Yesterday was Mother’s Day here in the UK and I didn’t see my mum (aka Gran) or even send her a card or a bunch of flowers. She’s in a care home, with dementia, and doesn’t always (ever?) know who I am, so I suppose that’s an easy reason why. But the truth is, I don’t go and see her every day, or even always every week, and though I often feel bad about this, it doesn’t make me any more attentive. There are cool miles beneath the tip of this iceberg.
I wasn’t ever a particularly attentive daughter, even in adulthood. She moved to live near us in 2002, at our suggestion. Retired, recently re-kneed, we with her three young grandchildren, it made sense. For the previous few years, we’d spent a lot of time traipsing up and down the M42, squashing weekend visits into the hectic juggle of time that is the lot of working parents of toddlers. She loved the kids and they loved her, but our times together were over-long, intense, claustrophobic, squashed, and – from my perspective – a bit dutiful and increasingly burdensome. I don’t know if she felt the same way because we never were able to talk about such intimate truths. When she moved round the corner, she became a more regular but less stifling part of our lives. She could see the kids without us, we could have her round for Sunday dinner, or pop in for half an hour. We were here for Christmasses, birthday meals out, company in the evenings, odd jobs, help with the video and computer. It wasn’t all one way. She not only helped with the childcare, she contributed to our children’s growing up experiences with fantastical, hand sewn dressing up outfits (the Hungry Caterpillar, an amazingly fluffy layered purple tulle tutu, a mermaid’s – or, more accurately, merboy’s – slinky, scaly blue life-size tail, and more); days out, to the Tramway Museum and Heage Windmill (both local attractions I’ve still not visited myself); swimming towels and cubs’ and brownies’ uniforms badged (I am utterly useless at sewing, you might gather, just threading a needle makes me unbelievably cross); regimentally, boiled eggs and soldiers for tea; the sweety tin, gold and heart-shaped, rattling its delightful and thrilling call to treat time; stories written and told and acted out. But I still got snappy when she annoyed me (and vice versa), and I always kept my emotional distance and she hers. I worked hard to fight against her forging a needy place in my life, as I had done for as long as I can remember. I understand why our relationship was like this – it’s messy and complicated and sad and (maybe) for another blog – but for now, for this, it doesn’t matter, suffice to say it’s just the way it was.
And then, over the last eight years, our mother/daughter roles have gradually reversed. It probably comes to every generation, but for us it’s been speeded up by her illness. Slowly, silently, we (Mr N and I) began parenting her. Organising her finances, managing her home, shooing away sharkish salesmen, taking her to appointments, advising her, sorting out her problems, arranging her social life. It crept on. Helping with her shopping, doing her shopping, doing her washing, cleaning her house, weeding her garden, finding lost things. Then, acknowledging her condition, getting her support, finding carers, selling her car, trying to implement strategies to keep her at home, where she wanted to be. I had a direct line to the local police station as her delusions took hold and she began to regularly call 999, made sure neighbours were in the loop, applied for Power of Attorney, spent too many hours in Derby City hospital getting her discharged after she’d called the ambulance for yet another imagined medical emergency. I didn’t always do it caringly or empathetically. When faced with a story about “youths” breaking in and throwing her shoes into a tree, leaving behind piles of clothes and moving her belongings around, my reaction was twofold; I laughed, and I tried to rationalise with her: “How come, then, that your TV and purse weren’t stolen, and there’s no sign of a break-in!!” I’d rant. It wasn’t helpful or very kind, it made her more confused and angry, but I was only able to adapt slowly. Sloughing off that chilly baggage didn’t come easily for me. It’s just the way it was.
But, I did thaw, eventually, and now I feel something like fondness when I visit her. As I said, I don’t go as often as I feel I should, but my guilt is about wanting to support her carers not about being inattentive to her – I know her emotional, physical, social and medical needs are being met and it doesn’t matter that they’re not being met by me. When I’m there, I’m a bit part. I sometimes take a crossword in and pretend to do it with her – she completed the Daily Torygraph cryptic crossword every day of her life until a few years ago (when she stopped it was one of the sure signs amongst the many less tangible ones of her decline) – and, if she’s in the mood, she’ll give me words which I affect to write down; I show her photos on my phone of the kids and, if we’re lucky, she’ll feign recognition, but more usually she’ll either ignore or not see them because she sends them shooting off the screen as she handles the phone. Last time, she needed the loo, and I stepped back while her carers led her off, discreetly changed her clothes, and brought her back. I chat as much to the other residents as I do to her, nonsense conversations which entertain me as well as them. I took her out for coffee once, with F my middle son, but she’d forgotten how to bend to get in and out of a car, and was frightened, disorientated and out of her comfort zone – she didn’t enjoy it, we didn’t feel better for it, and it didn’t help the staff who had to get her ready and reassure her when she got back. I took tulips in, for everyone’s pleasure, but with the people who look after her in mind, so we put them in a vase in their living room.
Last week, an old friend of hers, L, who now lives in the States, called me and we talked for ages. We’d been neighbours for about five years from when I was six, but L wasn’t just a good friend to Gran, she knew her well, was a confidante when she didn’t have many, and they stayed in regular touch. She told me things about her, nice things, that I didn’t know. We talked openly about tricky stuff that, then, I was too young to understand let alone express, and we marvelled at Gran’s inner strength and determination and, also, her energy for life. We reminisced fondly, admiringly. This, then, is the best that I can do for her now.
So, flowers from me are for her carers who look after her because I can’t. For Gran, on Mother’s Day and every day hereafter, there’s just the remembering of who she once was. No faking it’s otherwise, it’s simply the way it is.