My mother rests in her final slumber, far away in a Swedish hospital, marooned between her life and the hereafter. Experts tell me she will not recover. She does not feel anything. Stuck in Stockholm.
A catastrophic stroke at 76 – Too young. I understand the situation from my distance. I’m here in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, and I worry. It’s half a continent and the breadth of the Atlantic in between.
I acknowledge that she is dying. I’ve never gone to Sweden, never cared to try. Maybe I should – once. I’ve explained it for myself and made excuses. The years accumulated. I decided it was too expensive. Maybe I did not dare enough. I did not attempt to continue with my mother, to understand her better, to try to strengthen a mother-daughter bond. I was angry. She surprised me when she went and married for a second time around and chose a stuck-up Swedish guy.
The attending physicians who are responsible for her care are a couple of worldly experts. They are renowned specialists in palliative care; Björn and Arvid; something Scandinavian. There’s another, a pathologist, and his name, I can’t recall. He is waiting for her final heartbeat. Nils, or Lars, or Karl. He’s probably another stoic, snobby Swede.
I communicate by e-mail. I’m talking with a liaison named Hulda Petersen. She’s okay; different than the others. She informs me that there is only one outcome. My mother will simply stop.
“At best, in a few days,” Hulda says. “One week if we’re lucky. The body is essentially a lifeless shell. Blood circulation is accomplished with the aid of medical technologies. Your mother will not re-awaken.” And then Hulda types: “We administer morphine via intravenous.”
I understand. They don’t give opiates until the final bells are tolling. Too much brain matter was destroyed by the stroke. I’m advised to let her go. Let her pass beyond the whiteness and the barriers into her eternal rest. Nothing can be altered, but I need to see. I pray she will hold on until I get there.
There are a number of urgent messages on my computer. Many are e-mails from my mother’s second husband, the Swede. I barely know him and I detest him. I don’t want to meet with him again. He’s too distant and austere.
I refer to him as ‘The Snobby Swede.’ He took her away to Scandinavia many years ago. I’ve not had much to go on for nearly a decade. I stay alone in Canada because I know my place and territory. Maybe I’ve been a little selfish, a little bit too lazy. I always claim it’s completely overwhelming to go all the way across the world.
The doctors will ensure my mother’s peaceful one-way ticket sends her to a funeral home in Stockholm. Arrangements must be finalized after that. Four-to-five days maximum according to Hulda’s tactful predictions.
I will bring her home.
Air Canada has a bereavement policy and a Schedule for the Transport Protocol. They confirm an outbound and a return flight with a leniency that allows me to book my return on short notice, even on a few hours’ notice, so that I may travel with my mother’s body with one less stressful circumstance.
But first, I’ve got to get to Stockholm.
I manage through fierce bouts of determination despite cascading tears.
There’s so much I should have done – or forgiven – or I should have said to her. I’m too much like my mother. Each of us has trouble finding the right words in the heavy situations.
When I was a kid and she was ‘Mama’, I came to realize that she was a colourful person who was full of spirit and creativity, but had difficulty with expressing her feelings. She taught me how to drive a standard, to master the skills of money and of baking, especially decorating and presenting a number of fancy Easter cakes and breads, and a multitude of other practical skills. My mother is… was… phenomenal, but there are elements I never fully understood. Why wasn’t I enough to keep her? Why did she leave?
I think the reality of attending to her passing must be the ultimate challenge of maturity. One minute I am sorrowing, and the next I am requesting legal forms, upgrading my passport, signing agreements, and paying fares.
I want to hold my mother’s hand, to brush her feathery hair from her forehead. I want a chance to whisper my goodbye, a second chance to tell her all is well, although there’s really only one complaint; she went and married-after my father died many years ago- a controlling Nordic egotist.
And she left me.
His name is Svend Lundgren.
She’s in Langsavag Hospital in Stockholm.
It’s Tuesday, late in the afternoon – too late.
An urgent message from Hulda: “Your mother, Ms. Anna Margaret Lundgren, was officially declared deceased at 1605h.”
The next day has arrived. I am boarding the AC flight, dragging my Safeway shopping bag. My suitcase is already stowed.
Apparently, during the dawning hour of my mother’s demise, the Stockholm skyline was awash with a lavish sunrise.
“Reminded me of ripe peaches,” Hulda typed.
I’ve come to understand there is an ultimate kindness in my liaison correspondent, this singular and helpful Hulda Petersen. Her empathy reveals itself within great lines of text: “Rest in Peaches,” she types, and my eyes brim with unfamiliar emotion.
I cry so easily at the present time. I destroy a mass of Kleenex. I pull myself together. “Thank you, Hulda. Thanks for everything.” I type these words using my clumsy index fingers – a double poke methodology.
I close my eyes and rest my lashes as I fly to the land of glacial fjords and peachy dawns.
My mother was a gifted seamstress who brought forth brocade fantasy for the fashionable bridal houses. She created formal gowns and one-of-a-kind costumes. A decade ago, she abandoned her sewing machines, and then she abandoned me. She went crazy for a Swedish tourist– Old and snobby fart. He was visiting Canada on some strange business venture.
By profession, he claimed to be a carpet installer and he was ostensibly attending a rug and flooring convention while being otherwise very busy skiing and enjoying a Canadian hockey game. That’s where they met. My mother was a hockey nut. She followed the fortunes of the Winnipeg teams. I never understood her passion for these games.
I met the Swede on two separate occasions before he stole my mother from me. I wish he’d shopped for souvenirs instead.
Svend – wish he’d come to his own untimely end – has agreed to meet my incoming flight upon its arrival from Winnipeg International.
I am exhausted and hungry when I step off the plane in Stockholm. He is standing near a massive empty hall, hat in hand. He extends his bony hand for a formal handshake. Cool as a snake, diamond facets in his eyes. Svend resembles this reptile – thin and grey, gaunt and sharp. His nose is aquiline but rounded at the tip.
“You are Anna’s daughter?”
“Yes, of course I am. I’m Marilyn.”
“Vell, Marilyn…. Come along.”
“Wait a minute. My luggage is probably on a carousel.”
“Pick it out. Auto waiting.”
“Yes, I see….”
I barely have a chance to catch my breath. He extends his hand again; another awkward shake. His grasp is like a metal claw.
“We need to move efficiently through the Arianda,” he tells me. He drops my hand, grabs my upper arm and steers me like a boat. “My flat is forty minute. If it goes into rush, ya, it gets too very long.”
“You speak English, and fluently. I am glad.”
“Of course,” he tells me. “English.” He sniffs. “Every Swedish person knows the English. I’m sure you can get by and begin by speaking with anyone, anytime. We are an educated population.”
“I didn’t mean….”
“Ah, here’s the queue of suitcase. What is yours?”
They were married in a civil ceremony – in Stockholm. I was not invited. Her letters and e-mails dwindled over the intervening months and then the years ensued with silent stretches. I didn’t plan on adding to our estrangement and I didn’t purposefully stop sharing my own news. I’m fully grown, age 54. My life is uneventful. I missed her, and I still miss her today. I hold onto many regrets, but every time I tried to write to her, the words would feel all wrong, or they’d evaporate like steam.
After the wedded couple had obtained a marriage licence, she applied for Swedish citizenship.
When Svend and I arrive at the condominium apartment that he has shared with my mother, I do not see her influence in the furnishings. I settle on the practical looking tweedy couch – Ikea. Of course.
“Leave the financial. I do handle,” Svend informs me. “You take care of the clothes and her personals. A pile of sewing items. There are patterns and textile materials. Donate to charity. Travel by the Tunnelbana.”
“Subway. Twenty krona. Buy tickets at the kiosk.”
“But I’m a stranger here.”
“I tell you. Everyone speak English.”
“I see.” I study his face. He is serious. “I’ve arranged a flight to take her home,” I tell him.
“No, in Canada.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he says. “She belongs to me.”
“But…. There are aunts and uncles and a half-sister in Northern Manitoba. And, there is… uh… there is me.”
“Her place is here. To be buried in Skogskrydogården. South of Stockholm. Secure. Is ready. When I also pass, I go beside her.”
“No way! I’m taking her home to Canada.” I try again. “She is born and raised in Canada.”
“Go upstairs.” He rises from his chair. His shoulders sag and he twists away from me. I cannot help but flinch. Tears sting my bloodshot eyes. I don’t like any sort of confrontation. “The guest room is first left.” Svend commands. “Go. Sleep. Ya. Ve start tomorrow.” He rises, puts a hand on my shoulder, and more or less shoves me toward the stairs.
I’m too tired to sleep, too hungry. I need more sustenance than that fishy gruel my mother’s second husband has offered me for supper. At that mealtime, he called out a one-word commandment:
“Eat.” And so I did, but the nourishment has proven insufficient.
Upstairs, the walls are decorated with a utilitarian style. There’s a double bed and a minimal stretch of shelves. Ikea? Yes, Ikea. This is Sweden after all.
I allow myself a snoop. I open the main closet and stare at my mother’s life. There are taffeta gowns and rayon slips. There are feathers trimmed on jackets, a couple of purple and turquoise scarves. There are gold lamé short dresses and fantastic layered skirts; blouses embroidered with sequins and bright shimmering threads and fabric slippers in matching hues.
I stare at the contents of the closet. I shut the door reluctantly. Her creative talent has not –I sadly acknowledge– been passed down to me. I don’t know where my talent lies. I’m restless, jet-lagged, bleary, but I won’t sleep. I wonder where my mother’s body rests? The flight across the ocean was miserably tedious and plagued by turbulence.
I begin sifting through some papers, finding more inside a bedside desk, cognisant that I must be responsible. I must deal with my mother’s internment. She didn’t want cremation. I remember that one fact. I must make the arrangements for her burial.
I yank the desk drawer wide, much wider than I had first intended. It squawks. I begin in earnest, rifling through. I cannot decipher documents specifically related to my mother – a bundle of receipts, bills and random notes unfathomable to me because they are in Swedish.
A clock chimes. I note the hour – 2:00 am. Then it’s later. I guess that he prefers to talk in Swedish and the one-word instructions he belts out so imperiously occur to sidestep the complexities of English. I suppose my mother learned to speak his Swedish.
The apartment is a barren place, by North American standards. Everything is painted white and grey and blue. I expected more panels of drapery, a soft decor, and all the closets might be bursting with my mother’s handiwork. But the other closets are empty, resonant and featureless. There are plastic blinds upon the windows.
I extinguish the bedside lamp by yanking out a plug. Only then do I drift into the escape of sleep.
In the morning, Svend provides a tar-coloured coffee and a rack of toast. He sucks his coffee through a sugar cube, slurping. “Leave alone these papers,” Svend tells me after I have handed him the clutch of bills and receipts from the bedroom. “Nothing important.” He points at the coffee and the toast. “The barristers,” he says while I serve myself, “Ya…. Dey arrange the declaration of the death. I also write notice for newspaper. I organize the will and other business.”
I am utterly exhausted. “What can I do to help?” I wring my hands. I chew half-heartedly upon the crusts of dry and thinly buttered toast.
“The funeral,” he says. “We go to the director today. Also the grave. I want to see. An inspection. First, the hospital.”
“But,” I say, “My mother’s body is going home with me.”
He does not answer.
I decide to go along and say nothing. Let him have his fuss with his annoying and aristocratic importance. Let him hold the reins. Maybe I will see something of the city? I’m still taking her home with me, come quakes or floods, or force majeure – or Armageddon.
The Tunnelbana subway is almost always underground. No sights to see. No awesome cityscape.
I sit inside a moving tomb, rushing through unknowns. I sit beside the Swede, all the while enduring sadness that periodically arises and then subsides, expanding deep inside my lungs, a swinging pendulum between my composed facade of serenity masking fears.
I gather my breath when we appear to be alone in the subway car. “I’ll arrange it,” I tell him.
“I’ll take her body home with me. Won’t be a problem. The airline is cooperating and there’s nothing else… She is with me.”
He sighs, scratches his long nose. Svend stares at me as if I’m broken. Then he turns away to study advertisements posted overhead and along the walls. One is for a hair curling wand and another for some kind of breakfast porridge. He does not speak for a long while. He does not look at me. We stumble off the subway. I follow as he stalks along a wide expanse of urban boulevard.
At the hospital, he is busy signing papers. I stand beside him like a superhero sidekick. I add nothing. I smile and retain my dignity, pretend I’m worldly. I shuffle my feet politely. I say one thing, and it’s a tentative request: “Hulda Petersen?” I’m using a question mark in my intonation, but no one appears to comprehend. No one fetches Hulda for me.
The Swedish language sounds like an Asian dialect to me; a singing sort of cadence mashed against nasal and guttural pronunciations. I let the idea of finding Hulda abate for a while and I observe. I see that Svend can be patient. He is careful and concerned with each step that he makes. He speaks to doctors, a medical administrator and a nurse.
We move from one station to the next. I wonder if I will locate my correspondent, a motherly sort as I have imagined her – at least – I think she is likely to be motherly. Perhaps Hulda is a young woman? Will she be around the next corner or inside an office? But I never find her. Svend leads me around as if we are on a mission of important errands. And I suppose we are.
Next, he rents an auto. I let him continue the parade.
At the funeral directors, he selects a hardwood casket with silver hardware. After returning the rented auto to a platform, we launch ourselves once again at another Tunnelbana station.
At the cemetery, I wander around alone for quite some time. I need more distance and my own company to contemplate in this pastoral setting. I look at gravestones and try to understand strange hieroglyphics on copper plaques and other engravings of weird punctuation. I find him kneeling in the long wet grass near an unmarked grave. Quickly, I step away.
We travel back to the condominium in silence, sharing grief, although we do not speak of loss or pain or anything.
I remember when I was six years old and I was starting school. I couldn’t face the whole day of strangeness. I wailed loudly and so sadly that the teacher called my Mama. But my mother declined the opportunity to come along and pick me up early. I faced the entire day alone until the regular dismissal bell. I survived.
I’m holding on, surviving. I occasionally feel like that needy child. I’m motherless. And now, I am also stuck in Stockholm. I will have to convince the Swede that I’m in charge. I’ll be taking her home with me.
We travel underground once more. Tunnelbana is more confusing than the London tube. I am delighted to locate an English sign that reads: ‘Stockholm City Centre,’ and more brochures in English. Svend points out the similarity in the huddled kiosks where we have purchased our tickets. I notice that other passengers have a plastic card or a voucher to cover a multitude of transfer places.
He does not speak of travel connections or of human ones for at least a quarter of an hour. Then out of this strange silence and as we arrive at another station, he seems utterly lost. He stares at the ceiling, then the floor.
“How can I go on?” he says, as if addressing someone ghostly. He is pleading with the subway, the walls, the furnishings, anywhere he can look, but not directly at my face. “I love…. You must not…” His shoulders shake. “I do not bear it vell… to be alone.” Now he’s bawling.
He collapses forward, bending like a rag, hanging his head over his knees. “I cannot lose my lady.” He is weeping audibly.
Everything I know inside me spins awkwardly upside down and backward.
I hunch over him on the Tunnelbana platform. It’s an expanse of concrete with red lines etched and painted in strange directional markings; a sort of explanatory walking map. I bend forward, trying to support him, to help, and I’m shielding his face and tears as best I can from indifferent stares.
I arrange another three days in Sweden by shooting out my own urgent e-mails back to Manitoba.
The funeral he has planned is fairly simple. I let him orchestrate the entire thing, and it does come to pass with an efficiency that is typical of his Swedish modesty. It is a tasteful ceremony. I lay a wreath of asters and chrysanthemum. I do not cry during the speaking parts, the sadly recalled memories; more tears from others. I do not cry when my mother’s casket is finally lowered. There are not too many mourners present. Strangers, all of them.
I cope with it pretty well.
I opt for the first flight possible and I travel through the gloom of another sleepless time. I am busy wringing my own hands until I have to stop because my knuckles hurt. I want rescue, but there is none. I’m not sure I’ve chosen well.
I don’t know much at all, but I accept.
I had planned on bringing my mother’s body home, but she rests in Sweden. And from this time forward, we both agree to try, – Svend and I – to at least begin to become a pair of regular correspondents. We will share the moments of our lives by computer messaging or by phone. We will ignore our differences. I intend to commit to it, anyhow. Even if I falter, or if Svend turns away, or if he displays once more, his natural and stoic reticence, or we forget our promises to keep in touch – I know now that he is not just being rigid or unfeeling.
My mother is at home. I am gone from her.
I never possessed her in the first place, not in body or in soul. May she for all eternity rest in peaches, in Sweden, where she is loved grandly, understood, cherished, and is now so deeply missed.