How Much Is Enough...
A chilly rain was falling as I waited outside the railway station one evening in January. It was already dark, and as busy as it ever was at 5.30 at night, with taxis and buses all jostling for precedence, but I had been lucky, managing for once to secure a parking space outside the university buildings. As the minutes ticked by, I watched the raindrops trickling down the windscreen, illuminated by the changing colours of the traffic lights, and glanced idly at my phone, still too early for the arrival of the 17.44 from Birmingham, where my husband was working as a supply teacher. Perhaps I should ring my mother I thought, for one of our usual brief conversations, which had fallen into a predictable pattern with neither of us having anything much to say beyond everyday pleasantries. We had long since run out of meaningful communication, although the habit still remained.
I listened intently as the ringing tone went unanswered; not that this was anything in particular to worry about, for there had been many occasions like this, with mother blithely offering such unlikely explanations as “I was in the kitchen” ( a good ten feet away from the phone) or the equally implausible “Well I never heard anything”, countering any concern in a defensive and slightly aggrieved manner. The idea that an unanswered phone call at a time of day when she might reasonably be expected to be at home could cause a great deal of anxiety over her whereabouts was a notion that meant nothing at all to her. That we might imagine any kind of life endangering crisis happening to her (especially considering the state of her living arrangements) clouded her imagination not one iota.
I tried her mobile number, only to hear it click onto the all-too-familiar “unavailable” message. Even this was unremarkable, as the phone often lay buried in a handbag beneath swathes of crumpled tissues, old bus tickets, single mittens and other, less usual items such as crochet hooks and nail scissors. Handbags were a source of delight to her, and she owned many, carefully selected from charity shops far and wide.
There was no bag that could not find a home with her, be it gold quilted leather, rattling with chains, or a fake designer label, or a tapestry Gladstone bag, no design too flashy, or just plain terrible for her. The constant acquisition of handbags and purses was one of her foibles ; in the months to come we were to find literally dozens of each stashed away inside carrier bags, slung on the backs of doors, crammed into cupboards, beneath chairs and under beds. All kind of bags, shoulder bags, any kind you could imagine, from Laura Ashley prints to leopardskin purses, from 1980`s clutch purses to embroidered shopping bags, make up bags in neon purple, all unused, bought in a moment`s impulse and just as soon discarded. Inside many of them were plastic carrier bags, each precisely folded into a tiny square, to what end I cannot guess.
And if this had been her sole indulgence, it would have been easy to regard it as a frivolous and harmless pastime, but things were never that straightforward.
Collecting my thoughts, I rang the house phone once more, imagining its strident tones ringing out in the overheated and overstuffed bungalow. Surely even if she hadn`t previously felt like answering the phone, as was sometimes the case, then the fact that it had been ringing constantly by now for a good many minutes must have alerted her to answer it eventually. Internet service providers, phone companies and electricity suppliers often rang her number, and rather than tell them to go away or simply disconnecting the call, she would, on occasion, be drawn into unwilling conversations with unscrupulous people, and as a result was somewhat wary of answering the phone.
There was still no reply. I tried to think rationally, although a faint mist of worry had begun to form in my mind. Surely she must be at home, on this cold January evening, with the rain falling and temperatures not far above zero? Hopefully she had fallen asleep in the battered easy chair where she spent most of her time, surrounded by piles of books, bags of knitting wool, half completed crochet blankets cast to one side, and on the table nearby, amidst teddy bears, knick knacks and yet more toppling towers of books, the latest abandoned cup of coffee, a skin congealing on its untouched surface. Tucked into the chair alongside her would be the ever-faithful Jazzy, a highly strung and deeply unkempt Yorkshire terrier, whose house training left everything to be desired.
I vacillated between alarm and irritation, thinking one minute that all was well and I was overreacting unreasonably to a simple unanswered phone call, the next imagining all manner of disasters. I thought back to New Years` Eve 2008, and another missed call, where my sister and I had arrived to find her unconscious on the floor, hypothermic and suffering from pneumonia. And with that thought, the vague feeling of unease in my mind expanded into a sense of panic.
Fast forward now some twenty minutes, during which I have driven much too fast to Blurton, weaving impatiently through the heavy traffic, afraid of what might be waiting for us, afraid of being too late. My husband has his ear glued to the phone in vain hope of a late response, but it seems increasingly unlikely as time goes by. Mother has never been the kind of person to just pop round to a neighbour`s for a cup of tea, and even less likely to issue the invitation, so she must be at home, somehow. The shops closed hours ago, and she never goes out at night.
Distracted, I take a wrong turning, and end up in a maze of unfamiliar streets, delaying arrival even further, and cursing and raging until I manage to locate the main road once more. Braking fiercely in front of the bungalow, I can see it is shrouded in darkness, and my heart sinks – I had hoped to find everything just as it should be, and us all to be misled by a technical fault on the phone line.
In a moment I ran up the path, but the house is silent – unusual in itself, as Jazzy usually kicks up a noisy warning should anyone be outside.
Knocking loudly on the door, on the windows, the absence of light and sound was absolute, and I knew in that moment that my worst fears seemed to be coming true. The rear of the house was equally deserted, and although we could plainly hear the TV of the neighbour, nothing would induce her to answer her doorbell, no doubt afraid of strangers in the darkness, so she is hardly to be blamed.
Mother`s habit of leaving her keys in the lock had prevented us from gaining entry by the usual method, so by now there seemed little option but to try and break in. Verging on hysteria, I rang 999, garbling out enough of the situation for the operator to make sense of, and despatch police to the scene. Rarely have I been more relieved than when within a few minutes, the reflective stripes of a police vehicle showed up under the streetlight as it pulled up sharply onto the pavement. A panel of the front window was smashed swiftly and efficiently, the sound of heavy blows and splintering glass so loud in the night air, yet no-one came to their door, or even so much as twitched a curtain. The police officer entered the bungalow, cautioning us to wait outside for the moment, for reasons which we could well imagine.
Mother was discovered in her bed, very groggy and in a highly confused state, unaware of her circumstances and obviously very ill. Apparently she had had a “nasty cold” and gone to bed to sleep it off, and it was not until some time later that the “nasty cold” was revealed to be a dangerous cocktail of a highly virulent flu virus, pneumonia and a pre-existing exacerbated lung condition, and the restoring nap was in reality over twelve hours of being more or less unconscious and completely oblivious to the outside world. I believe that had she not been found at that point, the infection which had overwhelmed her thus far would in fact have been too much for her already weakened system to fight off. At this time, the UK was in the grip of a particularly bad flu epidemic, leading to very many deaths, but mother had diligently had her flu jab, which we all believed would offer her protection from at least the worst effects if she were to contract the illness, but it turned out not to be so.
An ambulance was summoned, together with a council workman to come and board up the broken window, who made a surreal sight as he sawed wood on his workmate by the light of the moon. Very soon mother was being examined by a young-looking paramedic armed with a vast amount of electronic gadgetry, placing trace wires upon her person to measure her vital signs. He had a reassuring presence and a winning smile, and soon mother had recovered herself sufficiently to flirt outrageously with him.
During mother`s tenancy of the bungalow, almost ten years by now, its appearance had changed beyond all recognition, from the sunlit magnolia-tinted space we had visited after a fierce row with the housing department, to a claustrophobic, overstuffed and overheated home. It seemed as if week by week the contents of the house grew and grew, threatening to overwhelm the already limited floorspace with huge overflowing bags of wool, pierced by vicious looking knitting needles and spilling their contents over a carpet that was once blue.
Happily possessed of an enviable creative deftness, Mother could sew, knit and crochet with swiftness and dexterity, turning out blankets in multi-coloured squares and stripes almost effortlessly. Of late she had been busily employed in the creation of a host of tiny pastel cardigans, bootees and pram covers, ready to welcome a first great granddaughter in a few months` time. It was an event she was anticipating with great excitement.
One side of the room was occupied by an immense dolls house some four feet or more tall. Each miniature room was furnished carefully in high Victorian style, with hand-stitched rugs and tiny ornaments, although the diminutive doll occupants lay prone on the floors as if suddenly struck down by some invisible plague. And as if even this magnificent edifice was not enough, the bedroom held a further two such houses, one slightly smaller, but all exquisitely and fully furnished ; not to mention two bungalow-style shops, one a bakers, the other a fabric emporium. Mother`s enthusiasm for these grown-up toys lasted some months, and then, like so many of her sudden fancies, was cast aside in favour of some new distraction. The houses and their contents remained unlooked at and uncared for, their static interior worlds an ironic counterpoint to the domestic chaos outside their plywood doors.
Her passions may often have appeared child-like in both their nature and in the intensity with which she took up and abandoned new interests, flitting from one new thing to another in a heartbeat. Yet what child would be playing with Steiff teddy bears worth hundreds of pounds, or with the unnervingly realistic reborn baby doll, which looked simultaneously both dead and alive?
For a while, jigsaws became her passion, puzzles largely of the kind illustrated with nostalgic scenes from the 1950`s, where smiling shopkeepers dispense sherbet lemons to well-scrubbed schoolboys, and ladies in hats and gloves chat amiably as they wait to be served, while outside on the village green, a cricket match is taking place as a shiny traction engine rumbles cheerily by. It`s a kind of artwork popularly seen on cards, mugs, teatowels and all kind of souvenirs, carefully crafted to appeal to those in search of the comforting warmth of a smartened up and repackaged yesteryear. Mother adored these unrealistic but appealing vignettes of a world that she wished still existed ; not that it had even during her lifetime, and she possessed very many of them.
There was one in particular showing 1950`s holidaymakers on the prom at Blackpool, blue skies above and icecream in hand as they wait for the approach of a jaunty tram. Mother hated Blackpool and said it was “common”, but this picture showed a pleasing innocent image devoid of the neon vulgarity which she so disliked. Almost all the jigsaws showed an alternate and more acceptable world, in which I imagine she found some comfort.
Very few, if any, of these puzzles, were completed, as if the possession of them were sufficient in itself to form a nostalgic barrier to the reality of ageing. After the excitement of their purchase, and momentary admiration, they were consigned to the depths of the electricity meter cupboard only to join an ever increasing quantity of their own variations. Many a meter reader must have quaked beneath their towering battlements, fearing imminent death by falling cardboard before beating a hasty retreat.
However, away from such bright reimagining of a fantasy world that probably never, in truth, existed, the real world did look particularly grim that dark January night. The cramped available space seemed even smaller, with large bags of medical equipment on the floor and with what felt like too many people. Running out of anything to say to the paramedic as she filled in what seemed like endless pages of information on her tablet, I wondered what on earth they thought of their surroundings that evening. It had never seemed right that an independent and intelligent woman like mother should be living in such conditions, apparently of her own volition and to her entire satisfaction; yet it had proved impossible to make more than the most superficial improvements without causing upset and distress on all sides. A casual observer would have found it easy to dismiss her as a somewhat eccentric old lady, but there was so much more to her than first impressions would lead anyone to think. Having said that, many were the times when she seemed to take great pains to conceal and disavow the better parts of herself.
The medical team decided, much to our relief, that mother should be admitted to hospital, and wrapping her up warmly against the cold night air, they conveyed her to the waiting ambulance.
When viewed through the prism of the seven months that have passed since then, it seems almost impossible not to have at least guessed at the chain of events that would subsequently be set in motion. It is only from the perspective of time having passed that everything that was to follow seems so blindingly obvious. But so far as the here and now was concerned, all that mattered was for Mother to be attended to by professionals, and I could hear her childlike complaints drifting into the night air as she learnt that her ride in an ambulance would be accompanied neither by blue lights nor by sirens. A good sign, I thought; more like her old quirky self.
It was with an overwhelming sense of relief that I watched the vehicle turn the corner and disappear into the darkness, and, closing the door against the cold, I looked around the bedroom, wondering for what might have been the umpteenth time how things had come to this sorry state. Attempting to understand the way in which Mother had progressively neglected her health over the years, worsening in time, was a task way beyond me, much as I had tried. It was by no means a new phenomenon, this apparently wilful refusal to acknowledge obvious signs of ill-heath not only in herself but also in others. Childish complaints of sore throats, or headaches, or similar indispositions were dismissed with a wave of the hand, and a brusque "there`s nothing wrong with you”, as if illness was in some way a deliberate ploy to annoy or inconvenience her. Perhaps her own childhood might have held a clue as to why she would be prepared to endure pain and illness rather than go to the doctors, or even take over the counter medications, but there could never have been any way of knowing. We often suspected that there was something very dark and painful in her past that may have shed light on some of her more difficult and puzzling behaviours, but it remained buried.
Some years previously, after a similar collapse at home, Mother had been diagnosed with COPD, a serious progressive breathing condition which required a complex regime of medications, treatments and monitoring in order to slow the inevitability of its progress. The gravity of the situation was something she either failed to grasp, or, more likely, turned her face away from, and as a result would self-medicate in a whimsical and ad hoc fashion ; not that the GP was without blame in this situation, as prescriptions would be endlessly repeated with no knowledge of their effectiveness or otherwise. In the weeks to come we would find drawers full of half-used and unused medicines, and unopened white paper bags from the pharmacy stamped with dates from months in the past, with no apparent rhyme or reason as to why their contents had been prescribed. She was reluctant to use her inhaler, and it became an unwelcome and unpleasant chore to persuade her to do so, parental roles unhappily reversed.
Perhaps the staff at the hospital would be able to help her at last to understand the importance of looking after her health, for the subject had caused an ongoing war of attrition between her and all her children for years, and hopefully something positive could come out of this sad situation. I was still thinking about this as I drove to the hospital a short while later, once the broken window had been safely boarded up. Circling the car park with increasing frustration, I wondered how it could be that all the spaces could be occupied at almost midnight, before giving up and abandoning the car outside on the main road, not caring about the consequences. I ran across the tarmac to the brightly illuminated new accident and emergency unit, where the waiting room resembled a field hospital in a war zone. People young and old lay across the rigid plastic seating, or even on the floor, many swathed in blankets, victims of the current deadly flu epidemic which was affecting thousands of people across the country. Worry turned to frustration and anger as the digital display showing waiting times increased by the minute, and the atmosphere was charged with an uneasy tension.
Admitted beyond the double doors, a different kind of chaos was revealed as patients on trolleys, mostly older people, anxious and afraid, were pushed up against the wall in yet another queue, like so much uncollected baggage, while their relatives hovered around them. It was impossible not to stare at each new admittance as they were wheeled past, close enough to touch, some looking as if they would not last the night, all ill and frightened, with the medical staff stoically carrying on as best they could.
It was a relief to see Mother sitting up and looking a little more like herself than previously, although obviously very ill at ease in the stressful surroundings, and still protesting that she only had a bit of a cold and was more than ready to go home.
“After all, they need the beds for all these ill people” she said plaintively, even now still unwilling or unable to understand that she was herself equally in dire need of medical attention, and I wondered just what it would take for her to accept the reality of her situation.
Occasionally a trolley would be wheeled out of the waiting line and disappear through double doors, as the rest of the queue would watch with envy, wondering when, if ever, their turn would come. It was hard to believe that we were in a supposedly state of the art Accident and Emergency unit, looking at the lack of capacity for patients or even somewhere where family and carers could sit to reassure their loved ones ; but even so, it was still a distinct improvement on the reception area, where the waiting time was approaching four hours, and patience at breaking point. A weary cleaner swept her mop back and forth along the corridor, though it must have had little effect other than to redistribute the germs more efficiently. She was a tall dark-skinned woman, wearing an unlikely gold hijab with her blue uniform, and looked as if her thoughts were miles away from this chaotic scene.
Time passed, and at length Mother was admitted to a new area whose purpose seemed unclear, but at least it had cubicles which offered some respite from the indignity of being dumped in a corridor, and space to sit down if you were lucky enough to acquire a chair. In contrast to the crush outside it was eerily quiet, as medical staff walked by from time to time, but none of them, it seemed, in any hurry to attend to Mother.
A medical emergency in the outside world apparently has no equivalency within the walls of a hospital, where all are ill to a greater or lesser degree, and one more frail, ill person does not rate highly on the scale of urgency.
Under the harsh fluorescent lighting no-one could rest, least of all Mother, and I began to wonder apprehensively whether someone was about to appear to discharge her after all. This would have been the worst possible outcome right then, with the bungalow in an even worse state than usual, due largely to Jazzy having soiled it throughout in her distress. Perhaps there could be the very smallest glimmer of hope arising out of this unfortunate situation, insomuch as Mother might be persuaded to accept help and assistance in order to preserve her independence and improve her wellbeing.
It had been well nigh impossible for any of us to find a way of enabling her to understand that, unwelcome as it might initially be, the time had come to introduce some kind of support into her everyday life. Any offer of help with the housework, or encouragement to perhaps pay closer attention to health issues, or indeed many everyday little kindnesses, would be met with robust opposition. For a long time it had been difficult to broach the topic; being light-hearted and cheerful would result in one`s suggestions being batted aside like an annoying fly, and the subject immediately changed with a mental dexterity that belied her years.
If one was brave (or foolish) enough to press the matter, she would become prickly and petulant, occasionally resorting to angry tearfulness, which would make any further conversation pointless. We would replay this routine time after time, with no progress possible, and the situation would hang awkwardly in mid-air, in sore need of being addressed, but with no hint as to how to move things along.
On particularly challenging occasions she would accuse us of wanting to send her to a “Home”, a word which she managed to imbue with all the grim deprivation of a Victorian workhouse, and a sure way of disposing of unwanted elderly relatives with maximum cruelty and horror. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth, for it was increasingly obvious that the necessity of keeping Mother safe and cared for in her own home was completely central to her happiness. Our concerns, for the most part, involved the improvement of several issues of safety and health within that framework. There had been occasions in the past where we had discussed other living arrangements, including sheltered housing, but in the end they had all been dismissed with varying amounts of hostility, and the subject had become something of a closed book.
There had been a brief period in the past when Mother had actually stayed in one of these establishments, during a period of convalescence following an earlier collapse. It had proved to be a positive and uplifting time, with its teatime around the kitchen table, in-house hairdresser, and communal activities which she could join in with or not, as she wished. The care home was warm, bright and cheerful, the inhabitants and staff supportive and welcoming ; about as far from her grim mental picture as could be imagined. Somehow she was unable to connect with the memories of those days, perhaps thinking that the slightest show of acquiescence on her part would see her whisked off to the nearest old peoples` prison without a by your leave, to spend her days in misery and isolation.
I can`t help thinking that she might have found some perverse satisfaction in this thought, for she could display a streak of martyrdom on occasion. Her strong desire to preserve her independence for as long as possible was easy to identify with, although her denial of the obvious deterioration in both her surroundings and her health I found much more difficult to come to terms with. That I was not able to comprehend her situation with more empathy and understanding at the time makes me feel both sad and guilty, especially in the light of the fact that hoarding is now classified as a mental illness, and one often brought about as a reaction to trauma. To me, Mother sometimes appeared to be like a particularly trying and naughty child in need of a telling off. It was an impossible and endlessly frustrating situation, with no clues as to how to make things better for everyone.
I was later to discover that hoarding is a condition whereby (for some people at least) a traumatic or even abusive experience in the past is literally “buried” in mountains of possessions, as if to make sure the pain it caused is unable ever to surface. Perhaps I might be wrong, but in retrospect I can`t help connecting long-held suspicions of something very bad happening earlier in her life with her later compulsive and excessive purchasing habits. At first I thought that, free from having to budget for a family for many years, and no-one`s needs to consider apart from her own, she had simply been revelling in apparent financial freedom ; but as time went on, and Ebay opened up a new and tempting avenue of delights for her, the acquiring of so many more items grew exponentially. The bungalow gradually progressed from cluttered to downright hazardous.
If you are lucky enough to live in a many-roomed mansion, then to make the purchase of many new things your raison d`etre is perfectly acceptable, for you have plenty of room to keep and enjoy what you have bought. Your friends and family might even be envious of your fine possessions, and your everyday life would be impeded not at all, for there would always be room to store your items. Yet let us assume you have the same compulsion to acquire things, and the wherewithal to do so, and you live in a small council bungalow specifically designed for the assumedly modest needs of a single person of pensionable age. The problem is self evident.
As the night crept towards the early hours, difficult though it was to know what the time ever actually was under the harsh never-changing hospital lights, it became more difficult to stay awake. There was the strange sensation of being physically exhausted, but mentally hyper alert, as if adrenaline was slow to leave the system, and it left me nervous and jittery, an unpleasant feeling which the endless waiting only amplified. After what seemed like an eternity, Mother was admitted to a ward and we were able to leave, although precious little time remained for sleeping.
So many things were racing through my mind as I drove home, the constant inner conversations in my head keeping up an endless stream of “what ifs”, only to contradict myself seconds later. One minute I would find myself almost agreeing with Mother’s self diagnosis of a bad cold, while just as quickly I would start imagining any number of serious illnesses yet to be revealed, of which this was just a harbinger. And that they would require a battalion of treatments almost as gruelling as enduring the original life-threatening condition, all of which would require immense courage and steadfastness to deal with, a terrifying prospect. And equally, how would I be able to support her through something like this, when simply asking her politely to use her inhaler could sometimes almost end in tears? All these thoughts were unreasonable and completely without basis, yet they assumed a frightening reality, which left me deeply worried about what the coming days might reveal.
It was with a mounting sense of trepidation that I arrived back at the hospital the next afternoon, after driving around the complex for what seemed forever in search of a parking space, only to encounter lines of vehicles circling the car park on the same fruitless quest. The ward itself seemed buried deep within miles of corridors and via lifts that never seemed to deliver one to the desired location. Having at length arrived, it was necessary to be kitted up in mask and apron to avoid contracting and spreading infection, and happily the absurd and rustling appearance proved to be an amusing tension reliever.
Thankfully Mother appeared rather better than before, bright eyed and talkative, and it was obvious even then that she had been given some very effective medication. In fact she looked so well that I expected to be asked to take her home within a day or two, and the next week or so, as her health improved, she was shuttled back and forth to wards of less and less critically ill patients.
The last ward was occupied by women in much the same circumstances as herself, who already had a number of chronic conditions before being further debilitated by influenza, and some of them were in a pitiable state. One might be forgiven for thinking that the elderly dementia patient calling out constantly for attention might be the hardest to share such close quarters with, but it was not so. One old lady, small and hunched, was missing one day, not for a treat but to attend her daughter’s funeral. The horror of the situation caused her to be the subject of many a pitying glance, but she was left largely to her own diminished world, lest her terrible misfortune be in some way contagious.
On one occasion, my sister and I were fortunate enough to secure an interview with an unsettlingly young social worker, with a view to hopefully accessing some professional intervention which might help improve Mother’s quality of life, as our attempts so far had failed, or made only a temporary and negligible difference. It was a awkward situation, with the disclosing of her self-neglect and hoarding issues feeling both shameful and disloyal, as if we should have been able to manage the situation before letting it get into the present sorry state. A full existence of 83 years was reduced to a long litany of failings, problems and difficulties, none of which reflected well on her or us. Her obstinate personality and wilfulness, combined with her apparent inability to take an objective look at the deterioration of her surroundings had led to her constantly increasing possessions taking over more and more room in the already small bungalow, making it increasingly hazardous.
To make matters slightly worse, many of the items that so frequently took her fancy were in fact objects that I rather liked myself (with the notable exception of the army of glassy eyed teddy bears), such as Royal Doulton figurines, little china fancy dishes of gemstones and crystals, pretty vases, sparkling necklaces which were never worn, but looped over picture frames to catch the light. Dainty, feminine things, all nice enough in their way, but amassed in such profusion so as to overwhelm rather than appeal, and usually with a dulling layer of dust.
No doubt the social worker had heard much along similar lines before, and much worse besides, and she nodded sympathetically as we poured out what felt like an endless stream of complaints. Quite what we expected her to do about someone who did not consider 9 bottles of washing up liquid to be just a little excessive I am not sure, or whose kitchen cupboards were so crammed with tins of food that they were within a hair’s breadth of parting company with the walls – and this by someone who ate next to nothing, for all the imaginary elaborate meals that she swore she had cooked and eaten. Sadly many of the cans had gone past their best by date, so who could say how long they had been languishing there, and even when we had taken away some of the usable items for our own use, there remained two large bagfuls of well in-date food for the foodbank.
Nothing was ever enough for Mother as far as purchases were concerned ; if it could be bought, then it should be bought in quantity.
It is perhaps better to draw a veil over the contents of the fridge, except to say that it was a miracle that she had never contracted food poisoning. And yet nothing we could say seemed to surprise the social worker, or give the slightest cause for concern, even though it seemed increasingly clear to us that we were describing a bizarrely disordered life, almost as if it were some kind of parallel universe where nothing is abnormal and everything is acceptable, however weird. Out of respect I will not here mention details of Mother’s personal care issues, suffice it to say that it was yet another area in need of redress.
There was a strange and puzzling pattern to at least some of her excesses, for it seemed the less something was actually going to be of use, the greater number of items would be purchased . For instance, the bathroom window held a shining rainbow of many shower gels, and Jazzie the dog possessed leads and collars by the dozen, none of which were ever of any practical use. Beneath the sink lay numerous piles of dining plates, saucers and side plates, not to mention scores of serving dishes of all shapes and sizes, enough to cook and serve banquets for fifty people – this in a house with no dining table and a kitchen the size of an airing cupboard.
The fact that I still cannot understand why Mother chose to surround herself with so much stuff both frustrates and occasionally upsets me. It eventually grew to form a barrier to visiting, for I wanted badly to try and clean the place up, even if only superficially (and perhaps to quieten my own fears too), but any suggestion would only cause angry scenes, which made me think that on one level she was aware of her surroundings. To live in such a way did not seem like normal behaviour, but I was unable to comprehend why an intelligent person such as she was should choose to be this way.
I have spent many hours trying to fathom out what lay behind the situation, and still find myself at a brick wall, although the notion of hoarding being a reaction to past trauma is becoming an increasingly likely explanation to me, even if I can never know for sure. If there is some episode of abuse hidden in her past that she had never been able to confide in anybody, the damage caused would have been buried deep, for she was not a person to whom the sharing of emotions came easily. Perhaps it may be possible that she sought unconsciously in her later years to dispel painful memories by endlessly surrounding herself with treats and things to make her feel good, burying the past both literally and metaphorically with every teddy bear, book or teacup she would buy.
If that should ever prove to be the truth, then I wish I had known something of it, terrifying as the prospect might have been to face, then perhaps it might have prevented me from becoming, on occasion, the impatient parent that she used to be, berating her for this and that. Mother was a committed reader of memoirs of abusive childhoods, no upbringing too shocking for her to discover, and periodically my sister and I would angrily throw them out, believing she would be depressed and upset by them. On reflection, I have since wondered whether there was another personal and distressing reason for her choice of reading. The question at the heart of the way she was will always remain unanswered, and will not go away.
Against many of our expectations, the meeting (which was held in a cramped and claustrophobic room, forcing us into rather closer contact than we might have wished) did actually go onto bear fruit, although at an agonizingly slow pace, and hampered by a distinct lack of communication from the social worker. It was proposed that a care worker would call on Mother twice daily in order to help her with getting dressed, making breakfast and supper, and looking after her personal care such as washing and showering. I wondered just how she would react to what she might perceive to be yet more of our interfering, but in an outcome that no-one could have anticipated, Mother accepted the ideas with a surprising equanimity.
In time she began to look forward to the care worker’s visits, and a chance to chat with each new face, including an ebullient lady with electric blue hair, and her prized caller Michael, a pleasant Afro-Caribbean gent who Mother cheerfully described as “black as the ace of spades”, although not to his face I sincerely hope. Evasive as ever, she soon became adept at sidestepping their questions as to whether she had eaten or washed with some prodigious fibbing, although not everyone was fobbed off so readily. We could easily spot the more gullible by the times they had logged in the care notes on arrival and departure, but as the company and chat were important factors in her recovery, the battle was half won as far as we were concerned.
The days that she remained in hospital provided us with a golden opportunity, between visits, to give the bungalow what we euphemistically termed “a bit of a tidy up”, although in private the bin bags, rubber gloves and bleach had already been bought. A first visit, on a bitingly cold January morning, yielded some 15 bags of what could only be termed surface rubbish – old magazines, discarded tissues, stray pop socks, single slippers, broken things and so on, and while a workman from the council was busy fitting a new window to replace the broken panes, we moved into the kitchen to try and create some kind of order.
The design of the bungalow had failed spectacularly when the kitchen was originally planned, being a cramped and poky space, although Mother’s hoarding had rendered it more or less unusable, and hazardous to attempt much more than a hot drink or a microwaved ready meal. Soon the sound of tins and packets crashing into a waiting binbag became a steady rhythm to work by, as items were rapidly scanned and discarded, filling one bag after another. By the time the two modest cupboards were emptied, almost 60 things had been thrown out, some out of date by several years and dangerously unusable. I photographed some of the worst offenders in order to provide evidence, if it were ever to be needed, that Mother was becoming less able to look after herself, and sorely in need of the support that she would not allow us to give. Some weeks after her death I deleted the pictures from my phone, all except the one of the 9 bottles of washing up liquid in red, orange, purple and green, which I found oddly entertaining.
There was a similar but less photogenic quantity of laundry liquids, fabric conditioners, sachets and capsules promising perfumes of lily and lavender, jasmine and orchid, a touch of the exotic to elevate such a mundane activity as doing the washing. Mother had only recently , after many years of cajoling and encouragement, bought a washing machine, preferring for who knows what masochistic reason to do all her washing, or what passed for it, by hand in the tiny bathroom sink : if there were any way by which she could make life needlessly harder for herself, then she would be sure to seek it out, just another of her inexplicable quirks of personality. Maybe it was a perverse way of using up time, before time used her up, or perhaps it reminded her of her childhood in some way, but now the almost new washing machine stood out in its shiny chrome splendour, looking out of place in the grubby chaos of the rest of the kitchen. We were to bless its presence in the weeks to come, given the endless quantity of washing to be done in our efforts to render the bungalow a sweeter smelling and more pleasant place to lie in.
Mother’s days in the hospital as she gradually regained her wellbeing took on a predictable pattern, with each day that she remained there a breathing space in which progress could be made in the intensive and exhausting turning out of her neglected home, a process which left my sister and I as baffled as we were grubby, and constant visitors to the council tip. We tried to hide our giggles and embarrassment as we piled lacy and inappropriate underwear into the recycling skip, becoming hysterical with laughter on one occasion when a pair of peach silk knickers flew away on a sudden gust of wind.
It was obvious that her bed needed some serious intervention, not having a proper mattress, but a thick slab of upholstery foam which can have offered little by way of support or comfort to old bones, but having no other option, we made the best of it with freshly washed pretty flowered bedding and a row of welcoming teddy bears along the wall. The drawers beneath the bed were full to bursting with piles upon piles of sheets, pillowslips and duvet covers, some still in their packaging, some for other sizes of bed, and none of it matching. The designs on the fabrics read like a history of textiles, from Laura Ashley-esque chintzy flowers, bold stripes and blocks of neon suggesting the 80’s, dainty dots and spots and everything floral.
And so it continued, the apparently never ending process of sorting, evaluating and discarding hundreds of various items, sometimes accompanied by hilarity, at other times by puzzlement or downright despair. Freed from having to budget on a limited outlay, and no longer accountable for housekeeping expenses, Mother had responded to her new found financial freedom like a little child in a sweet shop; shopping was no longer a worrying job of work, the stretching of each pound and penny to its limit to provide the essentials, in fact it had become a positive pleasure now that only her own whims and fancies had to be catered for. Nowhere reflected this more than the tiny kitchen, piled high with quantities of tinned foods in the cupboards, and heaps of biscuits, crisps and cakes piled anywhere where they possibly could be.
The visiting of charity shops became her main pastime, with different ones each week falling in and out of patronage according to real or imaginary slights by the staff, or unacceptable pricing regimes, and as she was never able to leave any shop without at least some token purchase, the bungalow soon began to acquire an air of claustrophobia.
At one point she found herself a part time job in one such shop in Stoke which was run in such a bizarre and arbitrary fashion that I had only ever been in once due to its uncomfortable atmosphere, as if you were trespassing into a private place. Ironically, the charity which ran it was concerned with supporting the kind of people that mother considered to be the scum of the earth, people with complex problems including mental health issues, substance misuse, refugees and the like. However, it was good for her to get out of the house and have contact with other people, and for as long as her health could be expected to remain at a reasonable level, it was a source of interest and distraction for her. It was a hotbed of gossip and treachery amongst the older ladies who made up its staff, grandmothers who were every bit as bitchy, self-seeking and judgemental as any group of body shaming teenage girls, and mother thrived on the constant tittle tattle. Of course, the opportunity to riffle through the bags of donations must also have been too tempting a draw to miss out on.
The gradual sifting through of so many items proved to be not only hard physical work, but an emotional weight too, although it is just as well that we had no inkling of what the coming weeks were to entail, or we might well have lost hope. Eventually a difference was made, albeit not as radical a makeover as might be wished for, but with Mother’s discharge from hospital very soon beginning to look like a distinct possibility, time was pressing and much had to be left undone. Any improvement that had been made was something we could build on in the future, or at least that was what we hoped for. At the very least, the bungalow was a safer, less cluttered and sweeter smelling place than it had been, and less of a cause of worry than previously; and if Mother never knew the exact number of trips to the tip that had been made, then so much the better…
One day I arrived at the hospital ward to find her sitting on the bed, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright with excitement.
“I’ve seen an angel!” she exclaimed, “Right there at the end of the bed, tall he was!”
I hardly knew what to say, so unexpected was her outburst. She had never been a spiritual sort of person, or given to supernatural fantasy, and my first thought was that her medication had produced some kind of hallucination, but the intense reality of her experience shone through and I began to wonder what had actually happened. Religion in general, and the clergy and the catholic church in particular, was a subject she had very strong negative opinions on, way before the wide spread covering up of sexual abuse came to light in more recent times. I was never able to discover where this came from, whether it was rooted in something unspeakable from her past always seemed a strong likelihood, but there was no way of knowing for certain. And now, an angelic visitation? It just didn’t make any sense.
The strength of her animosity was illuminated by a scene from my childhood: I had acquired from a jumble sale a broken rosary, thinking it to be some kind of necklace, which I treasured. Those days were pretty grim and grey, and here was this pretty thing, imperfect as it was, to add beauty and comfort. The beads smooth and shiny were made of clear Lucite, a kind of plastic, and each contained tiny images of Jesus and Mary in pearlescent blue, as if they were trapped in a bubble, or beneath ice. It held a kind of magic for me. My mistake was to show it to Mother, who snatched it from me angrily, shrieking “get that thing out of the house!” as she hurled it down the passageway, crashing onto the tiled floor. She was full of fury and disgust, and her reaction both frightened and puzzled me, although throughout my childhood and growing up, her rages were not infrequent.
In later years I was to discover that she had at one time been engaged to a young man in the RAF, a Roman Catholic, whose parents had stipulated that for the wedding to take place, Mother would need to convert to that faith. Whether she herself refused, or, as I suspect was more likely, her parents forbade it, I do not know, and the whole thing came to a painful and unpleasant end. Denied her chance of happiness, Mother’s distress and disappointment focussed on what she thought had upset all her plans - religion – sowing the seeds of a lifetime of anger and resentment. I’m not sure that this is the whole story, however.
It was very apparent that something had happened in the hospital which had a deeply moving effect on Mother from that point onwards, and with effects more radical and profound than could have been produced by a dream, however vivid. Her vision had changed something within her, which she had never been able to do for herself, and her sometimes combative and difficult character was altered into something much warmer, a kinder and more cooperative version of herself. She described being afraid at the time, and was concerned enough to consult the hospital chaplain as to what it might mean, in spite of her previous antagonism towards clergy, and he was able to reassure her that it meant nothing evil or disturbing. Such was the impression he made on her in fact, that she acquired both a book of Psalms and eventually a Bible, and went on to attend a Sunday service in the hospital chapel.
I find it impossible to believe that such a radical transformation could have been brought about by anything other than divine intervention; something fundamental changed in her character that could not have been brought about by simple willpower, had it existed in the first place. I have had many conversations with knowledgeable people since then in an effort to understand or interpret the meaning of Mother’s “angel”, and they have for the most part come to the same conclusion, that the angel was indeed a messenger, even though the message was not made explicit at the time. With hindsight, there was no need for it to be, for afterwards she was a different person, as if the barriers she was so used to putting up had simply collapsed, allowing more of the real person to shine through, as she was before pain, anger, frustration, disappointment, loss and depression did their damage to her spirit .
She became warm, cooperative and reasonable, and the change in her was a joy to behold.
Writing this over 18 months after her death, I am still no nearer understanding either the woman she appeared to be, or whatever the circumstances were that made her such a complex and frustrating character. She was most certainly a very intelligent person, that much at least was recognised by others early on in life, when she attended Belle Vue Grammar School in Bradford, with its dark brown uniform (formerly described by an unpleasant racial slur). The gymslipped girls of mother’s times have been largely replaced by Muslim schoolgirls in their black hijabs ; she often expressed a wish to go back to Bradford and revisit her old haunts, a wish which I was quick to quash and discourage, fearing the worst consequences of the trauma it would undoubtedly bring on. Perhaps I was wrong to do so, or maybe I didn’t have the necessary inner resources to support her in such a quest, and concealed my lack of courage behind a veil of pretend concern for her own well being – I suspect now that that may be nearer the truth, which is sad.
The reasons why she left school at 16 with only basic qualifications are probably explained by the unexpected death of her father in 1951, from pneumonia. The sudden loss of the main breadwinner’s wages must have been a crushing blow to the finances of a family trying to cope with the grief of losing a husband and father so abruptly. And so ended Mother’s hopes and dreams for a life not circumscribed by the grey stone walls and relentless machinery of the local woollen mills, for money was needed : she quickly found a job at a greetings card manufacturers, where the work was light and varied, and she enjoyed the perks of being the youngest employee in the office. It must have appealed to the frivolous and sentimental side of her character, working amongst piles of cards patterned with brightly coloured flowers and dusted with glitter, or Valentine cards with softly padded satin hearts, all bearing good wishes, fondest love, and many congratulations. Throughout her life she retained a strong affection for the same kind of images - flowers, picture postcard cottages, puppies and kittens, crinoline ladies and so on, and their many likenesses adorned the walls, books, ornaments and china around her bungalow. Perhaps they created a comfort for her, a nostalgic safety cushion surrounding and protecting her from the harsh realities of the outside world, and reflecting back hazy memories of her early 1950’s girlhood.
The past was a subject which Mother was always happy to talk about, as if everything that had taken place up to the present time had been ideal, and the rose tinted glasses with which she viewed her own recollections of former times could, at times, make for awkward situations when they were at odds with alternative interpretations. It created yet another hazard to be encountered in conversation with her ; sometimes clashes would occur, and old wounds reopened.
After the divine intervention of the bedside angel at the hospital, Mother’s spirits lifted so appreciably that she began to improve greatly in health, and there was talk of her discharge in the not so distant future. Various doctors had previously raised her expectations of going home on an almost daily basis, only to have them crushed by the nursing staff, who had a far more realistic comprehension of her actual state, and this, understandably, had led to much upset. On one occasion she had rung me up in tears, demanding to be taken home, and I had to be quite firm with her (for which I am ashamed), rather than being gentle and understanding. The roles of exasperated parent and errant child appeared to have been reversed, and in my confusion I responded in a way that I would have been critical of in anyone else. It was not easy.
And so the day dawned when Mother was deemed fit enough to return home, laden down with vast quantities of medications neatly wrapped in white paper bags where, I suspected, they would mostly remain, despite her many fervent promises to the contrary. Ever the enigma, and against all expectations, she adapted well to the new routine of care workers calling in daily, and visits from my sister and myself, and the issues that had been feared never actually occurred, to everyone’s great relief.
The kitchen, now slightly more accessible and less of a health hazard than formerly, was stockpiled with boxes of Complan, for she was still eating very little, despite her frequent allegations of very unlikely hearty meals being prepared and eaten ; it became a source of amused disbelief to listen to the accounts of such meals, and it soon became apparent that the more complex the description, the less likely it was that such a meal had ever existed at all, even in almost 60 years of cooking. As long as it made her happy to fantasize thus, well, the Complan and the persuasions of the care workers would have to suffice for now.
Even the bungalow was looking much better than it had previously, although the carpet was completely beyond salvation, and the pervading unpleasant odours seemed somehow have seeped into the very fabric of the building, for no amount of cleaning, disinfectant or air freshener could make much impact on its presence.
Life resumed a new kind of routine, based largely around ensuring Mother’s well-being and the constant watchfulness that was needed to make sure she was at least eating a little, and taking her medication properly. She developed a swelling of the legs that became worrying, and both the care worker and district nurse advised a doctor’s opinion. The reception staff at the GP’s were both rude and dismissive ; I know their job may be difficult at times, but their reluctance to book a home visit was yet another little unnecessary and hurtful difficulty, and the locum they grudgingly sent was worse than useless. He barely glanced at her legs, made us all feel very uncomfortable, as if we were wasting his time, and referred her to the Lymphoedema clinic, with no treatment. Mishearing him, Mother thought he had detected cancer, and became very distressed, no doubt remembering the terrible last days of her husband ten years previously. Our attempt to do the right thing had set a cloud over things, and I felt angry that although the GP could see only yet another rather confused, and at times childishly-acting old lady, it was obvious that she was frightened and deeply upset. I resented his arrogance, absence of empathy or understanding and lack of action, and, as usual, we were left to pick up the pieces.
Outside, the chilly February days were moving imperceptibly towards Spring, with frequent crisp sunny days that alternated with the sheen of ice on pavements as night fell, and it was on one such evening as I sat at home, that my phone rang with a mobile number I did not recognise. As usual, I ignored it, but when it called again, something made me answer.
The conversation that ensued is no longer retained in my memory, or rather the exact wording ; the caller was a paramedic asking me to come over to the bungalow as soon as possible. He would divulge nothing over the phone, but something in his measured way of speech made me greatly uneasy, and I began to fear the worst. One scenario after another raced through my mind, from the very worst to the most trivial – maybe a fall? An over cautious carer’s worries? Whatever it was, it was certain that Mother would not have rang the emergency services on her own behalf, not in a million years, and so trying my hardest to push the most dramatic of these thoughts to the back of my mind, I set off for Blurton.
Fortunately the roads were quiet on this cold and icy night, and as I passed St. Theresa’s church in Trent Vale, a skein of white mist passed in front of the car, moving slowly in mid air. For the briefest of moments it looked oddly ghostly, and it was a few seconds before I could convince myself that it was either exhaust smoke, or a drift of damp from the nearby River Trent.
As I rounded the corner by the bungalow, I felt an odd sense of relief to see an ambulance pulled up outside, its doors closed. Perhaps Mother was inside, having treatment, and all will be well after all, but as I ran up the path to the door, the grave demeanour of the paramedic said all there was to say, without a word being spoken.
Inside the house, I could see that Mother’s beloved William Morris curtains were pulled across the bedroom alcove, screening it from view.
“I am sorry” said the paramedic “your mother has passed away”
I did not know what to say. I actually felt sorry for the man for having to deliver such terrible news, although I could see he was watching me carefully lest I faint, or scream, or become hysterical with shock. I don’t know what I said or did next, I felt strangely normal, as if the reality of the moment had yet to sink in. Mother had somehow always appeared to be indestructible, and although her health had been bad of late, I had felt we had somehow turned a corner, that she had cheated death yet again, all the more surprising given her increasing frailty and occasional confusion. There had been nothing to lead anyone to suspect that the future was not, with care, manageable, in fact things were looking up. Some old barriers had been broken down, and in some ways, there was a sense of a new beginning, perhaps even a better sense of family cohesion.
“Where is she?” I asked at last.
“She is in bed” replied the paramedic.
He gently drew back the curtains, and there she was, tucked up in bed and looking for all the world as if she were asleep. I was relieved to see that she did not look “dead”, as I had feared, but merely very very tired, her expression quite neutral. A few strands of hair had fallen across her forehead. The old use of the phrase “fallen asleep” that used to be seen on memorial stones seemed never more right.
That was the very last time I saw my Mother.
*This is a work in progress, and being constantly added to. Please check back often*