Hello, Mum, how are you? Did you go to see the swans in Worcester yesterday? Yes, it’s lovely to see you too. I’m OK. Busy. Oh, Sean’s doing fine, moans about school though he’s enjoying it really. Dad says you’ve been helping him with the jigsaw puzzle. The rain looks pretty set in, doesn’t it? Shall I make you a coffee before I start work?
By the way, Mum… I had a strange dream the other night.
Dad and I were living in a house next door to very rowdy neighbours, who argued and played loud music all day long. It was summer, their garden was daubed with cheap, gaudy plastic, my thoughts all had jagged edges and my nerves wanted to crawl right out of my body. I couldn’t stand it any longer, I had to get away from them.
I ran off, and found myself on a steeply slanting lane, scabby with moss. The surface was slippery, the lane so narrow that I would be clipped by any passing car. My fingers, my arms, the nape of my neck were creeping with that ache you get when you fear you might fall. Down, down, down I ran. Not thinking where I was headed, eyes fixed on the tarmac, all my effort concentrated on keeping my footing. I was a child, no more than ten years old.
When I came to a halt, I realised I was still standing outside my house. I spoke in an adult’s voice. No, I would not uproot my child again. There had been too much disruption already. It wasn’t fair. We would stay here, and I would make it right. While saying this, I was looking at a girl in the garden. As she raised her head, I saw that the girl was me.
Then I woke up.
Thing is, Mum, I felt different after that dream. It was one of those lightbulb moments. Despite your absence from the dream, it was indirectly about you – which is to say, I have to mother myself now, don’t I?
Ugh, I just made myself shudder and now my scalp is prickling. I’m still horribly awkward around the whole inner-child-nurturing thing – like, in fact, a child twisting her dress in her fist at the front of class. If anybody were to suggest to my face that I needed to care for my inner child, I would stamp my feet, to deflect the childish urge to… Well, I’d get a strop on, that’s for sure. Thank goodness I don’t take my truculent side too seriously. You know that, Mum (knew that? God, I have no idea what you remember, but you sometimes surprise me on that score). We often smiled about my contrary nature, and that made it okay. I made sense to you, and I trusted that life had taught you the difference between sense and non-sense.
It was remarkable, really, the simplicity of your understanding of me.
Anyway, what I was going to say before I got all crotchety about nothing – Alzheimer’s has seen to it that you can no longer mother me. I mean, it happens to us all, we all end up having to look after ourselves, I’m NOT making a big deal about it. I’m just a bit scared, that’s all.
Is it wrong to still want to be mothered? At the age of fifty-one, I find myself wondering if my independence is a gimmick. It’s been easy to bristle at interference in my life, reject help, brush off advice, refuse to be told what to do, and console myself that, one day, I can always retreat to a remote cottage and surround myself with dogs. The truth is, the security of your presence enabled me to concoct that defiant version of myself. The truth is, my behaviour could often have been likened to a toy knight brandishing a flimsy plastic spear. Yet I have felt far less vulnerable since that dream. It made me understand that I can, of course, look after myself, I am looking after myself. Even though I don’t always want to, despite feeling like a child dealt a sleight of hand by time. Don’t we all feel that way, now and then?
Another thing about that dream: my days were blighted by unruly people and their noise, and I had to find a way to live alongside them, just as I am still finding a way to feel and not-feel for you, to be detached yet broken-hearted. To be at peace with my untidy feelings about your unremarkable, fanfare-less retreat, and not pick away at this cauterized sadness.
Do I have any right to be sad? I’ve consigned you to the sidings of my life for the last decade, kept my conversations with you brief, rolled my eyes at the endless same-old-stories, wrestled with the sheer exasperation of you becoming an even more entrenched version of yourself with each passing year… I’m sorry about that. I was too busy being busy, too stressed being stressed, to find that quiet place that would have gifted me the patience to just sit and listen. Great Uncle Bill always used to say: listen over and over to a person’s stories and jokes and react as if you are hearing them fresh – no matter how many times you’ve heard them before. Ah, Uncle Bill, with your kind, amused eyes and your knack for making people feel special…
The pathetically small things I can do for you now – making you cups of milky instant coffee, bringing you plates of Digestive biscuits and Dairy Milk chocolate, rubbing your arms to warm you up, correcting you when you declare yourself to be over a hundred years old – they’re almost nothing, and yet they’re all I have. And they connect me to you – so, not quite nothing, after all. Life buoys at sea, you could say…
Oh! Mum, the robin’s back! He just hopped behind the birdbath. They’re not really red-breasted at all, are they? The colour puts me in mind of Heinz tomato soup. And look – the leaf buds are starting to open already on the acer… Do you remember that big, dark old painting that used to hang in the living room back in Grenoside? It was a Bruegel. Here, I’ll show you some of his paintings on my phone to jog your memory. I’m translating some texts for an art museum in the Netherlands, and – what’s that? Wow! No, not the Rijksmuseum, Mum, another one, a regional museum.
Soothing, isn’t it, just sitting, and looking at the garden… Oh yes, it would be lovely to get some snowdrops planted for next year… There are three wood pigeons in the tree now, can you see them? They’re so plump, it’s a wonder they don’t fall off the branch. Has that fox been back? Yep, it’s still raining. Though more of a drizzle, really. It’s quite gentle.