My mother has been severely ill now for over two years. There is a level of acceptance now which I never thought would come. It is now normal.
No. That’s bullshit. It’s not normal, but your brain does normalise the situation so as to allow you to continue living. If instead you were in a constant state of grief and shock, you simply wouldn’t be able to function. It would be detrimental to your own health. And so, your clever brain rationalises the situation. It “normalises” your new reality as a form of self-protection.
In saying that – in saying that I am now used to my mother being in a care home at the premature age of 67 – I still catch myself forgetting. Perhaps that is a form of self-protection too.
The kids will ask me something I don’t know the answer to and I will catch myself about to say, “I’m not sure, let’s call Granny and ask her.”
It happens quite a lot.
I was telling my kids the other day about my granny (my mother’s mother) and how she was one of 13 children. They were astounded and of course, Martha wanted to know their names. I got about 5 of them and then got stumped. My instinct was to pick up the phone and call my mother and find out the other ones so I could write the names down. But, what felt like an electric shock stopped me in my tracks as I remembered I couldn’t.
There is an assumption that tomorrow will always come, that you can always put it off, or ask that question the next time.
I made that mistake too.
I remember vividly being at my friend’s house when I was around 12 or 13. I could hear my friend’s big sister talking to their mum in the kitchen about something that had happened at school. I can’t even remember the details now, but I was intrigued and rudely called out from the next room, “Who was it?”
They both went silent, possibly shocked by my rudeness or baffled by my interest in a story that had nothing to do with me. I just remember thinking that if I didn’t ask, then the moment would pass and I would never ever know the answer and perhaps it would plague me for my whole life. I was a bit dramatic!
But, where has that annoyingly inquisitive girl gone? Why didn’t I ask Mum all the questions I wanted to know the answers to? Why did that overly curious girl stifle her dramatic, inquisitive mind? When did she stop asking questions?
So, having given it some thought, if I had the chance, these are the questions I would ask my mum: –
1. What were the worst and best bits about being a teenager?
I never asked her about her teenage years. I don’t know why. It is likely that when it was a relevant question in my life, I was far too embarrassed to talk about it.
But, how wonderful to know about her first kiss. How lovely to hear stories about her awkward teenage self, about who broke her heart or the mischief she got up to with friends. Who were her best friends; which ones broke her heart and which ones nurtured her soul?
It would have been good to know who she was before she became my mother.
I should have asked.
2. In what way am I like you? In what way am I like Dad?
I’d love to hear her views on where I get my best and worst qualities from, after all, no one knows you better than your mum. She knew me before I was born and I have heard her heart beat from the inside. That is a bond like no other.
Which of the 3 of us was the most outgoing / brave / shy / friendly / caring? Which of my children remind her of me as a child the most? If I could, I would pour her a glass of wine and snuggle up on the sofa and ask her to share her stories of us as children.
Did I always have freckles?
Did I want to help her with Emma when she was a tiny baby?
Did I copy my big brother, like Martha does hers?
I feel like I don’t know enough. I want to know more.
3. When did you realise you were all grown up?
I remember the day my mum found out her dad had died. She was only 30. She took herself to bed and cried like I had never seen her cry before and I was terrified! I was 4 years old. If I was to guess, it would be that moment for her.
For me, it was the day I knew Mum would never be the same again. When it dawned on me that this was not an illness or a depression that could be treated. It was a moment of knowing that my life would never be the same again and I suddenly had a gaping chasm where before there was a supportive netting; guiding me, helping me, cheering me on though my highs and lows.
How did she deal with it? Who helped her cope when she had three small children and her life was turned upside down? How did she explain the cruelty and unfairness of life to us, her three small children?
4. When were you most proud of me?
I am proud of my own children every day, but there are certain moments that stand out.
Martha singing on Sunday night in the church choir – the choir’s voices almost lift the roof with the soaring Christmas carols – was one of those moments when my heart almost over-flowed with love and pride.
Archie, standing on the stage at the Christmas production this afternoon – speaking out his lines clearly and with fabulous expression, despite all his body language screaming out his self-consciousness and embarrassment. The fact he pushed himself to do it makes me swell with pride.
Mabel, when she tried swimming with her face in the water earlier this week. That despite hating it and everything inside her willing her to just NOT do it, she gave it a go and came out the pool smiling and laughing with pure joy at her own achievement.
I will tell my children tonight of my pride at these small achievements this week. And then next week I will tell them of all the moments that make me proud – and the week after that, and the week after that.
I will not waste these moments anymore.
5. When were you most proud of yourself?
She was never one to think highly of herself and would regularly joke that she was the “thicky” of the family. Having left school at 15 to become a dancer and a dance teacher, she was certainly not traditionally academic, but my mother could do anything she put her mind to.
She put herself though catering college when she was in her early 40’s and set up her own catering business.
She set up her own dance classes which were over subscribed every week and enjoyed by many families week in, week out.
She made all her own curtains, blinds and soft furnishings. She even made her own wedding dress when she was just 21.
But, she would still believe she wasn’t an accomplished woman.
I would ask her the question and if she couldn’t answer, I would tell her what makes me proud of her.
Her kindness. Selflessness. Her bravery and fearlessness. Her organisation skills. Her love for her family. Her dancing skills and the way she never gives up. Give that woman a challenge and my God, she would rise to it.
“I’d like to decorate this room before 2pm, Mum and then get a blind made for the window. What do you think? Can we do it?”
“No problem, let’s get cracking!”
I miss that!
6. What was Granny’s sister called? The one who disappeared when she went to the shop one day?
It’s a family mystery.
One of my Granny’s sisters popped to the shop one day and never came back. Mum told us that the most famous, successful detective was on the case but they never had a breakthrough and my granny never knew what happened to her big sister.
There was talk that she’d been taken to the US as a slave. Wishful thinking perhaps.
But I don’t know what year it was, the name of my great aunt who went missing or the name of the detective.
I would make notes and write a book about the unsolved crime of the century (the last century!)
7. Can you teach us to cook, sew and dance?
I have asked both my sister and my brother what they would ask Mum if they could. Both came back with very practical questions.
Emma said she would ask how to make blinds and ask for lessons in sewing.
Clive asked about cooking; there are so many tips and tricks of hers he has forgotten that he wants to go back in time and write it all down.
He also asked to be taught ballroom dancing as apparently all the female dancers on Strictly are HOT!
He has a very HOT wife, so he’s not doing too bad, but I kind of get his point. Mum had practical skills we just didn’t value as kids. It was normal for us to have a mother who could just do stuff. And, like many people we assumed that bank of knowledge would be there forever for us to take a deposit from. We thought we had time.
We ran out.
Take dancing: It now feels like we missed out. We had a mother who was a fabulous dancer. She was paid to teach people to dance and we glossed over it like it was nothing.
But it wasn’t nothing.
It was bloody amazing!
I used to tell people my mother was a dancer and feel so incredibly proud and ….. fancy. Fancy and so incredibly special.
I still do.
I wish I’d have told her that.
I thought you were utterly fabulous, Mum. But, I never told you.
I would tell you that and I would ask you to teach me to dance.
8. How do we live without you?
Christmas is just a few days away and my father is coming down. We are all going to be together on Christmas day – my brother and his family and my sister and hers. It is the first time since we have all had our children that we will be all together on Christmas day.
My mother would have loved it.
I am looking forward to it, but I am also very aware that there will be a Mum shaped void with us all day.
So, I would ask her. How do we do it, Mum? Should we talk about you a lot? Ignore the elephant in the room and just drink through the pain? Raise a glass and share stories about when your very loud laugh would embarrass us as teenagers?
My brother is cooking and he will do a fabulous job. He is his mother’s son, after all.
But then what? Should we dance?
Any advice would help, Mum.
Are you there, Mum?
And there’s the painful reality.
The gap. The silence. The lack of any answer.
There will never be any more answers.
So, this Christmas, if you’re with your parents, spend time with them. Ask questions. Laugh at memories together. Revel in nostalgia. Ask the awkward, funny questions. Find out the answers to the questions you have been putting off, because they’re not a priority or you’re not that interested just now. Trust me, one day you will be and it might be too late.
My God, I miss you, Mum x
What a lovely piece and it resonates so much with me. While my mum and dad can no longer answer a lot of the questions I ask, I have found out a lot of little nuggets of information in the last few months – now that they have a live-in carer and I actually have the time to talk to them, instead of running about fixing the chaos at home. Like the fact that my dad taught his dad to drive and began by giving Grandpa his first lesson the very afternoon of the day he passed his test, aged just 17! And it seems that both my parents have ridden pillion on a motorbike – I had no idea! They are not the answers to life’s big questions, but I treasure these little snippets. Like you, I wish I had talked to them more when they could have answered me coherently and in full. Frustratingly, Dad sometimes offers a fact, but then can’t answer any of my follow-up questions – they are just tiny pieces of a massive jigsaw that will never be complete. They will be with me, my sister and her family at Christmas, so I will take your advice and try to make the most of what we still have of them, because who knows where we will be a year from now. Love to all of you. xx
Oh Helen. those golden snippets of information are such a tantalising glimpse into a past we can never be a part of. They are so important and valuable in discovering who our parents are….who we are. I’m glad the carer is allowing you more time to enjoy your parents. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas – make lots of lovely memories together.
As always, thank you for reading and commenting. It means a lot.
This post is so beautifully written and true. Not recording family stories is definitely the biggest regret I have for both of my parents. My father had dementia, so details of his life stories were lost years before his death. I think about all those times I internally rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh, not this story again,” convinced I’d remember every facet. But after his death, it turned out that I was missing details I’ll never recover.
With my mother, I had even greater opportunity to record audio/video, but was so drained from hands-on caregiving that I never made the time/effort for storytelling. Again, I know most of her life events, but the magic is in the details that are now forever gone.
Hope you and your family have a peaceful, lovely Christmas.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you Joy. I hope you have a lovely Christmas too. Thank you for reading and commenting again xxxx
It’s been a year since my mom’s death, and of course my dad can’t answer anything — and a thousand times during this year I’ve thought, “I need to ask mummy about…”
You’ve hit it exactly here. It can be something small or something hugely important, and it’s maddening to remember that no, you can’t ask. Even though I did ask a million questions while I had the opportunity, there’s so much that I didn’t ask, or didn’t record the answers to.
I love everything you write, I hope you know that, and I love that both your children and mine will have some stuff to read about us, should they choose to. Given that I have two boys, there’s no guarantee of that 🙂
Much love and very happy holidays to you and your family.
Hi Melissa, Just seen this message after a bit of a worrying time with my dad. More on that possibly in a future blog (just need to get him stable and home from hospital!)
Thank you for your gorgeous message. I hope you had a lovely Christmas and New Year? I was with my dad last week and we were chatting about my lovely friend in the US who sends funny, warm and encouraging messages. He’s going to start reading your blog!
I started this blog as I wanted to record it all – how utterly shit it all is but also the funny bits and the memories that are so special. I am delighted some people read it – overwhelmed really – but that was never the main aim.
Lots of love to you and your family. Sarah xx
HI Sarah, I am sorry to see from this comment that your dad has been unwell. Wishing him a speedy recovery and return home. Love to all, Helen xx
And now I have just seen your message after an extended period of my access to my blog… it was a mystery that solved itself without my intervention. The best kind.
Please tell me your dad is home again and fine? And if he has started reading what I write, I hope he is not too terribly disturbed.
I did have a nice Christmas, and the new year is shaping up well (ish), dad not eating much so I’m trying to convince his facility that extremely sweetened cream of wheat is fine for every meal.
I must scan my email for new blog posts from you, I’ve been missing out.
Take care, have a laugh, God Save the Queen and so forth 🙂