It may seem harsh, but my mother is universally acknowledged as being a rather difficult person.
Until I had children of my own and had matured enough to at least try to see the world through her eyes, as far as I was concerned that was it – she was tricky and sometimes volatile and at times we clashed terribly. For my own part, I’m probably universally acknowledged as being a rather sensitive person, so I would often feel hurt or angered by her behaviour and so it went on. At times I wondered if she even liked me, let alone loved me.
Then – partially as a result of study – I started to wonder about my mum. When I had children, I realised that there was no doubt that she had felt and probably still felt the intense love for myself and my siblings as I did for my own children. And seeing how gently, how delicately she treated my babies reminded me of a mother I’d largely forgotten in the red mists of the teenage years and then the struggle to establish myself – to differentiate myself – away from my family.
Mum was anxious and I realised that often when I felt she was being controlling or difficult or unnecessarily obtuse, she was actually just trying to control her environment so that she could feel safe. The things that made her anxious were irrational, but I knew that this was the nature of anxiety. And I knew all this because I recognised it in myself – either as a result of inheritance or learning or both.
My mum had an anxious mother too. Of course her mother was anxious – she was bringing up a child in London during the dark years of the Blitz and her husband was away being a soldier with all the other husbands. So my mum’s first 6 years were spent largely without a father, scurrying to an air raid shelter every night and often during the day as well. If she was in anyway predisposed towards an anxious personality, this cannot have helped, and her position as an only child meant that – according to psychology – that all the anxiety in her family system had only one place to go. To her.
Over the years, she got older, and I got older and I started to feel that I understood her better. Either she was getting less difficult or I was getting less reactive and we clashed less. I began to realise that her little digs at the way I ran my house, was bringing up my children or cooking dinner were less criticisms than rather clumsy attempts to help me and – as a person who was not given to shows of affection – a way of showing me that she loved me.
Now my mum has Alzheimers and doesn’t know who I am.
It’s not just me – our whole family is generally a mystery. And as she’s lost her memory of the nearly 50 years I’ve been alive or the 67 years she’s been married to my dad, she continues to reveal parts of herself that I either previously ignored or overlooked.
For example, I always felt she was not close to her parents and that this had always been the case. She rarely had anything positive to say about them. But now I know that she loved them, and saw them as her support system, as we all do. I know this because she re-experiences the shock of their loss every day. I’ve realised the gentleness of the way she was with my children was not a quirk in relation to my babies but part of who she is – possibly hidden by her anxiety. She laughs easily, and makes jokes with me. She loves my dog and even let him on her bed when she stayed with me, although we were not even allowed human friends in our bedrooms when we were children. She loves cake. More than virtually any other food.
How could I have missed all this? How lucky am I to have found this out before it is too late?
And – even though when I ask her who I am, she doesn’t know, and is either surprised to discover she has a daughter or adamant that she doesn’t have children – I’ve never felt more loved by her or loved her more. If I call out ‘Mum’ – she answers. If I ask her if she loves me, she answers without thought – ‘yes’. She treats me with love, along with my children. Her voice (most of the time) carries love. Although she refers to my long suffering dad as ‘my new man’ or ‘that man’, and is confused and surprised when we tell her that that man is Colin, her husband of 67 years – when she is unsure she asks us where Colin is.
So it occurs to me – love is more than memory. When your brain can no longer articulate your relationships with, and your love for, the most important people in your life, your heart knows. Your body knows. Somewhere deep inside, somewhere beyond words, you know who you are and who you love and who loves you.
And given a choice, I’d rather feel and give love, than be remembered.