Mum has gone. It wasn’t unexpected – she was ninety years old. But it is unexpected how much I grieve her passing. The last eight years of looking after her and dad – he died four years ago – were so, so hard, that I thought I would only feel relief at finally being released from the burden of it. I really didn’t expect that the grief would far outweighed the relief.
I’m not sad in a “I wish you hadn’t gone” kind of way, because it was mum’s time to go. She had been deteriorating in mind and body for several years. It pained me and others who knew her to see such an active, gutsy woman decline like that. It pained her, too, to witness her own decline, and know that once she was such a different person, even if she eventually lost the details of who that person was. I grieve at having the gap in my life that she previously occupied. I grieve that I never loved her enough, and that the difficult back stories we both had prevented me appreciating her as a person in her own right. And I just grieve that she’s gone, for reasons too complex to truly understand.
Late in 2010, a series of twists and turns in my life found me back in my home town of Christchurch living in my parents house, and fully seeing for the first time the old people they’d become. I had visited regularly during all the years I lived away, but it’s only when we live with people that we really see them. I have siblings, some who lived close by and some who didn’t, and still don’t. But as the one in the house with my parents, I became their main caregiver by default. I didn’t accept my new role graciously, and I wasn’t always a good daughter. Having said that, though, sometimes I was a feckin brilliant daughter! I accepted that I had a duty of care for my parents, and was never going to abandon them to the possibility of not having reliable and intuitive care. Whatever I was, both the good and the bad bits, I was there. And I leaned that being there is everything to elderly parents.
There’s no doubt that looking after them was a job for which I was woefully ill-equipped, and the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in my life. As a child-free person by choice, I had never experienced the burden of relentless dependency that a parent experiences. Although looking after the elderly isn’t comparable to looking after children, perhaps the experience of total dependency doesn’t come as quite such a shock, if one has experienced it with children first.
I roller-coasted between extremes of love and hate for my parents. Sometimes my heart would break at their frailness, and I would remember the strong vibrant people they were, and the things they’d done for me, the sacrifices they’d made. I would feel only love for them in spite of the grind of caring for them, as they still loved me with all my flaws. At other times, I would nearly go insane inside my head with fury at them, and the absolutely dire circumstances of my life. I often wished I had the selfishness to run away – but I also knew I would never do that.
Most of the decade of my fifties was divided between work and looking after my parents, and then my mother alone after dad died. I fretted at the opportunities I felt that I was missing out on, because I couldn’t leave them. However, looking after them changed me in ways that might never have happened otherwise. I wouldn’t chose to do it again, but I can’t deny that I like the ‘me’ I’ve become better than the ‘me’ I was.
Inevitably, mum’s physical and mental decline accelerated. When the end came, it was quick. The thought of her being bed-ridden was horrendous enough to appreciate the mercy of a quick end. Although I’m glad to get my life back, I miss mum being in the world.
Totally crazily and unexpectedly, I miss you Mum.