I wanted to call myself ‘mother in the middle’ as it seemed an appropriate summary of my life now, in my mid forties. I hope I am central to my children’s lives at the moment and for some years to come and integral to the chaos that our family life brings. But beyond that, I am at a mid point in other important ways. I am the middle of three sisters, I live in the middle of the country between the family bases of Scotland and London and I am middle aged. And looming larger than anything else at the moment, I am in the middle of the generations, between children that could not be more full of life and energy and a mother who is dying.
When I was growing up and into my twenties and thirties, she was always the kind of mother who prided herself on being mistaken for ‘one of the girls’, the three daughters all born when she was in her twenties. She was always incredibly youthful looking, small and slim. She railed quietly against being one of the grown-ups and possessed instead a child-like air. Even her mannerisms suggested childhood and a wish to escape the boredom of life as an adult. Chairs always seemed slightly too big so she would either sit with her legs curled under her, or swing them like a little girl sitting on a swing. I recall family car journeys where she would race to the car to get into the back seat before me, forcing me into the role of grown up in the front seat sitting next to my father, listening to his inevitable diatribe about whatever was wrong with whichever classical music programme he had chosen to put on the radio, as she gazed out the window in the back, refusing to participate.
She was the kind of mother who got a second wind when her children grew up a bit. Having gone straight from her parents’ home to a marital home in her early twenties and, like many of her generation, been immersed almost immediately into homemaking and motherhood, she shook off the shackles at forty and blossomed as she went to university as a mature student. As a serious minded and introverted teenager, I think I was a challenge to my mother’s reinvention as she embraced a second go at teenage life herself, determined to do it right this time. Years before Ab Fab got there, she was the mother dressed in trendy outfits, urging me to ditch my embarrassing baggy clothes, get my nose out of a book and talk to the boys.
She was the kind of woman who found it challenging to accept that she was going to be a grandmother whilst still in her forties. Not for her the cosiness of ‘Nana’ or ‘Granny’ – that was for old women. Her first batch of grandchildren would call her by her first name.
Even after breast cancer first came to her in her early fifties, she came through it, apparently back to her youthful self in no time. She was not a ‘survivor’ or a ‘battler’, she just simply refused to talk about it and almost pretended it had never happened. When it came back after twelve years or so and began its slow, inexorable march through her bones, she displayed a dignity, bravery and stoicism that I would never have thought her capable of.
And most of all, there has been her trademark denial, her child like ability to refuse to acknowledge that anything bad could happen. Her refusal to ask any questions to which she may get an unpleasant answer. Her implicit faith that the doctors know what they are doing and that she will keep on taking the tablets, having the chemotherapy and doing what she is directed to do and that way she will keep on going until she’s ‘at least eighty’. Her pronouncements , whilst wincing and downing great swigs of liquid morphine, that a spot of shiatsu massage should sort out the back pain. Her tragi-comic assertions that perhaps it’s just that her bra is a bit tight that is making her breathless and in pain.
Now, at 71, she is finally and suddenly an old woman, a broken woman. She appears to have gone straight from seeming sometimes decades younger than her age, to seeming far far older. Cancer has finally taken her straight from middle youth to the physical trials of extreme old age. The destruction of her bones has given her a centegenarian’s stoop and the inability to shuffle more than a few steps. Her child like frame and short stature has become a grotesque shrunken tininess, as her vertebrae collapse to make her as small as my very small ten year old daughter. Something wrong in her head, no one knows quite what, means that one of her eyes will no longer open. The hair that she experimented with so often – no one had more hair styles in her time than my mother – is now an odd texture, tufty in its post chemotherapy regrowth. Her body is contorted with pain and her body labours to breathe properly, as cancer creeps through her lungs too. My father feeds her liquid morphine on a spoon, carefully tucking a tea towel under her chin to catch any drips and she opens her mouth like a baby sparrow to take it. I go to see if she is sleeping and I do not see my mother lying in the bed; there is instead a (mis)shape under the duvet, still on her side as she is unable any more to lie on her deformed back.
The doctors that she has put so much faith in have finally told her what others have seen for many months – that they have nothing left to offer her. The miracles of modern medicine have given her many extra years but they have reached the end of the line. We are told by my tearful father when visiting to mark my mother’s seventy first birthday this month. I talk to her later that day and she looks me straight in the eye and says that she was shocked, she had expected some new treatment to try to give her years not months or weeks, but that the truth is a relief, that she does not want to go on like this. With one eye in its permanently shut position and with her frame reduced to skin and bone, her one good eye shines enormous and blue, unflinching as she stares into my eyes and talks to me honestly, adult to adult.
I ask my parents, uselessly, what I can do to make this easier for them. They tell me that what I must do is nurture my family and bring up ‘the replacements’ for their generation. So this is what I will try to do.