My mother, who lives in England, turned 80 on July 4. From Australia, I had organised a 3-day weekend get together in an old farmhouse on Dartmoor for our closest relatives, meaning 13 of us met up to celebrate. I hauled myself over to the UK, begrudging all those people who sleep easily on planes. Still, four good films in a row aren’t bad going.
A couple of weeks before I left, I treated myself to a massage. As usual, I wondered why I don’t do it more often? It was such a lush experience, with hot white towels softly lowered over me, and warm wheat-bags resting along each limb, feeding the air with that fresh bread scent. No tinny dolphin music, just silence. It was in a private home, so no exterior noise, or impatient clients waiting outside the door for us to finish. The masseur created a wonderful sense of nurturing, with her deliberate, knowledgeable movements, and I sank into the experience. I’d had a horrible cough for a few days, so I needed a bit of TLC.
About halfway through, I realised how rare it was for me to feel this: the complete surrender to being taken care of. Even with lovers, there is a sense of reciprocity, which is one dynamic I love about lovers of course. But this soft, vulnerable, needy ‘me’ is a rare sighting; even when I’m sick, I prefer people stay away from me so I can grump my way around the house alone.
So there I was, revelling in the indulgence of fluffy fabric draped across me, noticing how well tended I felt. And you know how sometimes we get memories triggered by a favourite smell or a childhood toy? I was suddenly a little girl again, yearning for that same feeling from my Mum. I gazed up at my tall mama, watching her move about the room, longing for her to stop and bend over me, to stroke my hair out of my eyes, or rub my back. And as strongly as I sought that caring touch or attention, I also knew I wasn’t ever going to get it.
Not then. Not now. Not ever.
Back in the cosy farmhouse on Dartmoor, I settled Mum into the main bedroom, with its solid four-poster bed. She was excited to be seeing everyone, especially my brother. Dinner was underway in the large kitchen, with various kids helping to chop vegetables or make salad, and just for a moment, it felt like we were part of the happy Waltons family from my childhood TV viewing. Mum sat at the table with a glass of rosé, watching all the action, while I stood in the doorway and watched her.
She’d never liked to cook. Nor wash up. She worked long hours running the local library, and being a single parent. Twice a week she bought meals from the next door neighbour- undercooked Shepherd’s pie or macaroni and cheese with a hard boiled egg. I’m not in any way claiming a terrible abused childhood, or a neglectful mother. I’m not saying she was ever deliberately cruel (although that half-cooked mince did make me gag). I just had the recognition that somewhere in me were needs for care that weren’t met, and I’d learnt to shut them down, and take care of myself instead. I learnt that so well that I now use ‘self-sufficient’ as shorthand to describe myself. All my friends will tell you I’m independent, and run my life efficiently and effectively solo. Have done for years. Know how to buy or sell a house, travel the world, study, perform, online date, and deal with my teenage son’s demands, dramas, and delights.
I’m also a pretty good cook. And I enjoy baking. I was planning to make my delicious chocolate and raspberry brownie for Mum’s birthday cake the next day. I’d brought candles, balloons, sparklers, party poppers, and silver banners which proclaimed ‘Birthday Girl’.
But no matter how hard I try, my brother remains her favourite. We all know it. I’ve got used to it now, but it must have frustrated and upset me when I was younger. Another reason to pull away, and just mother myself. I’m not blaming her for that; parenting is hard, being married is hard, being a stay-at-home Mum is hard, plus her own childhood and young adulthood had been hard, so how can I know what inner conflicts she was struggling with? Or what I might have done unintentionally that triggered reactions in her? I can’t. And it’s the past. What’s done is done. Perhaps we could talk it over…
6 months ago, her doctor confirmed what we’d all suspected: she was in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She’s a very well read and sensitive woman, but her world has increasingly shrunk, as she’s stopped playing her many CDs now that she can’t work out how to use the stereo. Her anxiety has spiked, especially around new situations, or travel. She was watching more TV, while writing endless lists of things to remember, strewn around her flat like a giant’s confetti.
It was almost a relief to hear it. And so sad; we’re all still processing it. Scary too of course. She’s in complete denial- fair enough! Says the doctor’s just trying to sell her expensive medication that he gets a commission on- perhaps that’s true? But when your Mum finally forgets your son’s name in your weekly phone conversations, on top of a mountain of other momentarily lost information, like days of the week, or names of vegetables, you know it’s real.
I watched her on the birthday weekend, smiling and laughing. But rarely using anyone’s name. Except her brother’s, and he died last year. A couple of times she couldn’t find the downstairs toilet; I put a light on the landing so she’d find the upstairs bathroom in the dark. She didn’t cook or clean or help tidy up, and one morning I found her trying to eat her muesli from a saucer as she couldn’t find the bowls. She fretted intensely about random issues such as a dog we passed on our walk, or the noise the children were making chasing the colourful balloons.
I watched details of her life and mine dissolving on her tongue. She followed conversations, but didn’t lead them; she agreed to memories we offered her, but held less and less for herself. Perhaps it can feel peaceful to her? Less attachment to all the ways she felt hurt, rejected, or misunderstood over the years, grooving the pathways in her mind which kept her attuned to pain or distress.
I watched her on the birthday weekend, walking slowly away from me down her laneway of memories, thick hedges tangling up high on either side, shading out the light. She is walking away, step by step, day by day. And with a thrashing tantrum I have to contain, the tiny selfish child in me wails once more for the Mum she can’t have, has never had, will now never have.
I grieve for, and forgive us both.