fearful symmetry

Mums are superhuman, aren’t they.  This is a truth universally acknowledged by 3-year olds, but if we live fortunate lives, it is not until very late in our own day that this particular bit of world foundation crumbles.  When I hit the wall on this one quite recently, it took less than a month from exulting publicly on Facebook about how much in awe of my mum I still was/am, to providing the care you would give a baby to that same mum.  Things are much better now, but there has been an irreversible change.  As I attempted to practice Sit-There discipline while mum struggled back from the dream world of infection-induced delirium, I had lots of time to think about writing this blog, but none at all to actually write it.  Then we had science-fiction-style snow, and Christmas, and then I absent-mindedly went out and got a job, about which more later.   I will try to summarize what I’ve learned so far.

Thing One (that I’ve learned):

The onset of serious illness in the mid-80s is something everyone thinks they are prepared for but in fact most people, including the octogenarians themselves, are not.  The remote village where my mum lives is full of people, some living together, some living alone, who are right on the borderline of being able to take care of themselves. The big division among these people is not between those who have families and those who don’t. Those in the second group are obliged to accept residential care earlier than those in the first group, but that is not the significant difference.  The big division is between those whose family and social network is strong enough to keep them going against the odds in independent life, and those where that network can’t handle the strain.   Call me naive, but only now have I begun to realize what a challenge this is going to be.

Quite by accident, I was with mum when she suddenly became ill and right there and     then,  I found myself staring straight down the gunbarrel of everyone’s assumption     that, as the daughter, I would (a) stay and be her carer for as long as necessary and     (b) be able to handle the sacrifice of my own life and timetable which this would     involve.  (I’m sure my brother felt it too but this is MY blog 🙂 )  By “everyone” I don’t  mean my own children, siblings or grandchildren.  I mean the GP, the locum, the paramedics, the receptionist, all the neighbours, the consultant, the junior doctor, the  nurses, the occupational therapist, the Social Service workers, and the close personal friend of mum who is himself struggling with memory loss and the need to give up     driving his beloved car before he kills himself and/or someone else.   It was some help  to be reminded that everybody who reaches their 60s with surviving parents is in exactly the same boat sooner or later ~ BUT.  I was not at all ready for this.

* Here’s an example.  When I finally managed to get a doctor out to see mum who  was able to recognize that she had something considerably worse than seasonal flu,  he called an ambulance right away and then moved on to his next patient.  Mum was  delirious, but she realized that we wanted her to go to hospital.  She did not want to go.  She hid in the shower and countered all efforts to persuade her out (by me, her friend, and the paramedics).  Finally the ambulance crew pointed out that they could  not force her to go, and suggested they would go round the corner for 15 minutes while I talked her into it.  All four of the people in the house looked at me.  “Will she     travel ?” asked the ambulance driver.  This was my responsibility !  I would have to  persuade my delirious, imperious, superhuman mother to do something she hated,     and nobody else could do it for me !   Since I had no means of time travel into a future     where the problem would be solved, I had no option but to say “Yes”.  And she did     travel, but now she has no memory of it.  In fact, she reports having no memory     whatsoever of anything that happened over a period of almost a month, during which     we had to make major decisions on her behalf and provide her with intimate personal     care.   This is role reversal with a vengeance.

Thing Two

The various kinds of deterioration – both physical and psychological – which are for almost all of us an inevitable consequence of advanced old age are very, very hard and painful to confront.  It’s hard to look them in the eye, whether you are the person involved or that person’s children.  For the previously-independent, self-reliant individual involved, the loss of control is so painful that some associated memory loss is probably a blessing.  For that individual’s children – and here I speak purely for myself – there is a very frightening insight into what may now be only a decade or two into our own future.  As with classical tragedy, the two ingredients of Pity and Terror are powerfully present.  When my dad was only 73, he died quite rapidly from cancer.   That was one kind of process which at the time seemed appalling, but the period of powerlessness which he experienced was mercifully short – a mere five days.  With mum, we have had a four-week preview of what may last much longer.  Now that she has made a full recovery, nearly everyone, mum included, is in a sort of denial that she was ever really that ill.  But she was, and there are consequences from that.

Thing Three

Once you start to confront these realities, you begin to get a profound sense of the symmetry of our lives.  We all begin helpless, dependent on the love of family and the strength of the wider social network to support us and get us launched, and as the final decades wind down we return to that dependence, one way or another.   I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but our generation – the much-mocked Baby Boomers – really is the first in human history where it’s routine to have strong social ties and responsibilities stretching across at least four generations and spanning both our parents and our grandchildren.  We get to witness and, if we are lucky, assist at many arrivals and departures, and in so doing we have some awesome opportunities to contemplate where we ourselves fit into this circle, or wave, or whatever the hell the scary thing is that we call living.

Last Thing

When things at large are terrible, there are still pleasures in small things.  In mum’s and my case, it was starlings.  Each evening we saw them passing, clearly going home to roost.  Now that mum is better, I have found out where that roost is, and last week we went there and watched the roost.  It was transcendentally beautiful. 


is what it looked like.


~ by fightswithivy on February 21, 2011.

5 Responses to “fearful symmetry”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this lovely piece because I can empathise with most of what you have to say as I too have starred down a similar gun barrel & watched my father’s health fail. He died in 2009 & he is sorely missed by all of us. I did 5 ambulance chases, first to get to the ambulance before it left with him in it and then following it close behind. But I can honestly say these paramedics were fantastic. It was the hospital admission that left something to be desired, especially when they won’t admit a dying patient & sent us home, that was the toughest thing to deal with. I wanted to rail at the unfairness of the world but I didn’t I just kept going. And for him it was seeing the trees every time he opened his eyes.

    • Thanks for your lovely response, Kay. I agree that the paramedics are the best. Had another visit from them lately and they know mum by first name now ! Funny thing about the trees. That’s what my dad was seeing, too.

  2. Good post maman. Nice pic too 🙂 Love you. xxx

  3. Ah Sue! You have captured it all in this perceptive piece of narrative.And the picture is amazing. xx

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