Arm in Arm

All my life, I craved physical touch from my mother who was unable to give or receive comfort. When we walked arm in arm, which we often did in her later years when she was struggling, I relished the contact, but felt the weight and burden of her.

In this piece of writing, I have learnt that my mother was afraid. She was as afraid as I was.  Sadly, we weren’t available to each other, neither could comfort the other.


Fear had entered Lisa’s life eight years ago when Sylvia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even now, she remembered how it first felt when the consultant told them the devastating news. It was like he had given her an injection; the fear travelling through her veins, all the way to her heart where it had burst into an icy rain. As the years had passed, the rain had become more like a dripping tap than a shower, but it still chilled her and kept her frozen in that moment when her whole life had changed.

The appointment time with the consultant was at 4 o’clock. ‘Now you won’t be late picking me up will you?’, Sylvia had instructed.

‘No mum, I won’t. Don’t worry,’ Lisa snapped back. Conversations between Lisa and Sylvia were made in short, sharp pointed retorts, like a game of ping-pong. Backwards and forwards ‘no mum,’ ‘yes mum,’ until one of them missed the table.  The game  would then be suspended whilst invariably Lisa sulked and Sylvia fumed. It had always been so. Lisa couldn’t remember ever having a proper conversation with her mother. They had never talked, not about anything.

All that day whilst at work, Lisa watched the clock and as the morning wore on, she became aware of her heartbeat pounding at the centre of her chest. It was like she was riding a galloping horse she couldn’t control, that was going faster and faster. By early afternoon, she felt quite sick with it and cancelling her attendance at the progress meeting, left the office earlier than she intended. She would be early now,  she thought, that should please her mum.

As she approached the house, Lisa saw Sylvia standing in the middle of the large bay window, looking down the road. She already had her coat buttoned up and on seeing the car, she turned, bent down to pick up her handbag and was out of the house, on the driveway and locking the front door before Lisa had even stopped the car.

Typical Lisa thought as reached across and opened the passenger door. She had wanted ten minutes in the house to have a quick cuppa, to visit the loo and generally gather her thoughts before they set off for the hospital. Sylvia hadn’t let her see any of the correspondence from the consultant’s secretary and Lisa had no idea what department of the hospital they had to attend. It would have been helpful at least know something, but Sylvia insisted that she knew where to go and Lisa wasn’t to worry about the details.

As Sylvia got into the car and slammed the door shut, her scent immediately filled up the space between them and became the reason neither acknowledged or greeted the other. Her mothers smell, Lisa could recognise anywhere. It was both comforting and repelling, a mixture of expensive french perfume with back-notes of disinfectant and cigarettes. Lisa believed that no one else would be able to smell anything other than Sylvia’s perfume it was so strong, but she had lived all of her life with the other smells. They had become part of her mother’s DNA and part of their shared history, part of their differences. Lisa neither smoked nor used disinfectant to clean her home. She despised both. Discreetly, Lisa opened her side window to let some fresh air into the car, reversed out of the driveway and in silence they drove the short distance to the hospital.

It was not until they were checked in and sitting down opposite each other in the waiting area that Lisa dared to speak. She always broke first. ‘Are you ok mum?’ she asked, leaning forward to touch Sylvia’s knee.

Sylvia looked up from the magazine she held but was not reading. It shook ever so slightly in her hand. Unable to meet Lisa’s imploring gaze, her need for reassurance, Sylvia turned to the woman sat next to her. ‘It’s very warm in here, don’t you think? I wonder if they can turn the heating down?’ but just as Sylvia stood up to ask the receptionist at the desk, a door opened.

‘Sylvia Hutchinson please. Mr Hall will see you now.’

Lisa stood up and took a breath deep. She smiled encouragingly at her mother. Sylvia smiled back, finally meeting her daughter’s eye, searching for reassurance and strength as hers rapidly begun to seep away. She grabbed hold of Lisa’s arm. Lisa felt her mother’s weight, heavy and burdensome.  Together they walked towards the consulting room, a small distance that with the faces that turned to watch them, seemed like a mile. As they reached the open door, Sylvia released her grip on Lisa’s arm and stepped ahead, holding the door frame momentarily for support. Lisa glanced back to the waiting area. A woman nodded. It was the tiniest of gestures, but enough to prevent Lisa from running away. Involuntarily, she clasped her hands together, held them to her heart’s centre and followed Sylvia through the door.

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