I’ve just finished a novel by Catherine O’Flynn. It’s called “The News Where You Are” and the main attraction for me is that it’s one of the few novels I’ve come across set in my native Birmingham. The story also features a regional television newsroom – absolutely not based on “Midlands Today” I’m assured, although I thought I recognised the odd nuance here and there. Anyway, it’s a cracking read, as I’d hoped it would be. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was another dementia-based pause for thought.
The novel revolves around Frank, a local television news presenter. It poses questions about family and friendship, and the passing of time. I was particularly taken with Frank’s relationship with his parents – his father long-dead and his mother, still living but apparently far from happy about it. I should say that Frank’s parents bear no relation to mine, reinforcing for me how lucky I have been. Frank’s mother is in a residential home and it’s fair to say, her glass isn’t so much half-empty as almost bone dry. At least, that’s how it appears to Frank. Maureen, the mother, is concerned she’s a burden and seems to take no pleasure at all in her life. She reminded me a little of my grandmother, my father’s mother, who was widowed young and always seemed a rather sad character to me as I grew up, albeit a sad character full of love for her grandchildren. My grandmother remained independent until the closing years of her life when crippling arthritis meant she needed round-the-clock care. I remember her speaking of being a burden to us, which was never the case, but the character of Maureen prompted memories of the late Edith Jones, loving but always anxious.
But I digress a little. Maureen’s fears of being burdensome made me reflect on Mum’s situation in a new light. As I’ve documented in my recent ramblings, Mum lives in a different world from us these days and the moments in which our world collide are few and far between. I feel a bottomless sadness every time I leave her, aware that I might have made little or no connection with her in the time spent together. And yet, Mum seems content. When I visited her last week, she was full of smiles and laughter. The source of her pleasure wasn’t always clear but that really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Mum seemed at peace with herself, something I could rarely say of my grandmother and I suspect Frank, if he were able to contribute to this, would not say about Maureen. Mum is emphatically not a burden, as my grandmother wasn’t, but I think – I hope – Mum has no sense of what being a burden means. It doesn’t make our family’s situation any better. Of course, I’d give anything for Mum to be living an independent, active life with the many, many friends she had. She would have found the transition to being a widow difficult and painful but she’d have coped. Sadly, she never had the opportunity.
I learnt a bit more about Mum’s day-to-day existence from two of the carers at the home last week. They both have a bond with Mum – I’ll spare their blushes by omitting their names – but both told me that they’ve noticed quite a rapid decline recently. Mum still has a very healthy appetite but no longer has the innate ability to eat. She has to be gently encouraged when a plate of food is placed before her and it takes several of these encouragements to get her to start eating. She wants to do it but it seems, she no longer knows how. Even the simplest things which we take for granted… .
I saw it for myself as Mum was handed a bowl of fruit and ice cream and a cup of coffee. After cajoling her several times to eat and drink – “I’ll have it if you’re not careful Mum” – she picked up the spoon from the bowl of fruit and used it to spoon coffee into her mouth. My heart sank. I made a joke of it and Mum laughed and eventually applied the spoon to the fruit. It was yet another of those moments though.
And yet, when conversation fails to ignite a spark, I hold her hand. Last week, as we sat there in silence, she started to stroke my hand, just as she had when I was a small child. It was priceless and gave me a warm glow. I left, feeling not sad and not exactly happy, but safe – the same safe Mum always made me feel as I was growing up.
Oh, you could never be a burden. You’re still my Mum.