I’m back! I’ve come home to look after my mum. You may remember her from previous columns – a venerable 90, she has lived a life of such unfailing generosity, toil, and virtue that the actuaries predicted she would go well into the 100s (barring accident!): A lifelong vegetarian non-smoker avid walker, frugal, stoic, my mother is a living testament to her belief that hard work cures all ills, except, it turns out, dementia and heart failure, eventually.
For me, novelties abound. Laughable anecdotes (such as mum searching for the unspeakable in unlikely places, e.g. looking for the toilet in the fridge); navigating the labyrinthine (but very welcome) benefits system; and bumping our new but ‘preloved’ wheelchair along the local pavements can form the subjects of future columns. Here I’m contemplating things from mum’s point of view. Now she and I have completed our role reversal, what is her ultimate reversal?
I claim not to fear death. Indeed, many has been the time that I have yearned for the warm embrace of oblivion to come and spare me that day’s fresh hell. Death holds no dread for me. Rather it is infirmity I fear. Pain or injury that would inhibit my ability to manifest myself in all my glorious magnificence: no more wowing em on the dance floor; no more pounding the Dollis Valley Green Walk in my long shorts; no more delusions of persistent peak vitality; and yes the almost inevitable weight-gain and frumpiness that would ensue inexorably.
Or perhaps it is the indignity of dependence that would be most onerous. Relying on others to find the words, or the missing shoe, or my many lost marbles might cause the most distress. How mortifying would it be to need someone to cut up my food, wipe my bum, or push me in a wheelchair? These are all things that my mother now requires, and when I challenge her to complain about it, she doesn’t. She likes being waited on hand and foot.
So I wonder whether it is the loss of agency that most stings. She and I —modern, emancipated females— work on the basis that we have decision-making power over our little lives. For my mother, that is largely gone. I decide what is served for dinner. Carers’ schedules help dictate rising and turning-in times. Where she goes and what she does is mostly determined by others. Her choices are reduced to the occasional one of two (any more would confuse her) often couched as: would you like this diversion, or just go on as you are? What kind of a choice is that? But it’s fine by her. She doesn’t even aspire to agency. She’s pleased to get the help.
Does nothing bother her? Is she blissfully contented in her semi-infantilised new state, freed from self-determination and responsibility? No. There are frustrations and disappointments, and they centre here: My mother has gone from productive, constructive, useful member of the community and this family to not being so. It’s in moments of forgetfulness, when she wakes from her afternoon nap for example, and I ask, would you like to get up? She might say: I’d better get up and make myself useful. When I remind her that useful is no longer a role she can play, that is when she is most crestfallen. Here may lie her one remaining usefulness: teaching me important life lessons about what is important in life. Being of service to others could ultimately trump all our aspirations, vanities, and illusions.
Poppy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org