It just goes on and on, this.
I think of other women I know who looked after their mothers in their homes, for their final years.
How long did it last?
One friend said 8 years. Another’s mother lived to be over 100.
That friend of my mother’s, who lived up the road, hung on for years and years, though her daughter lived next door with her husband, not in with her. But she and her husband were both off like greyhounds from the trap as soon as she died. Only held there so long by that thin dusty thread of life, which just would not leave.
Whenever Mum used to go and visit her, she came home so depressed - afraid she, too, would linger like that, half blind and barely able to focus on the present, so lost was she in her past. Now I’m afraid this will, indeed, be what happens to Mum.
And I openly, consciously, long for it to be over.
Please, Mum, it’s time. Please go now.
Put so baldly, it’s brutal. But I know I am not a brutal person, so I let it be what it is.
Life is not so easily extinguished. You don’t just die. It takes something to make it end. Mum’s breathing is terrible, she’s tiny and bent and thin, but she’s quite well. She eats like a small child, but still enjoys her food. Her bowels pass. She toddles in a small circle, clumping her walker along the carpet, her complexly twisted spine listing over to the right, so she’d fall if not for my steadying hands on her small, brittle hips.
Her only way of passing the time is to listen to music or watch her TV programmes. All turned up so loud the house feels like it’s filled with a dense, syrupy membrane of sound, which I have to push through as I move round, doing my duties, or sitting in the study, at my computer, trying to think anything at all, under the crashing waterfall of music on my head.
I’m slowly turning into a ghost. It’s I who am slowly dying. There’s no way of saying that I am leading my own life still, somehow, in this situation. I’m just waiting. It’s me that has to try to keep breathing, not Mum.
It would be alright if this was the first time I’d ever looked after someone, been of service. If I’d lived a life of my own choosing and flown my own trajectory, and only now chosen to do something for another. To sample a different flavour of life in my mature years, where the intent is simply to be there for another, no longer to strive and achieve for myself. I know people who’ve come to that in their mature years and found doing something for others to be a life-changing and enhancing experience, calling up qualities in themselves they never knew were there.
But that’s not true for me.
I’ve looked after other people all my life. Always put my own dreams and ambitions to one side, thinking “I’ll do that one day, when I have the head-space.” My inner spaces were always full of the clamour of someone else’s needs.
It was a form of cowardice really.
Believing I had no right to put myself forward as an artist or writer. All the voices of family and school reverberating inside the cavities of my self-belief, that only other people became writers, or illustrators. I never could see how I could get from the world of my imagination, where projects would form fully, in Technicolor, into actual corporeal life. There was a massive reality gap between A and B that I had no idea how to bridge. If something did find its way into writing, as it did in notebook after notebook, what then? What was the next step?
Back then, my whole life was a kind of waiting – while I got on with jobs, and marriages, and seemed so strong and decisive. On the outside I walked my own path, even defied ordinariness, while inside I was waiting, just waiting, for my fairy godmother to say “You shall go to the ball.”
It was a moment of epiphany when I decided no-one was going to live my life except me, back when I left the Dreadful Mistake husband. That was when I realized about this waiting thing that I’d been doing all my life. Waiting to be rescued from my tower.
Even now I remember dreams I used to have about a trapped ghost or some surreal half-human creature that lived in the attic of my life. I’d be trying to love it and bring it out of the darkness, but the dream would always turn away into some other busyness and I’d forget about the creature – my own lost self.
When I got away from the Dreadful Mistake that was my decision to end that waiting, and rescue myself.
And I did.
At that time I saw myself as a large rambling house, full of secret rooms. Locked doors would open out into beautiful, sun-filled, empty rooms, or dark terrifying cellars, or a confusing labyrinth of corridors and rooftops that I would chase along, until every last room and hidden space had been opened, explored and redeemed. Pulled in from a floating, balloon-like separation, to be connected, known and celebrated.
And I did.
And then, of course, the house changed, and became a new landscape, leading to further journeys.
And each time I’d end up looking after someone, not really doing my own thing, still waiting for my chance. The same thing over and over, a hard, spiralling learning.
So, now, here I am, fully facing up to this habitual cowardice of mine. The way I bind myself to another’s needs, rather than meeting my own. Living in a dream-world, because it takes a self-belief I am too lazy to cultivate to make the dream a reality.
And this time I really can’t do what I’ve always, somehow, managed to do in the past – leave.
The last, terrible, parting that brought me here, to my mother’s house, has healed. Plans for the future are based on all that I have learned from my often difficult path through life. Everything is ready, and I know I have the inner resources to create what I am planning.
But I can’t leave.
This time that really isn’t a choice.
I’ve thought of it. Oh yes. Even talked to mother about “Enough is enough” and “It’s time for me to get on with my own life now, Mum.” But it was simply not possible, for completely practical reasons.
So I stay.
And look after someone.
Just as I always have done.
I think there is a difference – a big one – in that this time I am conscious in my dream, not just half-numb and ignoring what I’m doing to myself.
And the strings of attachment are not made so much of love or guilt. I am simply living with this woman who gave birth to me, and whose face I wear, but all resemblance ends there. We’re comfortable with each other, in that day-to-day way, but nothing else.
When I ask myself what I truly feel for this woman, my mother, I have no answer. She’s just there. Always has been.
Maybe when she’s gone I’ll be able to answer that question.