She asks the doctor for an honest prognosis but when he gives it my mother stares at a wall for three hours and ignores us. Then she begins to clear out closets. She starts with her winter woolens.
The wardrobe that contains them is huge, old, made of a still glowing mahogany. She tugs at the door until it opens with an ugly wrench, pulls at a tangled mass of wool and stands in the bedroom, once theirs, now hers, then looks at me, her face an unreadable map, crumpled:
– This sweater. I wore it once. Your father said – It’ll be cold at the Lakes, you’d better take something warm. But we never got there. Stopped at the Crown and Harp on the New North Road. It’s a big pub. Loud. We came home at eleven. Never saw the Lakes.
A pause while she holds the sweater against her tiny bird frame.
– Never did.
It is dropped to the floor, into the discard pile. This pile grows steadily throughout the day. Cupboards, drawers, boxes on top of the dresser, all are emptied. Just about everything is tossed: some into bags for her chosen animal charities, the rest into the trash. The remaining items are few and she arranges them around her bed.
One photograph stays. It has spent the two years since my father’s death face down in a drawer, but now she displays it at the front of her bedside table.
The silver frame holds a photograph of a young man and woman, each wearing the uniform of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. They both have blue eyes, but his are bluer, clear blue, sometimes in a bright light too pale; hers are darker, the Irish in her edging them towards green.
They stand straight, with military attention. She is smiling, her eyes have a light in them; his smile is strained, is weighted, perhaps, with the job still to be done: Petty Officer at war.
I stare at their young faces and think who were you? What happened?
And try to see, behind the smiles, the violence of the bruises to come.
My memories are of yelling voices at midnight, of crashing crockery. I remember a gift of satin lingerie set alight in the kitchen sink, so that a circle of dusky ash on the ceiling remained forever testimony to their vicious, passionate love.
Too soon after this day of discard she is lost in medicines and memories. Her hair so thin the scalp shows pink, the blue-green Irish eyes faded. She says his name often.
I wonder which husband she remembers: the sailor with the firm mouth and eyes the color of a washed sky or the man with the whisky bottle and the fast unforgiving fist.