I put a small glass of white wine in front of my mum as she sits quietly at my kitchen table. I place the salt and pepper near to it and turn back to the cooker to dish out our meal. Then the sound of the pepper grinder causes me to spin around. My mother is twisting it repeatedly over the surface of her drink and clusters of dark specks are encroaching across it. I tell her quickly, ‘Mum, no, pepper is only for your food.’ She looks surprised for a moment, the grinder is suspended in mid-air and as I close my hand over hers she stares into my face,’I always get it wrong’ she sighs, ‘I’m stupid.’
My mum is living with Alzheimer's and we, her four daughters, are by degree too. Lately, I haven’t been able to ‘work through my feelings’ about what this means to me. Instead I’ve been talking about them and eating too much food, or eating food that doesn’t support me, or drinking alcohol even though I know my body doesn’t like it anymore. I’ve been choosing coffee over tea, and wearing colours that reflect the dullness of my inner landscape. I regularly leave my hair unwashed. I’ve been avoiding my daily writing practice. I meditate for six or seven minutes then reach for my phone and check my emails. I’ve been distracted in the tasks I need to do, and substitute them with activities that I don’t. What I wake up in the morning, a flat slab of sadness is still laying on my chest from the evening before. It isn’t a surprise to me that I’ve struggled to write a blog post. Writing requires a simultaneous turning in and turning out. It requires presence. And the behaviours I’ve been itemising are resolutely about not being present. They are about keeping at arms length feelings I want to avoid; loss, grief, powerlessness, guilt, uncertainty and fear. These feelings threaten to overwhelm me because this is my mum, and this is happening to her. The woman who began life in the Glaswegian slums of the 1930s. The woman who fought her way out of that Bear-pit of deprivation, scarred undoubtedly, and still standing. The woman who married and had children. The woman who battled for a council house with her name alongside my father’s on the rent agreement. The woman who slept with her purse under her pillow. The intelligent, uneducated woman whose pride took refuge in her position as ‘head-waitress’ in a Berni Inn. The generous woman who recognised outsiders and invited them in. Yes, this woman. The one who put all her faith in ‘saving face’, will-power and human dignity. And oh, if my mum knew the indignities she’s now become subject to. The mercy that she doesn’t is an almost unbearably paradox to live with. It exists only because her brain is slowly contracting around fewer and fewer things that make sense to her anymore. Mum grasps at the shard of a memory, a familiar expression, a fleeting impression but her cognitions are devoid of all gravity. They float away like the down of a dandelion-head caught in a bitter wind. Increasingly Mum is living in a void and we, ‘her girls’, stand close by and empty-handed, watching her drift further and further away from us.
So this is where I find myself right now. In this place of sorrow. Writing helps. It enables me to find my way back to my core. I gain perspective when I persist with words. Reflective writing can lever off the slab of sadness that numbs my heart. Then my feelings course through me until my heart has fully befriended them. Then there is release. Writing, prayer, meditation, being in nature, intimacy, walking, reading poetry and visiting wild places all nurture me, all connect me to something greater than the singular drama of my human life. In this place, though sorrow still sits with me, I am comforted by a Presence that knows no name.
For this I am grateful, deeply grateful.