Category Archives: dying

What Visiting Care Homes has Taught Me

I have spent a lot of time in the past few years visiting people in care homes – usually frail, elderly people, often with dementia and, in the main, those who lack any (suitable) friends or family who visit them. I sometimes come away saddened, sometimes uplifted, occasionally entertained but nearly always pretty emotional one way or another, so I wanted to spend some time reflecting on that and why it was making me feel the way I do.
I intended to write a piece, along the lines of ‘ten things I have learned from going to care homes…’ – the way people do – but it seemed too trite, too reductive, for something so complex and individual. Many people have their own view on care homes – particularly if they have had a relative in one – but there are some popular perceptions about residential care that you hear a lot, which I wanted to think about, such as:

‘Don’t let me end up in a place like that; shoot me first’
It’s true, I’ve yet to meet anyone who actively looks forward to going into residential care and there are certainly plenty of people who are not happy to be in a care home, as well as plenty who are pretty happy with their lot. However, a lot of people say this type of thing when they are fit, well, young(ish). What I have seen is that there is a hidden group of extremely vulnerable people whose only alternative to residential care may be living alone and who are really very lonely, with three or four brief calls a day from an ever-changing roll call of carers; people who may crave more companionship; people who cannot get out by themselves but whose care package, cut back to its very barest bones by cash-strapped local authorities, will only fund someone to come and defrost a frozen meal in the microwave and change their incontinence pad. In fifteen minutes flat.

‘It’s just God’s waiting room’
Well, yes, pretty much, I suppose it is. For the very frail, the very old, the incapacitated, the vulnerable, the abused, who are in residential care, there are certainly a depressing number of homes where the residents are stationed in a hot living room, arranged in a traditional semi-circle around a large, very loud TV most of the day, every day.
I have also seen some homes with more innovative ideas: for example, chests of drawers placed randomly in corridors, stuffed with scarves, necklaces, dolls and handbags, with hooks on nearby walls, to enable dementia sufferers with a compulsion to rearrange, to carry things around, to nurture, to have some sort of focus to their walking. Some also have chickens or dogs, for residents to stroke and feed or café stations, where they can work to retain whatever skills they have remaining.

However, what I think sometimes people don’t see is that ‘God’s waiting room’ can just as easily be one’s own living room if you’re old, infirm and on your own. Take Lilian for example: she lives alone in the same house she has lived in for sixty years. She has advanced dementia and is doubly incontinent. Lilian does not speak much these days but has always been adamant that she wants to stay in her own home. Now, however, she cannot go upstairs at all and she barely moves from the couch, where she also sleeps, in her clothes, sitting up. Lilian refuses to wear nightclothes or even have a bed. The television has always been on when I have visited. The carers come three times a day, for twenty minutes in the morning; fifteen minutes at lunch and fifteen minutes at tea. Between these times and for the long stretch from 5pm to 9.30am, Lilian is on her own, sitting on the sofa, staring at the TV. The channel is never changed; her expression never varies, whether the screen is showing Jeremy Kyle punch ups, a game show or the news or if it goes off-air. At 9.30am, the carer comes, attempts to give her a wash standing up in her living room (logistically very difficult due to her frailty and often not possible due to her resistance), changes her pad (which is often soiled overnight) and makes her porridge in the microwave. At lunchtime, the carer comes back and leaves Lilian a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. At teatime, a frozen meal is heated up for her. Once a week, a carer cleans her house and shops for her food, but Lilian never leaves the house. Lilian recently turned 90 and received only one card, from the agency that her carers are employed by.

There are more Lilians out there than it is comfortable to contemplate.

‘All care homes smell!’
Yes. In my experience they mostly do. Of urine and faeces. I’ve never been in one that doesn’t, at least some of the time. Some are worse than others. What’s important is how quickly the staff change the residents and how respectfully they do it.

‘All carers are angels/devils’
I have seen some fantastic carers, who are endlessly patient and wonderfully kind. This is sometimes despite the verbal and physical assaults sent their way by the people they care for: answering the same questions many times a shift, day after day; finding out and honouring the little things that matter to a person; getting to know a person properly and being alert to physical cues, respecting that someone has a right to exceptional physical care even when they cannot tell anybody what’s wrong.
I have seen some shocking carers, who are thoughtless, lazy and occasionally deliberately unkind: meeting frustrating behaviour with raised voices and rough hands; not changing someone’s incontinence pads when they have had a bowel movement; taking the path of least resistance; not noticing or caring that someone’s wheelchair is parked at an angle that means they can’t see the television; neglecting personal care interventions, like cutting nails or washing hair; and numerous tiny acts of thoughtlessness or neglect that rob someone who can no longer speak up for themselves of their dignity.
What I see most of the time, however, is overworked, underpaid, well-meaning people, the majority of whom are women working shifts for one reason or another, struggling in a massively under-funded industry, in a society that does not respect them or what they do, doing the work that is so necessary, so difficult and which most people could not do.

‘They just take all your money and I want to leave it to my kids’
They won’t take all of it, but they will take most of it. If you’re on benefits, you’re currently left with about £25 per week for yourself and the rest is your contribution to your care. If you have savings above a certain level, you pay a lot more and at a different rate than the council pays. It’s complicated. It’s expensive. If you try to leave it to your kids you may well be pursued for deliberate deprivation of capital. Funding elderly care is a ticking time bomb for our ageing population.


So what has visiting care homes taught me? (Apart from the fact that extreme old age can be immensely sobering and that life is unfair). In my opinion, it boils down to just one thing – ultimately, it is compassion and respect that matter.
I sincerely hope that I have the opportunity to live to a ripe old age, surrounded by people who love me and that I am as healthy as possible for as long as possible. But I have seen many people who are, unfortunately, alone at the end of their lives and do not have anyone they love or who loves them. Perhaps their partner went first. Or they never had a partner or children. Or they have fallen out with their children. A lot of people towards the end of their lives are difficult, intractable, rude, vulnerable, difficult to like let alone love. You can’t always give love to people, but to have a meaningful society, to make life worthwhile, you don’t just house and feed the vulnerable, you also give compassion, respect and dignity – to the cared-for and their carers. I think it really, really matters.



Filed under ageing, dying

A Life Ends Alone

il_340x270.94197839Grace came to England from Jamaica in 1962, when she was a capable, enterprising young woman in her thirties. She settled in the Moss Side district of Manchester and never left the country again, scarcely even set foot outside Manchester again, and died recently in hospital at the age of eighty-something.

I first met her about a year before she died, when she was ill, virtually housebound and stubborn as a mule. The Council had embarked upon an extensive renovation project involving several streets of terraced houses and was busy relocating the (mostly grateful) tenants to better and brighter homes. Not so Grace, however, who point-blank refused to consider moving from the dilapidated mid-terrace that had been her home for the past fifty years. She liked where she lived and she wasn’t about to move out of her home, she explained tetchily to the series of increasingly exasperated – and increasingly senior- Council employees who trooped in through her front door to try to change her mind.

I had my suspicions during my first couple of visits that Grace was in fact living only in one room of her home, the back room, with occasional shuffles from there into the kitchen which ran directly off it.   I do not know at what point she had given up trying to climb the steep Victorian stairs but, when she eventually trusted me enough to send me on an errand to her bedroom, the upper floor of the house had a strange, unlived-in air. The bed’s pink candlewick cover was entirely undisturbed; the bottles and pots covered in a thick layer of dust on the dressing table.

Where was she sleeping, I asked her? At first she maintained that she was sleeping in her bedroom but later, defiantly, confirmed that she was sleeping in her armchair because of her COPD. What about the toilet, I asked her? Wordlessly, she jutted her chin in the direction of a bucket half-concealed in the corner of the room. Washing herself, it turned out, was a precarious, infrequent event standing at the kitchen sink.

I tried to talk to Grace about accepting some help, explaining that the housing officer and others were very concerned about her, and that the GP was frustrated when she rang with emergencies. It took several visits even to be able to mention ‘social workers’ without a sucking of teeth and a vehement shaking of the head. I told her that I needed to alert social services to her vulnerability, as I was concerned about her safety, at which point she asked me to leave, subsequently refusing to answer the social worker’s knock at the door.

A couple of weeks later, she rang and asked me, stiffly, if I would kindly rearrange the appointment. I called round to meet with her before the social worker arrived, and she asked me to help her tie her headscarf and put in her earrings. She was donning her armour, I realised. And I felt like I had been taken into a circle of trust, a club of which I was perhaps the only current member.

Over the next few months, I got to know Grace a little better and she told me about her life in England. About how she had come over from Jamaica with her brother and had always been ‘one of the boys’. About the fine life she had had, when they all looked after her and she looked after them. About how she had never been interested in marriage or children, telling me that you can get on with men just fine, if you operate on their level, but you must never trust them an inch – experience (darkly hinted at but never disclosed) had taught her that. About how, when her brother died ten years ago, she had lost her last link to her family, having never kept in touch with the extended members back in Jamaica.   One by one, her friends had passed away or moved away until, finally, she was the last one left in the street from the old days. Her friend’s son now kept the shop she had always patronised and, if she rang him up on the telephone, he would (for a cut) go and draw her pension for her at the Post Office and then drop off parcels of ackee, rice and chicken.

The ‘package of care’ which she reluctantly accepted from the social worker was endlessly problematic in its operation. Grace did not fit the mould: she did not want cheery carers turning up in pairs to wash, dress and feed her in fifteen minutes flat – she wanted a discrete lady to sit outside the bathroom whilst she took a bath by herself, just to be on hand in case she ran into difficulties. She did not want microwaved frozen shepherd’s pie and sponge pudding plonked in front of her – she wanted saltfish, rice and peas, freshly cooked.  Grace did not want to be carted off to day care, to sing along with other pensioners, or play bingo. All her friends had gone, she said and she did not want new friends. Several times, the care agency complained to the social worker that they were running out of carers who could work with Grace, as she continually refused their interventions, but the endless parade of interchangeable young women only served to enrage her further.

And all the while, the Council’s renovation works went on around her. Grace was by now quite the only person left living on her street. There was scaffolding all along the outside walls of the terrace and the resolution had been taken to carry on with the outside work only whilst Grace was still a thorn in their sides. The house vibrated and dust rained down around her – COPD or no COPD – as the workmen pressed on. I expect they thought she’d give in eventually; I think she knew she didn’t have long left and she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of making things easier for them.

One day when I turned up to see her, birthday cards – about fifteen of them – were strung up on a piece of wool around the walls of the back room. I congratulated her and commented on how lovely it was to see she had such a lot of cards. She looked me straight in the eye and nodded, looked at the cards, looked slowly back at me and admitted that she put them up herself every year. It dawned on me that these were the same birthday cards that she had kept and displayed year after year: on closer examination, five were from her brother and the most recent card was from about 8 years ago. I recall feeling close to tears as I looked back at her, but her defiance (almost) repelled sympathy.

Grace died about three weeks later. She was found, collapsed, by one of the carers on the floor of her back room and taken to the local hospital. She never regained consciousness and died a day later, alone.

I wish I had known she was in hospital. I would have gone to sit with her and hold her proud hand.


Filed under ageing, dying

A Journey in June

IMG_2815 It is impossible at the start of my familiar journey north by train not to think of the same journey, attempted last July. Now, I have a ticket and a seat for a journey I have planned for several weeks. Then, I rushed to the station, panicking after the telephone call from my father, barely able to breathe deeply enough to state my destination at the ticket office. He had called me just as I arrived into work, saying hesitatingly that, perhaps, I ought to come back sooner than Friday after all. It was Wednesday morning and I had been home since Monday afternoon. Now, it is a suddenly beautiful, sun filled late afternoon in an unseasonably cold and rain filled June. I sit in an air conditioned carriage with other urban workers, bunking off early on a Friday afternoon to make the most of the weekend. Then, I stood on a train from Manchester to Blackpool, the quickest way north being to get as far as Preston and change onto a train to Scotland there.  I wedged myself into a bulging, sweating carriage of mothers and grandmas and school-holiday-children with buckets and spades, picnic bags and even two dogs, heading for a day at the seaside. Then and now, the trains leave the City quickly, the landscape outside the window quickly turning lush and green. This June, I have a book and an iphone and a coffee. Last July, I have nothing to do but stand and stare out of the window, willing the train to go faster. I wanted to be able to pace up and down, but had to content myself with constantly shifting position, wringing my hands, turning around on my small portion of allotted space near the door, as a panting dog’s tail periodically thwacked onto my foot. Now, the train powers through the improbable leafiness of Wigan North Western and surges forward towards Preston. Then, somewhere just past Wigan station, the train started to slow. It stopped entirely for a couple of minutes, then made occasional spasmodic progress for the next ten. I checked my phone for the time continually, conscious of a connection I needed to make in Preston. The thirty allotted minutes for the transfer were ticking inexorably away as the children got restless, a ball was thrown and the mothers remonstrated with a pair of overheated, sullen pre-teen boys. I told myself I could still make it. I visualised the dash through the station I would be obliged to make – probably up the Victorian steps, across the bridge and down to the other side. It was doable. And then, last July, after nearly half an hour of stop-start jerks taking us no more than a couple of hundred metres, the platform in sight from my window, the train came to a complete standstill, just outside Preston station. A politely apologetic intercom announcement referred to being ‘held’ because of an ‘incident’ in the station. The minute for my connection ticked past, as I frantically googled the next train out of Preston to Scotland. As my phone struggled to make the internet connection, a ring cut through and my father’s name and grinning picture flashed up. She was gone, he told me. It was, finally, peaceful, he told me. Your sisters didn’t make it either, he told me. He had thought she would have a little bit longer, but he had been wrong. I turned off my phone with difficulty, hands shaking and sweating, chin wobbling, as the day trippers continue to snack and bicker and moan about the waste of a sunny day. I started to cry, properly, noisily; I rang my husband and said out loud for the first time that she was dead. No one said a word; the children stared, the adults averted their eyes. A few minutes later, the train lurched forward and disgorged us into the heaving, chaotic station. I walked around in circles, not sure what to do. A young woman approached me, saying ‘I was on the train, are you ok?’. ‘My mother just died and I don’t know what to do’ I say. ‘I know’ she said as she stroked my hand, flagged down a station guard and asked about trains to Scotland for me. It turned out that my train had not yet left after all. I ran up the stairs, across the bridge, down to the other platform. I jumped on the train, in wild-eyed hurry and flung myself into the one available seat I could see. A man opposite asked me where the fire was, there’s no hurry, he’d just been told there were no trains travelling north for the next few hours at least. A man was up a tower threatening to jump and no trains were going through. I got off the train again and tried to speak to the guard. He said there was little hope of getting to Scotland today. He said he would advise anyone with non-urgent travel to try to rearrange – can my journey wait? I said I suppose it could now. I walked back up the stairs, back over the bridge and down onto the first train back to Manchester. Then, I finished the journey, blinking into summer-bright sunshine at Piccadilly station, aware that my vision was starting to go and a migraine would shortly follow. Through the haze, I saw the top half only of my husband’s face as he took my hand and led me to our car. Now, I continue my journey north, sailing through Preston and beyond, arriving many hours later at the small, achingly familiar station in the middle of fields, the village of my childhood summers to my left, the town of my mother’s last years to my right. I have been travelling to this station all my life but I know that this is the last time I will make this particular journey, for my father is moving. I get off the train and see him coming towards me through the last glimmers of a long, Scottish June evening. He is little bit greyer, a little bit smaller, than last year. He takes my bag and leads me to his car for my last weekend stay at their house.

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Filed under dying

The Eccles Cake

Eccles CakesWhen I first met her, Lilian visited her husband Bert twice a week.   It was an hour each way on the bus – an hour and a half if she was unlucky with the traffic or if there was a match on.  She told me she used to go every day when he first went into the Home three years ago, then every other day for a while, but she couldn’t keep it up.

You can go every day, she said, when they still know who you are, when they pin their whole day around your visit and you see their face at the window, watching for you coming.    A year ago, Bert’s face would still light up when he saw her, she told me, even after five children together, sixty odd years of marriage and several years of gradually advancing dementia.  Even when she started to realise that she could no longer manage to look after him in their own house and had to speak to the social workers about a care home, he still knew who she was, whilst his grip on everything else was slipping away.  When he climbed out through the bedroom window of their housing association bungalow, gave her the slip when he was supposed to be having a nap and was found three hours later wandering around the local shops with no idea of where he was or who he was, he still remembered that there was a Lilian.  When he had some trial days at a day centre to give Lilian some respite and he cried in anguish, not understanding why he was there, he still called out for Lilian.  Her face, her name, was the last thing to go.

Now, when she went to the Home on her twice weekly visits, Bert seemed to have no idea who she was.  I took her there myself to visit him a few times, over the course of a year or two.  I saw how he stared uncomprehendingly at Lilian from his milky blue eyes, showing no flicker of recognition as he passed his gaze from my face to hers and back again.  I saw how he shoved her away, snarling ‘no’ at her with primal aggression, when she proprietorially smoothed his hair from his eyes or brushed crumbs from his jumper, loving gestures welcomed for over half a century, but now seemingly unendurable to him.  I saw how he pushed his octogenarian wife to one side and tried to fondle the young nurses instead – and her sad smile as she pulled him away, telling him not to be a numpty and embarrass the poor things.

I also saw something else on our visits, something extraordinary.  I witnessed their twice weekly Eccles cake ritual.  They had always been a favourite teatime treat of his, she told me, right from when they married when she was seventeen and he was twenty two.  He didn’t eat well in the Home and was now a painfully thin shadow of the plump, jolly man he used to be.  The food wasn’t great but, more importantly, dementia had robbed him of his appetite, of any sensation of hunger or satiety or pleasure in food.  Apparently apart from Eccles cakes, that is.

So every time she did her shopping, Lilian put some Eccles cakes in her basket.  And just before she set off for the bus stop to visit Bert, she would put two in the microwave and heat them to the very brink of explosion (‘so they go burning just like them McDonald’s apple thingymebobs‘).  Then, placed one on top of the other and sealed in a small circular plastic pot (bought especially for the purpose), they would go into her bag and, if needs be, double up as a hand warmer on her long bus journey.

On arriving at the Home, she would go straight to Bert’s room.  He had a small single room: a bed, with side rails and a sensor pad next to it on the floor befitting his high falls risk; a wardrobe; a small chest of drawers (full of incontinence products); and one hard-backed chair.  First, she would remove the silver framed ten year old photograph of the two of them (him looking plumper, her looking thinner) with their children and grandchildren from his chest of drawers, drag the chest to the centre of the room and take from her bag a small white lace table cloth, draping it ceremoniously over the top.  Next, she would borrow a second chair from an adjacent room and place it at the makeshift table.  Then she would search out her husband – who was invariably to be found either sleeping in an armchair in the day room or shuffling relentlessly up and down, up and down the carpeted hallways.  Finally, the still-warm cakes would be removed from their utilitarian pot and one placed on a delicate china plate (hidden in his wardrobe between visits) in front of him.

They would then dine a deux together in silence.  He ate every last scrap of his Eccles cake, methodically and with immense concentration.  They each had a cup of tea in front of them – hers in one of the serviceable, visitors’ mugs; his in a spouted plastic beaker, like a giant toddler.   When he had finished his cake, he would look at Lilian, smile beatifically and then get up and recommence his compulsive march along the corridors, resisting any attempts for further interactions with her.  She would disassemble the tearoom she had created, washing the plate and storing it in the top of his wardrobe, putting the cloth back in her bag to be taken home and washed for next time.

A few months after my last visit with Lilian, Bert died.  It got to the point where he couldn’t swallow properly any more, she told me, so she had to stop taking the Eccles cakes.   She still went to visit him on the bus, increasing the frequency of her trips again as his health declined further and further.  When he was finally bed-bound and no longer had the strength to resist it, she liked to sit and hold his hand whilst he slept.  There were no more smiles and no more words, but a comfort in the peace and closeness.

Lilian still does her own shopping, but she no longer puts Eccles cakes in her basket.  She always preferred an eclair, she says, and besides, she couldn’t eat one without Bert.

I learned a lot from Lilian. I learned that ordinary people with seemingly ordinary lives can be extraordinary and immensely humbling.  And that heroines need not be nubile, young, kick-boxing action figures, but can be white-haired, stoical pensioners sitting patiently with a shopping bag on a bus in a grey northern city.


Filed under dying

The Cardigan

WIN_20141120_133852 I was with my mother when she bought the cardigan, about a year before she died. We went on a ‘girls shopping trip’ – my mother, my daughter and I, to the Trafford Centre. I had planned it carefully, to take account of her limited mobility combined with her refusal to acknowledge her physical limitations.  So we parked directly outside one of the main entrances in a disabled parking place, using her newly (and begrudgingly) acquired blue badge and only took in one shop.

The cardigan caught my mother’s eye almost immediately. Baby soft cashmere, with coloured stripes over a gentle cream background. Her fingers stroked it, feeling its softness, but she moved on after checking the price and then shortly afterwards said that she would have to sit down. My daughter and I dashed around the shop whilst she sat, fulfilling our ostensible purpose of finding a swimming costume that my mother could buy for my daughter.

When we arrived back at the bench, she glanced quickly back in the direction of the cardigan and commented casually ‘I could just try it on here I suppose?’. It was duly fetched and she tried it on at her seat. We looked around for a mirror and saw one on the wall about ten metres away. She stood up slowly, finding her balance and set off on the short walk to the mirror with her characteristic lurching start as she launched herself on her mission.

As she glanced in the mirror, I saw her appraise herself from the front and then, very briefly, turned to at a side angle, whereupon she grimaced at her bent and broken back and commented that she couldn’t get used to seeing herself look that way.

I was despatched to pay for the cardigan for her and my mother and daughter sat together back on the bench whilst I dashed through the shopping centre to buy us all ice creams. My mother always prided herself on being an ice cream connoisseur and I can remember very many occasions when ice creams purchased at various venues around the country fell below her exacting standards. But this day, she gave a nod of satisfaction and pronounced ‘now that is a good ice cream’ and I felt proud and happy at the resounding success of the trip.

The cardigan remained a big hit with my mother, quickly becoming a wardrobe staple. Light enough to be worn the rest of that summer, warm enough to be of use during the Scottish winter, and gentle on increasingly tormented bones and skin.

And a year on, it was one of the few items of clothing which came to the hospice with her. As she fell asleep whilst we watched the Wimbledon final together on her television in her room during my first visit, I laid it over her. When we took her out in the wheelchair into the hospice garden on my last visit, it was light and soft, tucked around her shoulders.

So after she had gone and my father invited me and my sisters to ‘claim’ any items of clothing which held significance for us, I asked for the striped cashmere cardigan. My father brought it to my house in a plastic bag, tied at the handles. As I opened it, the sweet, characteristic smell of the hospice seeped out and overwhelmed me and I quickly resealed the bag, unable to open it again for a few weeks. When I did, the same thing happened. I decided I had two options: keep it in the bag forever, or wash it and wear it.

I decided on the latter. So far, I have only put it on once or twice, in the house.   This year, I found myself back at the same shopping centre on Remembrance Sunday, delivering my youngest child to a birthday party. After dropping him off, I took my place amongst the crowds gathering to watch the television pictures transmitted from the Cenotaph in London on the big screen. As the poignant strains of Elgar filled the hall, followed by the cannon and then the silence, I was undone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by grief. I was not crying for the soldiers or the families, or for my ancestors affected by wars. I was crying for my mother, a war baby, and I was crying for myself and the renewed shock of realising what bereavement feels like. It’s the little things, like the cardigan. And it’s the big things, like knowing you will never see them again.


Filed under dying, parenting


boyhood-posterTwo weeks after my mother’s death, I went to see Richard Linklater’s film ‘Boyhood’ with two close friends. The kind of friends who don’t mind me not talking but slumping down in a cinema with tears periodically streaming down my face, the inevitability of the passage of time playing out in front of us, as the boy in the title grows from a six year old to an eighteen year old.

As the mother of two sons, the film initially made me think about my boys and identify strongly with the protagonist and his mother, as she also ages. Yes, my boy(s) would do or feel that I thought countless times as Mason Junior was by turns shy, charming or reckless. And my heart bled for the character of the mother, especially at the end of the film as her son drove off to college and she was left exhausted in the kitchen, after years of having to cope with managing the day to day, crying ‘I thought there would be more’.

However, when I thought about the film later, I wondered why I hadn’t really considered my daughter during the film. Was it just because the film was mainly about Mason – the others, including his sister, being bit players in his story? Yes, that was probably part of it. But I also wonder if I have also bought into the received wisdom that sons grow up and leave you, but daughters stay with you – as the saying goes, ‘a son is yours until he marries, a daughter’s yours for life’. Was I more affected by the scene of Mason driving happily away in the sunshine to his new life, because I anticipate my sons doing just that, without a backward glance, in a way that my daughter will not? Perhaps it is because I have a teenage son, who I can see engineering his own separation from me already, a developmental stage which my daughter has not yet reached?

Just this week, there was another headline in the newspapers, asserting that you need to have daughters if you expect anybody to look after you in old age. Sons just aren’t going to cut it. I have been asked many times by elderly people in the course of my work whether I have any daughters and when I say yes, one daughter and two sons, they pat my hand and say ‘you needn’t worry then, love, your girl will see you right’.

I sincerely hope that all my children will want to be in close contact with me as they grow up and when they are adults and not merely consider me as a duty to be contacted. I also hope that my daughter in particular seizes every opportunity that comes her way and does not fall prey to any stereotypes about being the ‘caring’ one. Yet, as the mother now to one teenager, with one pre-teen waiting hotly in the wings, I can acknowledge that hoping for enthusiastic continued contact with all my children during the next couple of decades may be unrealistic.

I talked to my teenage son about the film, trying to use it as a device to keep the lines of communication open with him. I explained how the boy in the film grows up and away from his family and how it makes clear that at times he found them embarrassing. Trying to enforce a meaningful conversation on my reluctant son as he sat texting and avoiding eye contact, I stressed that I wanted him to know that I hoped he would always talk to me in private, even if I understood he may start to find it embarrassing to do so in front of others (we have had recent conversations about him only grunting to me when I ask him a question in front of one of his friends). ‘In the future?’ he said, somewhat incredulous – ‘mum, you’ve been overwhelmingly embarrassing for ages already’. Taken aback, I asked for more details. How long had I been embarrassing? ‘As long as I have been aware of the concept of embarrassment’, he answered adding, rather unnecessarily ‘and I think I learned that quite young’. He found me the most embarrassing person in the world, he said. And then, with a flash of the future heart breaker, he stopped texting just long enough to put his hand on mine and say ‘but I love you the best of everyone in the world too’.

After this conversation, I asked my ten year old daughter whether she found me embarrassing. ‘Not really’ she said. ‘Maybe sometimes when you sing, but I don’t really mind’. Undaunted, I asked the same of my eight year old son. ‘Never’ he stated loyally, jumping onto my knee, adding that he loves me so much that he wants to live with me forever. A sliding scale of embarrassment, neatly correlating with the age of the potential embarrassee, it would seem.

I feel confident that my eight year old will not be sitting on my knee asking to live with me forever in five years’ time, but he will still be the same person in five years’ time, just him in his thirteen year old form. One thing I found very moving about ‘Boyhood’ was that it was impossible at the end of the film not to see the face of the six year old boy in the face of the eighteen year old young man – the making manifest in front of our eyes that our experiences and emotions stay with us, even if we choose to put them on the back burner for a while. My older son may tell me that I am overwhelmingly embarrassing now, but when I look at his face, I shall choose to see the toddler who would not leave my side and the nine year old who clutched my hand on the way to school and kissed me goodbye in the playground (in front of his friends). The fact that he would not allow this to happen now as he grows towards independence must not be allowed to negate the fact that it happened and it is part of the fabric of his makeup. It is a part, too, of my experience of mothering him, a bank of goodwill which I sometimes need to draw on to compensate for teenage apathy and antagonism. When my younger son chooses to hurl himself at me and demand kisses and cuddles, I will accept them gladly, because I see that they may not last much longer.

I recall feeling when my children were very small that they were part of me, quite literally part of my flesh. With that visceral sense of belonging, came a sense of ownership. As they grow up, it is a painful realisation that they are not mine at all. Quite obviously, they are their own people and I would be failing as a mother if I could not accept and celebrate that. Whilst I feel so close to them at times that I feel I do know what they are thinking and how they are feeling, I cannot know that for sure and this is increasingly the case. Secrets are starting, doors are shutting, friends are being made without my control or knowledge, texts are being exchanged about my unreasonableness. All as it should be, no doubt. So do I even have the right to write about them? Is it in any way appropriate to appropriate our exchanges for my writing? It is a fine line and one which I am keen not to overstep. I hope I can reflect upon my relationship with them only in so far as I can see the relevance to me as a parent, to inform and validate my own experiences as a mother. Whilst I would have had few qualms about writing about my baby’s first steps, or infant dancing lesson, for example, it is quite another to dare to plunder their lives as they grow up for my own purposes and I am struggling to tread the line sensitively and meaningfully.

There is a scene in Boyhood where Mason’s High School teacher tells him that he is special, that he’s ‘got something’. Then he points out that he has a classroom of students who may also be special and who are definitely more focussed on success. When my mother died recently, it made me feel special, for all the wrong reasons. I feel illuminated by grief, special in my sadness and trauma and alone in the world, as though nobody could be feeling as I did. But then I look around and see many people I know who have also lost a parent and who must therefore also have been through that emotional maelstrom. Each time I gave birth, I felt singled out by the amazing thing that had happened to me – I had done something extraordinary, and survived! Then I looked around at all the other people who have done exactly the same or, heroically, taken the amazing step of adopting a child. The fact that my experiences are not unique should not negate my feelings of uniqueness, in being a mother or in being bereaved, but I hope will allow me to show compassion and understanding to others who are going through the business of living, growing up and dying.


by | August 25, 2014 · 7:27 pm