When I tell people my mum has dementia they invariably say,
“Does she still know who you are?”
She does when I hug her and hold her close and tell her I love her. Her brain may not remember my name but her body can feel that she loves me. I know it.
The gift of dementia is that I have had four years to say goodbye to my beautiful mama. Four years to create new memories and remember some of her old ones. To hear the same stories again and again so the family history is firmly locked in my brain until it is my turn to fade away.
Four years to hold her hands and tell her that she is still a devoted mother. Four years of visits to calm the madness rush of single mother life in my head while I put her hand in mine. Four years of quiet afternoons to sit with her in silence while I rub hand cream into her old dry hands. Four years of cups of tea and bickies. Four years of running away from the nursing home in tears with a broken heart while remembering all the small ways she loved me. Four years to be reminded how she cared for our dogs, yelled at me over homework, washed our clothes, fed us endless dinners and sang in the kitchen.
Mumma loved her career before kids but she loved us more. Her four kids and seven grandchildren were her life’s work. Having our family was the greatest joy of her life.
Four years of stories shared with whoever else came to visit. Four years being able to take in her I am your mother and I’m not going anywhere fierceness, and four years to realise that I don’t care any more about our differences, fights over my clothing and hairdos and politics, I feel grateful that she cared enough to argue with me.
Four years to look at old photos and realise what she built for us. Four years to be reminded that she introduced me to Stevie Wonder and Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and taught me how to sing.
My mum interviewed Squizzy Taylor and met Frank Sinatra and talked to colourful Sydney racing identities and was invited to all the best parties when she wrote the social pages. And still my dad, my brothers and sister and I and our kids were the best part of her life. Not all kids get to have a mumma like mine.
Some families have their loved ones snatched away in an instant, but I’ve had time to be with her and hug her tight and tell her how much she means to me.
In the past year she has wet her pants and worn her clothes backwards and spilt dinners and tea all over herself. She has let her hair go and not worried about matching her top with her skirt. All the petty little problems of life have slipped away and all that remains is that my mum’s face lights up when my kids and I walk in the room. That is love.
I know my dad is coming to get her soon, they will get to be together again and I have to remember that on the days that I’m missing her so much that I can’t breathe.
My mum was from a family of godbotherers, devout Anglicans who often quoted the bible. This is the only verse I remember from years of reluctant Sunday school attendance (Corinthians)
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Today I’m thankful that I still have a mother, but if we’re going to have a day to celebrate mothers, please don’t ask me to:
Bake a cake for a fundraiser
Select a nanna scarf for me before I’m a grandmother
Volunteer for any initiative to improve the lives of already well-off people
Mend garments or
Clean up after babies
Also please don’t:
Buy me ugly socks
Make me a ceramic thingy that I’ll smash
Give me any more craft
Advise me to take vitamins, colonics, miracle cures or go for a run
Rescue another animal for me
Suggest helpful ways to brighten my floors
Today I don’t want to grow, inspire, achieve, strive or nurture, I’m cranky and I’m having a day off. Please quickly bring me a bottle of gin, tonic, lemons and an obedient bar man, then close the door on your way out. Your best present for Mumma is obedience and a big dose of shush.
There comes a weekend in every mother’s life when we have to put on bad music, trample on the walk on wardrobe AKA floor-drobe, cough our way through crusty bits of rubbish and throw out the last remaining bits and bobs of our offsprings’ childhood. That weekend has come for me. There will be no more Hello Kitty pencils, no more craft that comes home saying I luv u mummmy and no more genuine joy at seeing me at the school gate.
I am emptying the unfinished projects into the bin and opening old One Direction pencil cases and finding handwritten notes from their friends. These painstakingly produced jottings were all written at the age when my kids were discovering the magic of writing a heartfelt letter to a beautiful new friend:
Dear Senny, I thik youre really specil and I reallly lik your shoos. I had funn wen we went to the pak and i now we wil be freinds forever. lov you
I’ve been a single mum for 10 years, so there are many jobs in my house that are being tackled well past their use by date. Despite our multiple moves, some special stuff was placed in boxes and carted from new address to new address. The perfectly unused birthday present textas from the seven-year old’s best friend in the hole world that were saved in the back of the cupboard for special occasions have been dug out, the lolly wrappers that she didn’t want mummy to see, beside the half-dressed dolls with real nail polish on their hands. I put together a box of nostalgia, thinking that my last teenager would be remotely interested in the lost cuteness and innocence of her childhood. She came home from a day out at the hideous local shopping trauma centre and said,
“That’s my stuff, what are you doing?”
“We need to chuck out.”
“No, I’m too busy.”
A few short weeks ago she sobbed because the Easter Bunny hadn’t left her an elaborate trail of eggs in our shared yard on Easter Sunday. But now she’s watching make up tutorials on how to copy the subtle facial contouring of the Kardashians on Youtube. She actually wants to look like a Jenner. I’ve failed as a mother. What the hell will I keep from this phase?
Autumn winds make me extra allergic to the online world of success coaches with glow in the dark teeth, perky personal fitspo gurus with Instagram famous bodies and shiny women with trout pout lips on an endless loop on Youtube. A generation of children are growing up with mothers who’ve had so much Botox put into their faces that these women cannot express the full gamut of human emotion on their dials. These zombie women scare me but I can’t stop staring, wondering when the fillers will stop working.
Then I get scratchy when I hear the words mastery, motivation, personal best, inspire, disrupt. Show me the leaders in lethargy, excellent examples of ennui, successful sloths, wonderful worriers. These are my people. To mangle Kerouac: the only ones for me are the crazies, the Bukowski drunks, the shabby, the borderline criminals, the drop outs, the dribblers, those grungy, suffering, unshaven cats who get thrown out of the best parties, the ones who always yawn out loud, the rambling, boisterous messes who convey every sloppy human emotion on their cracking apart faces. These are the people who make me feel good about myself, as I hide away at home reading, not wanting to face the world or climb any ladders.
Growing up into a cranky old cat lady, I’m pondering the autumn and winter of my life with a countenance that moves. As I slip under the radar with a face that loses its sheen every day, I think I like my mangy self best.
Here’s to the magnificent 78’ers, those brave souls who stood up for their rights and tonight celebrate 40 years of Sydney Mardi Gras. These civil rights champions were brutally bashed, arrested, taunted and harassed and still they marched for their friends, for the freedom to be their magnificent selves, for equality, for ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Thank you to the warriors who fought for the freedom to love freely and to be equal citizens. Rainbow beauties I salute your courage. Your selfless actions made Sydney a more fun, more colourful and more inclusive place. I can’t imagine dancing on Oxford Street in 1983 without you.
As I hope for glitter not blood on the streets tonight, I’m shedding a few tears for the beautiful loved ones we lost when AIDS ripped through our lives in the 80s and 90s. I know tonight they will be there in spirit. I’m also thinking of the people who work so hard for Bobby Goldsmith and ACON and my friends decorating floats. Party on beauties. I feel nothing but love and pride when I see you shining.