I remember, when it was me and not her, there was a song that kept coming up on the radio. I sat there motionless in the passenger seat of the car, my head against the window, as my mother drove me to and from the hospital. And I fell into that same slow song, pretended it was my own pulse as it came out of the great looping playlist that was the radio station.
Many years later, when I fly to Auckland for my mother’s surgery, I’m much more restless. Only hours before my flight, my mother calls me to say that her surgery on Tuesday has been moved to Monday instead. And I’m just lucky that I had originally bought my flights to arrive a day early as well. I feel like I need to quicken my pace, but the schedules around me—playing through predetermined departures and arrivals—keep me locked in and unable to move any faster. When I land in Auckland, my mother is already at the hospital for pre-surgery preparation.
The next morning is the only chance for me to see her before she goes into operation. So I take it. We leave the house at 6am, my dad driving. The Auckland skyline rises into view as we approach the city, like a sunrise made from concrete and glass. And then that same song starts playing.
It is Lorde. It’s her song Royals. I am instantly brought back to myself, six years ago, facing all my own trips to and from the hospital. The song would settle on my chest and melt into my porous heart, then drift through my head in waiting rooms. In 2013, I was sinking, and in 2013, Lorde’s music was spreading through the radio waves. Whenever her song came on, I recognised that I’d already heard that same voice before. I wondered who the singer was, but I was already at the bottom of the swimming pool.
I eventually made it. I found out who she was, I downloaded her album. And as that song plays again in 2019, my heart turns a little porous. The sound of Royals was the backdrop of hospital drives for me, and here it is again, appearing for my mother's surgery. But this time, my mother isn’t next to me.
Many hours later, when the surgery is over, my dad and I walk quickly to the ICU. Once there, a nurse points my mother out to us. She’s lying there on the bed, tubes looping out from her body. There’s a constant beep, a machine next to her making humble measurements. The nurse tells us that my mother woke up earlier, and that we can gently wake her up again. My dad and I had been rushing the whole way there, throwing things that we thought my mother might need into the car. But in that moment, we both pause, unsure how to approach. My mother looks like she’s been creased, so different from the person who brought me up. We step forward until we are right next to the bed. And when my mother’s eyes flicker open, I startle, like she has caught me out. But she just nudges her hand against mine.
I start spending my days at the hospital. What are you meant to do when your mother asks if you could please stay a little bit longer? You stay. And as I wait there, I feel myself sink into someone else. Back in Wellington, I can’t go a day without going outside, and I take myself out on a walk if I don’t have any errands. I start to feel uncomfortable if I don’t follow this rule. But here, I descend into that uncomfortable feeling. If I look out the window of my mother’s ward and tilt my head up, I can see a little diamond of blue sky amongst hospital architecture. I let myself forget it’s there.
I think I love Royals so much because it perfectly encapsulates the lethargy I felt when the hospital was my locus, and my mother and I circled around it. During those repetitive drives, the sparse beat of Royals echoed my own sparse landscape. In the song, Lorde talks about luxuries that play across popular media. But then she denies it. Says, this is what my life is actually like, sings about high school kids getting on the train and counting the coins they have. Circling and circling.
The music video for Royals is filled with scenes of emptiness: a swimming pool, a lonely drive down a suburban street, a bus stop at night, a TV showing only static. A boy stands motionless in the shower while water drips down his head and shoulders. It’s a world of waiting for things to happen. It’s a teenage world too, where you can’t quite claim who you want to be, where everyone else seems to be the authority. It’s an easy world for me to give into, there in the city I grew up in, stuck in that same atmosphere again. And then I am not just turning into someone else. I am turning into my 2013 self, going through my own surgeries.
Auckland is a sprawl that I deliberately left behind. I live alone in Wellington, but suddenly here, I feel like I can’t do anything by myself. There’s always some kind of traffic jam, no train line goes out to my parents’ suburb, and it’s hard to ever get anywhere. I am sixteen again and every distance feels too great. Nurses arrive and bullet point recovery goals, explain procedures, pull out tubes, change dressings. I hold my mother’s hand and I’m not sure whether I’m doing enough. My Wellington self, who I am so proud of, feels very far away at sea.
But when we do finally make our way out of that locus again, the waves pull back. My mother gets discharged the day before I fly back to Wellington. Songs play on the radio as my dad drives, but I’m not thinking about them. I can bring my mother home. This is a good place to be at.