Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Savage Writing: Jacob Wrestling

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One of the pictures we were to use for inspiration this week was quite demonic, and that and the musculature reminded me of a Biblical story. Hence, this.

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There is a painting above her bed: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Alexander Louis Leloir. Dark-haired Jacob, his red cloak flying behind him, grasps the angel around the waist. His face shows no strain, and his black eyes stare out of a passionless face, as if he is a teacher waiting for an answer from a pupil who should know better. The angel’s face is obscured by his shoulder as he tries to push away from Jacob’s grip. The muscles in his calves, thighs and forearms are taut with effort. At this moment, captured in the stillness of oil on canvas, Jacob is winning.

This is my favourite painting in our home. Man goes against what is much stronger than him, and more than holds his own: in this painting, he is winning.

Of course, in the story, the angel – or rather, God in the form of an angel – wins because he dislocates Jacob’s hip with one touch, because God can do that, and if God is anything, he is a dirty, rotten cheat.

It was gone, you know. We went out to dinner to celebrate. Mum doesn’t drink, but this once she ordered red wine, and I knew it was a victory for her because when I toasted her, she raised her glass to herself. You see, at every birthday and anniversary and event where glasses were raised to her, she would sit, mouth set in a barely-smiling line, elbows on the table and eyes firm, as if praise was something one had to endure and never accept. But yes, that night she raised her glass of wine and took a full-mouthed glug. She didn’t even flinch at the unfamiliar tannin taste. And I mentioned the irony to her later, between main course and dessert, that after years of not drinking when she could, she would now imbibe when the doctors advised against it.

‘Life’s a bitch, Rosie,’ she said.

I laughed, because what else could I do, seeing my short-haired, five-foot-one, gentle-genteel mother swear in front of me?

Her eyes were sad. I remember that. She had looked exhausted for months, of course – chemo is poison, after all – but she looked like she had come to the end of a marathon, and found no ribbon, no medal, no crowd. Only a thin, wobbling line, drawn in chalk on the tarmac, and a rat scuttling down the nearest drain.

It was gone. But turns out that it was the kind of gone that never leaves forever, like rain or winter or hiccups. They’ll always come back, no matter how glad you are to see the back of them. I wonder if she knew that, or suspected it. I never considered it. I refused to believe she would ever die, right from the start. Cancer? It’s only small, surely? Early stage? Of course it is. Late stage death cancer only happens to other people. It’s just a little scare life has put in to wake you up. Doctors, hospital, surgery, chemo, bam, done, happily ever after, back to normal. And look! We were so close! That dinner was supposed to be it: done, done, it’s over, The End, no more.

It’s the end of January and it feels like winter has been here forever. I’ll get to a sunny day at the end of February and then I’ll shout to the heavens HA! Take that! No more cold! No more ice, not ever! Only warmth and green buds for the rest of my days! Next winter, what next winter? Never. It’ll never happen. Cold is impossible to imagine in the middle of July, right? It’ll never come back.

It came back. That’s the way this illness works. The more new cells are made, the more likely that over time they’ll get a bit tired, a bit senile, forget to stop growing, forget that they depend on you to exist and that you shouldn’t hurt the ones that made you. And even if you stop them with the strongest poison and warnings, it’s as if, it’s like they still might walk into the same place a few months or years later and look around and vaguely remember it and say “yes, that was it, continued growth, shutting down the essential life systems, yes, that’s familiar, yes, let’s try that again. Mm-hmm.”

She was fighting. Everyone’s a fighter with this, I suppose – because what else do you do? She fought as hard as the rest, through the pain, discomfort, helplessness.

It was Boxing Day. Everyone else had gone home. She had a glass of wine, and I joked that at this rate she’d become an alcoholic.

‘Life’s too short,’ she said.

Not yours, I thought. You’ll live until you’re a hundred and eight. You’ll see great-grandkids. You have to, because I’ve decided you have to, because I won’t let fate do any different, it has to bend to my decision. You’ve hiked all the mountains in the UK and you’ve never smoked and you’ve eaten fish and salad instead of pie and chips and that means you’re immortal now, everyone agrees on it, you’ve cracked the formula for living forever and never dying before you’re a hundred and eight and in your own bed asleep.

It was Boxing Day. It was only a month ago. Why didn’t she tell me that she thought it had come back? Was she trying to keep Christmas special, like how she pretended Santa existed even years after we’d figured out the truth? I’m an adult now, even if I don’t quite feel like it. I can handle a bad Christmas!

I don’t understand it. She was winning. She had won.

There’s a painting above her bed, of Jacob wrestling God and he looks like he’s winning. And underneath the painting, there’s an empty bed with clean neutral linen, as she left it the day she went to hospital. It stills smell of her perfume. And did she look at that painting every day? Every day, see Jacob winning, though she knew how the story ends?

Dirty, rotten cheat of a sickness, pretending to leave, then coming back for an encore.

She was winning.

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Written by G.J.

05/02/2015 at 6:58 pm

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