This is the second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, it may be worth having a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Mum sounded tired this morning on the phone, her words slurring a little. She agreed she was weary, adding that it was because she’d been on a long drive to Canberra with a car full of youngsters.
‘What were you doing in Canberra?’ I asked.
‘Well there were young people here in the nursing home wondering what they should be doing. I asked if they’d like to get a singing group together and they said yes! So that’s what we did.’
‘Fantastic! Were they a nice group?’
‘I got to know them quite well. They had to be escorted from one stage to another but they got used to it. Some of the songs were poking fun…’
‘Satire?’ I wondered.
‘Yes, I suppose so. Some satirical songs and some others.’
‘It sounds a lot like the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Going from stage to stage. Was it like that?’
‘A lot like the Festival, yes.’
‘Any wonder you feel weary today, Mum. You’ve been doing a lot.’
‘Yes, I think I’ll just rest today.’
For many years, Mum was a regular attendee at the annual National Folk Festival held in Canberra, Australia, over the Easter weekend. She’d stay with my sister who at that time lived in that city, and they’d come to the festival site each morning equipped with warm clothes, sun hats and water bottles, ready to enjoy a variety of concerts, dance displays, spoken word presentations and other cultural delights.
The festival is held over a large open site with most venues set up in large marquees. Wandering around the festival site is always a pleasure, as is sitting under the trees with their autumn tints, sipping a coffee and chatting with friends. Mum loved these times.
As her physical aches and pains increased and her eyesight started to weaken, her hours at the festival began to shrink. When my sister moved away from Canberra, going to the National was no longer an option. So these events are now in Mum’s past.
It’s a pleasure that is no longer available to her except through her memory and imagination. I’m certain that these earlier experiences are at the root of our conversation and her carload of youngsters, as she drove them to Canberra for performances on various stages.
After a long life lived with intelligence and a shrewd awareness of the world around her, my mother’s mind is failing. Not in a ‘railing at the world’ kind of way; hers is a much gentler decline, expressed in a vague blunting of her wits and a profound forgetfulness. I think her memory loss must feel like falling into a black hole every five or ten minutes. She often can’t recall answers to a question and will ask the same one over and over. Once a teacher, mentor and sounding board for her daughters and grandson, her attention now wanders, so it’s hard to maintain a conversational arc for longer than a few minutes at a time.
I treasure my connection with Mum, and this is painful to watch. She was the person who supported my learning and my studies: the boring parts (spelling lists in primary school, equations in high school) and those that were more fun (discussing books we’d both read, bouncing around ideas for an upcoming history essay for uni.) Mum and I enjoyed trips to the movies, watched classics together on Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood TV presentations, held season subscriptions to the theatre, talked politics and current affairs, and debated social issues over cups of tea and home made cake.
She was a vibrant conversationalist with a keen interest in and knowledge of world history, geography, literature and politics—much of it self-taught, and squeezed into rare moments of leisure from her demanding roles as orchardist, store keeper, café owner and home-maker. A sounding board for ideas or problems big or small, Mum was my ‘go-to’ person to share news, to fine-tune plans, and to swap stories.
Now, my heart aches as I witness her vagueness, her struggle to follow a conversation; her reduced engagement with the things and people around her. On my visits and daily phone calls, I keep up my chat about my life and things I’m doing, and also current events and important things on the news. But these are no longer meaningful for Mum in quite the same way.
I grieve for the connections we once had over ideas, places, people, books.
There is another side to this. As the insidious progression of her dementia damages parts of my mother’s brain and cognitive function, other facets emerge in original ways that are always fascinating, often surprising. After each visit or phone call I wonder about the conversation we just had, trying to parse the things she said or did, to pinpoint their meaning or origin. There is generally an echo of an event or comment from earlier that day or week that somehow makes sense in the fresh arrangement of Mum’s mind.
What this has meant for me is the possibility of engaging with my mother in novel ways, not informed by sadness alone. I am learning to see and appreciate the pleasure she might take from her perception of the world. Instead of mourning the erosion of her faculties, I strive to notice the beauty of her utterances and be intrigued by her sometimes startling statements. There is often humour, too—conversations with Mum are frequently hilarious.
All this is to say that I have recently embarked on a new journey with my mother, travelling with her on her winding pathway through the last months and years of her life. As I like to write, and writing helps me to make sense of my own experiences, I thought I’d begin a series of occasional blog posts about our explorations. Together, Mum and I will time- travel, meet people from the past, and venture into unknown territory. We will do some amazing things.
I invite you to join me on my travels with my mother.