Earlier I was sharing with Mum some of the more general memories from Herbert Street, the Caravan and Porchester Road (Our 3 homes as a family together), but she remembers nothing. I asked if that was frightening – not knowing what your past is, what you did yesterday or what you will do tomorrow. She acknowledges that it’s scary, but wanted more to express the frustration she feels about knowing what she wants to do, or say and realising that she has got it wrong, without knowing why. It must be so frustrating, confusing and very lonely, in a space with no memories to keep you company.
Mum is very tearful again today. She couldn’t get dressed and after breakfast she said she would like to read, because she ‘should be able to’. It was distressing to show her why she can’t do it anymore. We looked at one of Conor’s birthday cards to illustrate the point that even if she reads one word, she has forgotten it after reading the next one. Nor does she read across the page, she reads random words vertically down a text, so comprehension is impossible. But she was positive and said,
“I’m gonna keep trying…I should, shouldn’t I? Too many times I try to do something and I can’t, so I throw it away…I’m not going to keep throwing it away…I can keep trying, even if it is silly…I know it is in there, I can see it, but I can’t get it. I hope I get better.”
I asked what was ‘in there’ that she was looking for and she said sadly, but emphatically, “ME!”
“I can see you, Mammy. I know you are there and just the same inside.”
“You are my precious one”, she said, “and I’m proud of you.
Wow! Such comments are more precious than rare diamonds to me.
”Then came the knock on the door and I told her it was the bus.
“Oh, no!” she pleaded, “Do I have to go?”
“Yes, Mammy! I need the space to do what I’ve got to do. I can’t do it otherwise. I’ll see you later.”
She went away with some understanding I hope. I couldn’t cope if she didn’t do the Day-Centre.
We have abandoned baths altogether now. After breakfast and shower, when the boys had all gone their various ways, we rested a moment in the peace and quiet and I asked Mum what she could remember of her wedding day. She replied, “Nothing at all!”
“But you haven’t even thought about it yet!” I countered.
“I can’t remember anything.” She repeated. “We were too young.”
I reminded her how Daddy seemed to suddenly change, when a new doctor in Orkney changed all of his medication. She couldn’t remember, so I tried to remind her of the things she had told me, about him becoming ‘a teenager again, smoking roll-ups and starting to be sociable’. I also recalled some of her ‘Tarzan and Jane’ antics, that she had alluded to shortly before Daddy died. It was great that he had a couple of good years before he died, but it was a shame that his medication wasn’t reviewed much sooner.
I also suggested that it was good that he wasn’t around to cope with her dementia and she agreed, but argued,
“I was always like this: getting everything wrong and forgetting everything. He used to hate it and get very angry with me.”
“You were always scatty”, I agreed, “but I don’t think you had dementia. He wouldn’t have known what to do with you now. He might have tried to drown you.”
“He probably would” she nodded, not at all shocked by such an outrageous suggestion.
“How does it feel to have lived 32 years with a man that you knew had tried to kill you and may do so again at any time?”
“I don’t know. We were too young. He was hurting himself. And scared.”
“I guess he was scared, but I don’t think he had the right to terrorise his wife and children! Did you ever think you should have left him?”
“No! How I could I?” she said incredulously.
“I suppose you thought it would be worse if you tried to leave him; that he would find you and kill you anyway?”
“Weren’t you ever angry?”
She laughed. “I would never show it!”
“How do you feel about it now?”
“I don’t know. Anyway I’ve blocked most of it.”
I told her that I was angry about his treatment of her and of us. Although I know that he had his own baggage from his miserable childhood, I believe that he had no right to inflict such cruelty on his family. I think we have the right to be angry. I also loved Daddy and have forgiven him and I pray that he will now know true peace. But the damage takes a lot of healing. It was not her fault. It was not our fault. Daddy was responsible for the damage he caused. And I needed to say that. Mammy is also responsible for the damage she caused by her neglect and coldness – but it is no good opening that can now.
I don’t know how much she followed, but she seemed more at ease after our chat.
In the shower she had such a lovely smile, she almost looked as if she was enjoying the water. I felt very protective towards her, willing her to feel safe and loved and OK. I washed her gently, so much desiring her well-being and healing.
I am feeling even more sensitive, with some guilt, that I am to meet our Social Worker tomorrow to discuss the possibility of NHS funding for long-term care.
I have been thinking of painting a canvas for the dining room, and was saying how nervous I get when painting. Mum couldn’t understand me, nor could she remember the many paintings, metal ornaments and gadgets that Dad had made during his life. Dad never liked what he had made and on completion would either destroy it immediately, or would present it to someone apologetically. Happily I have three things that Dad made for me during my life – he also made tractors, trailers and boats – always his own unique design – he was particularly gifted with metal work and engines.
After I was disowned at 17, I had little to do with Mum and Dad for the next three years, although I did see them, when they allowed it and when I felt strong and safe enough.
Aged 20, I went to live in Germany and shortly afterwards, Mum and Dad moved up to live on Graemsay, in Orkney. My UK home thereafter was ‘Pa’s’ house.
In the early days on Graemsay, Mum and Dad lived with no running water, no electricity nor any mod cons. They had both always enjoyed ‘The Good Life’ on the television, and being away from people and having an old croft with lots of land, must have seemed like their ‘good life’ was finally about to begin. In some ways it was. Certainly their major responsibilities had been left behind. It was only each other to look out for. Eventually they got electricity and Dad put pipes in to pump water from the well into the kitchen.
Every second Sunday, at 12.30pm, they would walk across to the phone-box in the middle of the island and wait for me or Debbie to phone. I wanted to visit them, but whenever I asked, Dad would say no.
Eventually, as a University student, I took the long bus ride from London Victoria to Thurso. Next came the sick-inducing ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, then the small boat from Stromness to Graemsay. I was very anxious, tired and excited. The journey took 2 days. The views and the wind were breathtakingly beautiful on the sea at that time of the morning. Dad didn’t know I was coming.
After an awkward and difficult entrance, we had a lovely time. I adored the place. It was bleak, but not as bad as the picture that I had painted for myself. They had goats, sheep, chickens and geese and Mum had a good crop of potatoes, onions, curly-kale and plenty of sea-weed to gather. It really was quite idyllic. They had lots of land, fields, part of the beach, where the seals liked to bathe; a barn and lots of tumbled down byers and bothies. Dad made his fire breathing home-brews and even got in some wine and beers later to mark the occasion.
I was hoping to build bridges and bury the ghosts on this trip. In a sense, some of that happened for Daddy and I, because he did apologise and I realised that he simply didn’t think that his actions had been wrong. He thought I was just too young. I also asked Mum if I could be her daughter again yet. She said:
“I suppose so. I never really liked you, but you’re OK now.” Then she added, “But I’ll be glad when you go again, because I’ve got a lot to do and you’re upsetting my routine.”
I certainly felt a great deal better leaving Graemsay, than I did going.
I didn’t see Daddy again. He died five years later at the tender age of 49, of ‘acute alcoholism’, during one of those evenings drinking the home-made fire. He was happy and out socialising with his good friend – one of the 23 residents of Graemsay. God rest his soul. I went up for the funeral in Aberdeen and stayed a fortnight with Mum. She was bereft and devastated.
This wonderful poem was written in memory of my Dad, by a good friend of my parents, Tony.
In memory of Dick Haynes
When the moon comes flying over the sea
and the call of the curlew reaches me,
when sunrise turns the stony shore to jewels,
and golden dewdrops gleam on mushroom stools,
I think of island days, oh days of old,
and some were days of grey and some were gold.
We talked of trailers, tackle, a boats prow,
oh many things. And I remember how
we talked the sun down to the ocean’s rim,
and messed about until the yard grew dim.
Oh man, what days were they that passed us by,
under the wind’s wail and the gulls’ cry.
Never another day, oh never another day
and some were days of gold, and some were days of grey.
A.R Copyright [Notes 2]