by Katie Isham
Cross-legged on my kitchen floor, I stared through the fat-spackled sepia door. Hands clasped together, knuckles white in prayer to the baking god, our Mary Berry, to bless me with her floury power. I needed to believe my cake would succeed. My recent track-record hadn’t been great (singed cookies and scones disguised as biscuits), but this was one bake that I needed rise from the doldrums. This was a tangible hope that I could see manifesting.
I had to hope that I had done enough. For her.
It was Mum’s birthday. It was only a cake. Chocolate sponge. But I hoped it would emerge from the oven in a celebratory state. I’d followed the recipe, the oven instructions, and I’d even set the timer – something my usual lackadaisical cooking style normally rejects. But when baking a cake, no matter how closely you follow the instructions, there’s always a dash of hope mixed in with the sugar and butter.
We do the best we can in all our actions and decisions, but at some point, we throw the controls over to the universe and all we can do is make room for that wonderful, suffocating, paralysing, exhilarating feeling of hope. When nothing else will do.
As I waited for the oven timer to countdown, I tried to remember when hope had arrived. I couldn’t ever recall it not being part of me: part of how I felt when I thought of her.
Hope had been my friend through school days. Returning home to Mum with a different ulcer of hope in my stomach every day.
Sometimes hope that she’d be in a good mood.
Sometimes hope that she wouldn’t be there at all.
Sometimes hope that she hadn’t stocked up on cheap red wine from the Co-Op.
I was never sure of the best outcome. My hope was mixed and confused like the brain of the child it infected. Hope is the belief, however slight, that things will get better. Mine was always a tiny flicker of hope. A flighty feeling that would ebb and flow throughout my adolescence and on into adulthood. I drifted away and learned to keep a lid on the bubbling matriarchal hope. From a distance I could call in when my flicker stirred inside me like heartburn.
I wanted to open the oven door to check the cake, but I knew I shouldn’t. I had to put my trust in the recipe. It’s never been my forte. I only trust what I can see and hold. Unless it’s really there, I don’t believe it. Hope has deflated me like a sunken sponge too many times.
Sitting on the kitchen tiles took me back seven years to being slumped in a hostel corridor in Auckland. We were alone. Me and my tiny flicker of hope sat sobbing on the dusty grey carpet praying that no revellers would return to the dorm at 1am. Angry hope had arrived through the long-distance phone call saying that Mum had made it through the night. She was “stable”, whatever that meant. Nobody knew what effect the stroke would have yet. The doctors and nurses had done their thing. Modern medicine took her so far and left her in the hands of hope.
We just had to hope that it was minimal they said.
We just had to hope that she would wake up sooner rather than later.
We just had hope.
Flimsy fucking hope.
My carry-on of hope was clasped to my chest throughout the emergency flight back to London.
“I wanted to open the oven door to check the cake, but I knew I shouldn’t. I had to put my trust in the recipe. It’s never been my forte. I only trust what I can see and hold. Unless it’s really there, I don’t believe it. Hope has deflated me like a sunken sponge too many times.”
Again, it somehow provided a path through. Mum smiled at me from the hospital bed but the words failed her. She asked for chips when she meant cornflakes and called me by the name of our dog who’d been buried in the garden for twenty years.
But we couldn’t complain; she was still there, reaching out with a newly dominant left hand. Our hopes had been answered, which led to yet more uncertainty.
Everyday life is overflowing with hope. We hope the bus won’t be late, that the rain holds off, that our parent won’t die today. We have no control over these moments and so we throw our lives open to the power of hope.
There’s still hope so I think we’ll be fine. A line from one of the best songs ever written, ‘The Oil Slick’ by Frightened Rabbit. I often listen to that and wonder how true this is. Mostly we think of hope as being positive: a possibility of improvement and growth. But sometimes it feels like the chaos of chance is just too overwhelming. The disarray of my brain full of hope seeps out of my ears and I long for certainty.
My life has too many tabs open and I’m expecting them to all crash and disappear.
Especially in my thoughts about Mum. Every moment of her existence is a spinning plate of chance miraculously staying in motion.
We hope her osteoporosis doesn’t shatter her with every stumble.
We hope her onset dementia doesn’t leave her incapable of laughter.
We hope, in vain, that the forty fags a day habit doesn’t have consequences.
The shadow on her lungs had always been there in my vision of her. It was no surprise when the doctors gave a name to it earlier this year. She didn’t seem surprised either, each of the three times we told her. Maybe blissful ignorance is best.
The medical routes exhausted; hope is all that’s left.
And I’m not fine.
I want facts and plans and direction.
What am I supposed to do with hope? It’s so transient and unreliable.
Hope is a floozy. A scarlet temptress swanning in and giving you the eye just long enough to think you stand a chance. It fills you with false plans for the future, with fucking optimism. And then it disappears like dream, so distant that you can’t remember having it at all.
Surely we’ve exhausted all our hopes for Mum?
The kitchen timer rings me out of my dream of lost hope.
Hope didn’t dissolve this time. I scooped it up and dolloped it into the fresh cream I whipped to squish between the soft, airy chocolate sponges. Yes, the cake rose, praise hallelujah.
As I prepared the filling, I hoped she’d like my present. Yet this time hope was unnecessary. This was a foregone conclusion. I knew she would love it. Despite the dementia robbing Mum of her opinions and feelings towards music, gardening, sport and suchlike, she’d trample over her firstborn to grab a packet of buttons.
We sing the traditional song as I present her with the edible treasure – no candles this year – no cake needs a spray of corona-era vapour. Her eyes widen as the deep chocolate cake with Cadbury topped peaks of cream drifts closer.
Her mumbling settles on a vibrant ‘That’s marvellous!’ and my heart delights in such rare articulation. I’ve barely handed her a slice before she’s cramming it into her mouth, but what are birthdays for if not consumption of cake? Her smile is smeared with gooey goodness and a drop of cream sits proudly on her chin. She’s lost in the joyous moment, so I don’t tell her. She’s messy but happy. Surely that’s the best we can hope for.
All I hope for now is that I’ll get to make her another birthday cake.
Katie Isham | @k_isham | http://www.vintagegnome.blogspot.co.uk
Katie is a writer, teacher, drummer and mild adventurer. She believes kindness is a superpower. She writes a travel blog that is currently somewhat static. You will find her in the South of England hanging out with dogs or eating cake. Sometimes both.