Icelandic hospitals had neither the equipment nor the manpower for such an undertaking. The operation would have to take place in the States, but since the procedure was still experimental, it would not fall under the Icelandic Health Care System so Mother would have to pay for it herself.
“There is, however, quite a good chance of getting sponsors for semi-profiled operations of this magnitude. Surgeons may waive their fees, research institutes invest in the operations in exchange for exclusive rights to acquired information . . . ”
“Ok, all right,” I said, my hopes already up. “And how do we do this?”
“I can look into it, make a few inquiries. The fact that this is quite a rare case should work in our favor.”
“I don’t understand where you’re going with this,” Mother said. “Do you think I’m some kind of guinea pig? We both know perfectly well that no one is going to pay for this operation. I’m not a celebrity. And what company will put up a fortune for an old hag from Iceland?”
I’d never heard Mother refer to herself as old, and certainly never as a hag, but this seemed to achieve the desired effect: the doctor was suddenly at a loss for words. He stared blankly at her and fiddled with his pen.
“See, I thought that a doctor’s job was to help patients,” Mother continued, “not to breed false hopes of some American Utopia.”
“If we pay for this ourselves,” I interjected ” . . . do you have any idea what that would add up to?”
The doctor cited some astronomical number that was beyond my comprehension. What I did comprehend was that even if we sold the apartment, withdrew my savings, sold all the internal organs I could spare and the rest of me off into slavery, it would not even begin to cover the costs.
“It’s not worth it, Trooper. All this for a shot in the dark? No.”
“As I was saying, this is the most promising option you have,” the doctor mumbled, “but there are other options. One is to do nothing: life expectancy is three to six months. Twelve with chemo. Another is to amputate. That could buy you five years, and with chemo before and after we could . . . ”
“You’re not taking my leg.”
“Mother . . . ”
“Out of the question. I’m sixty-three years old and I’ve had this leg all my life. Nothing changes that.”
“This is a matter of life and death.”
“Well, then I’ll just die!”
She leaned forward in her chair and broke into tears. It was unbearable.
“We’ll fight this,” I finally managed to say. “We’ll do everything we can.”
“Take off my leg? Pump me so full of chemicals that I won’t be able to eat? Just so that I can make it to seventy and invite the leftover scarecrows to some sad birthday party at the Freemason’s Hall? I’m dying, Trooper. It was always a matter of time.”
She stood up and walked out of the room. The doctor handed me a calling card with an emergency number and told me to be in touch as soon as we decided how we wanted to proceed. We took a taxi back home. Mother went straight to her bedroom and left me alone in the living room, surrounded by a silence impregnated with years of memories. I had grown up in this apartment, left home and returned again well into my thirties with my tail between my legs to hide away once more in the attic. My body’s inflation the past few months provided a strong argument for those who believe that obesity is a growing social problem. In the mornings I’d stand naked, gawking at myself in a full-length mirror. My bloated body resembled a fisherman donning a flesh-toned parka over neoprene waders. I blamed hyperactivity in some gland or another, but deep inside I knew that the real culprits were the bakery across the street and the sherry-marathons Mother and I regularly indulged in. It was four months since Zola had thrown me out and shacked up with a French dentist with a lantern jaw. Since then my life had been devoid of substance. I lived in a world limited by the seams of my pajamas. The diminutive nature of this world was confined to even less significant acts like fly-tying and online car racing. In the evenings I’d pop down and have a drink with Mother—her own home brew, which she claimed was better than the wine sold in the liquor store. Almost every aspect of my body and personality conformed to the laws of gravity. My face was bloated and the rest of me somehow rubbery, as if I was one big tennis elbow, from head to toe. There was nothing to suggest, as I had claimed when I first moved in, that my stay in the attic was a temporary arrangement until I found a flat for myself. I came into Mother’s life like a stand-in for the company she craved, and we’d grown used to this little by little; spending our days drinking sherry and reading tarot cards while I continued to tell myself: Tomorrow I’ll get going, tomorrow I’ll get off my fat ass and start a new life.
But it wasn’t until that day, the day Mother was told that she was going to die, that I faced up to reality. I walked around studying the apartment in a trance, intoxicated by the certainty of impermanence. Each nook and cranny became a tunnel to the past. Freud in dust form. A biography of molecules. My life glided by and without warning I was suddenly overcome by relief—this was not the end of everything, but a new beginning. Time itself, that mismatched resin of shapeless days and self-pity, became an unbroken, unwavering and crystal clear image before my very eyes. From now on, each day would be a work of art and the brushstrokes governed by this one goal: To make Mother happy the last days of her life.
I was filled with such exuberance that I laughed out loud, as if nothing before had pleased me so much as Mother’s imminent death. I had a pepperoni stick and poured sherry into a tall Coca-Cola glass, rambled aimlessly on the Internet like a bar hopping drunk until I finally found a website on Ukrain, Dr. Wassyl Nowicky’s miracle drug. The reports were astounding. A Danish man had spent weeks rotting away in a semi-coma, deserted by friends and family, but had recovered fully with treatment and even won a regional marathon a few months later.
Was this the answer?
Dr. Nowicky developed the drug from greater celandine extract. The formula was created in Ukrainian research labs during the Cold War, and then developed further in Austria, the magician’s current country of residence. He had struggled for decades to get the drug registered but fate was against him. The authorities spat on him. Hounded by both an Israeli terrorist organization and the CIA, Nowicky stood alone, out on the margins with his flower. This inevitably made him left-wing, which would no doubt work in my favor when trying to convince Mother to take Ukrain. She hated Conservatives more than death itself.
As I sat in front of the computer knocking back the sherry, a blanket of calm settled over my soul. I was slightly intimidated by the idea of taking Mother to some former Soviet country, but they seemed to be the only ones with a formal license to use Ukrain as a treatment for cancer. I visualized vodka parties in the Carpathian Mountains, fat mustachioed men in caviar baths after a long night of drinking and Mother nostalgically exchanging dollars for local currency on the street. She had travelled to Eastern Europe in the ’80s to feed her spirit, as she called it, for the soul still had value in the Old Soviet. “Unlike the States,” she went on, “with all its consumerism and shareholders. No, Trooper, I’d rather drink water with Comrade Boris.” She was referring to a severe hangover in Moscow when they had all run out of alcohol and had to make do with water.
Even though Mother’s communism had watered down with age, I wasn’t sure I could handle a replay of her “Eastern Adventures,” and so I felt relieved when I read that some institutes in the West had started offering Ukrain treatment: The Holiterapias Institute in Lisbon, Dove House in Hampshire, Pro-Leben Clinic in Vienna. There was not much information, aside from a link for a treatment clinic in Holland called Libertas. I clicked on this and waited while a photograph of an old mansion appeared on the screen. In front of the building, a few people stood in a semi-circle with the chief physician, Dr. Friedrich, in the middle. Above his head was a balloon saying: “Welcome to Lowland, where we have been treating people since 1963.”
Libertas seemed to be both a treatment center and a hospice. People came to die at Lowland but also to hope for a last chance at recovery: “Our decades of experience in treating patients with advanced cancer and the sensitive work of hospice care makes Libertas a viable choice in difficult circumstances.” The more I read the more I felt this was the right choice for Mother. Dr. Nowicky’s magic drug seemed likely to increase her odds considerably and what was more: nobody was denied available drugs for easing pain and suffering. “People who are alive are not dead,” the site claimed. “And life is the basis of our foundation.”
Morphine, Ukrain, Ecstasy . . . in my mind’s eye I saw Mother not only fit and strong but cruising the race tracks of happiness. She was the Raikonen of life, the Schumacher of love. High on these fantasies I darted into her room. “I’ve got it! We’ll go to Holland!”
“What are you going on about?”
“We’ll go to Lowland and meet with Dr. Friedrich.”
The light in the room deepened and faded away with each word Mother didn’t say and my belief in the perfect solution choked on her silence. Nearly all her life she had lived in unpleasant proximity to death but now, when a thorough examination of her bone marrow confirmed that it was finally time, it was as if she’d never heard that people could actually die. She was in shock.
“It’s not as if I haven’t been dying all along,” she finally said and whimpered a little, because this all started as the tiniest tickle in her belly in Berlin, the night I first made myself known and Willy Nellyson ran off to Italy. “And there I was all alone, Trooper, and then I had you.”
“So the story goes.”
“It’s no story, Hermann, these are stone cold facts. Why did he just up and leave like that? Didn’t even leave a note.”
“I don’t know, but about this clinic—”
“And me, there, all alone in Germany. Look how beautiful he was, tall like a prince and sharp as a sword.”
She handed me the photograph of Willy Nellyson and I remembered why I’d always doubted that this man was my father. The paternity claim was as absurd as two weeks of abstinence in Spittal Street. If my looks were a work of fiction, the outcome would be War and Peace or some other endless novel, bulky and thick yet strangely lacking in mass. A paperback. Willy Nellyson, however, was a tall, willowy man with a few stray hairs growing out of his chin, reminiscent of some sort of academic coalfish, so peculiarly hunched that he seemed to have been boned, perhaps during the war, so that he could be conveniently folded to fit into hand luggage. He had betrayed Mother by running off after the conception and according to her—this was something she said over and again—something within her died after his getaway, something she never got back, marking her for life. Her epic death flowed like a branching river through my childhood, in different versions that all confirmed the same thing: men were a dubious species that poisoned the lives of striking women. Only one thing distinguished Willy Nellyson from misery: he had the perfect cock. This I deduced from a carved ebony dildo Mother kept on the top shelf of the living room cupboard, which she’d taken down on my thirteenth birthday, handed it over tipsily and said: “This, Trooper, is your father’s penis.” I fondled the wood as if it held promises of a great future and waited, for years and without reward, for my father’s heritage to manifest between my legs.
“How strange a lifetime is. Over sixty years and then . . . ”
She looked defeated. I retreated out of the room and started to ramble dead drunk around the apartment, my mind wandering aimlessly, to Dublin, Moscow, and the distant features of Zola. The next morning I woke up hung over; Ukrain and Libertas scattered images in a pregnant mind. Mother? Dying? Amsterdam? The silence of the room grew in proportion with the stench of my bed sheets and for three, four—perhaps five—days, depression inhabited Spittal Street.
But as Mother said every so often: one week is Yang and another Yin. Sometimes you just need time to put things in perspective. I had almost given up on the idea of Holland when I saw a TV report on how lively Amsterdam was. Bit by bit things started to look up again. I contacted Libertas and received brochures with information and rates, spent my savings on a five-star hotel in Amsterdam, and finally sat down with Mother to discuss things. It took a few days to explain to her what this trip really entailed; leaving Iceland once and for all, the final journey. Her heartbreak was unbridled for a couple of days but then she composed herself. On Saturday evening she appeared in the attic, a bottle of sherry in her hand, and told me that she’d browsed through the brochures. The lightness that had engulfed me that first night made a careful comeback with a touch of grounded strategy. Great expectations swarmed beneath the surface.
“I got out my cards and let them decide. I don’t expect to recover, Trooper. I’ve come to terms with the inevitable. The end is near, but not here yet. I’ve never seen cards like this before. Do you think that your dreams can come true, even moments before you die?”
I squeezed her hand and the next morning I confirmed our booking with Libertas. The following days were spent preparing for departure. Now we were standing groggy in the airport terminal rubbing the last remnants of sleep from our eyes. For a second I tried to imagine what lay in store for us on the other side of the ocean, but the thought flew away before I could catch it.
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson is the author of three books of poetry and the novels “The Last Days of My Mother,” “Radio Selfoss,” and “The Murakami Girlfriend.” Sigurðsson is also the translator of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and Shakespeare’s The Tempest into Icelandic. Helga Soffía Einarsdóttir grew up in Tanzania and currently lives in Reykjavík where she works as a literary translator. Among her Icelandic translations are novels by Alexander McCall Smith, Lemony Snicket, and Zadie Smith.
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