One of Those Persons Who Should Never Die
My mother and her brothers, they all stay in touch with the usual phone call on Christmas making sure no one is dying or checking if anyone got married.
Fiona. My mother loved Fiona because she was the only hairdresser who could dye her hair the right colour.
Every time my mother went for a blow-dry, or a cut and colour, she was gone for half a day. She’d drive to the salon when the sun was up and got out at night with a stench of smoke on her clothes. No one in my family ever had a puff, but this was when you could have a cigarette and give a haircut at the same time.
When she came back, my mother’d stand in front of the mirror in the hall and me there, sitting on a step looking at her. She’d dig a hand into the top of her hair checking if those roots were gone. She looked beautiful. For days, she’d smell of hair products and blowdryer fired on for too long.
We grew up in this town by the sea. Where everyone complains about how cold it is with 15 degrees outside. People start going to the beach in April. In the summer, it gets so hot everyone always goes for a nap after lunch. Except for my mother. She’s the youngest of six children, with five older brothers. There was always something to help with around the house. Now, they all stay in touch with the usual phone call on Christmas making sure no one is dying or checking if anyone got married.
My mother though, she had one more brother no birth certificate or council register knows about. His name was Tony. Big squared glasses without a frame and pink rounded cheeks.
Tony is the reason why my parents managed to pay their bills on time. After my grandad died my mother found herself in a home too big and no one to mess around my or my sister’s bedroom. Tony got her a job as a carer in a retirement home. She cried for days, that’s how happy she was.
Tony is one of those fictional characters you see in movies. Those who spread love and happiness without asking anything in return. They help everyone just because it seems the right thing to do.
Tony ended up marrying Fiona, they had two kids.
My mother can never remember anyone’s birthday even after twenty years of friendship, but Fiona was the only one getting a phone call because we had the same birthday. After unwrapping my presents I’d always ask my mum if she had called Fiona.
Maybe that’s why they stayed best friends. It’s about the little things you remember about people that show you’re really listening.
Remember a little detail, a conversation, a date, and you’ll get a friend for life.
Then one day, Mum comes back after a half-day marathon to hide her roots coming in, she looks at herself in the mirror, combs her hair with one open hand and starts yelling at her own reflection. Her hair colour is wrong.
Fiona started double-booking appointments at the salon and couldn’t remember anymore if you wanted a haircut or a blow-dry. They said she was just tired, maybe a bit stressed.
She had to shut the salon and my mother had a strange look on her face. Like she was losing more than a hairdresser.
When they were young, my mother and Fiona used to walk into expensive clothes shops, with a bit of makeup and their best dresses on. They’d walk in chin up and high boots trying on dresses none of them could afford. They’d spin on their toes in front of the change room mirror a few times. Then, they’d put on a long face, saying to the shop assistant the dress was not exactly what they were looking for. They’d name another shop down the road and walk out without ever buying anything.
When my mum tells the story now, Fiona just nods pretending to smile.
Fiona started answering questions asked an hour before. Forgot she had already cooked dinner when she walked into the kitchen. Then she got quieter. Staring at the table, hoping for no one in the room to ask her anything.
Their walks by the beach got slower. Like Fiona had to remember how to put a foot in front of the other at every step. Her thoughts turned into hums. Her words into timid smiles.
On my birthday I ask my mum if she had called Fiona and she just stood there in the living room as if she was trying to find something more important to do.
She called Tony instead. He said their family gathered together with wrapped presents and a cake. Things were like they used to be. Only Fiona kept asking her daughter about her job. Her family. By the time she had scooped the last bit of cake, Fiona stretched her hand to her daughter and said it was nice to meet her.
After that Fiona and Tony started going out much less. Tony kept looking after her day and night. He quit his job and said that it must be stress. She’s been so tired recently. It’ll be alright, he said.
My mother tried a couple of new hairdressers but she’d come back home, looking at herself in the mirror, combing her hair with her fingers saying it wasn’t what she was looking for.
She also stopped popping by at Fiona’s because now her hums and timid stretched smiles turned into sudden screams and glasses tossed on the wall.
I know people who turn furious when they can’t find their car keys. When a folder disappears on their laptop. Fiona was looking for thoughts into a cabinet left empty. Like someone had started moving everything out without notice.
After that, Tony and his family found themselves having breakfast with paper plates and plastic cups.
My mother would call Tony every now and again. Asking how he was. Asking how Fiona was. They started paying a nurse to look after her 24/7. Tony said a retirement home wasn’t an option. He wanted her at home. For as long as I’ll be around, she’ll be here, he said.
Then my mother found someone who could finally dye her hair the right colour and Tony started not picking up any of her calls. My mother said that childhood friends never ditch you overnight. Fiona forgot most words she ever knew, never mind answering the phone.
The truth was that one day Tony woke up with this chest pain, like his chest ribs got buckled up and he couldn’t breathe. He went to hospital and got out a week later after a surgery with the first cycle of chemotherapy already booked in.
He got thinner and Fiona kept not recognising him. All of her rage and broken crockery turned into an unfurnished room of thoughts she couldn’t let anyone in.
You know how it is with cancer. You trust your doctors and all those stats. You always hope to be in the half that makes it. Ready to switch all verbs to the past tense, saying, “I had cancer”. Or “I was sick, but not anymore”.
Tony ended up in the lucky half. He put weight back on, growing his thin hair back. Fiona, you had to gently lift her chin up with one hand to make her look at you.
My mother said that throughout the cycle of chemo, that constant in and out of hospitals, Tony’s only thought was who’d look after Fiona? He’d say, who’d make sure she’s okay? He asked, if anything happened to him would she even know that he’s gone?
Fiona is now in one of those care homes where they change your bedsheets twice a week and you’ve got someone ready to read you your favourite book, even though you no longer remember you liked it. She lost so much weight she’s just bones wrapped in skin. Her small eyes always looking at you from elsewhere.
When my mother called me, I couldn’t really understand a word of what she was saying. She couldn't stop sobbing on our video call. Her face all clamped in wrinkles that weren’t there before. She said, the cancer came back and this time Tony didn’t end up on the lucky side of the odds.
At the funeral, the church was packed. Only Tony’s daughter listening to the eulogy sitting outside on the church step. Her knees buckled before they brought in the casket and she couldn’t let herself in.
And I wanted to ask my mother if anyone had told Fiona.
I wanted to ask if they were ready to tell her something she couldn’t remember. Something that might be the only thing she’ll never forget.
But I didn’t.
On the phone screen, my mother blows her nose and says how unfair life can be. She keeps pulling her nose, drying her tears, looking at the phone, looking at me, she says, “He was one of those persons who should never die.”
It was my birthday two weeks ago. My mum’s call is my favourite present now. I don’t unwrap gifts anymore. We talked, we laughed but I didn’t ask her if she went to see Fiona. If anyone had reminded her of our birthday. On the phone screen, my mother looks beautiful, and I say, “Mum you look beautiful.” Then she duck her head and spread the top of her hair with one hand saying, “Not really.” She says, “These damn roots are coming in again.”