My European mother-in-law loved elephants. She admired elephants for their intelligence, their loyalty and their grandeur.
My wife Claudia gave her a shiny brown elephant carved from wood by a man she met on a Bangkok street. The woodcarver's elephant had sharp tusks of cow bone. Claudia will tell you about the man who piled his luggage on top of hers in the overhead locker in the plane when she brought the elephant home. ‘That crunch was my elephant!’ she cried at him. He shrugged. He got coffee spilled on his lap later in the flight.
The wooden elephant survived and has since been joined by an international herd. Mama’s friends admired him and thought of her when they saw elephants. Now there are elephants in many corners of the house. There are fat soapstone elephants from Kerala and Botswana. There is an elephant of jade. Obsidian and marble elephants look like they were carved out by people with automatic movements, thinking about what they might cook for dinner. They are just little boxes with trunks.
There is a gold-painted elephant in the living room and an elephantine family decorated with diamonds of mirror in the bay-window. There are factory-made frosted glass jumbos, elephants in alabaster, book-end elephants, ceramic pachyderms. Just when you thought you got away from elephants, in the bathroom, there is a little plastic Dumbo with a bright red trunk holding the hairdryer aloft.
There are other animals in the house. Ducks and hens adorn the kitchen tiles, formerly holders of cloths and soap. Brightly coloured fish appear on the bathroom tiles and rattle in the breeze on the front porch, a testament to Claudia’s many years of conversations with fish. Claudia's photos of tropical fish and whales brighten the hallways.
We have had serious business here in the past year or so, with people very sick, and then me needing a letter to allow me to be in the country legally, and so on and so forth. Claudia has spent endless hours on bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, on top of all the day-to-day care she's done. At times, I could have done without the cheery animals. But you can see this is a house where children have been important and happy.
Never mind the fish, to Claudia’s mum, elephants were always the best. In recent months, when her bed was most of her physical world, watching documentaries about far away places, including many she’d been to—North America, Australia, the Mediterranean—engaged her mind. She continued to learn, even as her body was succumbing to disease. We watched animals and landscapes for hours.
Mama had a special toy elephant, beautifully stitched with a firm back, that she rested her hand on. Claudia and I could not stay up with her all night because we were the only ones to look after her. We needed our sleep.
Medicines helped her sleep and there was the beloved elephant--his name was Rufus--under her hand until morning. Each morning we pulled up her blind so that she could see the sun rise over the garden. Rufus kept her safe through the night.
In the weeks of April, Mama’s body shut down to the point that she could swallow little and with difficulty. Claudia fed her tiny spoons-full. Her mum's graceful hands—tailor’s hands, always strong and precise—stopped working. Her vision deteriorated. Reading the newspaper over her morning coffee was not possible anymore. Claudia gave her mum sips of coffee, using the straw as a burette and sometimes, companionably, read the paper to her. Or watched the television with her mum, so that her comments took the place of being able to see the screen clearly.
A short time after that, perhaps it was a few days or a week, Mama could no longer talk. Her speech had already been hard to understand. Claudia understood her long after anyone else.
There came a day last month when we were washing and dressing Mama, that she told us with her eyes that she understood the hopelessness of her situation. She cried bitterly. It was only then that she began to give up the determination that she would get better. We saw it.
For long months, Claudia refused to let her mother disengage from the world. They planned and argued together, gossiped, told stories and dreamed of a better life. Her mother studied and discussed the prices in the catalogues that came into the letterbox on Saturdays—the de facto market—and the week’s menu was proposed. Claudia cooked every day, all Mama's favourite dishes. Her mum only ever had a few bites. I put on five kilos.
When her mum was sick and sometimes lost touch with reality, Claudia would fight with her, pulling her stubbornly back to the here and now, into the house, the village and the community she was an important part of for over seventy years.
After she lost her ability to speak, Claudia spent almost every waking hour (and some dozing hours) with her mum. Mama was entirely locked in, as doctors, say, unable to communicate, in her useless, but still tenderly-cared-for body.
I made Claudia take breaks and sat with Mama, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting beside her, watching the animals on tv or looking out the window. In past weeks, I tried to imagine an easeful death, just stepping through a door, as they say. Sometimes, I thought about how it would be to fly away with a great bird. There was a magnificent bird of prey riding the spiralling air currents above the house, as there’d been when Papa died last Summer.
But Mama never liked birds. So I imagined that she became a butterfly. In my mind's eye, I saw her with wings of autumn colours, like a tortoise shell with orange in it. I imagined how it would feel to have new, crumpled wet wings unfolding in sudden air.
And then imagine that the air lifts you, to discover that you, as a butterfly, could navigate the airstreams and travel to flowers. In a flower together, it was a smooth bright world of colour, surrounding her butterfly head. Exquisite nectar was deep inside and lay around in huge droplets.
The nectar was energising, propelling her to another flower.
Drops of rain began to fall and the butterfly mama was struck by fear. We found shelter.
We realised then that she could transform herself into the young woman she had once been, before her body was so tired, before it was broken. I imagined the butterfly shape-shifting into a willowy young woman in a full-skirted dress. I thought I heard her laugh.
I was relaxed and happy while this story told itself and I guess that Mama felt the same, even if she did not really become the tiger-patterned butterfly.
In that time, when the most sensible thing to do was to stop making sense, Claudi told her mum wonderful stories. Unlike me, she spoke them out loud in her sonorous voice, using the mix of languages these two shared.
Claudia told her mum that there were elephants coming to meet her—kind, wise and familiar elephants. Her dad was there, too. One elephant permitted her mum and dad to ride him. The elephant was connected to them telepathically, of course, and carried them with ease. They decided not to enter the muddy rice paddies but kept to the jungle track, where orchids, twisting vines, delicious fruits and bright berries decorated the shady canopy.
Claudia’s mum was very ill. The medicines no longer worked. The local GP visited after work and gave us a medicine to help her feel comfortable despite the fever in her body.
The next day, soothed by cool cloths Claudia put on her face; her head sleepy with the medicine I injected under her skin, Mama stopped working so hard to breathe. Her spirit flew away. It was expected. It was a release from intolerable suffering. But still, her daughter howled with grief.
Days since have been hard. Grief and movement cause pain. The shock of the everyday continuing as if nothing has happened. Bursts of energy push us past exhausted stagnation. The garden and the forest help move emotions we can't articulate. Meanwhile, in the background, slowly--and thanks to Claudia's dogged work--complicated knots of bureaucracy have untangled.
Two days after Mama died, I got a letter from immigration, allowing me to come and go from here freely. It was a relief to know I would not be detained as an illegal immigrant. The next day, Claudia smelt her mother’s perfume in the hallway, with no source discernible.
When I paid closer attention to the letter, I found that, for my residency, I needed to sign up online to be properly registered. My randomly assigned password was: Rufus. Just like Mama's elephant.
When I open the blinds in her room to let the sunlight in each morning, I send Mama thanks for all we learned from her. Our hearts and souls are enriched. We grieve, collecting moments of synchronistic contact with her.
Elephant names have been changed to protect privacy.
Thumbnail pic of elephants on the Savanna by 4144132.