I can’t seem to focus on anything.

It’s been a strange time. I don’t feel particularly sad or grief stricken, but my brain doesn’t seem to be functioning normally. I’ve had several ideas for writing the blog and every one of them slid sideways, out of the frame. It’s like my brain is fogged and I can only think about what’s in front of my eyes. And even that seems to involve some issues.

In the middle of August, I went to stay with old friends who’ve moved to a city where I’ve never been and now live in a house where I’ve never stayed. So it was the best of both worlds: a dear pal I could share my thoughts and feelings with – and a new environment that had no links with the past. I returned here feeling refreshed but – there was a strange problem: I was developing a stye in my eye. I’ve never had one of those in my life! But I knew that the psychological ‘tag’ for such things is that there’s something you’re ‘not looking at’ or ‘not seeing’.

I wrote this thought down in my journal. Then I stopped writing, raised my eyes and looked around with conscious intent. I saw that I was surrounded by stuff. Stuff that I need to sort out. Stuff that belonged to my parents. Stuff that is overwhelming me. Yet it is also Stuff that must be dealt with before I can even think about moving on from here. So. There was my answer. I’ve been sitting here reading fantasy novels and thinking about holidays – holidays I know very well I shall never book. But, if I do want to move forward, then I have to clear away all the Stuff.

I bathed my eye in warm water – I even rubbed it with a warmed gold ring – and after a few days the swelling and soreness went away. But I also began to work. It was a long weekend and the cricket was on the radio. I began the task of emptying out my mother’s clothes from the wardrobe, and from the remaining drawers of her dressing table. (I had of course already begun this task over the last months, but only in a desultory fashion). Now I packed the clothes into bags and arranged for a Charity to pick them up.

The cricket was exciting; the neighbours were making some dreadful racket in the garden, grinding paving stones for a patio so, although the weather was fine, I forced myself to carry on and empty the storage drawers under the bed. In some ways, this was more upsetting than packing up the clothes, for here were freshly laundered sheets, carefully washed and ironed and put away – which mum must have done when she was still able to do that sort of thing and before she reverted to just using the same easy wash and wear bed linen that she was using when I arrived. I got a sense of a house-proud, happy woman. But I gritted my teeth. I stashed it all into bags. And piled all the bags up in the garage.

When the guy came to collect the bags, I almost cried out to him: no! It’s a mistake, don’t take them! But I resisted. And now, they are gone. There is a sequel to all of this which I’ll write about next. Suffice it to say that I’ve made a start. Chores like this are not easy psychologically but, as my brain isn’t functioning normally, it probably is quite a good idea to try and complete these practical tasks. Even though my emotionally hardwired brain tells me ‘don’t do it!’ my rational brain knows very well that there’s no point in delaying: especially as, until it’s done I will have no choice but to continue to live here in a place where I don’t feel at home and which I don’t actually like very much. No one else is going to help me do it. My brother won’t. He wouldn’t mind if I spent the next 10 years helplessly sitting here surrounded by chaos.

By the way, I did finally manage to collect mum’s ashes. I brought them home on the bus, mainly because the bus was there, stopped right outside the funeral directors – but also because it saved me having to talk to a cab driver. ‘What have you got there?’ ‘Oh, just my mother’s ashes!’ I apologised to her for not carrying her home along the sea front like I did with dad, but I did put her on the bus seat beside me so she could look out of the window (!?!). When I got back here, I said: well, you’re home, as you wished to be. And it’s not as upsetting to have them here as I feared it would be. So I no longer feel under pressure to find a suitable place to scatter them as soon as possible. I am happy to take time to find the right place.

Some photos I found:

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1953 Coronation Day Party. I’m the little girl at the side with her drink of juice!

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At Bracklesham Bay which isn’t that far along the coast from where I am now, but the charming farm and duck pond are long gone.

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I realise how much I’ve given up!

I don’t mean to be self-pitying, I do try to be positive. But recently on a brief trip to London I happened to take a bus ride through an area I hadn’t been to in ages. In fact, I haven’t been there since I moved down here. It was a lovely sunny spring day and everything looked fresh. We passed a nice old traditional pub that had recently been given a smart coat of paint. It looked particularly appealing next to the bright spring green leaves of the trees in an adjoining inner-city square. I read the name of the pub and did a double take. The Calthorpe Arms! It was a place I’d known well. Upstairs, once a month, it hosts a Cuban film night that I used to go to. I went not only because of my fond memories of a holiday in Cuba but also because at that point I was learning Spanish. I hadn’t recognised the pub because I used to approach it from the opposite direction, plus the meetings were in the evening so I usually came here in the dark.

If I had realised where I was, perhaps I would have unconsciously prepared myself. But with the unexpected shock of recognition, I was overwhelmed by a visceral sense of what I’d given up. I used to have A Life, I used to do Interesting Things, meet Interesting People – and I’d abandoned it all. Of course, I only did that because I was at my wits’ end. 5 years ago, it had become impossible to juggle mum’s needs and my own life. I often had to drop everything and just get on the next train down here – or, once here, I ended up staying for much longer than expected. When I did get back home, my life had been so disrupted, I’d be so tired and so behind with things, that it would take days to get myself straight again. And then… the same thing would happen again. My brother was still working full-time so it all fell onto my shoulders.

In the end, I couldn’t see any alternative: I had to move down here full-time. Of course, I never dreamt that, 5 years later, mum would still be alive. And, I have to admit, I didn’t realise just how full-on it was going to be. I had plans to write a novel, to do all kinds of things, but as soon as I arrived mum gave up doing anything. She expected me to do it all – just like my father had. She tired him out and I said, well she won’t tire me out because I’m still relatively young – but in fact, she did exhaust me. And I’ve developed my own health problems – not something I foresaw! Plus, I’m not getting any younger myself. I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll ever be able to do any of the things I’d hoped to do ‘in the future’.

Even though I no longer have to look after mum 24/7, I still have to plan my week around visiting her. I had to go in over the long Easter holiday and I had to walk back – as buses are scarce on Sundays and public holidays. But I can’t not go and see her just because it’s inconvenient, especially not now she seems to be fading. By the time I got home, my hips had begun to ache. Even though my walking is improving, I must still be careful if I want to recover – ( and I need to recover: not being able to walk any distance is driving me crazy!) When I’m not visiting mum, I can’t relax. I’m faced with the task of cleaning and sorting and de-cluttering the house which is no small task. Then there’s the garden. I’ve asked my brother for more help but so far none has been forthcoming.

Brother did ask me what my plans were. I said, I can’t have any plans because I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. The only way I can cope is to not think about this sort of stuff, not think about the future. I try to just get up and get through each day. I try to be mindful, to be in the moment. On the whole, I’m successful but, passing that pub made my tightly controlled equilibrium slip and has triggered a sense of despair. It brought me face-to-face with the truth that I’m here living this straightened existence without any of the things I care about: museums, galleries, films, intellectual discourse with like-minded people. I go out one evening a month when a woman I met, who does seem nice, offers me a lift to the Local History Society. And I go because I am making an attempt to be positive about a place where I feel like a fish out of water but where I’ve been living unhappily for nearly 5 years. Well, it’s by the sea. I suppose that’s something.

Anyway, I am getting my equilibrium back – slowly. There’s no alternative after all.

 

Mum lives two realities at once.

First of all, thanks for all the helpful advice re the dilemma I had a few weeks ago over dad’s love letters. In the end, I did tell mum I’d found them. She seemed to be having a good day and was quite like her old self so I told her I’d been sorting things out and had come across a box of letters from dad.

Immediately, her face lit up. ‘I kept them!’ she said, so she knew exactly what I meant. I asked if she’d like to have them with her and she said she would. But when I took them in, she wasn’t having a good day. When I showed them to her, she didn’t know what they were. She didn’t recognise the box and the letters didn’t seem to have any resonance for her at all, even when I pointed out her old address and the war-time postage stamps.  When I showed her my baby photo she asked, ‘Who’s that? It looks familiar.’

Luckily, I found her lack of recognition amusing. I have after all changed quite a bit over the years.

It seems the only babies mum cares about these days are my brother’s children. Ever since her first fall she’s been living in a time warp of nearly 35 years ago at a time when brother’s first wife tragically died and, for a while, his young, motherless children were cared for by their grandparents. And so Mum asks continually if the children are ok? They’re upstairs, she says, but they haven’t made any noise. I did ask if ‘the children’ were me and my brother, but no, it seems she does mean her grandchildren.

It’s obvious she’s returned to an event which must have been deeply concerning for her. So, I reassure her that the children are fine. They are in their own home. Then I add: they are grown-up now with children of their own. In fact, the babies who come to see you are not my brother’s children but his grandchildren!

Last week, my niece turned 40. I got mum to sign her birthday card. Mum shook her head in wonderment. ‘40! Granddaughter is 40!’ Then she said, ‘The mind is a strange thing. It’s like I am living two different times at the same time and they get muddled up and meld together.’

I found this an incredibly lucid comment. And a possible window into what it’s like to have dementia.

I told her: you’re like someone time-travelling with Dr Who in the Tardis. Sometimes being in the present while simultaneously, being in the past. As she’s a fan of Dr Who, this made her smile.

These days, as I live alone and am somewhat isolated, I often think about the past even if it’s simply on the level of: how on earth did I get myself into this situation? And I’ve found certain memories isolate themselves and continually reoccur – apparently, they’re still very much alive in my subconscious. However, I do know that they are memories. Similarly, when I see a photo taken 40 years ago, I know it’s a photo of me yet at the same time, it’s a photo of someone who’s not me anymore.

For mum, it’s not simply that she’s lost her short-term memory. Her memories, especially ones that are particularly meaningful, seem to have pushed themselves into the centre of her reality and are replaying themselves as if they are happening now. And she can’t separate the past from the present.

But it was interesting she could grasp the concept of a dual universe; of the fact that she’s living in concurrent realities. But of course, the next time the subject comes up she’ll have forgotten all about our conversation and will ask me once again whether I’ve seen my father or if the children are all right?

 

I find Dad’s love letters

When I saw mum in the hospital and she looked like she was at death’s door, a lot of thoughts flashed through my mind. As, amazingly, she now seems to be on the road to recovery, I’ve been unpicking those thoughts. The first one was: She can’t die yet! I haven’t cleared out the house. It’s too untidy for me to invite people for a funeral!

When I moved down here, my stuff was stored in the garage. When mum moved into the Care Home, I moved my things out of the garage but I couldn’t put them away. To do that, I needed to make space, which meant clearing out mum’s drawers and cupboards. But I didn’t feel I could do that while there was any possibility she might return to live in the house. And of course, I had my surgery, developed the problems with walking etc etc so I didn’t have the energy, the physical strength – or the sense of psychological permission to get on with clearing out the place.

However, things have changed and one of my new year resolutions was to make a start on this task of de-clutterng. I began with mum’s bedside cabinet. The top drawer was full of documents: some from banks, some from hospitals, some possibly important, some probably not. Some went into a pending pile, some in the bin. The second drawer was full of scarves – most of which will go to the charity shop. The lower drawer had a load of old nail varnish (in the bin), old hair rollers (in the bin), some quite nice hair slides which I don’t remember mum ever using but which I might use (in the pile that will be kept) and then, right at the very back of the bottom drawer: a mysterious box, quite old but with a rather nice design on the lid.

I peeked inside: it was full of old letters. I needed my reading glasses before I could explore further so I put them to one side. When I did sit down with them, I saw the envelopes were addressed to my mum in her family name, that is to say – before she was married. My heart skipped a beat. Mum had a fiancé who was lost in the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Had she kept his letters secretly all these years? I opened the first one and saw it had been sent from an army camp in Yorkshire. My dad had been stationed in an army camp in Yorkshire. Indeed, he had proposed to mum while they were walking round the roman walls that encircle York. I relaxed. The letters were from Dad.

I skim read a couple, not really wanting to pry and yet curious. I was a little surprised because Dad always said he wasn’t much good at writing. I wondered whether he had asked someone else to write these letters but they seemed too personal, very passionate declarations of love so I thought it unlikely he’d dictated them to someone else. I also realised I’d never really heard his voice. Dad never talked a lot, was a self-professed ‘man of few words’. When I was younger, he and I never really communicated. We tended to have rows about politics – or other things he didn’t agree with concerning the way I was leading my life. It was only in later years we really had anything that could pass as a conversation. I’d certainly never heard him speak like this: fluently, ardently. I looked deeper in the pile. Here the letters were now addressed to my mother as a married woman: his darling wife.

They got married just before the Normandy Landings in 1944. Dad was part of the D-Day force; he had made his way through France, across the bridge at Arnhem and into Belgium. There were no letters from his billet in Brussels – when he stayed with a family with whom we kept in touch with for many years. In fact, I had dinner with them on a visit to Belgium in 1969. And they had told me, my Dad never went out, he only wanted to write letters to his beloved wife. The last letter in the box is from an army camp in England saying he was about to be de-mobbed. That he would be coming home and that this was the last time they would ever be separated.

I got an insight into their relationship. I’ve always known their marriage was a love match but I wasn’t quite prepared for my dad’s ardent outpourings (all very chaste and romantic I’m pleased to add, so I didn’t feel I’d uncovered anything too embarrassing).

But one thing does make me feel uncomfortable: apart from the letters, there was one other thing in the box – a photo of me as a baby. I was the outcome of this outpouring of love! That does feel weird, although I haven’t yet worked out why.

I obviously can’t throw these letters away but how would mum react if I took them to show her? Would she be pleased to see them or cross that I had found them? I haven’t yet made up my mind about that.

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The letters

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Mum and dad on their wedding day.

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Me in my pram!