Monday 24 March 2008

throwing mum away

It’s like an archaeological dig clearing out a parent’s home. Every cupboard, every drawer divulges some artefact that you remember from elsewhere in your ancient childhood.

Then there are the geological strata of purchasing to go through, where useful items like, say, batteries have been bought, stored, covered by something, then bought and stored again in repeated cycles. Empty canisters, used products are added to the heap, unaccountably. Peeling away these layers of carelessness is depressing. Once again, the bin bags are swelling as I come across new stashes of detritus. Everywhere there is evidence of Mum trying to carry on her life but failing, and stashing the evidence rather than disposing of it. This chaos is indicative of her mental state, it somehow is her, and I’m ruthlessly throwing her away in handfuls.

I am in her bedroom now. The bed is one of those electrically adjustable ones. It’s frozen in a half-up state. I find that a cable has been dislodged. How long has it been like that? Is that another reason why Mum started sleeping in her chair in the Living Room? This is all so pathetic that I feel tears rising.

I sit in the Living Room trying to concentrate on the flickering, malfunctioning TV, eating my microwave meal. It’s too quiet and lonely here, and I write as someone who normally looks for solitude. I think about Mum’s existence here and the tears come.


I’m ending a call with Mum and, as usual, I ask if anyone has called her. No. So…has she called anyone? No.

At this point, it is my habit to suggest someone that Mum might telephone, and the last few times I’ve suggested ‘J’, each time provoking an enthusiastic reaction.

This time, however, Mum says “Now I’m glad you mentioned that because I can’t find my address book…” And Mum launches into a detailed story of how, when she came here, she had packed her (one) suitcase and it had been “full to bursting” and that she remembered putting the address book in a front pocket on the case, but that when she came to unpack it wasn’t there and she wonders if maybe it fell out on her journey.

This is confabulation, a sort of mental bridge that Mum has built across a chasm in her memory to help explain her current situation. She has been doing this for a year or two now. It must be half-conscious because she accepts my own version of events without any argument. I remind her that she didn’t pack or unpack, that I did all her packing and that there were several cases and a couple of car-loads of stuff. What’s more, I say, every time I visit her she tells me that she has no address book even though it’s either lying in plain view beside her telephone or in her dressing table drawer.

Mum grasps onto the idea of the dressing table drawer and says that she’s going straight to her room to look for it.

“And then you’ll phone ‘J’?”

And I get the usual enthusiastic reaction as if the idea of contacting ‘J’ has come right out of the blue.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Happy Easter

I’m down in Sussex in my Mum’s old apartment, trying to make some progress in clearing the place. I’m noticing that every time I make a start on a task I suddenly remember a telephone call I need to make or a blog entry I need to compose. The jobs before me are each manageable in their own right, but I panic at the huge cliff-face rather than focussing on the first hand-holds that will start me on my ascent. This is very peculiar after the huge steps I took in December – why am I freezing now?

So, anyway, for a few minutes I’ll record some news that I’ve missed out over the past few months.

Firstly, Mum is generally very happy in her new home. I never find her in her own bedroom when I ring her – she’s always in the Lounge. She has made a close friend on the household and is very fond of the staff members, even if she can’t recall anyone’s name. She praises the food and loves the way they do her hair. There seem to be some group activities going on from time to time.

Secondly, Mum has had visitors at last. My Brother-in-Law and my Nieces turned up in the country on a whistle-stop tour and visited Mum in February. They told me that they were very impressed with the Home, which came as a tremendous relief to me. D & G also visited and took Mum out to lunch one weekend. They were equally enthusiastic about the Home and told me that I couldn’t have found a better place for Mum. It’s stupid how important this is for me to hear.

I’m a bit disappointed that no-one else has been in contact, though. Those of Mum’s friends who’ve found out where she is now living have all said that they would call her, but they haven’t. It’s like a taboo for them, like if they don’t speak to her it won’t be true. I suppose they just want to remember Mum as she was, but it would be lovely for Mum if they’d call. Yes, she’s a bit confused about where she is and what day it is, but she’s still the same person. All that’s changed is that she’s being looked after now (in a “hotel”, if you believe her).

Right…. I’d better go and get busy with the bubble wrap.

Happy Easter!

Friday 21 March 2008

fight club

Mum’s telling me about a run-in with Screaming Lady. As usual, the crone had come up to her and was calling her a Bitch.

“So I pushed her and she fell over and was screaming even more.”

I’m shocked to hear this. I’ve never known Mum to be violent in any way. Even more shocking to me is Mum’s amused tone of voice. I tell her that she can’t go pushing old people to the ground.

“She’s not old” she says, scornfully, “She’s young… she’s a young woman.”
“Mum, she’s older than you!”
“No…. she’s about… “. I hear Mum ask a staff member…. “She’s 86.”
That’s 7 years older than Mum. I don’t expect Mum to be able to do the calculation, but I would hope that she would realise that 86 is “old”.
“Mum! You can’t push over an 86-year-old. She could break a hip or something. You’ll get into trouble. Can’t you just walk away from her?”
“I suppose so.”

Parenting is so hard.

Wednesday 19 March 2008


Mum calls me: “Hello Greg. I thought I should call you because we haven’t spoken for quite some time now.”

This is Mum’s current favourite opening line, although she rings almost every day. I suspect, to her mind, that it makes her sound competent and like she’s managing me. Mum has thought about this call in advance, and she quickly switches to a theme I haven’t heard for a while: that she’s short of money. Once again I go through the familiar list: she doesn’t need money at the home for things like hair-dressing and chiropody; I’ve left money at Reception for her and she only has to ask for it; in three months she hasn’t once needed money for anything… This is all received as shocking news to Mum and she keeps interjecting with “Really?” or “I didn’t know that!”

Then our talk turns to this weekend. Mum wants to know if I’m going to visit her. I explain that the Easter weekend is the first time since January that I’ll have a chance to travel down South to continue clearing her apartment, and that I’m working in London on Thursday and will continue on to the flat afterwards. I start listing the things I have to get done down there. When I say that I’m going to lift the carpet in the bathroom to find out why the floor is swollen, Mum says: “But there isn’t any carpet in the bathroom – it’s just… lino” and I realise that she is thinking about where she is living now (her new bathroom is a wet-room). I explain that it’s the flat in Sussex I’m travelling down to, not where she is living now. Mum pauses for a moment, but I don’t immediately see the significance.

We’re finishing up the call soon after, and Mum says “Well, I’ll see you at the weekend, then.” I say that, no, I’m travelling down South to work on her old flat. She hesitates again and I suddenly realise something. “Mum… do you know where you’re living now?” Mum is indignant “Of course I do. In the place that… that… we bought for me!” “And where is that, Mum?” And she names her old address down in Sussex.

Mum’s memories of the last 5 months haven’t stuck in her head. This is why she cannot name anyone she’s living with or any of the staff members. Now it seems that she has elided her new home with her last one. I suppose it’s a positive sign that this place feels like home to her. I’m reminded again how good a thing it is that she is being looked after and I think how wretched her life would have been now if I’d not done anything a few months ago.

Sunday 16 March 2008

the way we were

I was in stuck in town recently and expecting a call back home, so I rang my house phone to listen for messages. It turns out that my machine insists on playing every stored message before getting to the new one.

As the first messages played I was transported back to last October and the calls I would get from Mum.

As usual, I feel guilty for this further betrayal in posting these calls but, at the same time, I want to preserve them as a record.

Sunday 9 March 2008


The phone rings once, then stops. A couple of minutes pass and it rings, once, again. Mum's trying to call me.

I'm out of the bath by the time she gets it right. She tells me that everything is fine. She wants to know when I'm visiting next as it "has been a while" but then, when I protest, she claims to remember my visit last Sunday. She tells me that she'll have to go as she needs the toilet. I've worked out that this is her subconscious strategy to avoid facing that she's got anything wrong.

30 minutes later she's back on the line and sounds down in the dumps. I ask if the Screaming Lady is giving her a bad time. No, she says, but someone phoned her with some bad news. She can't remember who it was, but she names one of her relatives and says that the caller told her that he's very ill. Now, this relative died just after Christmas, and I know for a fact that Mum has been told the news 3 times since. I gently remind her and she claims to remember, and says she needs the toilet and that it's only because her life is so hectic nowadays that she made the mistake. Hectic?

As we end the call, I suddenly remember a conversation we once had when I was a teenager. Mum was talking about my childhood and the amazing places we lived while my Dad worked abroad.

"Whatever happens, Greg, no-one can take your memories away from you. You'll always have them."

Funny I should remember that now.

Monday 3 March 2008

Mothering Sunday

I turned up at 1pm with a big bunch of flowers to find Mum at the dining table clearing the last morsel from her plate. The staff member on duty gave me a guilty look - perhaps suddenly remembering that I'd phoned to tell her I was taking Mum out to lunch today. I sometimes feel like pointing out to this place that their web url contains ".org", which stands for "organisation" - something they noticeably lack.

The table was booked for 1:30pm at a Restaurant about 5 minutes away by car, so we got there 20 minutes late. Since the parking was around the back and Mum walks so slowly that passing glaciers tut as they overtake, I let her out of the car directly in front of the Restaurant and said, "There's the door - follow those people inside and tell them we have a reservation. I'll park and join you in a minute." I found a space and ran back around the corner to find a gaggle of old ladies assisting Mum, who had managed to walk another 20 yards down the road and had been trying to enter a private house, telling the owner that she was sure she had a reservation. Mum wore her usual beaming bewildered expression that is there whenever she is the centre of attention.

I thought maybe Mum would perhaps just manage a starter and dessert, but she ate a whole second lunch. At the table she regaled me with the same stories of Screaming Lady and the Gentleman, who has morphed over the weeks into Screaming Lady's husband in Mum's imagination. She's still calling the Home "that Hotel I'm living in". She tells me the same stories every time we speak.

A very large lady came in at one point and sat at the next table. Mum very loudly commented that the lady's blouse was not the best choice for someone so fat. I think even the kitchen staff heard that one.

We had a good afternoon and I didn't get frustrated with her once. Well, it was Mothers' Day and not "Chronically Single Sons' Day", after all. I must look up that date.