All this happened quite a few years ago. My mother had been unwell for some time. To put a stop to my brothers’ nagging and my father’s especially, she finally went to see the doctor she always saw, the doctor my family had used since the dawn of time. He must have been ancient at that point for I cannot recall ever not visiting him, nor an I recall him ever being young. I used him myself even though I now lived a good distance away.
After a brief check-up, this old family doctor swiftly referred her to Aker Hospital for further examination. Having been for several, no doubt painful, tests in rooms painted white, painted apple green, at the big hospital near the Sinsen junction on the side of Oslo I always like to think of as our side, the east side that is, she was told to go home and wait two weeks for the results. When they finally arrived, three weeks later rather than two, it turned out that she had stomach cancer. Her first reaction was as follows: Good Lord, here I’ve been lying awake night after night, year after year, especially when the children were small, terrified of dying from lung cancer, and then I get cancer of the stomach. What a waste of time!
My mother was like that. And she was a smoker, just as I have been my entire adult life. I know well those night-time moments when you lie in bed staring into the dark , with dry, aching eyes feeling life like ashes in your mouth, even though I have probably worried more about my own life than leaving my children fatherless
For a while she just sat at the kitchen table with the envelope in her hand, staring out of the window at the same lawn, the same white painted fence, the same clothes lines and the same row of identical grey houses she had been looking at for so many years, and she realised she did not like it here at all. She did not like all the rock in this country, did not like the spruce forests or the high plains, did not like the mountains. She could not see the mountains, but she knew they were everywhere out there leaving their mark, every single day, on the people who lived in Norway.
She stood up, went out into the hallway, made a call, replaced the receiver after a brief conversation and returned to the kitchen table to wait for my father. My father was retired and had been for some years, but she was fourteen years younger than him and still working; though today was her day off.
My father was out, he always had something he needed to see, errands to run my mother was rarely told about, the results of which she never saw, but whatever conflicts there had been between them were settled long ago. There was a truce now. As long as he did not try to run her life, he was left in peace to run his own. She had even started to defend and protect him. If I uttered a word of criticism or took her side in a misguided attempt to support the women’s liberation, I was told to mind my own business. It is easy for you to criticise, she would say, who have had it all handed to you on a silver plate. You squirt.
As if my own life were plain sailing. I was heading full speed for a divorce. It was my first; I thought it was the end of the world. There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.
Per Petterson won the won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Out Stealing Horses, which has been translated into more than thirty languages and was named a Best Book of 2007 by the New York Times, TIME, Entertainment Weekly, and many other publications. He lives in Norway.