Joris van Casteren – Mother’s Body
Mother had been very clear, he was not to tell anybody. She was lying on the marital bed, it was Tuesday 23 July 2013. Piet had sat next down to her, on the side where Father used to sleep. ‘What else can you do, my boy?’
She started to talk about the cats. At that point there were nine, who were fed high-quality food from exclusive brands which she bought at Das Futterhaus in Tüddern, just over the border in Germany.
Then there was the rent, and all those other costs. How would he be able to come up with them on his own? Piet did not contradict her, he had never done so. So he said: I won’t tell anyone, Mother.
She did not feel well, that Tuesday. But that had been the case since Christmas. ‘She had more and more trouble breathing,’ Piet said. He is sitting in a mail-order imitation leather office chair, in the grimy lounge of the house on the Berkenstraat, where everything has stayed the same as it has always been. The chair is still wrapped in the packaging plastic, to keep the upholstery clean.
It’s dusky here, the windows are draped in dusty metal blinds and yellow net curtains which are never opened. One of the hundreds of vinyl albums from his rock collection is playing: Leftoverture by Kansas.
I am sitting in my usual spot: the sofa in front of the window. Before I sit down Piet spreads out a much-used cloth to prevent my trousers from getting dirty. Vinny, the grey cat with the dull eye, settles down next to me.
There is another grey tomcat, Dewy. Piet is not actually allowed to keep cats, but he lodged an appeal against this regulation. Dewy is shy, he usually does not appear. ‘Hey boy, hello, there you are boy!’ Piet calls at that point. When one of us makes an unexpected move, the creature shoots into the hall again.
At the beginning of January they had paid a visit to Dr Mulder in Merkelbeek. Not a likeable man, but no doctor is, according to Piet. ‘They are cold and distant, just like medical science itself.’
They had left their previous GP, Dr Klaassen in a huff. Because he had not been willing to check Father’s cholesterol levels often enough. Father died in 1997.
Dr Mulder had percussed Mother, a small woman, and listened to her. He believed she had calcified heart valves, a typical old person’s ailment: Mother had turned 91 that autumn. Dr Mulder had prescribed hawthorn capsules, which were supposed to strengthen her heart. According to him she did not need to worry. ‘You can reach a grand old age with this,’ Dr Mulder said.
The hawthorn capsules weren’t much use. Mother did not feel like going to Dr Mulder again, whom she called a ‘white cheesehead’. She wanted to go to Jack Helmes, an alternative healer in Brunssum, who had given her a remedy against rheumatism at some point in the past.
‘I can sort this out,’ Helmes said, after he had given Mother some form of acupuncture. Magnesium tablets and homeopathic drops, which Piet immediately procured in a pharmacy in Treebeek, would improve her breathing. After a few weeks her situation had not improved, but instead deteriorated: Mother was coughing as well now. She also slept increasingly badly, her lower legs swelling.
In April, Piet drove her to Schinveld one last time, home to the meadow which they had rented since 1987, when Mother bought Mona, an elderly mare which would have gone to the knacker’s otherwise.
She visited it every day with Piet’s father, Herman van der Molen. He was almost as small as his wife, barely one metre sixty tall. In the village they were called ‘Hansel and Gretel’.
When it was cold they would sit in front of a paraffin stove in the shed, right underneath the increasingly busy approach routes of the AWACS, the NATO reconnaissance planes which produced an almighty din when taking off and landing at Geilenkirchen air base. ‘An absolute disgrace that this should be allowed,’ said Piet, who is strongly opposed to everything related to war and violence.
Mona the horse had given up the ghost a few months after Father. ‘That was another enormous blow to her,’ Piet says, who had taken on the role of Father. Mother, a sound catholic all her life, became furious with God: she would never go to church again.
They kept the meadow, because some twenty-five cats to whom Mother spoke in the style of St. Francis of Assisi had taken up residence there. It had started with one stray cat, soon followed by others.
‘Because they told each other that they could get free food from us,’ said Piet, who had to take Mother to the meadow each day. ‘That’s what she wanted, that I stayed with her just like Father.’ For a while he did this. ‘Until I’d had enough, then I only dropped her off and picked her up again.’
The majority of the cats had been seized by the Society for the Protection of Animals after a walker had complained, to Mother’s great distress. Piet had taken home the remaining specimen, where several cats already lived, when he believed Mother was no longer able to spend time in the meadow on her own.
Because most of the cats from Schinveld were very wild, and the domestic cats were practically savaged to death, Piet built a few pens in the back garden. To the annoyance of the neighbours, who in the past had been frequently confronted with the Van der Molen family’s extreme love of animals.
Shortly after this last visit to the meadow, Aunt Ria from Heerlerheide died. The last of Mother’s three sisters, she had reached the age of 99. Aunt Ria was the only one to visit the house on the Berkenstraat, even if this was three to four times a year at most, and often grudgingly. ‘She found it a mess and not clean enough,’ said Piet.
Her sister’s passing did not affect Mother very much: because she felt weak, Piet had gone to the funeral alone. The death of her cat Spinnetje, around the same time, was much tougher for her.
As so often after a cat had died, Piet had to try and talk her for days before she was willing to give up the body. If he raised it too soon, Mother could react hysterically.
Spinnetje went down to the cellar, just as her predecessors. In a shoebox bound with gaffer tape, on top of which Mother placed a crucifix and a small homemade wreath. Over the years the cellar had turned into a cat mausoleum.
In July it had suddenly turned very hot. Mother went outside one last time, during the second week of that month. Piet helped her into the old BMW and drove her to Windraker Grove. She often used to walk there with Father, when they had just got married.
The wedding had taken place in the spring of 1950, in the parish church of Maria Immaculate Conception in Terwinselen, where Mother had grown up. Almost three years later, on 17 February 1953, Petrus Antonius Lodevicus Gerardus (usually known as Piet) was born, their only child.
At Windraker Grove, Piet had great difficulty getting Mother out of the car. ‘In wasn’t too bad, out was very tricky,’ he explains. Once upright she clung onto him.
In a half-embrace they shuffled forwards, observed by a few men from the Parks Department whom Piet had greeted politely. After ten minutes Mother was exhausted and thought enough was enough.
On the Tuesday that Piet had given his word, Mother was still eating: potatoes with thoroughly boiled vegetables. Meat she had not eaten for years at the insistence of Piet, a vegan. He took the food up to her in bed, she was no longer able to get up or down the stairs. Mother had immediately brought up the potatoes and vegetables, like the day before.
She did drink, however: tepid tea which Piet served in a toddler cup with a spout which he had bought for her especially in Superdrug in Geleen. She took a few nibbles of a Marie biscuit, from the packet that he left on the bedside table together with the drinking cup.
Piet was startled when Mother suddenly began to talk about death; she had never said anything about it before. ‘Mother found death a horrible thing, she didn’t accept it all.’ She was jumping the gun,’ he believed. ‘I thought she’d soon be on the mend, Mother had always been in good health.’
On Wednesday she spat out her food again. She did not get out of bed, she relieved herself in a bedpan, which Piet handed to her. When he took the bedpan to the bathroom he saw it contained blood. He gave her clean underwear, something she had done herself until recently. Because of the heat he dispensed with the nightgown.
On Thursday she also stayed in bed; once she vomited blood. She no longer ate anything, but did sip some tea. On Friday morning she was violently sick. ‘It was a jet-black substance.’ She tried to say something, Piet could not hear what it was.
He did not dream of calling a doctor. ‘It was the last thing she wanted.’ Mother hated the hospital, which was where she would be taken. Aunt Ria had been in there often enough, stuffed with poisonous drugs.
During the course of Friday morning, one way or another Mother managed to get to the chair by the window, where she frequently sat during the night when she could not sleep, to watch the metres-tall conifer in the overgrown front garden sway back and forth. Stove Mousy, a tomcat with that name because he was often lying by the radiator, had jumped onto her shrivelled lap. At two o’clock Piet saw that Mother had fallen asleep. He lifted her onto the bed from the chair and pulled a thin blanket over her. He removed her false teeth and put it on the bedside table, next to the Marie biscuits.
Every thirty minutes he looked in on her. ‘She slept peacefully, less fitfully than at night.’ At quarter past seven he was in his room working out with his Bullworker, a flexible bar for training your biceps. He used the accessory every day for fifteen minutes to keep his slight figure in shape.
Around half past seven, he was streaming sweat, Piet heard Mother utter a strange sound. He dropped the Bullworker and ran to the marital bedroom, at the front of the house.
Mother had stopped breathing, Piet saw at once. He sank onto his knees and grabbed her. ‘It was the most painful moment of my life,’ he says in the lounge in an extremely sad voice. ‘My father’s death was bad, my mother’s was everything.’ For almost sixty years, he works out, she had been the only woman in his life.
Translated by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen