First, my mother is not dead. But she has never been a source of comfort. And now, in these later years, while I find myself flung into the role of care-giver, I am remembering our history together and coming to terms with why I have conflicting feelings of duty, resentment and anger.
When I recall happy memories from my childhood involving my mother, I remember her sitting by my hospital bed reading aloud Paul Gallico’s novel, Jennie, as I recovered from a a very serious back operation when I was 12 or 13.
Jennie is the story of Peter, the young son of busy upper class parents in London, England, who have no time for him. Peter longs for a cat to ease his loneliness, but his pragmatic nanny does not suffer animals gladly…(I instantly recall my own childhood babysitter, who was unaffectionately called ‘DoDo Bird’ — I believe her name was the French ‘Dault’, pronounced ‘Dough’ — who cold-heartedly tossed the neighbour’s cat Fluffy, who I loved, over the fence one day, much to my horror).
Early in the book, Peter sees a kitten across the road and in his zeal to get closer, he crosses traffic and gets struck by a vehicle. In his state of unconscious, Peter awakens as a cat and is befriended by Jennie, a stray, who had been abandoned by her own family. The story follows his journey as he learns how to be a cat in a world completely foreign to him and it concludes with him awakening back into his human world. It is a story of love, loss, isolation, friendship, fear and courage. But it always struck me that his life would have been more fulfilled and happy had he stayed a cat.
My mother might have found several threads in this story that paralleled her own life. Her older brother, as a child, had been hit by a car and died as a result of his injuries – this was back in the 1930s and I can’t help but think that if he had lived today, the accident wouldn’t have taken his life.
Also, my surgery, in my parents’ eyes, may have been considered life-threatening. It involved the placement of a metal rod against my spine so that the curve caused by scoliosis would be straightened. It was a serious procedure that was still in its infancy in the early 1970s. From my parents perspective, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty around it, including whether I might be rendered permanently paralyzed or worse, die on the operating table. Luckily I wasn’t and didn’t. But to this day I remember the most embarrassing moment of the entire process, which was when my father asked,
“Doctor, will my daughter still be able to have children?”
Whereas my concerns centered around whether or not I’d be able to ride a horse or jump out of a plane. In my mind, those two things were imminently more likely than procreating.
(The only discussion my mother ever had with me about sex was sliding an educational book across the counter to me. I always felt that this was how she related to me: at arm’s length. It was mortifying and taught me that talking about sex was taboo. I’m sure my experience was not unique.)
I don’t know if my mother realized the extent to which this novel mirrored my own shy and isolated life: like the protagonist Peter, I also felt invisible to my parents and wished more than anything to have a companion, a pet. For Peter, it was a pet cat; for me, a dog.
I cannot overstate the extent to which I yearned for a dog. But time and again, I was told that it was not possible due to my parents’ and my younger sister’s allergies. Sadly, I had to make do with gerbils, an iguana and goldfish.
My young life involved one blow after another. Years before this surgery, what exact years I cannot say, I was regularly sent off with a close friend of my mother’s, an Anglican priest, who took me to the park and molested me. Too timid to tell, too young to resist, and too naive to believe that this behaviour was not endorsed by my mother, I suffered this indignity for what seemed like eternity.
Two years after this picture was taken, our family temporarily packed up and moved to Quebec City where my younger sister was born. This was a turning point in my life and marked the moment when I became most invisible. My sister was a sickly child and her care demanded every ounce of attention and energy my mother could muster. It was not surprising that she was grateful for any “babysitting” that was offered.
When my sister got older and I was poised to move away from home (she would have been 11 to my 19), my mother bought her a dog. A DOG. My sister didn’t want a dog, nor did my mother. It just seemed like a good idea apparently.
As you can imagine, this dog, a dachshund beagle mix we called Kipling, landed in a family that didn’t know how to care for it. So, after at least one episode when it escaped the house and chased wailing children down the street, nipping at their ankles, my mother gave it away. I came home from university to this heart-crushing news. Although Kipling was never my heart-dog, I never forgave my mother for this.
Years later, while in my 20s and as my wedding approached, I asked my mother if I could wear her wedding gown. The dress was fitted and beaded and as I handled its smooth fabric and shiny embellishments in her closet, I imagined myself in it — glamourous and feminine and glowing — everything that a woman would like to feel on her wedding day. To my horror, she replied,
“You’ll have to dye it.”
It should not have come as a surprise to me that my actual wedding dress was a simple, hand-made affair, in off-white velvet, but also that my father’s words of advice on my wedding day were, “Ailsa, marriage is hell.”
My 88 year old mother now has Alzheimer’s disease and her memory of any of these experiences is long gone. She now lives in a world of her own youth; she re-reads her letters home to her own mother while she was adventuring overseas. She remembers these as the “best years”; gone are any memories of her wedding, her early marriage, my youth and her later years. It is a mercy that these best memories are what remain.
When I was young, my grandmother took me to church for Sunday service. It was known (and still is today) as a “high church”, which meant incense was generously dispensed. I hated this ceremonial “aid to prayer” as it always made me feel light-headed. At worst, a full-fledged fainting episode would begin with my peripheral vision getting fuzzy, a loud buzzing would drown out any sound and whatever I could see was starting to become confined to an ever-closing-in, darkened tunnel. The only way to stop the progression was to put my head between my knees — I always felt so awkward, but I’m sure onlookers just saw a demonstration of piety.
This is what I imagine it feels like to lose your memories to Alzheimer’s — it leaves you with an ever-narrowing vision of your own history. Until finally, all you have left is your earliest remembrances, and then nothing at all.
I am well aware that my mother and I never had a nurturing relationship. I know many friends who have either lost their beloved mother prematurely to illness, accident or Alzheimer’s disease and who grieve the loss of their loving parent. As they struggle to understand why, blame themselves for any perceived transgressions for which they failed to make peace or to provide care in this most difficult time, I feel their anguish.
My own experience is different. I am the care-giver, the driver, the secretary, the accountant, the housekeeper, the daughter/mother and I see her as the petulant child. I get annoyed, I feel shame; I chastise her for bad behaviour, I feel shame; I get frustrated, I feel shame. I feel little connection, I feel shame. I google how long people live with Alzheimer’s disease, I feel shame. I say all the wrong things in response to her illness and I feel shame.
This feeling of being conflicted is, I’m sure, normal. The so-called bond between mother and daughter is often a fabrication, like a well-meaning fairy tale. In my life, my strongest bonds have been with my dogs and these relationships have been my most fulfilling: unchained, giving, freeing, natural and joyful. I’m lucky to have found what gives me joy. And lucky to understand that the comfort it provides me is legitimate and unapologetic.