Mutti

photo by Daan Spijer

Mutti was angry. She was frustrated.

Anger was nothing new for her, but frustration she was not used to. She almost always got her way.

What angered her was that she was not allowed to have her way. In all her eighty-seven years she had not felt so thwarted.

It wasn’t only her family who were thwarting her, but total strangers — doctors and nurses and dieticians. These were people she did not wish to have to obey; her family because she considered herself its matriarch and the hospital staff because they were just that, hospital staff, and should be there to carry out her wishes.

In a long and mostly happy life, Mutti had grown used to discarding whatever or whoever no longer served her purpose. She had discarded a husband many years ago and had discarded ‘friends’ when they became burdensome.

Now she wanted to discard a body which was a burden and was preventing her from embarking on what she considered to be her greatest adventure yet.

Her body had many times made her life difficult, even threatened to curtail it, but she always brought it back into line, with her strong will. Now, however, she recognised that strong will or not, her body was past being commanded or cajoled into submission. It was old and just plain worn out. Why couldn’t those fools around her see that?

“Time for your wash, Mutti.” She angrily looked at the young woman next to her bed; a nurse. A new one.

“My name is not ‘Mutty’. You make it sound like ‘smutty’. If you want to call me that, and I wish you did not, at least have the grace to pronounce it properly! It is ‘Mooty’, like that horrible game, ‘footy’. It means ‘mother’ and as I am not even related to you, please show some respect and call me Mrs. Jager, if you can manage that. And take care how you move me; it hurts.”

This tirade almost totally exhausted Mutti. It was an effort for her to talk at all and she was finding English increasingly difficult — she now spoke it with a marked German accent, although she had been in Australia for almost fifty years.

She allowed the woman to move her around and sponge her down. It reminded her of the Great Illness of her childhood, which almost took her from her family. Her mother would sponge her like this frequently to ease her fever. Then, as she did now, she would drift in and out of her awareness of the world. In her drifting out, she would catch glimpses of a shadowy figure who seemed to be waiting for her. She couldn’t tell whether it was male or female, but she could tell that it poured out a love for her. It didn’t speak, but seemed to say, “It’s alright for you to come over to this side and it’s alright for you to stay where you are.”

She was very tempted, all those years ago, to slide over to the loving figure, and be rid of her sweating, aching body. What stopped her was her ninth birthday coming up and the promise her father had made, that as soon as she was fit enough again, her parents would take her on a trip to Switzerland and teach her skiing. Now that the war was over, it was possible to travel again. She made her mind up and willed her body to get rid of this horrible disease and to get healthy again. She succeeded, as she had later when her body played host to cancer. That was already fifteen years ago.

It wasn’t cancer that had forced her to this awful hospital. It wasn’t any particular disease. She could no longer get her body to behave itself and do what it was meant to do — act as a vehicle for her spirit in this physical world. Her eyes no longer worked properly and everything looked as though it was on the other side of a muslin curtain. One ear was deaf. Her hands shook slightly when she tried to use them. Her back hurt most of the time and had made walking difficult — now, with her broken hip, walking was impossible. Food tasted awful — all food. She couldn’t distinguish between hospital food and the many once favourite dishes her family brought her. She would rather not eat at all any more and just let her body fade away and release her.

“You must eat,” her son and daughter kept telling her, “or you’ll die.” Couldn’t they understand that that was exactly what she wanted? She could tell from the way they spoke around her bed that they were all frightened of Death. She had no fear of him. In fact, she knew he didn’t exist as a skeleton dressed in black robes carrying a scythe. That was Ignorance. All she saw in her increasingly long periods of drifting, was the loving figure waiting for her, inviting but not insistent. It would let her make her choice in her own time. If only the others would show that level of love and acceptance. In her drifting she also caught glimpses of her beloved Willem, at peace with himself and no longer at odds with the world.

It was Willem’s stubbornness which had taken him away from her nearly twelve years earlier. He had been in the right, he insisted shortly before his mangled body gave him up. That semi-trailer should not have been turning the wrong way into a one-way street. Why should he have given in and moved out of the way? Didn’t he sound his horn all the time, right up to the collision? Dear Willem. Soon she would enjoy his ribald humour and his practicality again. Or maybe he would be different. Who knew? She did know that she still loved him passionately. She also knew that if he had any say in it, he would not stand for the treatment she was receiving now.

One of her great-granddaughters, ten-year-old Jeany, understood what was happening. Mutti could sense it and could feel it in her touch when she held her hands and when the little girl stroked her face. She didn’t say much, except, “It will be okay, Mutti. You will be happy soon.” Recently she had said, “The angel is waiting for you Mutti.” Her father had chided the girl and told her not to be silly. Why couldn’t they all see that it was true?

Her son kept talking about having her come and live with him and his wife when her hip mended. She felt sorry for him. Dirk was living in a fantasy world and wouldn’t let go of her. He was probably still angry that she’d divorced his father when he was little. He couldn’t understand then and probably still couldn’t accept that she and Robert had been wrong for each other. They didn’t get on past the first few weeks of passion and it was a relief to both of them when they said goodbye several years later.

She had met Robert shortly after her father had died, a broken man after the loss of his business during the Depression. Robert reminded her of her father, which should have rung warning bells for her. Their courting had helped her forget and marriage seemed inevitable. She considered it her one big mistake in this life. And her son still wanted her to pay for that mistake.

The washing was finished and the nurse brought her a meal, which Mutti toyed with. She was drifting again. The figure was there, smiling. It had become a friend and, like a true friend, made no demands, had no expectations. It was there for her when she was ready. She felt ready now, but didn’t know how to make that final departure from her body. She hovered on the edge of the warm light which came from beyond the figure and she yearned to drift into it, to be taken up by it. Willem came into view and waved to her.

“Take your time my love.” Willem had changed. He was gentler and more patient than when he was with her. Maybe his time away had been good for him. Or maybe this was his true nature and his brusqueness in life was part of his life lesson. What had her life lesson been? She didn’t know. She had a feeling she would find out soon enough.

She was pulled back to her hospital bed by voices around her. Half her tribe was there, mostly sombre and serious. The children at least sounded normal, although parents told them to be quieter every time one of them raised a voice.

“For goodness sake, let the children be! It lightens me to hear their happy voices. At least they can act normal and be themselves,” Mutti growled at her daughter.

“I wish all of you would stop being so morose. I expect you to be sad when I am gone, but there is no need for you to practise being sad now, time enough for that later. You have to understand that I have no wish to go on like this. My body is not going to get any better and I am happy to go on to where I am going. You must believe me that it is not such a terrible thing as you make it. You should listen to Jeany. She knows.”

She let her head fall back onto the pillow and gasped for air, exhausted again from her outburst. Why did she have to keep fighting all those around her? Why wasn’t it as simple as saying, “This is how I want to go,” and everything would fall into place? Why did everyone else want to take over her life? No-one had yet asked her what she wanted, and when she told them, no-one wanted to listen or understand. She was angry!

She struggled to sit up again. He daughter moved to help her. Mutti looked into Bridget’s eyes and saw sadness and something else there. She recognised that her daughter was going through a big struggle.

There was a half-hour of fairly normal discussion amongst the visitors with only the children paying any attention to Mutti. They all left in a group with the youngest ones turning and smiling and waving and calling out, “See you tomorrow Mutti.” She sank back into her pillow again, closing her eyes. Then she felt a hand on her arm.

She looked up into Bridget’s beautiful face. Bridget’s eyes were spilling tears. “Mutti, I’m sorry.” That was all she could manage for several minutes. Mutti did not need to hear any more.

Bridget continued. “From what you said before, it came home to me that we are all being very selfish. None of us likes it that you won’t live much longer. In fact, it gives me the willies, because you’ve always been there for me.” Tears were streaming down her face. “When Pappi died, it was quite quick — he was in the accident and then in hospital for just a few days and then he was gone. I didn’t have time to think about it until he was gone. But with you, you talk about wanting to die and having had enough and being tired. I can’t get used to it. I keep thinking that your hip will heal soon and you’ll be back home and you’ll just go on.”

She stopped and sighed. Mutti squeezed her daughter’s hand and nodded slowly. “But Bridget, that’s the way it is.”

Bridget blew her nose and wiped her eyes. “Jeany seems to understand you. It may be that special bond the young have with older people, but really, I see her knowing face — she seems to be aware of things you’re aware of. I could have been more interested in your side of things instead of being so engrossed in my own feelings.” She hesitated and was aware of the stillness in the room.

She spoke again. “Mutti, please tell me what you’ve been seeing that makes you so calm about dying. I really want to understand.”

“Help me sit up a bit first, please.” Mutti extended her hands so that her daughter could help her. They looked at each other for a while before Mutti spoke.

“Remember many years ago, when you were ill, and I told you the story of my Great Illness? Remember I told you that I kept drifting away and meeting a wonderful figure who talked to me about what was happening?”

Bridget nodded.

“For the past five years I have been finding myself in touch with that figure again. Sometimes in my dreams. Sometimes when I drift off during the day. At first it was like the figure was in the distance, but it became clearer and clearer, until now I just have to close my eyes and I see it and the light behind it. I know that that is where I want to be.

“You also know that I strongly believe that we don’t live just one life, but many.”

Bridget sighed and said, “Mutti, people don’t believe that stuff. It sounds like wishful thinking.”

“No Bridget. You are wrong. Again, during my childhood Great Illness, I saw it all and it was not a child’s fantasy. If I had really wanted to then, I could have left this body for good and ‘died’ and been purely spirit again. In some of the periods then when others thought I had really died, I was meeting beings or spirits and talking with them. They told me things and I told my mother later — they were things which she had heard from her parents and had never told anyone else. Some things I was told by her father’s spirit about my mother’s childhood. He also told me that I had a choice: a choice to leave my body and leave this life. I chose not to. Now I am choosing to leave. My body is worn out and I do not want any more effort made to fix it up.”

“Mutti, I can understand that you are tired, but why be tired of life? There is still so much to experience, including seeing your great-grandchildren grow up. And who knows what else?”

“I have seen four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren come into this world and they are all healthy and well looked after. I cannot stay in this life forever, much as all of you would like me to. I have achieved most of what I have wanted to achieve.”

“I can understand that, Mutti. But why dress it all up with foolishness?”

“Why can you not trust me on this, Bridget darling? I am certainly not senile and you have always known me as being practical. I am not inventing any of what I have told you. I know that we live again and again, in different bodies and in different times. I know this with all my being. I am a spirit which cannot die, in a body which has got to the end of its usefulness. I have no fear of going. In fact, I am looking forward to it; to be with Willem again. He is still there, waiting for me. I am now eager to go and be free for a while. Believe me.”

Mutti sighed and was silent for a long time, as was her daughter. They were holding hands and both had their eyes closed.

At length Bridget let out a long sigh. “I want to believe that what you say is true, that our spirit lives on and will be born again into another life. It has a beautiful logic to it. But it goes against everything I have learned through the Church and I don’t know anyone else who believes it. If it is like that, then it makes a lot more sense of our struggles in life. I’ve always felt that a lot of what we do in our lives is futile if we just snuff out when we die.”

There was silence for a while again.

“Mutti, what can we all do to make it easier for you? Please tell me.”

Mutti smiled and squeezed Bridget’s hand. She looked relieved and happy for the first time in weeks.

“All I need from any of you is to have you stop struggling against my passing. To stop trying to stop me doing what I know to be right for me. And I would like all of you to come in tomorrow and say goodbye to me. Then I will be able to go in peace. Will you do that, please?”

“I will talk to Dirk and the children. Thank you Mutti.” She squeezed her mother’s hand again and stood up. She leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you Mutti.” She left the room after one more loving look back at her mother.

Mutti slept less fitfully that night and saw Willem again. She felt that she would be with him very soon now. She dreamed of her own parents and of Robert. Important events in her life moved through her dream — some pleasant, some not so.

Late in the morning almost her whole family gathered in her hospital room. Her brood was with her. Some were in good humour, but most seemed ill at ease. Mutti felt as good as she had for a long time, feeling that there had been a change in things. It seemed to her as if a road she had wanted to turn onto, but had been prevented from travelling on, had now opened up and she was going to be allowed to go along it and complete her journey.

There was silence for several minutes, with no-one knowing what to say. Bridget broke the awkwardness, addressing the whole family. “I’ve been thinking through the night and I’ve been talking with Dirk. I feel terribly selfish in the way I’ve been behaving since Mutti came into hospital. I haven’t wanted to listen to Mutti or to hear what she’s been saying. It’s her life and not ours to tell her how to live it…” She hesitated. “…Or how to… to… move on.”

Silence again. Most of the adults were looking at Bridget or at the floor. The children were more natural, not feeling the same self-consciousness.

“I too,” said Dirk. “I have been very unfair to Mutti in many ways. I agree with Bridget.”

Mutti spoke in the next silence. “It is so good to hear this.”

Everyone turned to her as if they were surprised that she was there. In fact, many had forgotten that they were visiting Mutti in her hospital room, they were so bound up in what Bridget and Dirk had been saying.

“I feel as if a weight has been lifted from me,” Mutti told them. “I am so happy that you are finally willing to listen to my wishes.” She faltered as her eyes filled with tears. She reached out both shaky hands to hold those of her two children.

“Are you going to go to the angel now, Mutti?” Jeany piped in her sweet voice. “Are you?”

“Yes my love,” Mutti replied with a smile. “I feel ready to go now.”

“Where are you going, Muthi?” This came from the youngest there, four-year-old Lenny.

His mother, Margaret, said, “Mutti is going on a long, long trip.”

“Can I come too?” Lenny asked.

“No, not this time. This is a special trip for old people. Mutti’s body has got very old and it doesn’t work properly any more. It is a very tired body. Mutti is going to go on a long trip without her body. She will leave her body behind and go with just her soul.”

“Can I go on a trip and leave me behind?” Lenny wanted to know.

“Maybe when you are a lot older,” his mother said. Others laughed and the atmosphere in the crowded room became easier.

For the rest of the day members of Mutti’s large family came and went and talked with her. Margaret’s explanation of ‘Mutti’s trip’ had made it a lot simpler for everyone to say goodbye to her in his or her own way. Mutti had something special to say to each of them — a bit of advice or a story she remembered about them or some recollection from her own life. Each one of them was able to talk to her in a natural manner, without all the self-consciousness and awkwardness that had been so in evidence for the past weeks. Each of them felt that she or he had something special to give to Mutti for ‘her journey’, even though it may have been as simple as a heartfelt “I love you”.

Some members of the family now realised that they were not losing someone, but that she was going to be absent for a while, long as that ‘while’ might be for the younger ones.

When a nurse came in to feed Mutti, Dirk sent him away, saying that Mutti did not want to eat any more this day and that the family wanted to be left as undisturbed as possible. The only other hospital visitor was a doctor, who came to give Mutti an injection to help with the constant pain from her hip.

Jeany, in her last moments with her great-grandmother sat on the edge of the bed, holding the old woman’s hands in her slender ones, looking into those deep, ancient eyes. “I know you will be happy where you’re going Mutti. The angel will look after you and tell you what to do if you get confused without your body. I love you very much and will see you in my dreams very often.”

“Thank you darling. I know you will and I will see you in your dreams, too. I will look over you as you grow up and become a beautiful woman. You are already a very beautiful person.”

Jeany leaned forward and gave Mutti a big kiss on her cheek and then hopped off the bed, took her mother’s hand and said, “I’m ready now. Let’s go.” She turned just once before going out through the doorway to wave a last farewell to Mutti and then skipped into the corridor.

All those still in the room were deeply affected by Jeany’s simple yet beautiful way of dealing with the situation. They saw the truth in the simplicity of it.

By late afternoon, only Bridget and Dirk were still with their mother; one on each side of the bed, sitting comfortably in easy chairs. They chatted with each other some of the time and some of the time with Mutti. They discussed with her the details of what she wanted to have done with her personal belongings and exactly how she wanted her funeral to be. These were subjects which even the day before, they would have found it difficult, even impossible, to talk about. Now it seemed natural.

Some of the time all three were silent, wrapped in their own thoughts and memories. Sometimes one or other of them would voice some of these memories, occasionally all laughing about some shared experience.

Towards evening, after a long silence, Dirk looked at his mother and said, “Mutti, there is something I need to say to you, which I have been meaning to say for a long time and have kept putting aside.”

Mutti looked at him and nodded.

“I know you have thought I’m angry with you about divorcing Pappi. I was for a long time. But I forgave you for that years ago and never told you. I need you to know that I don’t blame you for it and don’t blame you for how it made my life difficult a lot of the time.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “Please forgive me for holding on to this for so long. I love you Mutti.”

She looked at him through a veil of moisture. “There is nothing to forgive, or perhaps everything.” She wanted to say more but the words would not come out. She squeezed his hand instead and both knew that there was really nothing to forgive.

Mutti turned to Bridget and said, “And the same goes for you.”

Bridget knew what Mutti meant.

The doctor came once more to give Mutti a pain-killing injection, unobtrusively checked her pulse and then left without saying a word and without disturbing the cocoon the three of them had woven around themselves.

Around three o’clock in the morning, both Dirk and Bridget woke from their light dozing. Mutti was breathing very slowly and had a smile on her face. She opened her eyes and looked first at one then the other of her children and squeezed both hands. “It is time,” she whispered, and closed her eyes again. A minute later her breathing stopped, but the smile did not leave her lips.

Brother and sister looked at each other and both now had tears pouring from their eyes. They stayed like that for over an hour, holding their mother’s hands. Then Dirk left the room to fetch a doctor and to deal with the inevitable formalities.

The funeral was held two days later and was, unsurprisingly, a happy occasion. There was grief, but not sadness. They were able to celebrate the life and passing of a wonderful person and friend. They all knew that Mutti was where she wanted to be and that was the only thing that mattered.