How Long is the Short-term? How Short the Long?

October 1, 2021

I call Mum.

This time last year I’d have kept my camera turned firmly off – afraid she would not recognise me, afraid she’d muddle up the Abstract Daughter with the One in Real Life. She was always confident she had a daughter by my name. She just didn’t always equate my face with that name.

Not now, not anymore; now I keep it on. So that she laughs at the dog that’s climbed onto my lap mid conversation.

I don’t do it – keep my camera on – because I think she’ll remember me – this face – simply because we spent a month together a month ago. But because I have reconciled myself to her forgetting who I am. I am no longer offended when she regards me quizzically and says, ‘are you sure you’re my daughter?’ It’s not personal – which is a bit of a paradox, an anomaly when i consider the word – person – but it’s really not. It’s just what happens. So I say variously, ‘Yes, worst luck: I am sure, definitely your daughter ma!’ or I say, ‘Oh certainly – what’s more I’m your favourite daughter!’ She smiles then, a little doubtfully, but a smile all the same.

How are you Ma?

Oh, I’m very well?

How was your trip yesterday?

(Yesterday my brother picked her up from where she’d spent a brief holiday – respite for him, a change of scene for her).

Oh, it was very easy, much quicker than I thought.

And then she says, ‘I think this new home will be ok. I think I shall quite like it here. There are a few other occupants. I am just unpacking all my things and putting them away. It’s very different to where I was before – this house is in the middle of a town. I think that will make it more interesting’.

This is where I come unstuck. I try so hard to navigate my mother’s ever changing map without tripping up, without falling into traps that will unleash distress or fury. Do I challenge this? Do I set her straight? As if realigning a compass so that she may be briefly anchored, might see, recognise, the shore? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I say, ‘No mum, it wasn’t like that’ or ‘I’m your DAUGHTER, ma!’ But it’s easier to do those things, to correct her, to redirect her, when I can put a steadying, reassuring hand on her shoulder or touch her arm. Or hug her even. To coldly point out she’s gone wrong through glass from the other side of the world, where I cannot steady her when she reels, as she always does, even imperceptibly, from the shock she’s so lost? That seems too cruel.

Sometimes I do it just because it’s easier and I don’t have the energy to try to untangle this mess.

And so, instead, I ask: where were you before?

Oh – in the countryside, middle of nowhere really. And there were far fewer of us.

‘Nicer to be closer to shops!’ I say and I laugh. (Humour, I find is the Elastoplast we apply for much of this; a bandaid. Utterly inadequate, of course, to do anything for a big seeping sore other than stem a bleed briefly).

Yesterday my brother picked mum up from my uncle’s beautiful Wexford home. She’d spent a fortnight there with him and her sister.

And then my brother brought her back to the his, the house that has been her home – his family’s home – for most of the past ten years.

So now I know: her memories last for less than two weeks. 

Even the ones that are a decade old.

Last of the Light

September 24, 2021

Mum keeps asking, during our conversation, ‘Where’s my soup?’

I have timed this call badly – in the middle of her lunch.

She is staying with her brother and sister.

She keeps calling my uncle by my brother’s name. She is astounded they share a mother. 

‘Horrified’, says my uncle, ‘horrified we share a mother’, and he laughs. So that mum does too – uncertainly, but a laugh, nonetheless.

‘Where’s my soup?’ She asks again, and then, for about the 3rd time during this brief and fractured conversation, ‘How are you, love?’

I tell her: ‘I am fine. Busy. It is dry’.

The rains are a long way off and as I talk I look out on a lawn which is torched yellow by wind and sun; when I walk across it, with bare feet, I curl my soles upwards to avoid the sharpness of desiccated grass: a bed of nails.

But she’s not interested. She’s not listening. She is buttering bread. She keeps stretching across the screen to reach for things. She knocks the device sideways so I end up staring at the ceiling.

My aunt helpfully sets me upright.

‘Anyway’, says mum finally, ‘I think you sound very busy, I think I better leave you to it’.

I smile, ‘Sure ma, chat in a day or so’.

And as I hang up I hear her again, ‘where’s my soup?’

I tell my sister later – I say, in a text, ‘very dissatisfactory conversation with mum, she was more interested in her food than me!’

My sister sends me a chuckling emoji: ‘me too, yesterday she kept asking when supper was, she wouldn’t shut up even when she was reminded that she’d just had two enormous bits of cake.  At least she’s enjoying her food’.

At least she’s enjoying her food. 

Her view on the world is getting narrower and narrower, there’s just a little chink of light now: as if a door has been left ajar and a shaft of brightness splinters a dark room hopefully and illuminates a slender slice of it. 

What when a gust of wind blows and slams that door shut, what then?

The Story of a House

September 19, 2021

I have done this untold times.

And here I need to stop and count how many, on my fingers: twice before the Outpost, twice there, once then, and again then, oh, and then, and up here, now. Ten times. Could I really have done this ten times: taken an old home and made it new.  Pulled down walls, put up new ones, ripped out plumbing, installed electrics (for none of the original inhabitants of these houses could ever have imagined the need for so many sockets – to charge all the devices that keep us tethered to our worlds, even as we float about them in the ether). 

There is a sort of reverence every time I consider a new-old place where somebody once lived. Once loved. Lived in. Loved in.  Did they decorate a Christmas tree in this room, I think, as I consider a wide, light sitting room, bowed windows so that the day streams in? Were there children? Did they hang stockings above that mantelpiece. Was this wooden floor, unpolished and scuffed now, like a mirror then, was is strewn with warm rugs? Did the wind whistle through its roof as insistently as it does now?

I always consider the people that came before. Why were they here? What did they do? How long was this their home? Did they love it? Where are they now? I know that sometimes I step from one room to another in the company of ghosts. I feel a chill, and I smell bats. Always bats.

When I polish this floor, for I will, will it gleam, admire its reflection in newly washed windows?  Will it?  Can I feel its soul now, this house, which has stood abandoned, often for years, if I stand still and silent and listen, will I respond with heart. Will I blow the life back into it?

And then I laugh, ‘a single bathroom in a three bedroom house!’ Ant laughs too – was ‘en suite’ even a thing back then, back whenever it was that somebody with hope and vision and exactly the right feel for a place so that they built this house perched where its occupants might drink in the view with sundowners, whiskey light with whiskey and soda. Did that happen here? Was there laughter? Or were there tears?

It feels like a gift, this being granted the time and space to step back into a dusty old life, look at some other family’s yesterdays through the prism of old-fashioned taps (glorious) and window winders which I want to steal and secret away like talismans. 

When I walk through the garden I will find there testament to every gardener that has ever dug green fingers into bloodred soil. So that their nails will be blackened with the cleanest dirt. I find bounganvilleas with trunks as thick as a man’s thigh, knotted, gnarled, aged, but whose blossom is still vibrant and hot so that it litters a desiccated lawn like confetti. I find lavender strung with blueness and bees. And a hidden orchard where a crop of loquats are fattening and tiny peaches hard as stones.  And pepper trees, always pepper trees under whose puddled shade a baby might have slept in a pram, or lain and watched the sky through a latticework of leaves.

When I leave, lock the door, will the house resume its voice – for all houses have one I have found, in the window rattles and sticky door clicks, in faucets that squeak and floorboards that creak. And every person whose ever lived in them has grown to be comforted by the familiarity of a home’s language.  

Once they understand it, can interpret it.

I always try to listen carefully.

Mountains. A Metaphor for the Invisible Woman

September 18, 2021

Sometimes my mountains retreat. Like ghosts. They melt to nothingness on hot horizons. Are burned clean away by the glare of sun. Or shrouded in mist or haze or dust so dense they blur as invisible. 

I put my flattened palm to my brow then and scan the line where heaven and earth meet, where I know my mountains stand, where, if I squint, I tell myself I must be able to see them. I must.

But they are gone. Bashful as brides, they have retreated behind some obscuring veil.  

I feel untethered then, without them, my north and south, those necessary guiding points of a compass. As if some anchor has come loose and drifted off.  Sometimes you know where you are. And sometimes you do not.

But some days when I walk, in the soft pearl of dawn when the world is cupped neat and ordered and sharpened with a chill, my mountains are razor cut against the ceiling of sky that the sun is just peeling back. As it slides in on the east and long fingers of light grope and feel their way towards the dark western edge, the top of Meru is pinked, a blush against the palest, palest blue. A kiss, I think.

Or in the evening, when the day has settled into itself and leans long and languorous as shadows are stretched thin and taller, no longer that shuffling squat of noon, I see them then, standing tall, heads thrown back, their profiles pencilled dramatically and black and bold. 

They are beautiful.

Sometimes I see my mountains and sometimes I do not.   But I need to remember, they are always there. Tall and strong and solid and sure. 

Even when they are not. 

Jam-making. Again.

September 10, 2021

My sister makes jam. She makes it with a devotedness that involves experimentation and the regular tweaking of recipes, adjustments that she records in a notebook for the next time. She cannot bypass her Syrian green grocery without slowing her pace to see what he has on offer. Blueberries for conserve, tomatoes for chutney, a plump heel of ginger to candy so that we can suck on it between cups of tea, its syrupy bite nipping the inside of our mouths.

She stuffs plastic bags into jacket pockets when she goes walking, just in case: in case she stumbles upon windfalls or bushes bowed with blackberries which bruise her fingers blue as she plucks them greedily, occasionally stabbing her skin so that a bud of blood swells. She has collected the necessary accoutrements of a serious jam maker: a proper preserving pan, the right sort of thermometer. She nags friends to keep their empty jars. She rescues her own from the recycling bin. Her kitchen is often heady with the treacly scent of boiling sugar, surfaces streaked strawberry pink and sticky.

I ask her, ‘Why jam? What do you love about it? Where did you find this passion? When?

‘I love it all’, she says, ‘the whole process: the finding the fruit, the deciding what to make, the trying out new recipes, the testing and tasting’. When I stay with her, I bear witness to this, these sampling sessions, piles of warm toast at breakfast as we try the latest batch and she fastidiously takes cognisance of comments and criticism: ‘this is too sweet …. this too runny’ and then – of a Lime, Lemon and Ginger Marmalade – ‘this is perfect’, exactly the right balance between tart and sweet, the consistency obediently spreadable.

‘I love being able to gift friends something homemade.’

She tells me she began to experiment with jam making when she ten or 11, ‘when we lived in Sotik’, a lonely tea farm in Western Kenya. The garden was forested with fruit trees – loquats bowed branches so that you could pick amber berries and suck their flesh clean off shiny stones, and mulberries stained bare soles black. Its warm fecundity, though, in a place where sunshine and regular rain conspired to make everything grow thick and fast – especially the tea where new growth was plucked regularly and tossed into the back borne panniers of the pickers – was in stark contrast to mum’s mostly barren internal landscape; our new geography’s isolation stripped it back to bleak nothingness; she spent long months unwell. One year six months at a stretch, no respite.

‘I did it because I didn’t know what else to do, because there was all this fruit … because I had to do something.’

She knew. She knew then, even so young, the imperatives of Keeping Busy.

My sister is a scientist. A chemistry teacher: she interprets the mysteries of matter and reactions and the Periodic Table to teenagers.

But by the time she was one, long before she stood in a lab conjuring magic in test tubes for her students, she had mastered the alchemy of happiness.

She is one of the happiest people I know.

A Face to a Name

July 1, 2021

I am in the hiatus between Africa and Ireland – in Eastern Europe, where time seems oddly stilled, ducking mandatory hotel imposed quarantines and keeping clean as I go with masks and PCR tests. 

I tell mum I am on my way. She does not know from where to where or which country I am presently in. She asks every time we speak, ‘are you still stuck in that country’.

It’s easier to just say yes. 

I speak to her of visits to mountains and walks around glassy lakes and swims in seas so silky I can barely feel the water against my skin. I tell her about roads that twist tortuous up and down mountains so that my heart is in my mouth and I can’t look down and she will not remember that I share my dead father’s fear of heights, one that made his feet tingle, a burn I can feel in my own soles. 

I tell her about a monastery we visit, built into the sheerest rock face so that it seemed to stand with its back pressed against the mountain too, as if braced for a fall, like me, afraid to cast my eyes downwards. The monastery was bathed in sunshine and peace and the silence so surround-sound I could feel it. The pilgrims that come here are fewer in number now, with our pandemic of biblical proportions still plague-raging, but I watch those that do cross themselves and touch the stone walls with lips as they stand close to it for several minutes collecting their thoughts and saying silent prayers, and I feel deeply moved by their reverence. 

Mum is not happy. There is confusion or boredom or I don’t know what. I can see her casting about the screen, for me, for something to say and my heart always breaks a bit but I don’t let that show, I keep that hidden along with my face, I crack on with, ‘did you walk?’ No, not today. She does not feel like it today.

I ask ‘what are you reading?’ Nothing apparently – nothing appeals. 

We will find you something when I am there, I say.

She tells me my stories will be enough when I am there and I know that I must gather them to me then, that I must make sure I have all the words to stop all the gaps that will present.

I know that I must know what to say when she says, ‘who are you? How do I know you?’

Will you remember me? I ask 

She promises me yes, ‘of course I will’, she laughs.

‘I look older’ I warn her.

I will still know you, she says.

She might not. 

She certainly won’t recall this particular conversation.

I don’t know which is harder: that she once forgot me out of the blue. Or that I must prepare myself for her not knowing me now.

I think out of the blue was worse, it felt like a slap.

My sister says, when she calls, ‘I spoke to mum. I asked her if she had spoken to Anthea. She said no. She told me she has spoken to somebody whose name begins with A though. I told her that was you.’

Thing is, will she believe that when she sees me. 

Will she put this face with that name?

When we left the monastery and swung back down the mountain with the valley spilling deep below us, I was astonished at how quickly its imposing dimensions receded to nearly nothing, a white smudge framed by a granite wall and blue skies.

As if it were disappearing.

Wild Swimming

June 25, 2021

The water was like silk.

And so cool. I thought it would be colder. Even at eight in the morning it was an easy blood-warm swim and by evening I had to dive deep to feel even the faintest chill.  I saw the anchor roots of lilies then, which bloomed as sunshine on the surface.

When I looked, at noon, across the lake, the white heat of the day had scorched my horizons clean away, so that it looked as if the edge of the world had melted, as if you might tip right over it if you kept going – is that why the early explorers thought the world was flat. 

I wondered if, during the winter,  when the world is cold and cut crystal and brittle, I might see the furthest shores – where the water ends and Albania begins; somewhere in the glassy depths, which were mirror smooth when we were there, not even the faintest breeze to ruffle their surface, lies the line that separates Montenegro from its neighbour.

The beach at Godinje, Lake Skadar

I remember learning to swim. Mum taught me. In a frosty, older lady’s pool. She didn’t swim often; I knew that by the green slime and the frogs which, at six, gave me the creeps.  Here, on the lake, the frogs were the loudest I’ve ever heard; they struck up an evening chorus and at first I wondered at what they were: ducks, I thought.

It’s odd that mum taught me – she hated swimming, was afraid of the water, never put her head beneath it. And yet I love to, in the sea I love to hear the clicking conversation of coral, in a pool, the sound of my breath, on this lake the intermittent quarrel of herons, the lazy drone of dragon flies. 

I taught my own children. Except for my middle one, who learned simply by observation: watching carefully as I instructed her older brother. At 3 she nagged, ‘watch me, mama, watch me’ and I did and I was astounded as this small person doggy paddled her way across a whole width, her armbands abandoned. 

When I’ve swum, when I’ve ploughed my way through water, I feel stronger. And I feel more at peace, it’s as if my swim has drowned the noise of clamouring thoughts out.

And the world, when I get out and rub a rough towel against goose flesh skin, feels stilled.

Father’s Day

June 20, 2021

I think I remember buying the card. It seems both so long ago and so recent that the past and present bump up against one another as strangers and acquaintances simultaneously: ‘Hey! Don’t I know you?’

It was long before phone calls were a thing of such nondescript ordinariness that it meant nothing to chat for hours to somebody whose daytime meant you were in the middle of your night. No, when I bought that card, a generation ago, phone calls meant – usually – terrible news, for it is true: it does always travel fast: Bad news.

My news came a week after Father’s Day. Which is why, when we got home afterwards, the card I’d bought lay there, on dad’s desk, the envelope slit open and weighted by the paper knife that had slit it, the card propped up against a jam jar of pens. 

And it came, that news, perhaps two weeks after I’d browsed the aisles at WH Smith and bought my card and inscribed it and licked the envelope and sealed it and purchased a stamp in the post office in Fenchurch Street and dropped it into the red lipped mouth of the post box. Hoping as I did so, that it’d arrive in time. It mattered so much, later, that it had.

Your dad’s had an accident, said the voice at the other end of the line when I picked up the call at work that day.

It never occurred to me it might be that sort of accident. Never. Not for a moment. I think now it would; I think that occasion, that single experience, is what prompted my habit now to catastrophize. Now I understand the possibility for tragedy is everywhere.

No, he is dead.

And then you know life will never be the same again. There will be gaps and holes and you will always know after that that life has the propensity to gouge new ones. That plans will be tripped up. That you will never share your 21st birthday with your father’s 50th because he never made it that far: he was 47.

I remember saying to somebody at the time, I will never survive losing my mother. There will never be a father like mine.

But I am losing my mother. By painful degree.  And I am surviving it.

And there is another father both like mine and unlike him. I love him just as hard. He is just as important presence in my children’s lives as dad was in mine. The only difference, thankfully, oh so thankfully, is that he has stuck around for longer.  He is almost 62.

So sometimes, even when you think you’re unlucky, you’re also lucky.  

Very.

The Long Way Round

June 13, 2021

I’m in Eastern Europe.

This is what Lord Byron said about where I am, ‘At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea must have happened at the coast of Montenegro. When the pearls of nature were sown, handfuls of them were cast on this soil.’

This is where mountains soar and then dive into icy waters that are inky for their depth.

When I swim, now, here, mid June, before the summer has begun to take winter’s brittle edge off, I must swim fast, grazing the surface as lightly as I can. I picture a lily trotter and laugh. If my limbs dip too low, they are pinched by cold. But the glow that warms my body when I step to the shore to wrap myself in a sun-warmed towel is addictive; I go back for more.

I’m on my way to spend time with mum. But I must dance through Covid hoops, skirting hotel imposed quarantine, wearing my mask and brandishing my Negative-for-Corona certificate as I go: Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, Istanbul, Podgorica … some airports are eerily empty and planes full of space.

I feel a long way from my own mountains, here. And so close to these. I watch an evening stripe of sun slide up sheer sides even as it sinks low over some unseen western horizons. And then I watch city lights sputter to life and gleam across black waters towards me.

I catch my breath and collect my thoughts. If I line them up, neatly, rank and file, will it make the future seem less uncertain, will it tidy my head in readiness for the making of decisions. About mum. Will it?

Hooray for Siblings

June 3, 2021

Mum has been low these last few days.

An awareness I think of both her body and her brain letting her down. 

She proclaims with such indignation, ‘well I wish somebody had bothered to tell me’ that you briefly question whether you ever actually did: tell her whatever it was she has apparently never been told. 

The slow slide of dementia’s distrustful hand is in evidence everywhere: ‘I think you are lying/I think he is cross with me/nobody bothered to tell me.’

But the paranoia that is attendant to forgetting is forgivable isn’t it: when your mind is a quagmire and all the facts are bogged down and stuck.  Muddied by a mind scribbled all over by plaques and tangles and proteins gone awry.

My siblings and I are a tight and united little force and I give thanks for that always. For their patience with my flapping and bossing and distress. For my brother’s astonishing and unstinting stamina and kindness even when Mum’s messy mind has him and his good intentions all wrong.   Because they both make me laugh – that dark humour that can only be shared by those in similarly tragicomic circumstances. 

Woe betide my husband if he makes light of my mum’s illness.

But when my brother says mum is tired after doing the ‘filing’ that morning (and she means the loading of  the dishwasher), we share a quiet smile.

And my sister and I laugh out loud when we compare the reasons mum did not get out of bed that day.

To me she says, ‘I am perfectly well. I am just very tired. I am having a day off. I think I have been working (filing?) too hard’.

To my sister she says, ‘Rob told me I had to stay in bed all day!’

As mum’s communication with us becomes ever more frayed, so mine and my siblings seems tighter and neater as we pick up the threads of one another’s thoughts.

And that’s lucky.