Am Bròn Binn (The Sweet Sorrow)

posted in: Member Writing Features, Memoir | 0

By Kat Skarbek

Her face is soft and pink in repose – childlike but for the snow-white hair fanned limply across the hospital pillow. Her face is remarkably unlined for someone as old as she never wanted to be. That old scar, as familiar to me as my own face, still starkly visible above her sparse grey brows, the only external sign of a childhood four floor drop that resulted, miraculously, in just a cut head, concussion and a broken arm. It was not her time to die at the bottom of the narrow concrete stairwell in that grimy Glasgow tenement. It is her time now.

I was on a plane the day after that late-night call that I have been silently expecting for the past 10 years. I drowned out the hours with movies and jazz and willed the craft to cut through cloud and sky like a scythe so that I would get there in time. Get there to see her bright blue eyes alight with humour if not recognition. In time to tell her how much I have missed her. To tell her I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to care for her better than my idle well-meaning brother has done. To hear her soft Scottish lilt one more time. And I was. I got her last lucid hour and I am beyond grateful. And it still isn’t enough.

I have spent hours in this tiny room holding her swollen hands, sharing the warmth of her stiff fingers and trying to imprint every feature onto my broken, grieving heart so that I don’t forget. As I have been forgotten. My adult Self trying to comfort my child Self, still angry at my erosion from hallowed maternal memory, by the cruel gods of dementia and time. In reality, I lost her a long time ago and I have had time enough to ready myself for this, the final faltering steps in our mother-daughter dance. I have lived away from her and home since my late teens but still that yearly birthday call and the presents that would find their way to my new door every year, were the cornerstone of our relationship. I could rely on them like I could rely on the sun rising every day, until the day it didn’t. Until she began to forget, the storylines of the books she loved, the punchline of the joke, the names of her children and grandchildren, our faces blurring and merging as we became indistinguishable from one another in a rapidly darkening sea teeming with 92 years of life.

I sit in the quiet bustle and talk to her (and to myself). I tell her that it’s ok to leave. That we will take good care of each other (and hope that it’s true). I remind her that she loved us well and that we will survive without her. I read her Shakespeare, and poetry by Burns in my best Scottish accent and imagine her back in her beloved Highlands, running with the red deer like the scrappy young girl she was, racing across yellow gorse and purple-headed heather, the cold sun shining on a face once more alive with mischief and possibility. I remember her stories of our ancestors, how our lineage could be traced back to Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from the English by dressing him up as a serving wench and rowing him ‘over the sea to Skye’. (We took you there, mum, do you remember? A whole week of driving around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland with you, talking nonstop, visiting places that were stained with our blood and alive with our history). You were so proud to be Scots even though you lived much of your life in England. And we are just as proud to carry the MacDonald name and your many stories, woven into us like our DNA, and share them with our own children.

I play her classical music and pat little amber dots of lavender oil around the room to dispel the hospital funk and to fill this sterile space with sweetness and life and love and the family who were everything to her. Small acts of service offered to your sleeping self when there is little left to do but wait. In that last two weeks, as she slipped silently away, we were all there, watching over her day and night. (There are four corners on my bed, there are four angels round them spread, do you remember mamma?). She was baptized in our tears, our shared memories, our dark humour, our plans for her funeral, and our quietly ferocious love for our fierce, intelligent, irreverent mother.

She knew, I think, that a life well-lived is measured in love. My mother was made from the same tough volcanic rock that created the glens. Her life was forged with fire and pressure and seismic shifts but despite it all her love flowed over and through everything like a river, patiently and persistently carving for herself an extraordinary ordinary life. Those of us who were left behind to mourn her can only hope that we will live so well and be loved as much. Until then, mamma, may the sun shine warm upon your face; may the rains fall softly upon your fields. Until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

About the author:

Kat Skarbek is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Despite her precocious beginnings as a 10-year-old playwright (over-confidently putting on a ghostly school play that she wrote, directed and acted in), her most recent leanings have been toward short stories with folk horror leanings and, creative non-fiction. She is currently incubating an idea for a novel of historical fantasy fiction which, frankly, terrifies the bejesus out of her, so that’s got to be a good sign.

Kat likes to think of herself as a bibliophile but her husband says she can call it any fancy name she wants, it’s basically book hoarding, and where the hell is he going to find space for them all anyway? Although she is an ‘all genres’ type of gal, at the moment she is devouring mythological and fairy-tale retellings from such authors Natalie Haynes and Angela Carter and genuinely unnerving horror from the terrifying minds of Adam Neville and T. Kingfisher.

Aside from writing and being the mother of a brace of character-building teenagers, she spends her time teaching women how to make their midlife the most fulfilling and inspiring part of life so far.

Kat is very chatty in person but then feels guilty about talking too much. She is a restless nomad in love with family travel, gin, swearing and knitting, though not necessarily in that order.

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