It's the choice that makes it even worse

I HAD A LOVELY time in Poland, before the Wall came down. Cold as a witch's tit, a nimbus of frozen air around the intermittent street lights, the warm feral smell of sausage-and-sauerkraut bigos in the kaviarnia, and nothing in the shops. Or, rather, one of everything. You wanted soap, you went into a shop and said, "Do you have soap?" If they said, "Yes", you said, "Good. I'll have a cake of it, then, please." None of your nonsense about Palmolive or Roger & Gallet or Wrights or Imperial Leather or Dove; no wracking of the brain between vetiver and petitgrain, rose and lavender; no worrying about whether to go for the one which made women run their blood-red fingernails down your tanned, muscular (excuse me?) chest or the one which turned you into an Olympic triathlon medallist. Soap? Soap. Good. And then you went home and got clean.

There's a wonderful, epiphanic line in Michael Frayn's screenplay for Clockwise where John Cleese is sitting on the roadside in a monk's habit and a frightful stew and his companion tells him not to despair. "Despair?" he says. "It's not the despair. I can handle the despair. It's the hope ... " Close, so close, but I sometimes wonder whether it's not even the hope, but the choice. We're riddled with it, and it's killing us. Rats can take anything you throw at them, but if you give them too many choices they get neurotic and won't eat and either fight or pine and die, and I know how rats feel. I get like that over underpants, I get like that over pipe tobacco and wine lists, I get like that when the tailor starts showing me his cloth swatches, and once or twice I've got like that over women. Yesterday I got like that over notebooks, highlighting pens and collapsible umbrellas, and today I got like that because my mother is in hospital and it doesn't look good.

It doesn't look good at all; so not-good that the first claim has already been staked, to her fish-knives (fish-knives are coming in again, you see). "She said she wanted me to have them." Yes; well; as may be, hepatotoxic encephalopathy being a rum old thing, but I always thought that only carrion- feeders put in their bids in vivo ... and here I am thinking, "Mummy's going to be outraged when she's fit again," but the truth of the matter is that I'll probably have to deal with it myself, which means the fish-knives are going to Oxfam, but not just yet. Do You hear me, whoever You are? You fucker? NOT JUST YET.

Ach. I'm not ready yet, but nobody ever is ready. Even the ones who are tired, who've battled on indomitably for years, laughing and joking and showing spirit, showing balls so that nobody ever got the true picture of just what a horror it all is ... even they aren't ready when the time comes. My mother got hepatitis C 40 years ago, when her well-meaning obstetrician gave her a pint of blood which turned out to be contaminated with a virus which nobody even knew existed. Nobody's fault; just a bad choice, but from then on her health was never really quite right. Eighteen months ago she had a liver transplant, but the new liver succumbed to the virus in her bloodstream with astonishing speed, helped by the immunosuppressive drugs, and here we are, the old, old story, a vivacious, determined, spirited ... what was the word she used about her young self? - Bobby Dazzler - reduced in the blink of a subjective eye to an old lady, paper-thin, breathing shallow and painfully in a hospital bed. Self-indulgent spotty-arsed writers maunder about each word being plucked out of them in pain, but last night hers were, each one. "Can you massage my hands gently?" she said, but when I did so she cried. She won't eat or drink, being watered through a tube like a little hydroponics plant, growing dope.

Forty years ago, when I was little and dreaming of following my Daddy into doctoring, it would have been easy. Renal failure, probably, then a gentle coma, the knotted mooring-ropes loosening one by one until the frail craft of her body, become lighter than air by time and fevers, rose softly into oblivion. But now we have choice. Dialysis to flush the toxins and rest the exhausted kidneys, a chest drain to reduce the pulmonary oedema, then see if the body comes back into focus and sustains the terrible complexities of its own survival. If not, what then? The same again? And how often, for how long? And if it does work, if she gains a respite, what then, too? Another transplant, eight hours of ferocious surgery, of pain and insult, with the risk of the same thing happening again? So many choices, and no clear good. What is fair?

By the time you read this the picture will probably be clear, one way or the other, and it would be nice to think that she'll be giving me a bollocking for being a gloomy bugger, for - literally - writing her off. I dreamed of our old house last night, where I was little, a magical place beneath a dripping sandstone wood miraculously located in the centre of the city; and then I dreamed of her, mirabiliter reformasti, in all the vigour of her middle years, full of beans and giving me hell. We went back to see the old house the other week and it was as magical as I remembered, but the other magic is improbable; the miracle of miracles, the Most-Wonderful, is to be found elsewhere.

Yet as I stood at her bedside last night, feeding her jelly - one for Nelson - and thinking back, over 40 years ago, to her feeding me jelly - one for Drake - it seemed that a gentler miracle had occurred when I hadn't been looking, that a circle had been closed. Orange jelly is an unlikely sacrament but there it was, a shy epiphany of love and vulnerability. There may be a miracle in the night, but more likely there will be hard decisions to be made. Choices, bloody choices, and the worst thing is, I know what I want. A grown man, a big boy now, and 35 years since I last remembering thinking it, but I want my Mummy.

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