It was Mothers’ Day in the UK yesterday. I spent much of the day uploading pictures of my mother onto Facebook. I chose pictures from the past, from her heyday. I’ve been lying in bed thinking about her. I want to write an eloquent piece about what she meant…sorry, means, to me. She is fast approaching the end of her life and I notice that I already tend to think of her in the past tense. But my thoughts and memories jumble and re-jumble as I try to write them down. Her current situation is so appalling, so tragic and painful that I sometimes pray for her release. Then I feel guilty. Out loud, in public, I go through the motions of saying “Well, that’s life… it is natural… we all die sometime… I hope she goes quickly now… she’s had a good life.” But I don’t really feel any of that. I just want to scream and cry and stamp my feet. “I don’t want my mummy to die. It isn’t fair! But I don’t want her to suffer any more!” One thing is for sure, though. She doesn’t deserve this slow, miserable end. No one does.
My children can no longer recall a time when she could talk and it breaks my heart that they will never know her as I did. Even I struggle to remember her voice; the recording of her reading a collection of her poems doesn’t sound familiar. Somehow, perhaps because she is making an effort to be clear and precise in her reading, she is no longer speaking naturally. It is not the voice I want to hear. The voice that frequently praised and occasionally scolded me.
Mum had been a university lecturer in South Africa (English and Philosophy), later she worked for the Board of Conscientious Objectors in post-war Britain. She was a poet, scholar and writer of fiction and non-fiction pretty much all her life, with more than 25 books published. She was even crowned the Bard of Bath.
The only way she could fit everything in was to get up at four every morning. After working for a few hours in peace and quiet, she got us all up for breakfast, work and school. Then she worked all day until we returned, ready to welcome us graciously when we arrived. I was usually first to get home; as the youngest my day finished earlier. She would read aloud to me what she’d written that day, while I would sit on the floor in front of her, drinking tea and dunking Gingernut biscuits. She did it all. (Except for light housework… she had Kathleen to help with that). Mum was our slave and she did it willingly with good grace. Cooking for us; nursing, encouraging, entertaining us. Hosting dinner parties for dad’s publishing colleagues and our intellectual expat South African friends. Her hard work went unnoticed, until her heart gave way and we had to divvy up her duties. Only then did we appreciate how much she did everyday.
She saw beauty in everything… “Look at that lovely wall!” She once said while we were stuck in rush hour London traffic. She complimented (and simultaneously insulted) two punks on the up escalator at Brixton underground station by saying loudly, “I love your hair!” She took us round the museums of South Kensington and the British Museum. (We queued for hours to see the Tutankhamun exhibition). We had picnics in Shirley Woods. We followed her to the rims of volcanoes, just to see over the edge. She guided us enthusiastically round ancient ruins in Greece and Italy and art galleries across Europe. She pointed out spectacular sunsets, rainbows, bird songs. She was secretary and regular contributor to the now famous Dulwich Poetry Group in the 60s and, bizarrely, a friend to the rock star, Tina Turner. She was interested in everything, and frequently took evening classes. Geology, Pottery, Archaeology, Stained glass, Hieroglyphics and more. All were studied and explored.
At home she experimented with knitting and textile design; creating embroidered wall hangings, patchwork quilts and floaty silk batik scarves and dresses. Her patchworks were like her: informal. Wild, chaotic and somewhat random shapes holding together the memories of dresses and curtains past.
Dancing at my wedding in 1994. Wearing the dress she designed and made. Batiked parachute silk.
She also experimented with astral travelling in the 70s, as part of the research for her esoteric novels which incorporated the ideas of reincarnation, out of body experiences and so on. When we cleared out her home, ready for sale, we discovered sketch books full of her flower paintings – documenting every flower in our garden and every flower she came across on her travels.
She created a maze of smooth white pebbles on the lawn of the back garden and she would walk it, deep in thought or meditation. I walked it too, to unwind from the stresses of school. We didn’t have a washing machine at home, nor many of other ‘mod-cons’ that other parents seemed to value. But we went on wonderful holidays. As my father’s income increased, we journied further afield. Holidays, mum thought, were the key to education.
Again, on clearing her home, we had to dispose of her amazing private library. Heart breaking to do (and mistakes were made in the rush) – nearly every volume contained her hand written notes; cross referencing or questioning historical or philosophical points.
She was a loving, chatty, intellectual woman, who was also fuss-pot and worrier… Fiercely protective of us, yet the first to encourage us to go out into the world. She was all that and more until the Progressive Aphasia took over and destroyed the part of her brain which deals with communication. It started innocently enough. No one paid much attention at first. After all, who hasn’t struggled to pick the right word from the over-crowed lexicon of a busy mind? But it happened more and more often. Pauses in her sentences became longer as she searched for the mot juste before giving up in frustration and using a lesser word in its place. Once a speech therapist came to the house and tested her by showing her flash cards. The woman held up a picture of a lobster. Mum struggled for a few minutes before saying, “crustacean…. underwater crustacean!” We thought it funny. No one worried then…. except her. She was terrified. Words were the tools of her trade. She was a wordsmith, a story teller, a teacher. My brother Strat encouraged her to write her thoughts and memories down, without worrying too much about form. They weren’t poems as such… just collections of things she wanted us to know and understand about her and her life. This is one she wrote about my husband’s glassblowing activity. Dated 25 Feb 2010. She was a firm supporter of Chris. She introduced us in the first place and I can thank her for my happy marriage and beautiful children. She loved his glass and always had it where she could see it best.
Blown in long metal pipes.
Molten In fiery furnaces…
It becomes heavenly,
When the sunlight
Doctors had her brain scanned, looking for a sign of a stroke. “We can’t tell. If it were a stroke, she will probably recover,” they said, finally. It wasn’t and she didn’t. Within a year or so she could only utter the odd word amongst unintelligible garbled sounds. But her mind remained lucid. Terror and depression followed. You could see it in her eyes. During this phase she would cry a lot. When we didn’t understand the gestures and sounds she made, she cried with frustration. The little musings she wrote at my brother’s instigation stopped. She struggled enough to write our orders: “make the tea” or “water the plants”. Carers come to clean and do the shopping. She wrote lists for them. Until, they too, became unintelligible.
Writing one of her little notes.
In November 2013 her notes made little sense and she hadn’t uttered a word for at least a year. We tried to cheer her up, making light of the fact we didn’t understand her; blaming ourselves rather than her. We did work out that “put a shed” meant “go to bed”, and “I’ve lost Flonol’s panda” meant that she had lost a picture of a panda that Florence had painted. But we never, ever, worked out what “I don’t shoot fairies” referred to. She had stopped crying by this point; as if she was resigned to her fate – she no longer fought the inevitable. But in any case she could still smile and follow a conversation. But old age is cruel and her physical state was pitiful too. The chemist delivered a weekly dosset box, brimming with drugs for her heart, arthritic pain and other things. Morphine patches, and an assortment of eye drops for the glaucoma and macular degeneration. Then like many little old ladies, she started to fall. My brother Julian, who checked on her daily, frequently found her on the floor, bloodied and bruised. In December 2013 she fell so often and so badly that she was taken into hospital and, after a grim five week stay, she was taken to a care home.
Don’t get me wrong, the care home workers are good, we have no complaints. But it is what it is. God’s waiting room. All note writing has stopped. All sounds too. There is not emotion on her face. The only expression in her eyes is anxiety. After Strat’s death the anxiety was joined by despair. Her jaw hangs slack and she no longer even attempts to communicate. I have the impression that she is still in there sometimes. At other times it is as if she has left via a back door… her mind has, temporarily, gone off somewhere. But when she is ‘at home with the lights on’, it breaks my heart. It would be more bearable for all concerned, her included, if she ‘lost her marbles’ completely. By comparison to what she is living through, Alzheimer’s looks like a walk in the park. The torture for us all, is knowing that (at least sometimes) she is aware of her plight. She is locked into herself and out from us… unable to express herself any more.
My children are experiencing something I never had to go through myself; the decline and loss of close relatives – first my lovely brother, Stratford, and now my wonderful mother, Moyra. Florence admitted yesterday that it frightens her. She doesn’t want to see me “end up like Grandma”. I never had grandparents in my life. My father’s mother – the formidable Florence Zerffi – died when I was only 18 months old. I only met my mother’s father when he lay dying in a hospital bed in South Africa. I was eight. But my memories of him were over shadowed by my delight in our two month holiday in South Africa.
Her state is changing daily now. Trips to A&E are more frequent (either due to falls or suspected stroke) and every time the phone rings now my heart skips a beat. It could be The Call.
I saw her a few weeks ago after a bad fall (pictured above) and before the ‘stroke scare’. But I didn’t ‘say goodbye’. How do you do that? My heart never wants to let her go and my words of farewell refuse to form themselves on my lips. I hope that by writing this somehow she will know how much I love her. Stranger things have happened. She believed in the power of thought. My thoughts of love will reach her.