My mother loved her garden: the Lily of the Nile, the roses, the lemon tree, the hydrangea at her bedroom window. Hydrangeas flower blue or pink depending on your soil – hers were always blue. The weeds, however, she did not love. “A weed is just a flower growing in the wrong place,” she would say as she ripped out a dandelion. I felt sorry for the dandelion – it was almost pretty enough for her garden. There were other, less pretty weeds with less pretty names: pigweed, beggar tick, cruel vine… The cruel vine was a frequent visitor to our garden. Unchecked, it would quickly strangle host plants – we lost a rambling rose to it. Unless you cut the cruel vine off at the root, it would continue to grow and develop grotesque seedpods that looked like wrinkled pears. The pods would burst, and the silky-haired seeds would scatter to the wind like so much cotton candy. Like asbestos.
When we weren’t battling the weeds, we fought the early morning frost that covered the plants in a thin skin of ice. Occasionally, if it got cold enough, there would be a black frost. The moisture inside the plants would freeze, and the plants would appear fine until their leaves and stems suddenly atrophied, turned black, and withered away. We killed the weeds, endured the frost, and planted flowers. “I could never be a farmer,” my mother said one day as she was turning the soil with her trowel. “To plant things and to wait, to put all your faith in the earth. To just hope and wait, hope and wait.” She shook her head. “I could never be a farmer.” My mother grew a magnolia. She watched it for years, but it never flowered.
My mother’s illness began as a subtle madness. She would say things that made no sense. She would talk to the television. And the disease manifested in other ways. She would become rigid. If she were standing, she would need to sit. “Eat something!” my brother would yell, convinced that she had low blood sugar. We knew better, though.
We couldn’t get anyone to see her – we lived in South Africa, and we had no medical aid. This was how people died. My sister and I took her to the local public hospital, Tambo Memorial (named for the resistance fighter). There, in a dimly lit corridor with benches on either side, we waited. We waited with people in wheelchairs, people with bandaged heads, people who moaned and shook and cried out. There was an old man in a wheelchair ahead of us. He was so thin and so dark and his hair was so white and his eyes were so large and milky that he looked more like a spectral shape than a corporeal being. He had almost made it to the front of the line when there was a sudden shout of surprise. The people on the benches leaned forward and then receded like waves. The man was wheeled away. He wouldn’t have to wait anymore. He had died. My mother looked at me. “I wonder… If you could see ghosts, how many would there be at this hospital?”
The doctor was young, Indian. He didn’t smile. “What’s wrong, Mrs. Taylor?”
My sister and I began to list all of my mother’s symptoms: her strange patterns of speech, her spells where she would drift off…
“I’m not asking you. I’m asking your mother.”
“I’m fine, Doctor.”
He looked her over for a few minutes. My mother was sixty years old. She was in good shape, and she was strong. There was something unseen, though. Something dark and deadly and spreading like a black frost.
“Your mother is fine. Go home.”
We tried another hospital, Johannesburg General. It was much further away. There was a brusque woman at the reception desk. “You can only come here if you live in the area. Do you live in the area?” We lied and said we did – we didn’t want to go back to Tambo Memorial, back to the Indian doctor who didn’t smile. Again we had to wait, with people with eye patches and broken people who smelled of urine and vomit. We spent so much time waiting. Every brief appointment would have a follow-up that would be scheduled for weeks ahead. No one took us seriously. A CT scan! We wanted a CT scan. We wanted proof that we weren’t crazy and that our mother was. We were shunted from pillar to post, but at last they acquiesced. They admitted my mother for observation and finally scheduled a CT scan. Now we would hope and wait some more.
Her bed was near the window. She smiled and told us that it wasn’t so bad – she was sleeping well, and the food was better than she had expected. “How wonderful,” she exclaimed, “to look outside and see the elephants!” My sister and I smiled and indulged my mother’s madness. We kissed her and left and were almost at the elevator when my mother called to us from down the hall. She had sprung out of bed to remind us to bring her radio. “It gets a little boring here,” she said with a laugh. We brought the radio the next day, but my mother would never have a chance to listen to it. She had slipped into a coma. Her eyes were shut, her mouth was open, and her breathing was laboured and ragged.
A doctor took us aside. “I’m not sure if you know this, but your mother is a very sick woman.” We were struck dumb. They were telling us now what we had tried to tell them all along. A few days later the phone rang while we were sleeping. No good news at this hour. “Your mother has died.” We drove to the hospital in the still, dark quiet of early morning. They had moved her body to a small room with a pale light. We peeled back the sheet and held the hand that was no longer my mother’s hand, and kissed the forehead that was no longer her forehead.
The doctor told us later that they had found lesions on my mother’s brain – cancer. It had started somewhere else, her stomach maybe. It had grown in silence and inched its way toward her brain, like a root pressing the earth. Like a weed.
We went to her old room and picked up her radio and her purse with its little scribbled notes and yellow money. I stood at the window. The sun was just coming up. This once grand part of the city was in decay, but from here you could see all the jacaranda trees that the settlers had planted. So many purple flowers scattered along the streets. The entire city was a walled garden. Beyond the purple canopies, I recognized the Johannesburg Zoo, and my chest tightened when I saw a pair of elephants roaming their enclosure.
Born and raised in South Africa, K.P. Taylor traveled to the US at 29 to work at an amusement park for the summer and never left. His work has appeared in Identity Theory, Maudlin House, Roanoke Review, and others.