We don’t have a name for what is wrong with my mother. We only witness the symptoms. Coughing fits rack my mother’s tiny frame. Her body seizes and contorts as she tries to force out the air. She can’t breathe and her voice reduces to rasps. She complains of pain, a crescent shaped stabbing sensation at the base of her ribcage. Her eyes water as she wills herself to stop coughing, to stop the involuntary muscle contractions. I watch, helpless each time: a slender, electric wire snakes its way from my gut, and coils at the base of my throat, a sensation I associate with empathy. But, my mild discomfort does not compare to my mother’s visible and considerable pain. I ask if she wants a glass of water. I know the answer. She can’t hold a glass steady enough to drink. Water doesn’t help anyway, since she finds it hard to swallow between coughs. She wears a diaper because during these coughing bouts she loses control of her bladder and the leaking embarrasses her. Later, I empty from the wastebasket blood-splattered tissues. Their fragile, crumpled remains remind me of decorative carnations.
The first production of Lady Windermere’s Fan has finished and the audience cheers and claps. They call Oscar Wilde’s name. Outside the St. James’s Theatre, the atmosphere is cold, all mist and gloom—characteristically London. On the street, the steady beat, thick and wet, of horse hooves and the trundling of the hansom cabs clogs the night. Inside, the air is crisp, made animate by the hum of electric lights. The bulbs and fixtures exude a blue scent, like chlorine disinfectant, the odor that precedes an electrical storm. This only lends to the feeling of excitement.
As he looks out from the stage, the theater lights blind him. They extend before him, beds of gleaming golden crocuses. Their brilliance makes it impossible for him to see the audience though he knows the theater is filled to capacity. His wife and two former female lovers are there, as well as a group of young men for whom he has procured tickets. He has asked each of these men to wear a green carnation as a sort of a joke, because he enjoys meaningless signs and symbols. In the buttonhole of his own jacket, he sports a carnation painted a vibrant shade of verdigris.
The cheers of the audience turn to hoots. He is loved. He stretches out a hand, sheathed in a mauve glove, cigarette dangling from his fingertips. Bits of ash flake onto the stage. He thanks the actors: “I congratulate you on the great success of your performance which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan—unlike Wilde’s other notable works up to that point The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Salome—will win for Wilde acceptance. There is criticism, mostly of his after-performance speech. Henry James, never a fan, gripes in a letter: “ . . . the unspeakable one had responded to curtain calls by appearing with a metallic blue carnation in his buttonhole and cigarette in his fingers.” Later, others will remember and whisper about all the boy-men sporting blue-green carnations: it is meant to signify, they will claim, a certain, peculiar kind of solidarity.
In the early 1900s, the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in National Magazine about the women she had met on a trip to Ceylon. She notes, admiringly, that these upper-class Ceylonese women are articulate and urbane. She focuses on one in particular: “Mrs. de Mel was educated in the English mission school, and speaks not only her own Singhalese tongue...but English and French fluently...Mother of six children, this Singhalese lady takes charge of their education, and looks after their clothing, health, and pleasures while she dispenses large hospitalities...”
My mother, born upper-class, in Colombo, some forty years after Mrs. de Mel, was very much a product of this culture of lady-making. She could run a kitchen, sew, dress well, speak well. She acquiesced to an arranged marriage. She knew how to tend to the well-being of another person. Even Wilcox’s description of Mrs. de Mel—“Her complexion is soft brown, something like the shade of unburnt coffee, and her long straight hair, clear cut features, and dazzling teeth...made her a target for admiring glances”—could just as easily describe my mother.
She loved more than anything else to cook. She made meals for us seven days a week. On at least one Sunday a month, she concocted the elaborate lunches served during her childhood in Sri Lanka: a meat curry, a vegetable curry, dhal, watercress mallung, fried eggplant, papadum, and sometimes, if we were lucky, fish cutlets. She also on the weekends baked pastries and cakes covered in homemade butter icing and powdered sugar. The elaborate meals, typical to an upper-class family in Sri Lanka, were recreated in detail in our middle-class household in America.
I have a memory of watching her in the kitchen. She spreads her hand out. A band-aid encircles one finger. The pink mesh has turned to rust and the band-aid has become stiff and encrusted. The skin on the top of her hand has become severely dry, split, and cracked. Enough blood has congealed that the entire wound has stopped bleeding, but it hurts my mother to move the finger or to try to grasp the handle of the knife. It also hurts my mother to wash her hands. As soon as she does the water dissolves the crusted blood, and she starts bleeding again.
The first mention of Lady Windermere’s syndrome appears in 1992 in the journal CHEST. The authors of the article noticed the cluster of symptoms in a group of six elderly female patients who each appeared to be trying to suppress their cough. These women must have also appeared exceptionally prim because the authors came to believe the cough suppression might be linked to gender-specific behavior: “The medical apothegm ‘Ladies don’t spit,’ embodies the idea that female patients are more fastidious and hence more likely to regard expectoration as socially unacceptable behavior.” According to the authors, they named the syndrome after Lady Windermere because of the character’s refusal to shake hands with Lord Darlington in a key scene in the play. (A scene I’ve not been able to find in the play itself.)
During the last few months of her life, when my mother went to sleep, her breathing became so shallow carbon dioxide built to dangerous levels in her blood and she became hypoxic. She awoke disoriented, suffered memory loss. Sometimes, when the oxygen deprivation reached its worst levels, she hallucinated. She believed once that her father and mother, long deceased, stood next to her bed talking to her. She confided in my father that she continued to hold on to the possibility even when she understood it was a hallucination that her mother and father had, in fact, come to visit her. None of us recognized the degree to which the memory loss was disrupting her daily life until we went through my parents’ finances after her death. We realized that bills had gone months unpaid. In some cases, we were weeks away from dealing with a collections agency.
My mother relied on a CPAP machine to help oxygenate her blood as she slept. She used a portable unit placed next to her bed every evening. Eventually, the portable CPAP became useless. It wasn’t powerful enough to counteract the shallowness of her breathing. She had to go the hospital more and more frequently. Her greatest fear at that time was that she might be placed on a ventilator, unable to breathe on her own. Finally, a few days before she died the doctors told her she could remain on the CPAP for good or be disconnected and die painlessly from the buildup of carbon dioxide in her blood. She chose to be taken off. She told us that she couldn’t stand the sound of the CPAP, an omnipresent roaring in her ears that felt to her like being trapped in a wind tunnel. My family and I worried that perhaps she chose to die because she didn’t want to inconvenience us by lingering. My mother was like that, always worried about how we were being inconvenienced.
When the nurse removed the CPAP, my mother called her family in Sri Lanka to speak with them. By that time my mother was short of breath and her voice had reduced to a faint growl. Days later, when we called my aunt to tell her my mother had passed, she screamed. My aunt and one of my mother’s cousins insist my mother had told them she was going to get better. Maybe, my aunt had misunderstood. Maybe, she couldn’t understand my mother, and allowed herself to believe my mother was saying something else, or maybe in the end, my mother did lie. Maybe my mother wanted to spare her family a few extra days of sorrow.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Hasanthika Sirisena's "Lady" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 2.
Hasanthika Sirisena’s work has appeared in the The Kenyon Review, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. Her debut short story collection, The Other One, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and was published in March 2016.