I miss my parents

I haven’t written a blog for a long time, and I think that’s a positive thing. I started it when I was isolated and struggling as my mother’s full-time carer. After mum’s death, I continued to write it as a way to understand my unexpectedly intense grief.

But things are changing. I’ve started doing things I wasn’t able to do before, not just physically because I was post-surgery or had broken my arm, but emotionally. And a few weeks ago I started the major task of emptying and cleaning the kitchen. This was mum’s domain and even though it’s several years since she actually cooked anything, it still felt like the things in it were part of her, just as dad’s tools in the garage are part of him.

One morning, though, I woke up and found I had the energy to begin clearing out the kitchen cupboards. I had to decide what I wanted to keep, at least in the short term, and what in all honesty I shall never use, which is quite a lot. I told myself: what came out can’t go back in unless you’re going to keep it. So, I’ve been ferrying stuff out to the back room, where it’s all piled up waiting to be packed up prior to being given away or taken away or whatever when the current Covid restrictions are lifted. At one point, I had so much piled up in the hall that I couldn’t get out of the front door, but even though the place was a mess, it was a mess because I was in the process of getting rid of stuff.

The kitchen is the last room in the house to be emptied of my parents’ possessions, though of course there are some things that I will be keeping. There’s still plenty to do, and I shall certainly need to have a further cull, but for now, everything that’s still here is here by my choice. There remains the furniture to sort out. But I can only go one step at a time. However, I’ve realised, it wasn’t just the weight of old baggage in the literal sense that was weighing me down. With all the lifting and moving, the stagnant air is shifting and so finally is my stagnant emotional state.

I said before, I’m beginning to see my parents as the individuals they were, without all the resentment and hurt, cross words and misunderstandings that built up between us. Things had improved the last few years, but the habits of behaviour were psychologically set. The script had been written, as they say. I see now, I could’ve enjoyed spending time with them but instead I was closed against them. I helped them because I thought that was dutiful. Because I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t. But in my deep heart, I never really forgave them for how they behaved towards me when I was younger. You can unwind the metaphysical barbed wire and brambles that have protected you in the past but inevitably it will have left psychological scars.

It’s like taking off a sticking plaster and finding the wound has stopped bleeding, though it’s not yet fully healed. Or it’s healed to the extent it can be exposed to the air. What I’m coming to realise is that, in spite of everything, I did love them. And now they’re gone it’s too late to express it.

I don’t think I would ever have been able to tell them honestly how I felt but, I keep thinking, if I’d better understood who they were, then I’d have been more understanding of their behaviour. But all the time, I was nursing a seething ball of resentment and anger, caused by very real hurt that they caused me in the past and that I felt I had to defend myself against at all times.

Now I feel less defended. They were only the people they were, after all. They couldn’t be any other way. So now, when I feel I could be more emotionally open, it’s too late. I regret I was unable to reach this place while they were still alive. It’s sad and it’s also bitter sweet. Because paradoxically, if I hadn’t been stuck here in their old house during the Covid lockdown I would probably never have gone so deep into my feelings; would never have unpicked those old habits of thought. I’d never have been able to admit to myself that I did really love them, I would’ve liked to have made things all right between us and I do miss them.

I think about guilt and regret

I’ve been thinking about the difference between guilt and regret. I just read a book on grief in which the author, a psychotherapist, speaks of a client who’s just lost a beloved parent. The author says she and her client cried together for all the daughters who did their best – and it wasn’t good enough. To some extent, that’s inevitable. When people are very old, they’re going to die and you can’t change that. But it’s hard not to wonder whether you could have done better during the time before they died.

Last year I spent several months walking round a pile of shoe boxes full of old black and white photos that were piled up by the coffee table in the living room. They still are, as a matter of fact. Since New Year, I’ve begun to sort them out. I’ve got as far as sorting the snaps into mum’s family, dad’s family, our nuclear family and unknowns. Now, I’ve started to fix the photos in some old-style photo albums that probably belonged originally to my aunts. I’ve done Mum when she was young; Dad when he was young; Mum and Dad when they were newly courting or newly wed.

In certain cultures, people don’t like having their photo taken: they say it steals their soul, and on some level, I can see why they believe that because photographs do seem to still retain some substance of the person. That’s why it’s so hard to throw them away, even when I don’t know who the people are.

I look at photos of me as a little girl. It’s not me as I am now but in some sense, it is me. Clearly, I’m grown up, I no longer look like that, but internally there’s part of me that’s still that same little kid.

In their early photos, both my parents look so young and so hopeful. And presumably, inside, they never stopped being those people. I feel sad that I never knew those internal aspects of my parents. They must have been there but, for whatever reason, were covered up.

I look back to the time near the end of their lives when I spent more time with them than I had since childhood. I don’t think, practically, I could have done more than I did to help them, but perhaps I could have been more understanding, even kinder. I could’ve tried to meet and get to know those internal people. Thinking about it, I see there were clues. I saw flashes of mum as a young, adventurous girl; dad as a charmer, a bit of a lad.

Most people have to compromise, have to come to terms with the fact that life Isn’t going to turn out how they’d hoped it would. Perhaps they become bitter and battered, or feel to some extent short-changed by life. If I’d understood when I was growing up, that many of my parents’ actions stemmed from that original hope which had perhaps turned to disappointment or resentment, wouldn’t that have made a difference?  Mum said to me once: your father was very proud of you, you do know that don’t you? And I had to tell her, no I didn’t know. He never showed it. Had I known, that would have made a huge difference to me. His inability to express that pride, for whatever reason, is something lost that can never be replaced.

So, I think it’s not so much guilt that I feel but regret that things could’ve been different in the past but they weren’t. Because, in the end, they both made choices to behave as they did. I suppose that’s also true.

As far as the more recent past goes, being stuck here during Lockdown has given me an insight into much of Mum’s behaviour. I’ve understood more about the ploys she used to keep herself going. But I didn’t understand that they were ploys. I thought they were a denial of real life. Now I see that the way she spent the day looking forward to watching a TV programme that evening was her way of coping with a life that was becoming increasingly constricted and limited.

There’s other stuff, about which, in retrospect, I could’ve been more empathetic. It wouldn’t have made any difference in the long run but I would’ve better understood Mum’s behaviour and not got so irritated or perhaps been able to facilitate stuff. I feel bad thinking of how she must’ve felt having to move into the Care Home but I really couldn’t have carried on as her f/t carer. I wish things could’ve been different but, they weren’t. However, I don’t need to feel guilty about that. I can only regret that it was the case. It’s a sorrowful feeling, yes. But it’s a feeling from which you can move on. You can only do what you can do, after all.

And finally, XinNian KuaiLe to everyone. Hope the Chinese Year of the Ox will be an auspicious year for us all!

I think about 2020

At the beginning of last year, I had just fallen into the abyss. I was feeling my way through the darkness of unexpected grief, plus dealing with the physical pain and incapacity of having a badly broken upper arm. So, I was already in a sort of lockdown before the Covid nightmare arrived.

But I’ve been lucky this year compared to many. One thing I’ve been thankful for is that I didn’t have to worry about mum. Imagine if she’d been stuck in a Care Home with no visitors allowed. In many places the old people were forced to remain alone in their rooms, which would’ve driven mum crazy. Also visitors were banned; all people could do was wave at each other through a window. Mum would have understood the principle, but forgotten it again soon after and wondered why no one had come to see her.

So many people died without their loved ones being able to comfort them, to hold their hands or say goodbye. I know from my cousin’s experience, how heart rending that was for her – and for so many others. And how it added another layer of distress to what was already a shocking and unexpected death. There were limits on how many people could attend a funeral – as well as how many people could attend what should’ve been more joyful rites of passage such as weddings and major birthdays. Which is why it made so little sense to relax our vigilance for Xmas – the repercussions of which we in the UK are now having to face as yet another lock-down begins.

So many lives were touched by tragedy – which is why I can’t understand those people who deny the existence of the virus! Are they so lucky – or so cut-off – that they don’t know anyone who’s died? or know just how sick Covid can make you? and how badly it can affect some people’s health long after they’ve ‘recovered’?

2020 brought out the best and the worst in people. Some people have thought about others, have tried to build a sense of community. Neighbours offered to help me with shopping and deliveries; friends and family phoned and emailed. However, there were others who obviously didn’t give a toss about anyone else. And you can’t categorise who they are. I’ve seen old people refusing to wear masks on the bus, indulging in risky and selfish behaviour. And young people being thoughtful and considerate.

Like many, I really missed personal contact with friends and family. I recently had a Zoom call with a pal in Australia and realised he was the first person I’d spoken to in months who was outside my normal circle. I think of myself as an introverted book-worm but the truth is, I’ve always thrived on conversation and the exchange of ideas. I love telling funny stories, discussing politic, personal concerns – and books, of course! This year, I’ve had to rely on telephone calls, emails – and walks with the handful of like-minded people I know around here. But I do have the sea, only 15 minutes walk away and a great solace for the soul!

This is the longest I’ve stayed in one place for years. So, as well as missing my friends, I’ve missed travelling about. I’ve missed visits to museums and galleries, theatres, cinemas and restaurants. But, what I did instead? I cooked and gardened. I studied Italian, did a couple of MOOCs, watched some streamed theatre. And rediscovered the joys of creative writing. Not with the idea of publishing anything – but because it does transport me to another world.

Being a full-time carer didn’t leave me any time or energy to be creative. After that, I was recovering from the surgery and then dealing with mum’s death – not to mention breaking my arm at the end of 2019! All this took up all my mental and physical energy. Being isolated and locked-down has turned out to be a way for me to reconnect with my creative impulse – which I would say is a good thing.

So, although it hasn’t been easy, this year has given me a lot of space to recover, to mull over things. I’m very aware that not everyone has had that luxury. I don’t have to try to work from home while doing childcare. I have a garden. But being forced to stay in one place without my normal displacement activities has allowed a lot of stuff to come to the surface. In fact, I can see the barren abyss where I found myself at the beginning of 2020, is changing. Green shoots have started to appear from where they were buried under the ground.

My dad’s family, some people might call them Cockneys, always speak of ‘Old Year’s Night’ rather than ‘New Year’s Eve’. And that’s how I felt this year. I told my cousin I was going to sit up to midnight not to see 2021 IN, but to see 2020 OUT! Make sure it’s really gone. And when I thought: 2021 has got to be better than 2020, I knew I was echoing the thoughts of everyone else in the whole wide world! I’m looking forward to having the vaccine, to being able to see my dear friends and family, to be able to travel – or at least, to be able to make plans to travel – or just to sit in a café and have a cup of coffee!

Mind you, I haven’t even started to consider what’s going to happen with Bloody Brexit! But in the meantime, best wishes to everyone for good health and abundance in 2021!

Mum would have turned 100

Last Tuesday would have been mum’s 100th birthday. I won’t pretend that it didn’t make me feel a little sad. Then Facebook sent me one of their memory photos which happened to be mum with great-granddaughter five years ago. Such a sweet photo, in the end I decide to ‘share’ it. Then F/B started sending other ‘memories’ and there was mum, smiling, looking very pleased with herself on other birthdays. She was thrilled she was going to be on the Internet, and thrilled she got so many ‘likes’! She always was a performer and liked to think of herself as a bit of a star.

Saturday would’ve been dad’s 101st birthday. He died nearly 10 years ago: actually, it was the weekend of mum’s 90th birthday when he collapsed and got taken into hospital. After that, it was a rapid downhill ride. In a way, it was good things moved so fast because he was incredibly unhappy and hated what was happening to him. He was also a handful, and not easy to care for. As mum had mobility problems at that time, it was down to me to deal with everything. I was living in London then. I didn’t know this area. I had no contacts down here, didn’t even know how to get to the hospital. Plus, the situation was hard for me to deal with psychologically.

My parents had always been a very solid unit. They were always wrapped up in themselves: us kids came second. So, it was a bit of a shock when, having been treated for years as if I wasn’t really competent at much (mainly because my working-class parents never really grasped the sort of stuff their educated daughter was good at) I was suddenly expected to take control and ‘sort everything out’. Except what was going on with dad was, at that point, quite out of the range of my experience. Since then, I’ve learnt quite a lot about aging, about dementia, about accessing social care and all the other stuff one needs to know.

Anyway, that was then, this is now. And the situation being as it is, I am actually relieved that mum is not here to celebrate her centenary – because we couldn’t have celebrated it with her. We couldn’t have gone into the Care Home, we couldn’t have given her a hug or even just held her hand. I have no doubt that the Care Home staff would’ve done their best to give her a party – but she wouldn’t have understood why we weren’t there. Or she would have understood and then forgot. She always complained I never visited her, even when I visited her regularly.

I can hear her now: I’ve been Abandoned! Abandoned! (as I said, she always was a bit of a drama queen). And although, as far as I know, the Care Home has remained free of the virus, I would’ve been worrying about her – when I needed to worry about myself.

It’s funny. I can distinctly remember walking along the seafront less than two years ago, feeling very cast down. Not wanting to live here any longer but knowing I couldn’t leave while mum was still alive. I told myself, face it, she could live another couple of years, she could easily live to be a hundred so, I asked myself, what am I going to do to make myself feel I’m not completely wasting my life? I’d started looking at on-line academic courses that I could study, so I could feel I’d gained something. Then, mum surprised us all by dying quite suddenly and peacefully.

But of course, I’m still living here – and likely to be here for the foreseeable future! And I’m still looking for projects that will make me feel I’m not completely wasting my time. But who could have foreseen that this global pandemic was coming? Well, ok, apparently it had been predicted by those that know about these things but still, it’s hard to take in just how much day-to-day life has changed; it’s quite surreal really what we’re coming to accept as normal.

The news about the vaccine does seem genuinely hopeful. And if that’s so, life will soon enter a new and as yet unknown phase. I hope that, when it does, I shall be able to leave my parents behind. I said in my last post that I’ve been analysing my relationship with my mother in a way I might not have done, had I not been stuck here alone surrounded by the life of my parents. I hope that eventually, I’ll be able to differentiate between the positive and negative emotional baggage I inherited. And leave the negative stuff behind.

I have unfinished business.

I recently read a review of a book about a mother and daughter. The mother has dementia. In the review it says there’s no longer any chance for them to come to an understanding: the mother’s failed memory has erased their shared history. But the daughter is still living it; still having to process what went on between them. I thought this was a very insightful description of what happens when you lose a parent – or anyone else you’ve been closely linked to.

I did have some practice with this. Mum was very good at erasing uncomfortable memories when she was alive. I’d bring up issues that had affected me and she would deny they’d ever happened. Well, ok, I accept that, as far as she was concerned these events might have been minor incidents that she honestly didn’t remember – but the fact remains they were important for me so I recall them in great detail. Mum would never acknowledge the effect they’d had on me. This removed the possibility for us to discuss what had happened; or for me be able to ask for an explanation – let alone, heaven forbid, get an apology. So, even when she was still alive, I’d be left with the issues unresolved. And this is even more true, after death.

Even if travel were possible during this global crisis for the first time in my life, I’m not in the mood to go far. There’s too much risk of cancellations, quarantines, lockdowns etc etc. I can’t complain. I know many other people are in a worse situation. But the reality is that I’m living on my own in my parents’ house. So, inevitably, my mind goes back, begins to retrace steps. The events of childhood lay the foundation for our adult persona. And, at the moment, I feel like I spent a lot of my time and energy reacting against my mother.

I’m beginning to see how the dynamic that underpinned our relationship continues to be played out in my psyche. Except I’ve got no one to play it out against. I suppose, if I wasn’t so isolated, I’d have other things to occupy my mind – it could also mean I’d be following the same ‘scripts’ but be projecting them onto other people. Stuck here on my own, I’m like a wrestler who’s spent their whole life practising moves against an opponent and now, suddenly, find myself without an antagonist. I’m at a loose end. In a limbo. And that means, I’ve been forced to look into the mirror.

Now mum’s gone, there’s no one to play the role that triggers my life script (to use that bit of jargon once more). I’m like an astronaut floating off into space, cast off from the mother ship, the umbilical cord of the oxygen mask cut, finally. Now I’ve got no one left I can rail against, I’m starting to see things from a different perspective. Why I did or said so-and-so – or why I didn’t do or say it.

Whatever my mother’s motives, whatever her character faults, I have to live with the consequences of having reacted to them – or against them. The Jungians speak of massaging our wounds: that is, no matter how negative a learned pattern of behaviour might be, it induces in us a state of comfort, of familiarity and safety. That comfortable, emotional maternal wound, even if negative and dysfunctional was massaged when mum and me were having our familiar battle of wills. But now that wound is raw, dismembered.

They say people still feel pain in a limb that’s been amputated. In a way that describes grief, because the imprinted patterns of behaviour still exist but there’s no partner – or opponent – left. All that’s left is this ghost pain and the increasingly sneaky suspicion that it may have been the grounding for much of my past behaviour. Of course, I’m not sure of that yet. Things are still very inconclusive. But I really don’t want to settle back into former patterns of behaviour.

I want to try and repair the damage. To see what will emerge. This may not be pleasant. I shall have to acknowledge some home truths. But hopefully something positive will come out of it.

I am overwhelmed by stories.

I couldn’t work out why it’s taking me so long to sort through everything in this small house. Then I realised: I’m overwhelmed by stories. A few years ago, I went to visit the sister of one of my friends after their mother had died. The sister was still living in their family home and she said: everything here has its own story. I got the impression this was a positive thing for her, that it made her feel grounded, anchored in the house.

It’s true, that’s how I feel when I look at my own possessions. I remember when I bought that jug or read that book. Or how I discovered that treasure in a charity shop. I enjoy the fact these objects have a resonance – a sort of animism that gives them an added dimension. But, at the moment, my task is to clear out the things that belonged to my parents. And this is hard because I’m about to throw out things that I know meant a lot to them.

For instance: my mother was very proud that she went by herself to see the exhibition of the Chinese terracotta army which was held in London during the 1980s. I know she thought the warriors were marvellous. So, when I found a set of postcards from this exhibition, I knew they would’ve had special significance for mum. And so, although they aren’t particularly special postcards, I simply can’t throw them away.

For a time, mum studied Spanish. She actually gained an O level – for which she was justifiably proud. In the loft, my brother found all her grammar books and her old good quality Langenscheidt dictionary. When I thought I’d be going to Spain in March (before Covid 19 changed our lives) I used her books to revise my own Spanish. Now I can’t let them go!

And there are other books. Her school prizes, battered, not worth anything. I doubt if even a charity would take them. But her name is inscribed inside. There’s the Pitman’s Shorthand Dictionary from 1935. She earned her living as a shorthand-typist, so this must have been important to her – and she did keep it all her life, after all. Then there’s a miniature, leather-bound hymnal and prayer book. A woman who employed my grandmother as a cook, gave this to mum and told her that Queen Victoria had exactly the same tiny artifacts. Mum mentioned this often, and they were obviously some of her most prized possessions during her childhood. We thought they had been lost, but they had been up in the loft. I don’t care whether or not Queen Victoria had a similar set – but how can I throw out something that mum truly prized?

And then there’s all the kitchenware. I use the kitchen and will probably keep some of it, but I don’t need all of it. Mum was proud of her cooking: if I throw out her plates, her pots and pans it seems like I’d be throwing her out as well. And this is not to even begin to mention my dad’s tools. They really were his most prized possessions. They might even be worth some small amount of money. But the money I’d get wouldn’t really compensate for the sense of loss I’d feel if I sold them.

None of it is really worth anything; its only value is sentimental. So how can I keep it all? Where can I keep it? And yet – how can I throw it all away? Maybe my brother has the right approach: don’t think twice, just go through it all like a whirlwind, then take it to the tip or a charity shop.

For me, it’s not so simple. Because these stories aren’t bad things; they are good things. But on a practical level, I really can’t physically keep all of it. Unlike my friend’s sister, this house is not my home. I may have lived here for nearly 6 years but it is, and has always been, a way-station, where I find myself out of necessity and from where I plan to move on, when I can. So, I don’t want to be weighed down by ‘stuff’.  But my parents’ possessions don’t feel like they’re just ‘stuff’. Getting rid of it makes me feel like I’m having to bury my parents all over again.

 

I think about mother love

After my last post, I made several attempts to write about how I am finally moving on from mum’s death but, after a couple of paragraphs, I’d lose interest and abandon them. So, I came to the conclusion that I needed to think a bit more about what I’d written last time. That I had lost something I’d been looking for – at the very moment that I found it.

For years, I’d heard people speaking of how fond they were of their mothers and I didn’t know what they were talking about. But actually, I realised I’d been looking for that feeling all my life and secretly wondering how it would be to feel it.

As I’ve already said, I was surprised at how upset I was after mum died. Since then, I’ve come to think that part of me would always be the little girl who was never loved enough; who was never quite good enough – because she exhibited a mind of her own rather than being a clone of her mother! Now I can see that I was loved. But the sad truth is that I never felt loved. I never believed I was loved, perhaps I couldn’t allow myself to be loved. Because my mother couldn’t be trusted. You never really knew where you were with her. That’s to say, her love, which I now think was genuine, was not unconditional.

As an adult, it was something I’d learnt to live with. But, as a child, it must have been very confusing. If you didn’t conform to what was required, you’d be ‘out’. If you did conform, of course, you’d be ‘in’. But this meant I became very wary. Even when I was ‘in’, I was perpetually expecting a trick – a risk of being ‘out’.

What saved me was my mother’s sisters, my aunties, who did adore me unconditionally! And of course, I adored them all back. I remember a conversation I had with them. At the time, I was in my 30s so felt I could speak to them as an equal adult. I said, ‘mum is always so rude to me!’ They burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry, she speaks to everyone like that!’ And now I remember one of my aunts speaking to my mother, telling her off. ‘You’re nice to little children. You should be nicer to adults!’

Recently, my government, in a bizarre turn of phrase said it would ‘put its arms around us’ to help with the post-Covid economy. They’ve also used that phrase viz a viz Care Homes – (and we know just how well their policies protected Care-Home residents.) Anyway, hearing this phrase produced a sudden, fierce reaction from me: ‘Don’t put your arms around me, you horrible, dishonest, lying government! I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you – which is no distance at all.’ But I wonder whether my intense reaction to what is, after all, just another meaningless soundbite from a shambolic government, was triggered by some kind of emotional memory from my childhood: a resistance to accept protection from untrustworthy sources. Because I could never rely on my mother for emotional support. When she did try to be loving and affectionate, I would shy away like a startled wild creature. I didn’t feel protected, I felt trapped and suffocated and captured.

People who met my mother – school friends and such like – usually liked her. They all said how nice mum was and I would think, yeah, you don’t know her. So that has been one of the positive things to come out of the last few years. I did finally meet that funny, charming, witty side of her personality that she had shown to other people – but never really to us. Well, I suppose that’s how she appeared to dad, because they were very happily married for many years. The ardent love letters I found from the war years seem to confirm that, although I do remember once, I’d done something, I can’t remember what it was now, and dad said to me, in a pleading tone: don’t be like your mother! This small chink in the armour of their relationship was – and remains – very precious to me, because I was always a daddy’s girl at heart but never got much of a chance to indulge that until the last years of dad’s life.

The truth is mum was incredibly self-centred. She really wasn’t much of an empath. She did say occasionally that she appreciated me coming here to look after her, but I was always taken aback whenever she did say that, because I saw very few signs of it on a day to day level.

Yesterday was the anniversary of mum’s funeral. We did well, that day. Mum would have been pleased with it. I was pleased with it. Finding the words for the eulogy wasn’t easy although I did all right in the end (see the post). And I suppose I’ll emerge from my current muddled emotional state – in the end. One of mum’s catch phrases was ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. And I guess it will be. But first, I just have to get through this puzzling time.

 

Mum died a year ago.

It’s the anniversary of mum’s death and for the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened when she died. At the time, I wasn’t able to process the experience of her death on an emotional level. There was so much to do; so many decisions to make, so many people to inform. And that had certain advantages. If I hadn’t had to complete all the practical tasks, perhaps I would have just curled up into a ball, and sank into a slough of despond. I mean, that’s what I wanted to do. As I’ve written before, I was truly taken aback by how distressed I was when she passed.

Although I never wished her dead, I had wondered how long it would be before I’d be free to move on with my life. But when she did die, psychologically, I fell into a sort of abyss where I’ve been wandering for the last twelve months.

It was around 7.30 in the morning, when they rang to tell me she had passed in the night. I was already up and about because I was expecting a heating engineer who could come anytime between 8am and 1pm. Trying to cancel his visit via an automated response line which could not understand my increasingly distressed attempts to leave a message and cancel the visit was a horrible experience. Then I rang my brother. I had been trying to get him to come for the last three days and he’d finally said he would come that day. So, sadly, he was too late to say goodbye. And then, because I knew I’d never get a cab at that time in the morning, I quickly left the house and ran for the early bus. Within the hour, I was at the Care Home.

Several times in the past Mum had appeared to be at death’s door and then bounced back so, although we knew she was at the end of her life, we didn’t expect she would go quite so quickly. So, I was prepared, and yet I wasn’t completely prepared. Although I knew it would happen, I didn’t really believe it would actually happen so soon. They showed me into her room, and she looked like she was asleep. They had dressed her in a nice cardigan. They had given her flowers to hold, and tucked her toy rabbit in her arms. They closed the door and left me alone with mum.

And this is the moment that I return to, that to some extent holds me captive. Because it was a moment of great purity. A moment of essential being. An emotional touchstone. The hustle and bustle that follows a death hadn’t begun. My own attempts to process what had happened – and which inevitably distanced me from the raw experience of the event – hadn’t begun. It was just me sitting beside my dead mother. Like a pieta, but in reverse.

A pristine moment, suspended, archetypal. Beyond personality, or individuality, or language. A very beautiful moment, actually. I’d seen my dad in the funeral parlour. I was glad I’d gone to say goodbye but he had looked more like a waxwork version of my dad, than my real dad. But in that moment, mum was still mum: she was still warm; she looked at peace. As I say, she genuinely could have been asleep. And yet, she wasn’t asleep, she was dead.

I once saw a heart-rending film of a gorilla whose baby had died. For several days, the mother would not let her baby go. She kept hugging and hugging the corpse. She could not accept that the infant was dead. Society does not allow us that fiction. We can’t just pretend death has not occurred and yet, there is a desire to suspend belief. One minute they were here; next minute they are not. I suppose that’s the point of funereal rites, to help us come to terms with that ontological rift, that sundering of the link that bound us. Can we say that a gorilla loves their baby? I never really said I loved my mother. There was so much history. She had never given me what I would call unconditional love. And yet, there was some sort of a bond there. It’s what brought me down here to care for her.

As I sat with her, in her purple cardigan with her flowers and her rabbit and her peaceful energy – because her spirit or soul, what ever you want to call it, her restless energy – had departed and so she did appear to be at peace, I was able, finally, to feel that bond between us, without resentment or qualifications. Yet it was at that very moment  that the bond was broken – and could never be restored.

mum&alana

 

 

I did not celebrate VE day

Last week was the 75th Anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, although not of course in South-East Asia. France has always marked May 8th as a public holiday, but not the UK. This year, however, that changed. Much was made of the fact that we had overcome great odds to win the war and would, presumably, overcome similar odds to defeat Coronavirus.

Fighting a virus is not the equivalent of fighting enemy armed forces so I didn’t think you could compare the two things. Besides which, at that point, we had been in lock down for 7 weeks. The war went on for 6 years. I could see the government wanted to whip up a sense of national fervour, but it’s hard to feel triumphal when so many people are dying – and so many of them seem to have died unnecessarily. Since the lock down, I have lost two family members – one to Covid; one, probably, to old age – but he was in a Care Home and many thousands of people – of that very generation we were meant to be applauding – have died in Care Homes during the pandemic. There’s a strong likelihood that this was linked to a lack of appropriate protective equipment and protocols for care staff to follow. Some elderly people with Covid were even sent back from hospitals to their Care Homes.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, I felt relieved I didn’t have to worry about mum. Shortly before she died her Care Home had a bout of Norovirus – inadvertently brought in by a visitor or care worker. It was obvious to me, as they are places where lots of older, vulnerable people live, and where workers come in from the community, that these homes were going to be potential danger zones. And this is not to mention the people who are being cared for in their own home by carers who go from house to house on short visits. The ones who used to come in to visit mum always wore plastic aprons and gloves (although not masks). And when the pandemic started many carers and medical workers were unable to source any further protective equipment than that basic kit.

Add to this the fact that, when they could source this equipment, the Homes found that its cost had sky-rocketed. It seems that those who had some, wanted to profit by its scarcity. The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that most Care Homes and Care Agencies are privately run: some it’s true are owned by big companies, but many, like the one where mum lived, are just small family-run businesses with narrow profit margins.

Apparently, the government was surprised by the number of deaths in Care Homes. They claimed they hadn’t realised this would happen. Do they think we were all born yesterday? It was as clear as daylight it would happen. But, in spite of the tragic number of deaths of older people in our Care Homes, our government started applauding the ‘heroes’ who’d fought in WW2. But they had done nothing to make the heroes they claim to think so highly of, safe. Quite the opposite. What hypocrisy.

That afternoon, I went out for a walk and I noted, in spite of the ban on social gatherings, discreet street parties were taking place in many cul-de-sacs and side roads. Everyone socially distanced of course! And plenty of flags (I admit a bias here: Perhaps I’m being unfair but I’m suspicious of anyone who happens to have Union Jack bunting in the cupboard). Anyway, when I got home my neighbours were all out in the front, having an impromptu get-together. No bunting though, I was relieved to note. They called me over. But I said, thanks but no thanks. I’m not in the mood to party. Apart from recently losing 2 members of my family, this remembrance of the war was bringing back a lot of stuff to do with mum – and with dad – and I was feeling too sad to make small talk.

But I also knew, looking at all their happy faces, that my neighbours just wanted to have a pleasant afternoon and a chat. And because I was feeling so on edge, I also knew it wouldn’t take much for me to express my anger at how people have been treated in the Care Homes and the hypocrisy of the government to grandstand on the memory of the war while apparently culling people who lived through it.

I appreciate what that generation did for us. I was born not long after the war; I remember the bombsites and the shortages. I was brought up on my family’s memories of the blitz and rationing. Not so much the men, who didn’t tend to speak of what they’d been through, tho in retrospect I can see that most of the men must have been suffering from PTSD – and yet they were expected to just get on with everyday life.

That evening, I watched a TV programme of film clips taken on May 8th 1944. There were celebrations, sure, but it seemed to me the exuberance came as much from relief that such a long dreadful time was over as from fun and frolics. And I’m sure that, for many, their joy would have been bittersweet.

So, I did remember them. But I chose not insult their memory with a distasteful and hypocritical show of triumphalism.

20200522_11574920200522_114814War time glamour! Mum with 2 of my aunts.20200521_160152Mum with my grandmother. She’s wearing the jacket she wore on the first date with dad.

We begin to empty the loft

It’s tricky getting up in the loft. First you have to pull down a very heavy folding ladder using a long metal pole with a hooked end. A few years ago, I could release the ladder and just about let it down without it crashing on top of my head. But I’ve never had sufficient strength to push the ladder back until it folds up and clicks into place above the trapdoor in the ceiling. It can’t be left down permanently as it would block the way into the bathroom.

The ladder is very unstable; it rocks and buckles as you climb. Then at the top, you have to haul yourself over the edge and into the loft space. My father loved going up there – until he nearly fell off the ladder – after that he was forbidden to do so. That upset him as much as having his driving licence taken away! But he squirreled away all kinds of things up there. Over the last few years when we can’t find something we know must be in the house, we’ve said: dad must’ve put it in the loft.

Both Brother and I were particularly keen to find a box of old photos: black and white snaps of the sort taken by a Brownie box camera which we remember from our childhood. They were always in a particular box but no one had seen that box in years. We said: ‘Dad must’ve put it in the loft.’ Brother did go up and have a scout around, but without success and we’d begun to say, a little fearfully: ‘perhaps dad threw them all out.’

It will be impossible to put the house on the market before the loft is emptied. And for the last few years Brother has kept saying he’ll come and empty it. Even if the ladder were down, I couldn’t get up there anymore because of my bad shoulder etc. so this is one job my brother actually has to do but, as we know, he likes to take his time. He said he would come last year, but never did come. To be fair, the last thing I wanted at that point was any extra stuff to add to all the rest of the junk I already had in front of me to sort out. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry because although he said he would do it, he didn’t do it. And then, this year in early March, he made a start.

He worked very hard. It’s dangerous carrying stuff down that damn wonky ladder. He brought a lot down and took loads of it to the tip and to charity shops – but he also left quite a lot in piles on the floor to be sorted out – and to get in my way. He was, of course, intending to return a few weeks later – but then came The Lock Down. So here I am with all of it to step over – and to sort out.

However! The great thing is – he found the photos. In a different box, in a suitcase, in all kinds of receptacles. While he was here, we spent a couple of happy evenings going through them. Exclaiming over old favourites! Puzzling over who everyone was! But we didn’t really sort them out. Now Brother can’t come back and I am here, ‘living la vida lock down’ by myself, so I’ve made a start sifting through them all.

I’ve worked out who many of the people are: some are even quite closely related to me; some I didn’t initially recognise because they’re so young – but there are others I really don’t know. Some of the snaps belonged to my mother’s three sisters – my dearly beloved aunts – but I don’t know where they were taken or who they are posing with. Is one of them the Swiss boyfriend of my aunt who never married? I know of him because they were separated by the war and although they met afterwards things ‘just weren’t the same’. Then there’s all dad’s war photos. He’s posing with his fellow guardsmen. Is one of them his best friend whose tank was hit by a shell and dad had to stand by and watch helplessly while the crew were all burnt alive? I’ll never know.

There’s lots of mum with her girlfriends. Is one of them her good mate Primmy? Or the pal whose family were on the stage? Or the one whose brother was gay? It’s such a shame these photos were hidden away. Mum would probably have recognised most of the people but it’s too late to ask her now. I emailed a few of the photos to a relation in Canada because I thought some of them were of her – and indeed of her wedding day and I hoped she’d be able to identify some of the other people there. But she’s in her 80s and, although she sends emails and seems quite computer savvy, she didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. And there’s no one else to ask.

It’s sad to have to consign all these human lives and memories to the rubbish, but what can I do? It’s hard enough to decide what photos to keep of the people I do recognise. How many baby photos of myself do I need, after all? And yet, they’re all so sweet! In fact, I seem to be building, brick by brick, photo by photo, a picture of a happy childhood which – to be honest – I didn’t remember at all.

20200511_121949