This is the twenty third and final post in the Travels with my mother series. If you’ve not read the earlier posts you may wish to go to the first one as it gives the context for the series.
Thank you to all who have been following along on with Mum and I in the last years of her life. Her travel story came to a close a week ago when she died on Saturday evening. She had lived for 92 years. I think the best way to complete her story and pay tribute to the long and remarkable journey she had taken, is to post the eulogy I gave at her funeral yesterday (Friday 4 June 2021).
Here it is:
Doreen was born in March 1929, on the precipice of the Great Depression. She was the eldest of three children born to Bertha and Harold.
One of Doreen’s earliest memories was perching on the back of a borrowed truck with her father; her two siblings in the front with their mother and the driver. They were being evicted—like so many Australians at that terrible time, they could no longer make their rent. They were offered a small cottage on a plot of land at controlled rent in a new ‘charity’ estate in Sydney’s southwest, now the suburb of Hammondville.
In 1940 Harold enlisted in the army. He lied about his age, dropping it by ten years. The desperate act of a father who needed a steady income to support his family. He was on a troop ship from Palestine to Singapore when news of Singapore’s fall to the Japanese shocked the world. His ship was sent to Sri Lanka instead, where he saw out the remainder of the war.
Tragically, his wife became very ill and died while Harold was away. Doreen, aged 13, and her two siblings were considered too young to manage on their own and the three children were split up to live with different relatives. Doreen took from these years a fierce sense of independence, a belief that being a girl or woman should not stop her from doing the things she needed to do, a longing for family life, and a steely determination to make the best of things.
Still in her teens, Doreen worked as a seamstress at a Surry Hills clothing factory, and moved in with workmate Norma , who was to become her closest and lifelong friend and her sister-in-law. She experienced a brief period of carefree youth: sewing her own frocks, dressing up for an occasional night out with her girlfriends, and beach picnics.
It was Norma who introduced her to Doug, the brother of the man Norma was engaged to marry.
Harold returned home from the war and Doreen, her brother and sister moved back to live with their father for a while. Doreen adored her father and they had a close bond.
When Doug and Doreen married in October 1951, she made her own dress. No ivory satin or bridal veils for Doreen: her wedding outfit was a knee length frock in pale blue with a matching hat. A modest outfit for a very modest wedding, but also I think, in line with Doreen’s personality: pushing a little against the norms and expectations for women at the time.
Doug and Doreen began married life with next to nothing. They moved to Bilpin for Doug to work at the service station there, with baby Karen and toddler Kris, renting an old workman’s cottage on Ghost Hill Road.
Doreen, raised in the suburbs, now learnt to live in the country, drive a car, and be a mother, essentially through determination and gritted teeth. She ran the little café next door—known then as ‘Midways’. I came along in 1960 and six years later, we moved to an orchard and farmhouse at ‘Glenara’, outside the village. Now Doreen was also an orchardist who baked apple pies, made jams and jellies, and sold produce at the roadside fruit shop. In her ‘spare’ time she knitted and sewed clothing for her family, participated in community events and her children’s schools. Life was busy.
For both Doug and Doreen, the little family they created became the all-important crux of life; the thing they worked for, struggled and sacrificed for. Neither had experienced stability in their own childhoods and they went all out to provide it for their daughters. Both had been denied a full education and it was important to them that we had that opportunity. They could rarely afford things that were new, not home-made or hand-me-down. But if any of us needed them, both Doreen and Doug were there. No lives go 100% to plan and through our ups and downs, our tragedies, disasters, joys and achievements, we all had reason to feel blessed to have those two as our parents.
Glenara was eventually sold and we moved to a new house, designed and built by Doug and Doreen, in the Bilpin village. This was the first new house that Doreen had ever lived in and she’d made sure to include mod-cons like a dishwasher and a second toilet. After years of washing dishes in the café and home, and an outside toilet, I think she was entitled, don’t you?
Doreen was now ‘retired’, which meant that she had more time for community events and also a chance to pursue her own interests. She took up pottery and later, lawn bowling. In typical Doreen style, she threw herself into such ventures wholeheartedly. She had a stellar bowling career, winning championships, becoming club President at Richmond, coach, umpire and selector.
Her interest in genealogy, at a time before anything was on line, resulted in some fantastic work on our family history, tracing back to six convicts (and some free settlers) in colonial times.
During those years she also enjoyed some travel, something her keen interest in history and geography suited her to. She and Doug went on a cruise to Fiji and Vanuatu, visited north Queensland and the Barrier Reef, and made a trip by Greyhound Bus across the western parts of the USA and Canada a few years after that. She travelled the Murray River on a paddleboat, took the ferry to Tasmania and camper-vanned through much of NSW. They took their camper to a hippie community in the bush near Glen Innes, to visit Karen who lived there in the 1980’s. When I lived for a short time on a remote island in the Torres Strait in far north Queensland, Mum and Dad began making plans to visit me there.
She loved reading and we have always been grateful that our parents passed on their love and respect for books to us. 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. She was also an avid movie goer; I have very fond memories of movie outings and watching classic movies together on TV, especially seeing her all-time favourite movie, Gone with the Wind, at least several times together. We enjoyed many drama productions at the Joan in Penrith. These are all precious memories.
Tragedy struck in 1994 when Karen was diagnosed with an untreatable brain cancer, and died three months later, aged 39. It was a shocking event that hit hard; Doreen coped by providing as much physical help and support as she could to her daughter and to Karen’s carers, and being the family bedrock. We stayed in a Brisbane apartment during the two weeks that Karen was in hospital there; I remember one night getting up and finding Mum, sitting in the lounge room, trying to smother her sobs with a pillow so as not to wake anyone.
She was again a refuge of warmth and care when I landed on their doorstep, essentially homeless and penniless, with baby Dakathirr in my arms. We stayed with them for eighteen months and experienced the no-nonsense practical and emotional support that Doreen gave so generously.
Doreen was an affectionate grandmother to her two grandsons, Alex and Dux. She loved her verbal spars with Andy, her son-in-law, and always liked to believe she had the upper hand. She became step-grandmother to David and Connor, and later Great grandmother to Liam and Aubrey.
As Doug’s health began to fail, Doreen took on the role of his carer. After his death in 2016, her activities and horizons became increasingly limited by deteriorating eyesight, ongoing mobility problems and dementia. Thankfully, she was still delighted when one of us walked through the door of her nursing home room.
As many mothers do, Doreen had some oft-quoted aphorisms to guide her daughters through life. The one I most remember (and try to live by, not always successfully) is:
Edith Piaf’s famous song, No Regrets, sums up Doreen’s attitude to life perfectly.
We can forget, as we watch our parents age and witness the physical and mental ravages that time can inflict, that they were once robust young people with full lives ahead of them. Their joys, passions and talents can fade over time and become invisible.
Looking back over old photos, I was reminded of Mum’s fun-loving nature: she loved to dress up for events with her bowling club, for example; loved an occasional weekend away at a bowling competition with ‘the girls’; loved being at the beach with her grandsons on precious family holidays. She had as much fun on our day in Disneyland as I did. She and Dad taught us how to play cards and board games and it was an enduring pleasure of our times together to get out the Canasta cards or Pictionary game – a tradition which continued on with the grandkids.
She was also someone who did not always ‘toe the line’: as evidenced by some of her less conventional choices and her determination that her daughters would have every opportunity in life, including ones that had been denied her due to poverty, family circumstance, or the fact that she was female.
Doreen’s early life was hard, and the untimely death of her own mother meant that she entered married life and motherhood with little support and guidance. She learnt it all as she went along. None of that stopped her from being a committed, energetic mother, active in her girls’ lives and education. As a grandmother she carried on in the same vein, until frailty and infirmity got in the way.
I like to think that Doreen has been a role model for me in my own life, and my experience of motherhood and now, grandmother -hood. It’s certainly something that I have aimed for.
I am heartbroken that we have lost Doreen from our lives. Mixed with the sorrow is the knowledge that her last years were not happy or easy ones and that she no longer has to endure the difficulties of old age.
I believe that those who die are never really gone if we remember them.
I’d like us all to remember Doreen as she was before her illness: determined, smart, energetic and loving. It’s the best tribute we can pay to her.
This is the twenty-second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
This week my sister and I made the decision to disconnect Mum’s landline in her nursing home. Since moving into her new room there, she has forgotten how to answer the phone, or perhaps no longer registers the ringing as an incoming call. On top of that, she is rarely positioned in her chair or bed within easy reach of the handset. Paying $35 a month for a service that is no longer being used seemed wasteful and pointless. So, I closed the account and the line was disconnected.
For some years now, I have spoken to my mother as close to every day as was possible: either in person when I visited, or a morning phone call. In the last couple of years the calls had by necessity got shorter: Mum’s span of attention on the phone diminished, as did her inclination to chat on. Prior to that, our conversations could be amusing, bewildering, or sad, depending on her mood on the day, or which particular fanciful byway her mind took us down.
I will admit that some days, making the call was harder than others. I’d have to search for a topic of conversation: when an elderly person’s world has shrunk to the four walls of a room and they can no longer remember what happened an hour ago, this is understandable. I would try to talk about things I was doing, about the kids and grandkids – Covid lockdowns last year made that harder, too, because even for younger and healthier people, physical worlds shrank somewhat. And at times I’d be seized by a sense of guilt: was it fair for me to chat on about my activities, my life, when my mother had so little in her own? Irrational, I know, but still.
Yet, over the past few days since the disconnection of Mum’s phone, I’ve gone to make my customary call and stopped short, remembering that it was no longer a possibility. I’ve had moments of thinking, That’s something I can talk to Mum about when I call her, only to remember: no phone line.
So, if there’s someone in your world with whom you have not connected for a while – parent, sibling, aunt or uncle, old friend or new – maybe it’s time to reconnect? Pick up the phone, write a letter or an email, send a WhatsApp or Facebook message. Not only do we not know what a difference that contact can make in someone’s life, or in our own; we can absolutely never know when it will no longer be an option. Or indeed, what we’ll miss. Go on, make the call!
Photos by Min An & Sound On at pexels
This is the twenty-first in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Dementia is sometimes referred to as ‘the long goodbye.’ It is an apt description for the drawn out grief someone experiences as their loved one transforms from an adult who is competent in all the business of life, to a dependent who needs help with the simplest of actions. This is the process of dying, spread out over months and years.
Thankfully, Mum still knows me when I walk into her room and say my name. The smile that appears on her face lights her whole room. It could light a city. Often it is accompanied by a shriek of joy; sometimes a tear or two. Then she settles back into her bed or recliner, grasping my hand. Of late, my visits are mainly about watching Mum as she dozes. I hold her hand or her arm. When I get up to fetch her a drink, or speak to a staff member, and once again put my hand on hers, she gives a faint smile and murmurs, ‘That’s better. Softer.’ I’m not entirely sure what she means (is my touch softer than the nurses’? or is she expressing pleasure at any touch?) It hardly matters. I just know she enjoys me touching her and that’s what I take from the interchange.
It’s painful – agonising – to observe Mum struggle to sip and swallow a mouthful of water. Some day she can barely hold her head up. But she is calmer now than she was in recent months. I imagine that her inner self is giving up the struggle, relaxing into her helplessness. She is not happy, I’m sure. But neither, I think, is she actually unhappy. She is floating on a sea of something akin to oblivion, small wavelets of time lapping at her, rousing her occasionally to connect with whoever enters her room or speaks to her.
The small expressions of joy at seeing someone she knows and loves have to be enough; indicators that my visits mean something. This morning, as I left her side, I kissed her forehead and told her,’I love you, Mum.’ She smiled back and I knew she was trying to say ‘I love you, too.’ I knew it; even though her speech is now impaired so much that getting even the simplest sentence out is a struggle. Her face, her smile, told me the rest.
This is the twentieth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
My phone conversation with Mum today began:
‘Morning, Mum. I hope you have sunshine through your window today?’ ‘
It’s a lovely day and I’m waiting for a lift to Windsor.’
‘Oh? Where are you off to?’
‘We’ve got a play-off match today. The car will be here soon to pick me up, so I can’t chat long.’
I knew then that Mum’s mind was re-visiting her many years of involvement in the sport of lawn bowls. If you know Doreen, or have read my earlier Travels With my Mother posts, you will know that lawn bowls is no longer a realistic option for her. This post is by way of tribute to that aspect of Mum’s life, post ‘retirement’ from her busy years as mother, manager of a fruit orchard and shop, contributor to her children’s schools and to her local community.
Amusingly, when a family friend first suggested Mum and Dad try lawn bowls, she was indignant.
‘I’m not joining those fuddy-duddies!’ she’d exclaimed. ‘Those awful long white skirts and thick stockings they wear.’
But try it she eventually did, and enjoyed it from the outset. She and Dad joined the Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club at first as they still lived in Bilpin, then when they made the move to Richmond they became stalwarts of the Richmond Memorial Bowling Club.
Luckily for Mum, the uniform requirements did ease over the years, allowing ladies to wear white slacks in winter, and eventually softening into a lavender polo shirt and knee length skirt for summer.
As was always Mum’s style, she entered her new pastime with determination and gusto and began to excel, winning championships, as well as playing socially, and travelling for weekend bowls competitions around the state.
Ever the ‘organiser’, she also took on elected positions in her club and the wider Ladies Bowls organisation. She was a selector, secretary, president. She travelled by train to Sydney for training and exams to become both umpire and coach. She helped run the regular fund raising mornings to raise money for the local branch of the charity Legacy. Presidents’ Days and Veterans’ Days were conducted by a band of busy women, including my mother.
Later in her bowling career, Mum bemoaned the leaching away of the community feel of her local club. Some of the younger members, she said, regarded it as nothing more than a sport, an outlet. Less important to them were those activities of the club that were precious to the older women: community involvement and service to others.
Veterans’ Day, for example, was a long standing tradition where older bowlers, particularly those who could no longer play regularly, were honoured at a day of social games and lunch. Those who needed it were picked up and brought to the club for the day. Mum was one of those women who could often be seen driving an elderly lady to the special day. Sadly, in Mum’s view, the importance of these traditions began to fade over time.
In the 1990’s Mum was proud to be recognised at a presentation night, along with lifetime friend and fellow bowler Gwen Cooper, for her contribution to the Hawkesbury district’s sporting community. Her organisational skills and commitment brought a great deal to the bowling scene locally and across NSW.
So I heard with pleasure her plan to go bowling again this morning, and I hoped that in her mind the green stretched, smooth and inviting, before her.
This is the nineteenth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
As an appropriate end to a shocker year, my husband and I came down with a severe gastric flu, three days before Christmas. Our Christmas plans had been made with a wish and a prayer – who knew if any of it would eventuate, with new Covid outbreaks triggering fresh restrictions in some parts of Australia.
Turns out we were right to be sceptical.
We had to cancel our planned Christmas Eve lunch with Mum at an (open-air) cafe. That was to have been her Christmas celebration with her family, but we couldn’t risk her getting the illness we’d just had. There was nothing for it but to postpone.
When I called Mum to break the news, her response was very much in line with her usual pragmatism and easy-going nature: ‘Of course you can’t come, love. I wish I was there to do something for you both.’
She then went on to say, ‘I had a visit from my little daughter yesterday. I took her to visit friends at Bondi. She loves the water so she was excited to go to the beach. She had a lovely time.‘
I admit that, along with relief that Mum didn’t seem too upset by the postponement of our modest Christmas celebration, there was a pang. Who was the little daughter? Was it me, or one of my sisters, going back half a century? Or a new daughter conjured from Mum’s imagination?
It was strange, the sensation of being supplanted by a shadowy memory or a sibling who might not even exist.
Relief won out, of course. I could be happy for Mum’s ability to travel where and with whom she pleased, despite her imprisonment in a body and brain in a long, slow decline.
At least in her mind she was able to participate in a quintessential Aussie Christmas experience – a trip to the beach – with a little daughter who I may or may not have met.
We’ll do our planned cafe lunch a bit later, perhaps in time to welcome in what will, hopefully, be a better year for all.
Images by Olenka Sergienko & João Vítor Heinrichs at Pexels.
This is the eighteenth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Recently I showed Mum several of her old school reports from high schools she attended during WWII, when her father was away on overseas service with the Army. There was a clue on two of them which told me where Mum was living and what was happening in her life at that time.
‘See here, Mum, where the parent’s signature goes?’ I pointed at the faded handwriting. ‘These two were signed by your grandmother. Your mum had died by this time and you were living with her mother.’
Mum’s mother died in 1942 from a long illness and her three children were sent to live with different families because their father was not granted permission to return home from active service.
Mum showed no recognition at her grandmother’s name or even at what must have been a traumatic time in her young life.
I tried again: ‘Your grandmother was married to Bob then; her second husband. You always said you liked Bob; though not your grandmother so much. But you really liked Bob.’
At that name, a warm smile lit up Mum’s face. ‘Bob was kind,’ she nodded.
I said, ‘Do you remember why you didn’t like your grandma?’
Mum stared into space for a while before shaking her head. ‘I don’t remember her. Just Bob. He was lovely.’
This exchange left me wondering: was this another of dementia’s strange gifts: the expunging of difficult times and people, leaving only the good? Perhaps it was a transient phase of the disease. If so, at least it offered my mother the opportunity to recall someone whom she had loved and who had offered her a kindly presence at a difficult time.
If only we could all remember the good a little more and leave behind those painful, unwanted or distressing recollections, at least for a time.
This is the seventeenth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
As some Covid-19 restrictions began to ease at Mum’s nursing home, the family once again had the opportunity to take her out in her wheelchair to enjoy a (socially distanced and outdoor) cup of coffee. Several of us did so in the space of a couple of weeks, but when I asked Mum about these excursions, she had pretty much forgotten about them.
At first I found this disappointing. I was so excited to be able to venture out with Mum after a seven month hiatus in which her contact with the outside world was through her window. It came as a blow to realise that for her, those excursions were momentary pleasures, forgotten soon after they occurred. And, if I am honest, it seemed a poor return on the effort involved – a round trip drive of nearly two hours and the walk to and from the coffee place – for about fifteen minutes of actually drinking coffee together.
When I thought more about it, I realised that for Mum, the pleasure she takes from these times is now is in the actual experience of them: getting out in her wheelchair to see an expanded array of sights, feeling the sun and breeze on her skin, and having coffee with a loved one somewhere outside her room.
The fact that she forgets it so soon after is probably irrelevant. So is the fact that she can no longer ‘look forward to’ something in the way she once would have done. She is truly and profoundly living in the moment, taking her small pleasures right then and there. Not before, not after. Just in the ‘now’.
It’s a lesson for me. To let go of my own needs and assumptions and allow Mum to lead the way. To value the fifteen, or five, or however many minutes are enjoyable for her and to allow that to be enough motivation for the effort I put in.
Truly, dementia is an exercise in living in the moment like no other.
Image by Daniel Kux at pexels
This is the sixteenth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Some of my mother’s ‘travel stories’, of imagined trips or holidays, bring to mind actual experiences we have enjoyed together over the years.
Our parents were not especially adventurous but when it came to connecting with their daughters, they went all out. They’d travel to wherever we were: Canberra in the very early 70’s when my sister went to university there; a hippie community in northern NSW where my middle sister lived for a time; the USA and Canada when I was an exchange student. When I lived on a remote island in the Torres Strait, they began making plans to visit, though I’d returned to NSW before that could happen.
When my son and nephew were young, my two sisters and our parents would take them to Port Macquarie for a week or two each summer. They were wonderful holidays of mornings at the beach, afternoon teas at bangalow-fringed cafes, Grandpa fishing or kite flying with the kids, and nights spent reading or playing rowdy games of Canasta.
As our parents’ mobility and health began to decline, those glorious weeks were replaced by weekends, somewhere closer where we could still meet up and enjoy a seaside break. We’d lost one of our family by then to cancer, but those shorter holidays were still enjoyable, even if long beach walks were replaced by short strolls through town or a drive to a sightseeing spot.
Then Dad passed away and the closest we got to family holidays was a weekend with Mum at Kiama and another quick trip, to Canberra, a year later.
In 2009 when I was recovering from illness, they made frequent trips to provide support, company and practical help. Mum was eighty and Dad eighty four and they were in the final years of having their driver’s licenses.
After they’d both given up those licenses, their trips were chauffeured by family or in a taxi. Excursions became more functional: shopping, banking, doctors; but there were still occasional visits and celebrations with family for birthdays and Christmas.
Reflecting on those times, it strikes me that we usually don’t know when we are experiencing the last of a particular event. I’d no idea that the weekend at Kiama would be the last time Mum would enjoy a visit to the seaside. Or that Christmas last year would be the final time Mum would be able to visit my home. When was the last time we enjoyed a movie at the cinema? I think it was at little Glenbrook Cinema, watching Their Finest Hour. And our last celebratory restaurant dinner together was for Mum’s 89th birthday.
Those memories are now bittersweet, knowing that they are the last times we did those things. Mum’s world has been reduced to her nursing home and Covid-19 has shrunk it further, as I’m not able to take her out in the wheelchair to her favourite local cafe.
I do hope that we have not yet had our last cappuccino together.
All this is to say: treasure those precious moments and experiences with the people you love. We can never know if there will be another. And memories of special times can form a cherished album that we keep within our minds and hearts, full of those last things.
Images by Miriam Fischer & Nastya Sensei at pexels
This is the sixth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
This, in conversation with Mum:
Mum: I’m so tired, love. But I’m not doing anything today. I got back yesterday from a trip out, like I used to do, on a pony. Just me and another woman. We’d have a pony each and we’d set out from North Richmond and decide: this way or that way? So this time I chose north.
Me: ‘What was there?’
Mum: Not much back then. I’d follow the river for a bit and find a few people—squatters—on the river bank. I’d say ‘I’m here to help you. Is there anything you need?’ But they were usually very suspicious, like they thought I was there to interfere. They didn’t like the idea of being moved off the land.
They’d say: ‘We don’t need anything, go away, leave us in peace.’
Anyway, all that was a long time ago. Must be twenty years ago.
Me: ‘Did you enjoy those pony rides?’
Mum: It was an adventure. And I felt I was doing good for others because every now and then I’d come across someone who needed my help. But I don’t think I could ride all that way on a pony any more. I suppose if I tried it now I’d get a right old backache!’
As usual after one of these chats, I went searching for the golden nuggets of truth in her words. To my knowledge, Mum has never ridden a horse or pony in her life. To dig deeper, to the emotion of her tale, I see it is about freedom and choice: the ability to make decisions about where she wanted to be; and to be able to move about with ease. Two things no longer available to her.
And, just as importantly, the wish to feel needed – to be of use. Most of Mum’s life has been spent ‘doing’ for others in some way: home maker, income earner, family glue. And outside of the home and family, she took on roles in community, school, leisure activities. Always busy, a wonderful organiser and contributor.
In the tale of her pony rides, she also references early days of settlement of the Hawkesbury district. She married into a family with deep roots in this region going back to the Second Fleet of convicts in the late 1700’s. The Eathers, from whom I am descended through my father, were among the earliest of English convicts and later settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Mum’s own family history also features several convicts who eventually settled along South Creek.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been talking with Mum about our ancestors and about early colonial days. I’ve delved deeper into family history, as I began to write fiction inspired by some of these people and places. Several decades ago, Mum was a keen family historian and did a great deal of leg work in researching and documenting the lives of our forebears. I picked up from where she had left off. So perhaps its no surprise that images of ‘squatters’ and settlers along the once wild Hawkesbury region feature in her imaginings.
I’m glad that she is able to live out stories of colonial days in her thoughts and fancies as she ventures into new territories.
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.