Tuesday, 23 December 2014

89. Thinking of my mother...

Do you think about your mother? a friend asked me once. Do you miss her?

I have wanted to write about this for months. In fact I have written about it, but the writing has been private; it just wasn't blog-ready. How can you ever really capture your heart in words?

...It's like trying to explain your faith, or your love, or the meaning of life: such things are bigger than words. And because they are bigger than words, they lose some of their truth and their vastness as soon as you confine them to the words that are meant to describe them.

...It's like being asked to describe someone's character in three words. The words you choose are undoubtedly true, but there are thousands of other words you've had to leave out, and they would have been just as true.

...It's like that parable of the blind men who are presented with and elephant and asked to describe it. They end up arguing, because the man near the trunk says that an elephant is like a snake; the one near the leg says it's like a tree; the one near the tail says it's like a piece of rope.

I am worried that if I tell you about my mother's loss, I will give you a tree but leave out the trunk.

Yet my mother's dying, her new absence, has been such a fundamental part of my cancer journey that this blog would be incomplete if I left it out. So I've planned and planned this blog post, but when is a good time to release it? I tried writing something at the beginning of November, around Remembrance Week, when the churches and my mother's nursing home held memorial services (I couldn't go but my sisters kept me in touch; they even filmed the song my younger sister and her friend contributed, which was so moving that it had me sobbing at my computer). But I couldn't get past the words-don't-capture-it problem.

Now it is Christmas time. Perhaps there is no better time to write about a mother's love for her child.

So let me try again, hoping that it won't spoil your Christmas; hoping, rather, that it will shine a light on your Christmas, as it does on mine.

Let me try to speak of the unspeakable.

(Warning: this is a long blog post and you've got Christmas coming up, so you may wish to skip it, or leave it for another, less busy day.)

The quick (and perhaps surprising) answer to my friend's question is: No, I don't miss my mother now.

I haven't had the space or the energy to miss her.

It is undoubtedly different for my sisters, whose daily lives have changed without my mother: the daily worries, the frequent visits, the caring. But for me, here in London, my mother's absence has not changed things much. The truth is that my mother hadn't been part of my daily life, or even my monthly life, for several years. 

Four years before she died, my mother was given a devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. We didn't think she would survive (cancer of the pancreas is particularly nasty). But she was a survivor, and once again, the thought of her children stopped her from dying. She was lucky: one of the few patients with this diagnosis whose cancer is caught early enough and is operable. She decided to have invasive surgery that few people of her age (she was 80) can cope with, and she crawled back from the brink.

But it speeded up the advance of other symptoms. My sisters and I were convinced that something was going wrong with her brain, but the professionals (including the dementia clinic) had dismissed a dementia diagnosis. Instead, they sent her a psychiatric nurse for regular chats, which she enjoyed, but which couldn't stop the symptoms. She was finally diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Two years before she died, she moved into a nursing home. Everyone (except her) thought it was fantastic. She had her own sitting room with her own furniture, bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette. She had nurses keeping a eye on her.

My mother was desperately unhappy with her diminished life. No more cycling! She never stopped complaining about that, and about the many other losses that came with increasing mental and physical frailty. She cried about it. This was hard for us, because my mother was not one to complain, and until that awful cancer diagnosis, I'd never seen her cry.

It also meant that my mother, who used to come and stay with us in London several times a year, could no longer do so. And in the past few years, we rarely spoke on the phone. When I did ring her, it was (I am ashamed to admit) out of a sense of duty. Her deafness, her slight confusion (although she never lost sight of who we were and what we were up to), her uncharacteristically vocal misery: it was hard.

We had turned into carers, cajoling and mothering her.

I found myself turning impatient, unable to listen to her woes. That was hard for me: the fact that I could be endlessly patient with others, listening to them and to their problems with an open heart, but somehow I couldn't do it for my own mother. She was my mother. Somehow, it seemed that being an understanding listener wasn't part of a child's job description, even if the child is grow up.

I don't miss all that.

Perhaps if I went back to Holland, the answer to Do you miss her? would be different. 
I haven't been back since the funeral. I am trying to visualise going back to my home town and not seeing her there. During all the three decades of living in England, my visits to Holland have been punctuated by visits to my mother. Visiting a grave instead of seeing my mother will undoubtedly make reality hit.

Hm. See? This is where my words, however true, point you in the wrong direction. Because of course I miss my mother.

Of course I do. I was brought up short only yesterday, when the Christmas CD I was listening to suddenly gave me Bach's beautiful Jesu, joy of man's desiring. Once, years ago, when my mother was staying with us and she heard me trying to play this on the piano, she rushed in and said, I love that melody! You can play that at my funeral! So we did, and hearing it again all of a sudden brought back my mother's coffin being carried out of the church by my husband and my son; it brought back my mother.

Tears welling up. Of course I miss her.

But during the last years of her life, she lost the ability to mother us. Yes, her love was there, and her pride in us and in her grandchildren. But mostly, her worries were there, for us, but especially for herself.

Perhaps the hole was dug when she became ill with pancreatic cancer. Much of the hole she would leave in our lives was already there by the time she died. I think that is probably true for many families who lose part of someone they love to a debilitating illness - especially dementia.

But here is what has surprised me this year.

I knew that people leave hole when they die. I didn't know that by dying, people can also fill a hole. They can leave a hole and fill a hole at the same time.

The hole-left-behind is fairly easy to describe.

The absence of a mother who has been ever-present, always there, ready to receive me, ready to visit me. The never-again voice, touch, smile, hug, admonishment. Her skin, her eyes, her pleasure in seeing me, her coffee with a biscuit (or better still, cake). Her unconditional love, despite her many suggestions for ways to improve our lives (starting with our haircuts).

The foundation of security on which I built my life.

But the hole filled: that is an unexpected gift.

It was hard, those weeks when I faced a mastectomy and she lay dying. It seemed an impossible crash of circumstances, yet I also knew that it could not be otherwise. Somehow, the two seemed linked. My mother didn't know that I had cancer. I am a passionate advocate for truth-telling, but I knew that her dementia would prevent her from coping with my diagnosis.

But on some unspoken level I felt that she did know, and that dying was her gift to me. Her unrelenting distress at her own situation, her frailty, her need for care, and the worries that brought us (my sisters bore the brunt of this): I suspected that I would not have the space and energy for it all. Not physically, not emotionally.

Once the chemotherapy started, I would not be able to hide my ill-health. Worse than that: how would I cope with the constant worry about my mother, knowing that if anything happened to her, I would - for the first time in my life - not be able to go and support her, or support my sisters?

(And how true did this turn out to be. Several times, during the lowest points of chemo/misery, my sisters and I have sighed: Thank goodness we don't have to worry about mum anymore... How would we have coped with it all if she was still here?)

I cannot capture in words the heartbreak and beauty of my mother's slow dying, nor the profound transformation of my final moments with her.

How many people get the opportunity to share such a moment with a dying parent, a moment when you are both deeply and openly aware that death is imminent and this is the last time? I have seen enough deaths to know that the moment is either fairly unexpected (yes, even in a hospice: the family has said Bye, see you tomorrow but then the person dies in the night), or it follows a time of unconsciousness.

But because I couldn't stay with my mother until the end, because I had to leave her to have my mastectomy, my final moments with her were extraordinary. It is one reason why I feel that my cancer and the loss of my mother are so closely and so importantly linked.

My mother was so close to death that I had not expected her to still be conscious on that evening of our final parting, but she was.

It meant I couldn't just tiptoe out. Neither could I bring myself to say goodbye like so many times before, Cheerio, I'm going now, I'm off to London.

I had to make sure that we both knew the enormity of what was happening. My sisters and I had already told my mother several times that she was dying. That it was OK to let go. (Why oh why, we kept wondering, was she hanging on well beyond physical endurance?) But she had never acknowledged it. Was she too frightened? Too muddled? Too deaf?

That final night, she had barely been awake, but now I found her suddenly lucid. So I put in her redundant hearing aids (didn't want to shout my final words at the top of my voice, and still risk her mis-hearing them) and put my face close to hers.

Mum, I said, I have to go and leave you now.

I know, she whispered.

Mum, I won't be able to come back. I can't ever come back and see you again.

I know, she said again.

But did she? Did she really know? I wondered. I simply had to spell it out, to be sure; to stop me wondering forever after.

Mum, I said, you are dying. You are going to die very soon, and I won't ever see you again.

She looked at me, holding my eyes with the intense gaze only babies and lovers have, the gaze that reduces the world to just the two of you.

Yes, she said. Yes. I know.

With tears running down my cheeks, my face so close to her vulnerable open face, I suddenly I heard myself say: Mum, I will see you again in Heaven.

I will never forget what happened then. It has sustained me throughout my illness.

My mother's face was suddenly transformed: that is the only way I can describe it. She suddenly smiled such a beautiful, deep and genuine smile, she looked at me with such honesty and compassion and joy, it was as if I was looking into the face of God, of Buddha, of Eternity: I was looking at Heaven.

And in that instant, all our worries and fears fell away. All that caring, cajoling, reassuring, patronising of an elderly mother. All that anxiety about her life, her death. It was as if for the first time ever, my mother could see Heaven, and could finally believe that she had a place in it. 

YES, she said.

And suddenly, the hole was filled. For the first time in years, she could be my mother; I could be her child.

I could let go of mothering my mother. Choking on my tears, I asked her something that I could not have asked anyone else. Not in the same way. Because she was my mother, and I suddenly knew that I needed her in a way that had never been this obvious.

Mum, I sobbed, when you are in Heaven, will you pray for me, and for my children?

She looked at me with such love and such joy, a joy I have never, ever seen in her before (and which had definetely been absent during her final years). It was as if she had finally found herself - and in doing so, she had found the eternal love of a mother for her child. 

Yes, she said, smiling. Yes, I will do that.

It was a promise that, like my wedding vows, will sustain me for the rest of my life. 

Her hands, so weak, so old, so trembling, tried to bring my hand to her pursing lips. Thank you, she whispered.

I embraced her, kissed her, Oh mum, you have been such a wonderful mother. Thank you, thank you... I love you. Goodbye mum. I am going now.

I turned once more when I walked out of her room and I saw her looking at me, still smiling, trying to wave.

Where my mother and I said our final goodbyes
I never saw her again. I cried and cried and cried after that. I've cried every time I told this story (and my listeners, bless them, have cried along with me for good measure). I cried when I first scribbled it down, sitting in the Surgical Admission Lounge less than two days later, waiting for my name to be called to have my mastectomy (I know, not an obvious place to be writing such things, but I was worried that the anaesthetic would muddle my memories of the exact words, the exact touches). I am crying now, typing this up more than six months later.

Amidst all the distress of my mother's final illness, and all the distress of my cancer diagnosis and the impending mastectomy, there it was. One of the most beautiful moments of my life. Devastating, but beautiful.

With my mother in 1964 (age 10 months)...
...in 1976 (age 12)...
...and in 2014, in her nursing home, before we both got ill

The most important thing a mother can give her child is absolute and unconditional love.

(And, I suppose, a father - but I wouldn't know about that.)

You may clash, you may argue, you may get annoyed, but the bottom line is that your mother loves you no matter what you do. My mother may not have liked everything we did - she may, at times, not even have liked a daughter very much - but she always, always loved us. Wanted the best for us. Put our needs before her own.

That is a solid foundation for living your life: knowing that you are worthy of love. I have found that the foundation doesn't crumble when the builder dies.

Now that my mother is gone, it may be expected that I miss that love; a hole left behind. But instead, a hole has been filled.

Perhaps this is especially so because I have been ill with cancer. Had my mother been alive, I would have had to hide my low moments, my illness, my distress.

But I find that now she has died, I can simply summon her. I don't need it often, but sometimes, when the day is bleak and the bones are weary and the tears are near the surface, I find myself whispering, Mum, mum, I'm so ill.

And there she is, sitting on the edge of my bed.

In life, my mother could sometimes gloss over my problems or concerns, try to make helpful comments, suggest a bike ride (her cure-all for all woes) or, failing that, a better hairdresser. But if something was really serious and it was clear that no amount of cycling would solve the situation (a miscarriage, say) she would simply be there and acknowledge the pain. Oh my child. That is terrible.

That's what she does now.

That's why I don't really miss her: I don't feel that I have lost her.  Not really. I feel as if I have found her. She has been with me throughout my cancer treatment.

She has been more  present to me in recent months tha she has been for years and years.

There is another hidden gift in all this. Whenever I feel guilty about not being able to do things for my children, being in bed or in hospital or just stranded on a chair, I think how in the end, that mattered most between my mother and I was how much she loved me. Not how much she did for me: simply, how much she loved me.

And then I know that however ill I might be, I can still build that fundamental foundation for my own children.

I don't think I have finished grieving. Perhaps I haven't even started grieving properly, but am just delaying things until I am better. When I think of my mother properly, I feel so sad that she is no longer here. Sometimes, that makes me cry. 

But I also feel warm, filled with love and gratitude. And I know that the day will come when I think of her, perhaps hearing a strand of Jesu, joy of man's desiring or looking at a sunny day that would have made her jump on her bike, and I will smile, and smile.

There she goes, my mother!

Christmas can be hard for those who are missing someone they love, and especially those who have lost someone this year.

I hope that this Christmas, you too will be able to think with a smile of the people you love, past and present, who are the foundations of your life.

I am now going to take a break from blogging until after the New Year.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE, and thank you for sticking with me throughout this turbulent year.

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