Old Teachers Never Die
I didn't believe my dad when he told my brother and me that our mum was dying. She’d had headaches recently, she’d been tired and nauseous, but lots of people get sick. Mum and Dad had been divorced for years, so I told myself he wouldn’t know. Their interactions were often contentious—not crackle and bang get-out-of-my-house fireworks fights—but tightly formed words, cranked out with simmering determination. Their sentences often began with phrases like, “Had you paid attention,” or “You should have known,” and I would feel my legs tense and my mind swirl. Their arguments would steal the air from right in front of you.
We were in Dad’s car when he told us, the first time he had ever collected us from school. It was October, 1987. I was eleven. The previous month, I had moved up to the secondary school where Mum was a maths teacher, and my brother, Daniel, was three years above me. We lived with Mum in a little house in a small town called Sandhurst, in Berkshire’s commuter belt. We spent one weekend a month at Dad’s house fifteen miles away, and Wednesday evenings with him at our house.
I was sitting in the back, looking out of the window through the grey autumn drizzle, focusing on the trees, limbs bare and darkened by the rain. Dad was talking, his blue coat damp along the shoulders. As he drove, he kept his tanned left hand on the gear stick, as always. He was saying he had taken Mum to see a specialist earlier in the day. I thought back to the first time I had seen that blue coat. On the lapel was a Mercedes Benz badge, the coat a giveaway for work Dad’s company did on their fleet of vehicles. Mum and I had been standing at the front door as Dad approached. “Oh, a coat that’s also an advert, how novel,” said Mum, her mouth pursed to one side. No, Mum, don’t say that. I didn't breathe. Dad looked at Mum. Mum looked back. Dad looked down. I crossed my arms and clutched my elbows, digging my nails through my shirt. Dad shook his head as a grin broke across his face, and Mum laughed. I stood there on my front step in between my parents and basked in the warm relief of that tender moment, wanting to stretch it out and wrap it around me.
Now, as Dad spoke of doctors and appointments, I distracted myself with his appearance. My dad was a handsome man. Jet black hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and a smile that left women flustered.
“Daniel, Jo…” His voice was softer than usual, but he wasn’t wavering. “There’s nothing the doctors can do for her.”
Not true. Not true. Not true.
Dad dropped us home and told us that Mum’s doctor would make a house call that evening. I unlocked the door. Daniel and I walked down the hallway in silence, knowing Mum would be resting upstairs.
I made jacket potatoes and peas for dinner. Before I started secondary school, I would get home a couple of hours before Mum and Daniel, so I would often get dinner started. That night, Daniel and I didn’t bicker while I cooked. We didn’t talk much at all. We were exceptionally close, laughing and playing football and fighting daily. We winded each other, shoved each other, kicked each other. And always, we would be best friends soon after. No apologies offered or needed. When we were much younger, Mum would insist we apologize, so we started saying, through gritted teeth, “Sorra.” Without ever speaking of it, we both knew that by changing the last syllable, the sentiment was negated entirely.
That evening, just as the few evenings before, I dished up a plate for Mum and took it up to her. She didn’t wake. I left it on the pine dresser opposite the end of her bed, just in case.
Daniel and I put our plates in the ancient dishwasher. There wasn’t much space to move in the kitchen. Mum had painted the room a calming blue and was frustrated when Dad’s plumber friend smeared a few greasy, black fingerprints over the boiler. I went into the living room, which housed a pair of blue two-seater sofas at one side, and the dining room table and chairs at the other. At that dining table, just a few weeks before, we had sat, Mum, Daniel, and me, reading the papers as we drank tea and ate oven-baked croissants with butter and raspberry jam. The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph that Daniel and I took weekly turns getting from the corner shop were sprawled over the pine table.
Daniel had picked up a page and said, “It says here that one in four people will die of cancer.”
Mum folded the paper in front of her and leaned in dramatically. “Well, it’s not you, Jo,” she said, pointing at me. “And it’s not you, Daniel,” she said, pointing at him. “And it isn’t me, so” - we looked to Mum as she had feigned a grimace, and whispered as if onstage - “it must be Colin, next door.”
We had giggled conspiratorially, all the more amused knowing how much Mum liked Colin. Now, Daniel and I watched television and waited. The living room walls were covered in shelves Mum had put up, lined with her thousands of books, and there was a set of French double doors leading to a crazy paving patio and our small garden. It was dark outside, but neither Daniel nor I drew the curtains.
Finally the doorbell rang. It was Dr. Murray. I hadn’t met her before. She was young and pretty, short curls and clear skin. I showed her up to Mum’s room, where she was sleeping on her side. The light from her bedside lamp threw a triangular glare across half her face and body in an otherwise dark room. I moved towards Mum and told her the doctor had arrived. She was soundly asleep, her shoulder-length auburn hair framing the side of her face. On the bedside table sat a mug of tea, untouched. It was her favorite mug, a gift from a student. It was beige, its varnish cracked with age and heat from the dishwasher, and there were two small chips in the rim. In dark chocolate brown, it said, “Old teachers never die. They just lose their class.” A postcard was propped up against a stack of books, picturing some famous painting of a girl. Mum had bought it when we were at the National Gallery that summer, because it reminded her of her friend Lynn from Connecticut. No medicine, no medical paraphernalia; this was not the room of a dying woman. I knew Dr. Murray was waiting for me to leave, so I did, walking past the dinner plate on the dresser and pulling the door closed behind me.
I joined Daniel in his room, shrugging as his eyes met mine. I sat down on his tiger-striped rug as he stood by his desk, leaning on his wooden chair. We waited for the doctor. After a few minutes, we heard Mum’s door open, and Dr. Murray appeared at Daniel’s doorway. Barely stepping inside the room, Dr. Murray gave the impression of being hurried. It was late; she probably had a family waiting for her at home, or a busy schedule of further house calls.
“Your mother is very unwell,” she said. “She isn’t going to live to be a little old lady of eighty-eight.”
Mum was forty-three. That still allowed for forty-four more years. The doctor shifted towards the door, turned back, and asked if we had any questions. We shook our heads.
“Your Mum probably isn’t going to be here for the spring.” She let the still air absorb her words, and then she left the room, walked down the stairs, and let herself out the front door. Daniel sat down on the chair and turned it towards me, his face without expression. It was late, past my bedtime, and I wasn’t even in pajamas.
We went into Mum’s room to say goodnight. She was sleeping less deeply, and she opened her eyes. She saw us, and it seemed as if she might talk. She smiled, but her eyes were unable to stay open. Daniel asked if she wanted anything, and she shook her head almost imperceptibly, no. I sat down beside her, pulled the duvet up to her neck, and smoothed it around her shoulders. I wanted to give her comfort, the feeling of safety I always felt when she held me close. She would fold her arms around me and say, “It’s okay, darling, Mum’s here,” and I would know I was looked after. Recently, she had held me that way, and I had succumbed to her cuddle, leaning into her, feeling the cool of her cream blouse. I breathed her in as she moved with me, rocking me and stroking my hair. I pulled back after a time and looked into her eyes, and we discussed for the millionth time what color they were.
“They’re not green, Jo. They’re hazel.”
I shook my head. “Hazel isn’t a color.”
“It’s a color for eyes,” Mum replied, smiling, repeating a conversation we’d had countless times.
“Then I may as well make up my own word for their color if we can’t say they’re green,” I said, playing my part.
“Okay, darling, what color are my eyes?”
This was the only unscripted part, and I would always study her face before selecting my word. I thought Mum’s eyes were exquisite; I loved that they changed with the color of her surroundings. Her skin was pale, her cheekbones high. I took my time, determined to choose just the right word.
“Your eyes are the color of kindness,” I finally said, and she gave me that broad grin and snuggled me into her once more.
“That may be the best color yet,” she had whispered, and I smiled into her blouse.
Now she lay on her side, facing us. Her lips were parted, and she was breathing heavily. I moved some strands of her hair from across her face and kissed her goodnight. I stepped back, and Daniel sat where I had been. He leaned over her and said goodnight, his voice shaky. Mum was already fast asleep, and Daniel turned his head to look at me. Then he reached over her favorite mug to turn out her bedside lamp. We left the room, and he closed the door behind us.
Lying on the bottom bunk in Daniel’s room, I stared through the dark air, trying to make out the bed frame above me. I could picture it without seeing it, the perfect grid of tiny holes all over the giant wooden slat, the words we had written at various times, “Liverpool FC,” “Dan is SKILL,” “Madonna.”
“So Mum won’t be teaching again?”
“I don’t know.” I reached up to run my fingers across the wooden slat’s holes. “Daniel?”
“Will we live with Dad?”
“I don’t know. I suppose. But we have till spring, don’t we?”
I didn’t need to see his face to picture it: bottom lip quivering, battling, eyes defiant. “Yup,” I said.
Brain tumor. It didn’t sound interesting or romantic. It sounded grotesque. I didn’t want to hear the words. They didn’t fit Mum. My mum was the clever one, the only woman on her engineering degree course, the woman known for being incredibly well read. My mum, the maths teacher, who ran a lunchtime Latin club, who taught chess at the primary school for fun. My mum, the woman who played squash and practiced yoga. My mum, who had a trophy tucked away at her parents’ house: first place as navigator on her university’s rally team. My mum, the groundbreaker. Now I imagined this tumor was a larva, growing and pressing on important parts of her brain, getting fatter and fatter. The pressure had caused the throwing up in recent weeks. In typical good humor, she had taken to buying soda, which had never before been allowed in our home. Fizzy lemonade. She said it made the taste in her mouth more bearable when she threw up. The larva had wriggled just as Mum had been backing us out of a car park spot that summer. Mum, whom I had never known to bump her car. The jolt of the concrete post matched the shock on her face as she repeated, “I just did not see it.” The larva had grown very quickly.
A couple of days after Dr. Murray’s visit, Dad greeted us again at school. He had seen the doctor. Mum had been moved to a hospice in a place called Nettlebed, some forty-five minutes away. Daniel and I nodded. Hospice. That sounded like a good step. I imagined a blue line with home, then hospice, then hospital. Hospice sounded like a halfway stop, if you were too ill to be at home but not sick enough for a hospital. Mum’s friend Lynn from Connecticut was flying over, and Grandma was coming to stay, as she had in the summer when Mum had had a rough couple of weeks. Grandma arrived that evening, white-grey hair, gentle voice, light blue eyes, and bags of sweeties. Later that evening, when Grandma was asleep in my room, I sat at the top of the stairs and listened as my dad talked to another of my mum’s closest friends, Lesley.
“How was today?” asked Lesley.
“Just…” My dad, my strong dad, was struggling to keep his words coming out level. “She didn’t want to go. The doctor said, ‘It’s time for the hospice,’ and she said, ‘No, it can’t be, not yet.’”
“She knew what it was all along, you know. You can’t put one past Jen. When the specialist gave the diagnosis the other day, he said, ‘I’m sorry to say you have a brain tumor,’ and you know what Jen said? She said, ‘Yes, I thought that must be it.’ Incredible, really.”
I went back to my bunk in Daniel’s room. We didn’t talk that night. Everything was too big.
Dad took us to Nettlebed the following day. The hospice was a grand building, a massive old manor house with huge windows set in deep red brick. It was magnificent, a home fit for a wealthy family in one of Mum’s old books. Inside we were met by a nice lady who showed us up the sweeping staircase to the room where Mum was staying.
“Sweethearts…” Mum was sitting in a chair by the window. She seemed tired, her posture a bit unnatural, but she was awake and so improved, and she was Mum. We talked for a while, just chitchat. Dad said her hair looked nice, and Mum said she had washed it.
“One of the nurses helped you?” he asked.
“No.” Mum’s stubborn independence flashed. “I washed it myself.”
When the visit was over, we gave Mum a kiss. As we walked out of the room, Mum called again, “Bye, darling. Bye, Daniel.”
“She couldn’t have washed it herself,” Dad said on the drive home. “The nurse must have done it.”
Sitting in the back, unseen, I mouthed, Mum. Did. It. Alone.
Lynn arrived from Connecticut that afternoon, and Daniel and I breathed a little more freely. We loved hearing her stories of when we were little, the holidays we had spent together as families. She went to visit Mum and told us, “She still has that twinkle in her eye,” as we saw the tears in hers.
A colleague and dear friend of Mum’s, Joan, took us to Nettlebed the next evening. Joan was charismatic and glamorous, long platinum hair, perfect posture and beautiful dresses. I was content in her glow. Grandma had been to the hospice earlier in the day, and told us there had been a change. “Mummy’s in a coma now.”
The words were firm when they left her mouth but loose by the time I let them bounce off me. Mum had been so much better the last time we saw her. Daniel was silent, so I was silent too.
We walked up the staircase with Joan, the old-fashioned portraits looking down on us. From Mum’s doorway, I could see her in the bed, a tube leading from her mouth to a white machine on the table next to the bed. I could hear the noise from the doorway. A loud, low, end-of-drink straw slurp. With every breath, there was the noise. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want Joan to see Mum like this; I didn’t want her to hear that noise. We moved to the bed. A nurse told me to hold Mum’s hand. Her hand was cool in mine, her skin pale and soft: “Mum has the softest skin in the whole world,” Dad often said. Mum’s hair was smoothed back from her face. A frown pulled at her mouth; her eyes were closed. And that noise. I looked to Joan. She was pretending the noise wasn’t gurgling through our heads. I tried to catch Daniel’s attention, but he was consumed with not disappearing. I wanted to talk over the noise, but I knew it would be no use. It was too loud, too persistent. I hated that noise. It was ugly; it was not my mum. My mum was beautiful and gentle; this noise was disgusting and wrong and unfair and cruel, and I hated it, I hated that ugly noise.
We took a break in our visit. It was dark outside, chilly. We explored the grounds of the manor house, and Joan talked to us about how life might have been for the family who lived there in years past. We let her guide the conversation and draw our attention to things that had nothing to do with sickness and machines and noises.
Joan dropped us home, and Grandma and Lynn told us the plan for the weekend. We would go and visit Mum in the morning. Dad had left for a week in Cornwall with our stepmother. Grandma made dinner, and there was a lightness to the evening. Conversation was easy. We stayed up late watching Monty Python on the little white television in the living room, laughing. I was laughing at the characters, laughing at Daniel laughing, laughing because laughter was an old friend I had forgotten about, and it felt good to let him in again.
The phone was ringing as I came downstairs the next morning, ready to leave for Nettlebed. Lynn answered it. Grandma, Daniel, and I heard Lynn’s side of the conversation. She replaced the receiver, turned to us, her hand at her neck. “Mum passed away last night.”
Daniel and I stood on the same side of Mum’s bed. She lay on her back, her face unlined. “She’s at peace,” said one of the ladies who worked there. She really looked like she was. It was in this room just two days earlier that she had called to us as we left, “Bye, darling. Bye, Daniel.” I didn’t know then that I would never again hear her voice or see her awake. I didn’t know that when your mum has a brain tumor and goes into a hospice, you need to fill up those seconds and minutes that are empty of words; you need to know you don’t get another chance. I didn’t know that, and now Mum was lying in front of me on a bed that was not her own, and she would never again walk in through our front door after work. Never again ask me to make her a cup of tea. Never again shush us during Mastermind or University Challenge, never again read to us from Great Expectations or Jane Eyre. Never again take us traveling, never again tell us off for arguing. Never again tell me how much she loved me, or tease me for being grouchy. Never again hold me close and whisper into my hair, “It’s okay, Mum’s here.” It wasn’t okay. Mum wasn’t here.
Dad drove from Cornwall to meet us at Nettlebed. When he arrived, the lady took us into a room at the front of the house. Bookshelves lined the walls, there was old-fashioned, fancy furniture and a large oriental rug over the dark wooden floor. I sat on a cushioned bench. Dad, Grandma, Lynn, and Daniel sat too, and the lady brought us tea and biscuits. I crossed my ankles, looking at my brown Reeboks. Dad had telephoned me one day a few months earlier and said he had a friend who could get a deal on Reeboks, pink or brown. I told him my size and asked for pink, please. When he had given me the brown ones and said they didn’t have my size in pink, I had thanked him and pretended I wasn’t disappointed, embarrassed by how boyish they looked. Months on, they were well worn and stained. The grown-ups made small talk, and I focussed on the design of my white knee socks. My skirt and knit top were mismatched, both with each other and with my socks and Reeboks. That was typical for me. My long, dark hair was straggly. Also typical.
The discussion turned more serious. “Will Jennifer be buried or cremated?” the lady asked.
I looked at Dad. His arms rested on his knees; he was leaning forward. I had never seen him the way he was just then. It was as if he were erased behind his eyes. Strain and fear and shock poured from his face. Grandma was sitting upright; she held a handkerchief balled under her nose. Lynn was next to Daniel; they were both defeated, their eyes sore from crying and trying not to cry. Dad shook his head.
“Mum wanted to be cremated,” I said. “She told me once.”
“What a help you are,” the lady said in a big voice that moved some of the sadness and worry to the side of the room. “No one else knew, but you did. That’s so helpful.”
I swung my feet and twisted my mouth, biting down on the inside of my cheek. It was hard to hear the kindness. It filled something in me, but it threatened to overflow and overwhelm me. Across the room, Dad brought his hands together, prayer position, and pushed them into his lips. He trembled as he tried to stop the tears spilling from his eyes. He nodded at me. I knew then what it looked like when you mixed up pride and pain and love and hope and felt them all at once.
The conversation over, we walked through the beautiful entrance foyer. I stood for the last time in the same house as my mum. I stepped out of the grand home that held the remnants of Mum’s last words, her last dream, her last thought, her last breath. I stepped out, Daniel by my side, and into a new life. A life where I would be labeled “strong” and “resilient” by generous adults, giant words that I would strive to fit. A life where I would come to understand that the ache of Mum’s absence would be a constant presence, and I would always come across new and different ways to miss her. A life where I would carry into adulthood the rock hard belief that I would reach one hundred years of age, and yet also a life where every couple of years I would ask my doctor if glioma is hereditary.
Originally from England, Jo now lives outside New York City. Her short stories, creative nonfiction, and poetry have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Okay Donkey, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Brevity Blog, Nine Muses Poetry and others. Jo has been a writer in residence at L'Atelier Writers for two years, and is currently studying for her MFA and working on a collection of short fiction. She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1.
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