Archive for March, 2021

When the Rain Came …

March 27, 2021

When the storm presses its thumb print heavy on the sky it bruises it fifty shades of grey, finger paints it in careless daubs, from smoke to deep black.

Clouds belly so low they almost touch the earth, pregnant with promise and rain which will fall heavy, heavy onto red earth so that it bleeds into puddles the will lie for days, shrinking slowly shallower.  

Jip will race through them, her head low and happy and her tongue lolling pink as she smiles a broad dog smile.  She’ll tread ochre prints all over the floor when we get home. Sometimes I must take a towel to her and she wriggles with pleasure as I rub her dry.

Nature feels so near then. I feel her breath on my face. I am thrillingly exposed, a frisson I feel on my skin and which tickles my nose, the perfume of approaching rain. Like a dangerous lady who has sprayed too liberally from a bottle of scent.

I love walking as a storm rattles in. The heavens feel so close, all the celestial bodies leaning in and complaining in thunder that grumbles round the mountain. I can hear only that and the wind as it races through trees so that whole chorus lines of leaves pirouette to the ground, spinning, spinning until they collapse and curtsey in the dust.  

The house will shout out a warning, ‘it’s coming, a storm, it’s coming’ and windows will clatter and doors slam shut. Later rain will slap the glass and I will watch the ceiling for the brown tea stain of leaks.

I got in just in time.  I don’t always.

Digging for Diamond-Days

March 24, 2021

Two days ago, when I called, mid afternoon, mum was still in bed.

She feels unwell, she says, her back is sore, her tummy is sore, she is tired, she did not sleep well.

She lists complaints that alarm me. I am distressed to think she might be in pain. That there might be some hidden condition that is veiled by her confusion and her inability to articulate as clearly as she once could.

 I start punching the list of symptoms she describes into Google. Diagnosing. Catastrophizing.

My measured brother sensibly mostly ignores the frenzied texts I bat off to him.

‘I’ll keep an eye’ he says. The silence that ensues shuts me up. 

He is always sparing of words. He once asked me, ‘why do you use 20 words when two will do?’

I have met enough editors to know that he has a point.

When I call the next day though, Mum is in high spirits. There is no talk of pain or tiredness today.  My brother, who looks after her with a gentle, humoured solicitousness, knows her much better than I do now.

‘I am tidying my room’, she tells me and her tone sings, ’I am so busy.’

I check in again today – and feel my heart bumping up against my throat, as I dial, anxious as to how today is – but she is still at it. Still busy.  Still cheerfully engaged.   My brother has indicated a pile of trousers in her room and suggests she sort through them – which ones she’d like to keep, which to ditch. 

She wonders who left them there, ‘they aren’t mine; they belonged to somebody much fatter than me’ so that I have to smile.

‘I have only just finished unloading the dishwasher, it’s good exercise. And for my brain too as I have to remember where everything goes’.

And my heart gives a small squeeze.

‘I like being busy’, she says. ’It’s good to be busy – there’s no time to worry if you’re busy; it makes me happy.’

And I remember the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times my siblings and I tried to impress this upon her when she was sick with Depression. 

Be not idle. Be not idle.

Get busy, ma, it’ll help, it’ll take your mind off things, we said.

But she’d just regard us miserably from her bed or from the chair where she’d wound herself like a comma, an hiatus on life. It said: wait.

‘Do you have any worries, ma?’ I ask her now.

She pauses and then, ‘no, no I don’t think so’.

I need to hold onto the good days. Depression meant days and days, weeks, months of bad days.  In mum’s experience of dementia, so far, I have learned that a bad day, can morph as just that, A bad day.  

We never got that with Depression. A Bad Day. 

And so I understand one more small blessing that I must pick, gingerly, from the fallout of all this and blow upon it gently, rub it on the hem of my t’shirt and hold it up to the light to admire.

Wiping away the Dust

March 13, 2021

Mum says, ‘I am reading your book.’

And I cringe.

‘It’s very good’, she says kindly, ‘I am loving it; I am already on page 12!’

Ten years ago I attempted a memoir on my African childhood. It was redrafted several times, it was even submitted to publishers. It never found a home and I shelved it, to gather dust. Which was fitting given its title: The Settling of Dust.  My brother – because mum kept scouring his bookshelves and then rejecting whatever she found as too dull or too involved or because the print was too small, has printed out a fresh copy of dusty Dust for mum to read.  At least, I think, we can manage line spacing and font size.

I unearth the editorial feedback I received now and am reminded that whilst the book lacked publishing merit, my memories of childhood and my evocation of Africa rang true. 

I never imagined my mother would read my manuscript for this reason, to conjure her old life so that she could re-remember it,  so that she could recall a forgotten life on a farm and my father’s night time sojourns to cull lions that were killing his dairy herd.  I never imagined I could – would have to – introduce her to a cast of characters that populated all our lives, especial hers; I never imagined I would need to introduce her to her history, even her own parents via the conduit of my own recollections. I never imagined this manuscript would bear any value. 

‘Thanks, mum’, I say.

‘It is helping me to remember my life’, she says, ‘and so I persevere with my reading.’

And I especially never imagined it would one day be read by a mother I’d had to teach to read all over again.

I am glad now of the childish language. I’m glad it was dismissed as undemanding; it will be an easy read for her, I think.

But I am also glad I redacted the chapter on Depression. 

Mum does not need all her memories.

Then and Now: learning how

March 10, 2021

Sometimes Mum does not remember her Grandchildren’s names.

Or if she does, they are muddled and mismatched; she attaches the wrong grandchildren to the wrong child. Or the wrong name to the wrong person. There are no neat lines anymore. Just a messy cat’s cradle  tangled with crossed lines which we gently, sensitively, try to unpick or avoid.

I don’t say, ‘Remember Amelia?’

Because Mum might not – not in that instant, she needs time and prompts – and without them I see confusion cloud her face, and something like irritation or humiliation. She can tell by my tone that she ought to know an Amelia but she can’t find her right now, in this moment, she can’t place her so she clumsily sifts her memories for the name. For the connection. And she will be left feeling inept and stupid.

‘I am so bloody stupid’ she will say sadly, ‘why can’t I remember anybody?’

So instead I say, ‘My daughter, Amelia, the one who teaches in London …’

And Mum’s in the frame, then. We have placed her, we have placed the characters that will populate this little story I am about to narrate. We have reminded her of the cast.

In some ways, this losing of her grandchildren saddens me most. She was such a present grandmother. So full on. Engaged. Perhaps my trio, joined by my brother’s two and my sister’s three, perhaps those small people grew a team where a big gap had been gouged when Dad died. Perhaps they reminded her of continuity, even when somebody has gone. Perhaps they lent new interest – for she was, interested: in their friends, in where they went to school, in what they read so that parcels full of books would often arrive. 

Perhaps she just needed to feel needed as her own children grew up?

And because I witnessed the forging of those strong bonds, I feel such a loss at their coming adrift.

I urge my girls, ‘call gran’. And they do. And she loves their calls. She will tell me all about them and there will be no confusion as to who is who and who called when for my girls will have primed me, so subtly and sensitively we have separated the strands of the cat’s cradle before we even begin so I’m not tied into knots trying to unpick who called mum when I call her.  And nor is she.

My great grandniece is two now and I watch astonished, Mum almost unchanged with her, almost as engaged as she was with my son nearly three decades ago. She isn’t strong enough to heft her to a hip, can’t chase her around a garden but she can slot pieces into a puzzle, laugh at the things she says, let her clamber into bed with her great grandmother so that she can look at books with her.

And I consider this small, uncomplicated tableau of the very old and the very young and I see in this single picture a forging of What Was and What Is, a straddling of Then and Now.

These things are hard, this letting go as mum loses bits of herself. But I know this is right, this is the right way to do it: to use her past to anchor us in her present.

That’s the only way I know how to do this.