Ghost of a Younger Mother

My Mum has dementia and lives in a two-bedroom house in our backyard. She moved in two years ago, three months before my partner Adrian was diagnosed with cancer.

There is the terrible tension I feel about my Mum. I am filled with resentment in equal measure with obligation and responsibility.

This week we went to see a nursing home.   I kept telling her it was just to have a look, and she would only go there for short visits, a few days, if I couldn’t look after her.

This is vaguely true although if it worked out and she didn’t arc up too much, well, maybe I could leave her there longer or more often?

I tell myself, and anyone who asks, “I took this on; I took this on with my eyes wide open, but the situation is not the same one that I signed up for.”  Now things have changed and I have this excuse.  Adrian died and I am on my own, with three children who are grieving, as well as my own grief.  I can really stretch that story out and no one, but no one, disagrees with me.

But there is also another little part of me that knows, deeply knows, I am a person who falls in and out of love easily. I flit and flirt between excitements and I have no doubt, even if Adrian was still alive, even if he hadn’t been diagnosed, even if he was still a fully functioning and supportive partner, I would be tearing my hair out. I would be bored.

Mum is mind numbingly boring. Mum can’t have a conversation, or can only have a tiny conversation, repeatedly. She is demanding, she wants to go out somewhere, she has no clue where, everyday. Not only is she demanding, she is critical and she is completely ungrateful. She has no idea that she needs to be or ought to be grateful

That’s the resentment story.

But if I can, and I can sometimes, relax into my life, surrender to the circumstances I find myself in, sink deeply into things that fulfill me, like this writing, like growing food, walking the dog and supporting and loving my children, and learning and growing as a human in the context of all these challenges, why then, I can actually feel grateful to my Mum. Mum gives me the reason, the opportunity, to slow down, to be still and present to the task of caring for the people surrounding me.

The other day I discovered a plastic bag with sugar coated fruit jellies scrunched up in one of Mum’s drawers. She must have hidden them from me (for which, on one level, I am quite grateful and on another level quite resentful. Mmmm, this seems to be a common theme.)

Last night I pulled them out and promptly ate four, chewing with effort as they were old and hard.  I offered them to Mum who surprised me by taking one.  Predictably Mum was unable to chew it.  I was busy scoffing another two when I heard the door open and close and caught the sound of something hit the deck out side. Unbeknownst to me Mum had turfed her half chewed lolly out the door onto the middle of her deck. I watched the dog walk over in the direction of the noise, sniff and walk away, clearly unimpressed.

This morning the lolly was still on the deck, only now it had softened in the sun and half disintegrated in its own juice.  I forgot to clean it up in the hoo-ha of getting Mum ready to go out.

This afternoon as Mum sat on her balcony and I brought her a cup of tea, I saw the place where the lolly had been, still sticky and juicy, like dribbled shiny lacquer on the seasoned decking planks, but the lolly was gone. There was a trail of clear, raised gloss as if it had been kicked along, and my guess is that is exactly what happened.

So I fetched a scourer and wet cloth from the kitchen and knelt down and scrubbed. It was solid and resistant. I fetched a bowl with warm water and then knelt over the boards, using my muscles in fast, repetitive, intense motions.

Suddenly I thought about my Mum and how she would have done this work many times in her life, for others; for her mother, for her sister, for her children, as a nurse, as a child, as an adult. I felt the presence of her younger self and felt glad to be able to give back to her, to do this mundane, routine, necessary and giving task. I appreciated myself, as I appreciated her.

My mum’s two feet were about two feet away from my scrubbing; she was bent over her knees, eyes half closed, watching me work, and looking for all the world as if she was remembering.