Dear Norma,

I am writing from San Juan, from the one and only hotel here. I visited Mother this afternoon—a half-hour drive along a tortuous road. Her condition is as bad as I had feared, and worse. She cannot walk without her stick, and even then she is very slow. She has not been able to climb the stairs since returning from the hospital. She sleeps on the sofa in the living room. She tried to have her bed shifted downstairs, but the men said it had been built in situ, could not be moved without being taken to pieces first. (Didn’t Penelope have a bed like that—Homer’s Penelope?)

Philadelphia Museum of Art/© Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse: Interior at Nice (Room at the Beau Rivage), 1917–1918

Her books and papers are all upstairs—no space for them downstairs. She frets, says she wants to get back to her desk, but can’t.

There is a man named Pablo who helps in the garden. I asked who does the shopping. She says she lives on bread and cheese plus what the garden provides, doesn’t need more. Nevertheless, I said, couldn’t she get one of the women from the village to come in and cook and clean? She wouldn’t hear of it—she doesn’t have relations with the village, she says. What about Pablo? I said—Isn’t Pablo part of the village? Pablo is my responsibility, she said. Pablo does not belong to the village.

Pablo sleeps in the kitchen, as far as I can see. He is not all here, or not all there, or whatever the euphemism is. I mean, I think he is an idiot, a simpleton.

I didn’t raise the chief subject—wanted to, but didn’t have the courage. I’ll do so when I see her tomorrow. I can’t say I am hopeful. She has been cool to me. She has a shrewd idea, I suspect, of why I have come.

Sleep well. Give my love to the children.


“Mother, can we discuss your living arrangements? Can we talk about the future?”

His mother, seated in her stern old armchair, built no doubt by the same carpenter who built the immovable bed, says not a word.

“You must know that Helen and I worry about you. You have had one bad fall, and it is only a matter of time before you have another. You aren’t getting any younger, and living by yourself in a house with steep stairs in a village where you are not on good terms with your neighbors—frankly, it doesn’t seem a viable existence, not anymore.”

“I don’t live by myself,” his mother says. “Pablo is with me. I have Pablo to rely on.”

“I agree, Pablo lives with you. But can you really rely on Pablo in an emergency? Was Pablo any help to you last time? If you hadn’t been able to telephone the hospital, where would you be today?”

Even as the words leave his mouth, he knows he has made a mistake.

“Where would I be?” says his mother. “You seem to know the answer, so why ask me? Under the earth, being devoured by worms, I presume. Is that what I am supposed to say?”

“Mother, please be reasonable. Helen has been investigating and has located two places not far from where she lives where you would be well looked after and where she and I believe you would feel at home. Will you allow me to tell you about them?”

“Two places. By places do you mean institutions? Institutions where I will feel at home?”

“Mother, you can call them what you will, you can sneer at Helen and sneer at me, but that doesn’t alter the facts—the facts of life. You have already had one serious accident, of which you are suffering the consequences. Your condition is not going to get better. On the contrary, it is all too likely to get worse. Have you thought what it will be like to be bedridden in this godforsaken village with only Pablo to see to your needs? Have you thought what it will be like for Helen and me, knowing that you are in need of care, yet unable to care for you? Because we can’t come flying thousands of kilometers every weekend, can we?”

“I don’t expect you to.”

“You don’t expect us to, but that is what we will have to do, that is what one does if one loves someone. So please do me a favor and listen quietly while I set the alternative before you. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, you and I will leave this place and drive to Nice, to Helen. Before we leave I will help you pack up everything that is important to you, everything you want to hold on to. We will pack it all in boxes ready to be shipped once you are settled.


“From Nice Helen and I will take you to see the two homes I mentioned, the one in Antibes, the other just outside Grasse. You can have a look at them and see how you feel. We will put no pressure on you, none at all. If you like neither, so be it, you can stay with Helen while we look elsewhere, there is plenty of time.

“We just want you to be happy, happy and safe, that is the goal of it all. We want to be sure that if there is some mishap, there will be someone at hand, and you will be taken care of.

“I know you don’t like institutions, Mother. Nor do I. Nor does Helen. But there comes a point in our lives when we have to compromise between what we ideally want and what is good for us, between independence on the one hand and security on the other. Here in Spain, in this village, in this house, you have no security at all. I know you disagree, but that is the brute reality. You could fall ill and no one would know about it. You could have another fall, and lie unconscious, or with broken limbs. You could die.”

His mother gives a little flick of the hand, as if to dismiss the possibility.

“The places Helen and I are proposing are not like institutions from the old days. They are well designed, well supervised, well run. They are expensive because they spare no expense in the interest of their clientele. One pays, and in return one gets first-class care. If it turns out that expense is an issue, Helen and I will happily contribute. You will have your own small apartment; in Grasse, you can have a small garden of your own too. You can either take your meals in the restaurant or have them brought to your apartment. Both places have a gymnasium and a swimming pool; they have medical staff on hand at all times, and physiotherapists. They may not be heaven, but for someone in your position they are the next best thing.”

“My position,” says his mother. “And what exactly is my position, according to you?”

He throws up his hands in exasperation. “Do you want me to say it?” he says. “Do you really want me to say the words?”

“Yes. Just for a change, just as an exercise, tell me the truth.”

“The truth is that you are an old woman in need of care. Which a man like Pablo cannot give.”

His mother shakes her head. “Not that truth. Tell me the other truth, the real truth.”

The real truth?”

“Yes, the real truth.”

Dear Norma,

“The real truth”: that was what she demanded, or perhaps implored.

She knows very well what the real truth is, as do I, so it should not have been hard to speak the words. And I was angry enough to do so—angry at having to come all this way to perform a duty for which you or Helen or I will get no thanks, not in this world.

But I could not. I could not say to her face what I have no difficulty in writing here, now, to you: The real truth is that you are dying. The real truth is that you have one foot in the grave. The real truth is that already you are helpless in the world, and tomorrow you will be even more helpless, and so forth day after day, until the day comes when there will be no help at all. The real truth is that you are in no position to negotiate. The real truth is that you cannot say No.

You cannot say No to the ticking of the clock. You cannot say No to death. When death says Come, you must bow your head and come. Therefore accept. Learn to say Yes. When I say, Leave behind the home you have made for yourself in Spain, leave behind your familiar things, come and live in—yes—an institution where a nurse from Guadaloupe will wake you up in the morning with a glass of orange juice and a cheery greeting (Quel beau jour, Madame Costello!), do not frown, do not dig in your heels. Say Yes. Say, I agree. Say, I am in your hands. Make the best of it.

Dear Norma, there will come a day when you and I too will need to be told the truth, the real truth. So can we make a pact? Can we promise that we won’t lie to each other, that no matter how hard it may be to say the words, we will say them—the words It is not going to get better, it is going to get worse, and it is going to go on getting worse until it can get no worse, until it is the very worst?


Your loving husband,

Copyright © 2011 by J.M. Coetzee