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The Whole Story

March 21, 2017

I have written words about Depression that I had forgotten I had written.

I have described madness as being a part of my normality. A part of what defines me. It was there for so long. And even when it wasn’t, palpable reminders remained of this most intangible illness: prescriptions, books, appointments penciled into the diary. Palpable evidence of an illness that’s all in the mind. How ironic.

Is there a story here, I wonder, as I trawl through virtual pages of words that begin to swim on the screen in front of me, so long have I stared at this too-bright light in a room that is growing dim so that the glare is growing exponentially, punishing. Is there a useful message? Does the arc of this tale deliver hope? Understanding? Insight? Am I the person to write it – she who rode, let’s face it, in relative comfort of pillion position.

So I begin to dig through files tucked in the secret, invisible, recessed archives of my laptop. If I could touch them, I’d have to blow the dust from pages, tease cobwebs from folders, wipe them clean with the back of a sleeve to read the text, so long have they languished in the dark, years. Years! I come across dozens of articles published, I come across dozens more that never saw the light of day, I stumble upon thoughts I’d forgotten I had, countless blog entries. I unearth a whole, forgotten manuscript; 100 000 words of Mum’s story threaded with research, pertinent quotes, poetry as I tried to unpick this illness, rationalize it to myself.

That’s how much the madness morphed as normalcy; excavating it, dissecting it, trying to get beneath its skin meant it got under mine. It became part of my subconscious.

I print all the words out. Sheaves of paper. A door stop. A draught excluder.

Do I dare tell this story, the whole story? From the beginning?

The Rearranging of Celestial Furniture

March 16, 2017

At this time of year, when the rains are here, our night skies can be spectacular. Big banks of cloud that have bulked all afternoon – so that we know the sun that bakes our backs as we walk the garden is the type that conjures storms – huddle on our horizons, bruised and brooding, like a sullen crowd that gathers menacingly, shoulders thrown, expressions darkly glowering.

I gaze heavenward, my palm shielding my eyes, ‘do you think it will come?’ I ask Mum, ‘the rain’. Mum squints up: I hope so, she says, it’s too warm.

Sometimes the sun wins out and dissolves the clouds away, stares them down with hot glares so that they skulk to some other lucky person’s horizons and by dusk my sky is peachy pink and eggshell blue and you’d never know there was ever the promise of glorious rain.

But some evenings the weighty congregation of clouds win out, they drop their black shoulders and storm the sun and push it clean from the sky. Their rough eviction is championed with applause that rumbles and growls and cracks loud bright whips to hurry it all on so that the night is illuminated with a thousand bolts of hot white light as it hurls itself to earth.

And I lie in bed and listen to the gathering pace of raindrops on my tin roof, like a featherlight dance of fairies at first, tiny feet that race above me and quickly gather weight and speed so that soon all I can hear is a roar, like a train, and I can smell Africa don her earthy scent in celebration as the blackness of my room burns neon with every flash and the rain pours down.

By dawn the sky is smokegrey, stilled, silent; the storm and her entourage with its victorious clapping and loud shouts and bright lights has ambled off to deliver her show elsewhere. I skip out across a wet lawn in my barefeet to inspect the rain gauge. Sometimes it will be almost full, others barely wet and then I will report to mum, over breakfast, ‘all blow, no go that Ma, just 5 mils’.

Yesterday she asked me, ‘what makes the thunder? is there something solid up there, it sounds as if something is being moved around’. I tell her, ‘the lightening, Mum, that’s what we can hear’. She looks doubtful.

And memories rush in. When I was little and storm-watched on the farm with dad, he taught me to count between lightening strike and thunder clap, ‘one … two … three’, the number of seconds that lapsed, he said, told you how near, or far, the strike had been. Sometimes in the Outpost there is no time at all, between one and the other, I have watched lightening strike trees, the electricity poles, the road directly in front of my car. I have heard it and seen it all at the same time, no ‘one … two … three’; no warning.

I think of Mum’s reasoning that something so loud must surely mean something more tangible than the lightening speed of electrons and I remember that when we were little, she told us that the crash of thunder was the sound of the gods rearranging their furniture and I imagined them, backs to a bulky wardrobe, shuffling it to a new corner.

Mum’s stroke means that her view of the world is sometimes a little off, except that at times I think her logic is spot on. That’s exactly what thunder sounds like: like something solid and heavy and concrete being hefted around above us.

Come and Gone

March 14, 2017

Visitors come and visitors go and almost immediately it’s hard to believe they were here at all.

My sister C and her youngest arrived a week ago. And left yesterday. They travelled from their African Outpost to mine and the days rushed past in such a blur I cannot now remember what happened from one day to the next.

It was a joy to hear my small, too-quiet home ring with the sound of a child’s laughter, to watch K swim, to listen to her ceaseless chatter, to observe her, too-long -limbed, unbrushed hair, starfish sprawled on a bed rendered still and silent only because she had a book to hand. Immersed in some other far away world.

And I think of my Hat and how she filled all my Outpost days first time around. Ten years ago: I first arrived here ten years ago.

We walked on the dam, we ate too much ice-cream, we watched telly that made us laugh, we swam endlessly, we played cards and we teased Mum so that she responded in mock horror: ‘don’t give Gran another biscuit, she’s verging on the morbidly obese as it is’. K shrieks with mirth, my sister giggles at Mum’s expression. Precious, precious days of nothing and everything. Family touching hands, re-connection, brief, blessed. I want to distill these days, to bottle them as heavenly scent that I may pop the lid and inhale deeply whenever I need to feel less lonely.

And when they leave I am momentarily unhinged. A day of floating aimlessly. Until I can find my groove, where my head goes back down, my shoulder to the wheel and I get on with the business of Getting on with It.

Good Better Best

March 9, 2017

We go out to lunch. With the girls. The rare handful of them that come and go from the Outpost; only a couple of us are permanent, rooted solid. Lunch is in celebration of International Women’s Day. Our hostess asks that we all arrive with an inspirational quote.

Immediately I panic. How will mum manage: to read is slow and can be tortuous, worse with an audience when nerves get the better of her. To remember something new, impossible.

She is unfazed. And from her tongue trips this:

Good, better, best,
Never let it rest,
Til your good is better,
And your better best.

‘I don’t where that came from’, she says, smiling in response to my congratulations and laughter,’ it was just there, in my head.’

I can’t make up my mind between two quotes – each supposed to be especially meaningful to the reader – so I take both.

‘It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere’, so said essayist, Agnes Repplier

And, according to Marilyn Monroe, ‘Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring’.

I think my choice defines me neatly: my belief in the inevitability of madness and its thinline relationship with genius, my admiration for the beauty of imperfection, my comprehension of the mercurial catch-me-if-you-can nature of happiness: we can only ever be responsible for our own. The near-the-surface-of-my-skin fear that being an introvert (married to a 6’2″ extrovert) renders me dull. I am content to be viewed as unconventional, offcentre; I’d hate to be considered dreary.

And I adore Mum’s simple recital, I love that she has the courage to deliver it, that she has sieved her memories and found precisely the ditty she scribbled in my first autograph book. I think it underlines her unflagging determination to read and write all over again. Her courage. How game she is to join in, remain a part of all this.

All the girls at the table applaud her when she delivers her words. I want to weep with pride as she glows with delight.

The Genius of Madness

March 4, 2017

Aristotle said, “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness”.  He said that  in 350BC. Kay Redfield Jamison’s new book – Setting the River on Fire – her biography of poet Robert Lowel – says the same thing: beautiful minds are often attended by beasts of madness, the sharp toothed Black Dog, snapping incessantly at heels.

For a long time I sought to understand my mother’s madness. It manifested before I hit my teens. It was the seventies then. Mental illness was not the designer disorder it has since become. (One time president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and himself a sufferer of what he described as ‘thundering’ depressions, Michael Shooter, told me that: that the illness has lost necessary gravitas because it has ‘become a designer disorder’; everybody wanted one).  It was misunderstood, wore a stigma far uglier then than it does today. It was a shameful condition, ‘what does she have to be miserable about?’ people asked of my mother. Sometimes I asked myself the same. I stood, unwilling guest at her hospital bedside, wondering how I could recraft the story of visiting my mum in the psych ward so that she sounded Properly Ill, not Properly Mad, so that my 13 year old self would elicit sympathy, not scorn, when dad dropped me back at boarding school where I was the envy of my classmates who only knew I had missed double geography and liver at lunchtime.

Later, as an adult, my passion to understand her illness was more sympathetic, more finely honed. Better organised. But the stigma still weighed heavy: mental illness was more palatable if it came dressed up as keen intellect.  I embarked on a project to marry the mad and the clever and approached dozens of writers, artists, poets to prove to myself the link was more than hypothesis. My literary project, an unpublished proposal that languishes gathering virtual dust, was supported by astonishing writers – Andrea Ashworth, Sophie Hannah Jones, Carolyn Slaughter, Dorothy Wade, Marjorie Wallace, Sally Brampton (whose own madness has taken her), Tim Lott, Linda Gask … I drove it with obsessive compulsion: I would get the message out: You might be mad, sure, but there exists a parallel between mental fragility and creative brilliance. Ergo, you are Positively Brilliant.

I never did. Get the message out. And mum’s madness sustained. Until she had her stroke eighteen months ago. It cost her the ability to read. Stole much of her initiative, some of her vigour, blunted her sharp wittedness. Would it, I asked her neuro as Mum lay in her bed at the rehab facility where she spent months, also spare her future depressions, the same that had obliterated whole years of her life? No he said assuredly and with, I felt, unkind conviction, ‘different part of her brain’, he said.

Two weeks ago my mother appeared to begin to slip, a familiar apathy struck, tears fell.  She collapsed. I panicked. How would we survive a depression especially in the absence of reading; her default escape in previous episodes had always been books. For two days I prowled and prodded and cajoled, ‘get up, walk with me, eat with me, watch with me’. And she did, meekly, obediently.  That surprised me: in pre stroke days she would have dug her heels in, resisted, shouted, railed. And remained firmly, determinedly, in bed or foetal curled in an armchair, her uncombed hair a static-mad halo around her pale face.

And to my astonishment, the misery lifted and my old-new contented mum – the one who now spends long hours trying to decipher an article or a story that is helpfully augmented with pictures, the one who describes the cat’s antics  – was up early to walk, to talk, to smile. To eat breakfast with me and relate to me as much of the mornings news as she could recall. She was just having a bad day, it turned out. Two. She has never had a bad day or two in her life, her bad days run into weeks, months, years.

So the neuro was wrong, it seems, the stroke stole her intellect which is shattering but it also seems to have lent some peculiar immunity to desolation (I touch wood and cross fingers as I write). Madness then and genius are linked.

Sometimes, occasionally, I ask myself: which is the happier scenario: my brilliant, tortured mother or my happier slower one?  I do not miss Depression, I will never miss its slit eyes, its knifesharp teeth, its mean stealth and the way it simultaneously robbed us of Mum and Mum of life,  but I do miss the conversations, the intellectual stimulation that my old-sick mum could deliver.

 

Waking in the Blue, Robert Lowel

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence!  My heart: grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback
(if such were possible!),
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale-
more cut off from words than a seal.

This is the way day breaks ii-i Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobble,”
Porcellian’2 9,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig-
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning.  Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

 

Fat Africa

March 1, 2017

one-mum-two-babes

The southern Serengeti is fecund with life. Everything is fat: the wildebeest as they trail to and fro across these vast plains, so big you wonder that you don’t fall clean off the edge, honk and bleat and call. This is an ancient, circuitous route: each year a million of them meander across the savannah driven by primal instincts to eat, to breed. Almost all of the females are accompanied by a calf, pale newborns with black faces. They tumble to the ground on delivery and are up and racing almost immediately, such is the urgent life into which they are born.  We are always just too late to witness this extraordinary wild miracle of birth: the calf is getting to its feet, the afterbirth still evident.

mama-and-baba

The zebra are even more more fatbottomed than ever. The grazing here is plentiful, newgreen and tender. They eat, noses to the ground but rear pretty head up and skip skittish when they hear our vehicle, plump girls in a dance hall. Then from safer distance they regard us bashfully through long, long black lashes.

Ruaha Dec 14 Stripes.JPG

We come upon a male lion reclining in the shade. He is the most handsome specimen I have ever encountered, his eyes bright amber, his skin unmarked,  his mane thick and glossy and fully, L’Oreal Lion I think, because he’s worth it?

king-of-the-jungle

A little way off we encounter the youth, four plump males lolling, siesta still. They are so well fed – all those meandering wildebeest, heavy with life, all those zebra with their generous derrieres – they wear rolls around their middles. I have seen lion torn eared from fights over food, I have watched lioness savagely, hungrily, rip the last shreds from a carcass.  Here we find still born wildebeest still intact, not even the vultures are hungry enough to pick them apart.

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Dung beetles roll their prizes – perfectly round brooding balls of dung, plentiful now on these well-fed plains – each pair busily tumbling so that when I pick them up in my hand I can feel the tiny might of their efforts in my palm. The females will lay their eggs inside.  The dung beetle is related to the scarab which the ancient Egyptians revered: the god Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it up above the horizon.

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Our rising suns here are clouded in blankets of cloud which settle low on long horizons and deliver their bounty of rain each evening so that the greenness of this vast spreading place is topped up a little more. This is fat Africa, a place of such perfect balance that even in the harsh dealing of death to the weak and the slow, everything seems sated.

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And we do too as we bounce the five hours home.

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The Drama of Storms

February 18, 2017

So the rain came down.

After two weeks of suffocating, sittingonyourchestinthemiddleofthenight heat so that you almost can’t breathe, the rain came down.

For days I have watched, and willed, hulking clouds nearer, pleading with them to bulk up blackly. And every evening they dissolved on my horizons and left just whispers of white against a cornflower blue. And the heat grew.

But last night the rain came. Here, in the Outpost, it comes with pomp and ceremony, no timid drizzles, no bashful shower. Here it announces its arrival with an orchestra of sound and light, thunder crashes as cymbals I can’t see and the lightening which is as a searing strobe illuminates my room as hot phosphorous and neon that burns my eyelids open, and then it’s gone and I’m plunged to inkdark again. Briefly.

And then the rain comes and you will it to stay so that dust may settle and heat may dissipate, for a few days at least, and you hope this is not all show no go.

I listen to fat drops fall on the tin roof, a clamour of applause and I feel the cool envelop the room and I smell Africa quenching her thirst.

And later I hear the storm move on, I picture a busty opera singer, a diva, bouncing from the stage to her dressing room, all bossy instructions and high notes that fade as she moves down a corridor to a place I can no longer see or hear her.

With sun up I skip out onto wet, wet grass in bare feet and lift the rain gauge to see what was delivered: an inch, a whole glorious dust laying, heat stealing, promising inch.

The Beast is Back

February 16, 2017

I can sense it tiptoeing. It’s close. If I turn my head quickly, I think I can see a flash of its shape dart darkly behind shadows. I can definitely hear it, its silence roars and I can feel its cold breath on the back of neck, as dread.

Depression’s descent is stealthy. And then sudden. It begins with the odd tears which you try to explain away, which still fall lightly enough that distraction works. Then comes its brief tangibility as a Real Illness: a day in bed, ‘I feel sick’, says Mum, huddling beneath the covers, ‘I have been up all night feeling sick’. So I fuss and I fret and I go to and fro with plates of toast and mugs of weak tea. I even scour the internet and consult Dr Google for ‘early morning nausea among the elderly’. I see the word Depression but I fail to put two and two together. Or I don’t want to. I want to believe this is a symptom of Gastroesophageal reflux disease for how easy that would be to fix. By comparison. I even write to a pharmacist friend with mum’s prescription to inquire what I can add into the mix to quell stomach acid.

But by the next morning, there’s no avoiding the reality: Depression is back. How! How? Where did it get in? I kept windows open to bright gardens and sunshine, doors wide to friendly voices, to laughter, to a stream of affectionate animals. I kept her engaged and tried, in the face of so much loss, half of her sight, most of her memory, all of her ability to read, to make sure she was busy.

To no avail.

For years, many, many years, Depression’s return always felt like a failing – mine usually. Perhaps that’s because I’m the eldest – so the mantle of responsibility naturally fell to me and especially after Dad died? Perhaps because I had awkward years as a teen – so naturally I was at the centre of my own world, even the bad bits revolved about me – did I cause her too much anxiety, I worried later, by which time it was too late because she had been admitted to a psych ward. I fretted: is she sick again because of the things I have done or the things I have failed to do.

But age and experience and years of bumping up against this monster more times than I can count and I know it’s not my fault. It’s not mum’s fault. It just is; Mum’s own peculiar madness is a part of her normalcy.

I don’t know how long it will stay this time. Some visits are fleeting, some last for months, years. In the absence of the opportunity to escape, to find solace, respite, in books, Mum will feel this episode more acutely.

And so, by extension, will those of us that love her. Tomorrow morning, as today, I will bang determinedly on her door and she will ignore me. But I am persistent, I never give up, I will continue to bang, at intervals, until finally, gracelessly, she will open it and try to stumble back to bed, growing and scowling and tearful, and I will stand over her and tell her she must get up and she must eat the toast I proffer and she must drink tea, even though she is still adamant this illness is Real, ‘I do really feel most unwell’, she will say (because it’s hard to tell herself that which she knows? because she is still hopeful TLC and Gaviscon will mend her) but her protestations will grow fainter as the day progresses and by evening she will acknowledge what I know, that Depression, ‘the bane of my bloody life’ she says, is back. And we will make a pact: ‘you must get up when you wake up, Mum so we can drink tea and walk in the garden’. She nods her commitment.  I do not know why Depression is worse in the morning and nor do I understand why forcing herself up despite the yoke of this deadening sickness’s weight is better than lying in bed, experience has just taught me this is so. And she will promise me, on her life, on mine, on all that is good and true and hopeful, that she will be up and dressed as I ask.

And tomorrow morning I will encounter still-drawn curtains and locked doors and my pleas will fall on deaf ears

Bad Memories

February 13, 2017

I prompt mum.

‘You remember? You remember…’

And I cite an occasion, a place, a person.

Often she looks blank but then, so as not to disappoint me because, apparently, judging by my insistence, the way I nudge her arm and fix my gaze upon her, it’s important to her daughter that she remember, she says ‘Yes’, obligingly, obediently, but her brow is creased with a question mark.

I know when she really does remember and when she does not.

And so sometimes, if her humour is good, if she is well rested, if I am confident that pressing harder will not cause distress, and if the remembering is important to the tale I am recounting so that we can indulge in some continuum to the story, I add more detail, to the occasion, the place, the person. I hope that in colouring the picture in, I may throw it into sharper relief so she really will remember.

And then, sometimes, as I accentuate my description with detail, delight floods her expression, ‘oh yes!’, she exclaims and then I know she really does remember.

And then it feels like a small, delicious victory.

*******************

Mum and I are walking, we are talking about things that have been.

‘You remember Mum? You remember …’

She thinks then tilts her head and smiles, ‘Sometimes’, she says, ‘sometimes I don’t remember everything and sometimes I think that’s a good thing; I think I have forgotten some of the things that used to make me sad’.

And I laugh. ‘That’s good, Mum; bad memories aren’t worth hanging onto.’

The Imperatives of Useful Occupation

February 12, 2017

I encounter Mum in the garden. She is pacing, a hanky in her hand, red-eyed.

You ok Ma?

No, she says, not really.

What’s up Ma?

Oh I don’t know; I just feel so bloody useless. I can’t do anything.

And her eyes fill and spill.

When my mum cries I feel afraid; I associate her tears with months and months and months of deepdarkdespair where she is quite lost to our reach. My mum has rarely articulated normal sadness – the transient kind, the kind that comes and overwhelms and then goes. Even when my dad died my mum carried on in her dry-eyed, straight-backed stoic way, making necessary decisions, making sure we were all ok. Because she was well.

When my mum is sad, somebody tiptoes across my grave and my hackles rise for I fear a sickness, her sickness, is approaching with stealth.

When mum had her stroke I asked her neuro, ‘does this mean, does this huge trauma to her brain mean she will not suffer from Depression again?’ I was sure that a strike substantial enough to rob her of an ability to read would also steal away melancholy.

No’, he said, ‘different part of the brain’, he said.

But Mum has been well since her stroke. A paradox. Thin, frail, confused in the early months but essentially well – better, certainly, than she had been in the preceding two years when Depression had gnawed away at mind, body, soul so that her eyes were enormous and afraid in a thin face, so that she had to use a safety pin to secure trousers which sank at her waist.

I take Mum’s arm and guide her around the garden.

Why do you feel useless, Mum? I ask (as if I need to: she can no longer navigate a book easily, or her iPad or the remote control, cannot remember much, can no longer drive, manage her own money, most days she cannot recall the name of the places she has lived and where she lives now).

Because, she says, I can’t even write a letter.

Sometimes, sometimes, on days like this I cannot know which is worse: my mum who is so lost she mostly does not know where she is – other than with me, in the place I live so that I can be relied on to remind her where she lives – or my mum, with her sharpasatack intellect swallowed by such wretchedness all she could do was read – and read she did, losing herself in fat tomes that lent brief respite from desolation. There is no great genius without some touch of madness, said Aristotle.

Mum misses her words and her books. She misses them terribly.

And she can no longer touch type – which she once did with such haste her keyboard clattered a tune of happy occupation, because the connection between her fingers, her eyes and her brain is more tangled now so that it all becomes an exercise in tearful frustration. For a while we tried to dictate letters to the screen but as an entirely alien entity to her, it was even more difficult to learn to use than the Wretched iPad. In the end we settled upon hand written notes, my mother has always written in a beautiful measured hand, which I photograph and send as emailed attachments to whomever it is she would like to communicate with. It’s a system that mostly works well. Until she comes upon a letter she has written, re-reads it and stomps around the garden enraged and weeping, ‘because I wrote such bloody rubbish that he/she will think I am quite stupid’. Because she has repeated a phrase, misspelt a word. When she was first admitted to hospital writing her name was a challenge and drawing a clock face rendered a neat numbered roundness to something abstract and Picasso ish. It is hard to make her understand how far she has come because all she knows is that she is still not back at the point from where she fell, she won’t ever be.

Nobody thinks that Mum, I say quietly. But not being able to read with the instinctive ease with which she once did – now it is an exercise in labour, not love – and not being able to write with confidence and grace and eloquence as she once did is further evidence to herself that she is Useless.

We continue to walk and it occurs to me that gardening does not need reading or writing, it needs only sight and interest and perhaps a packet of seeds and a pair of secateurs. If I, I wonder, create for her, a small potting shed where she can watch lavender grow, witness the new green buds pop from cuttings of bougainvillea and geranium and the gorgeous shrub whose name I don’t know and which sits deadly, disinterested and uninteresting all day only to begin to spill the most glorious perfume at precisely 7.45 every evening, if I create for her a small space surrounded by greenness that needs tending and nurturing and encouragement, will she then feel less Bloody Useless.

This is the tragic, unkind irony of advancing age: the fierce human want to remain engaged and vital and helpful and useful and the appalling despair that comes with losing the ability to do all the things that you once did unthinkingly: reading a book, writing a letter.