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My family thought chairs were evil.
At least that is what I concluded as a kid – it was how I rationalised their inability to sit down. Four decades later, whilst my siblings and I faffed around in the kitchen of the old family home, my mum cried as illness forced her to occupy a chair.
She was 80, riddled with cancer and had suffered a stroke. She’d been handed the cancer diagnosis two years earlier. She also had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and extremely high blood pressure. She had less than five months to live. I was her live-in primary carer, one of her five children.
“This looks like being a disaster” she’d said an hour before I found myself in a hotel lunch venue sitting at a table I had booked for eight, looking at seven empty chairs. It was twenty-five minutes after the start of our allotted booking.
The disaster wasn’t her health. It was her prediction about the afternoon, based on her experience of our disorganisation. The lunch was to commemorate the fourth anniversary of my dad passing away. It was the first time my mum was unable to attend.
“Where is everyone else?” said my aunt. She had walked into the hotel at 1.25. By 1.30 she was walking out.
It was her attitude to social events in a microcosm: she arrives and departs on her own timetable. She also expects to be treated with a ridiculous level of reverence. Throughout her life, she has sabotaged most of her relationships: even supplicants don’t provide enough worship.
These days, her social contact is mostly with people who are scared to assert themselves. They are people who need a reliable supply of unwarranted guilt and she scatters it around like chickenfeed for their souls
If she attends shared meals, she is impish, the lesser goblin of the family mythology, bound only by the Catholic Church and damning to hell those who don’t play her games. She likes to undermine, to irritate and to tell what people what to do.
I had just disagreed with her suggestion on how to care for my mum. I thought her idea was an unnecessary precaution. My aunt didn’t like that.
She said, “You must be God because you can see the future.”
I said, “You must be Nostradamus, prophesying doom.”
I watched her, clad in a Colombo Macintosh, start to leave the dining area. I was tempted to say, “Just one more thing…” but one of my sisters arrived and performed the required level of genuflection.
They sat down.
At a different table.
I went out for a smoke.
My mum was a smoker. On the last time they saw each other, she deliberately lit a cigarette when my aunt visited. My mum knew it would cause her sister-in-law to leave. It was a rare moment of self-protection from my mum. Throughout her life, she put the needs of others first.
When I walked back into the hotel I discovered my aunt was using chairs to assert her status. She and my sister were now seated but, were I to sit where I had been, I would be three chairs away from them.
I sat at my original seat. My aunt muttered a comment to my sister, whose reaction provoked me to return outside to contemplate my kidneys.
When your second parent dies, so does, mostly, the last person who would die for you. If you are single and childless, you might struggle to have anyone for whom to die. However, you could have a kidney list: people that might receive one of your organs in an emergency. My list contained only siblings. Right now I wouldn’t buy them a pint. It was a crushing realisation of my life’s lack of impact.
Anger made the list shorter. I thought “I’ve already helped prolong the life of one family member. I’ve paid an opportunity cost. They can pay the kidney cost. Fuck ‘em.”
“What would you like to eat?”
It was my brother. It was 1.45pm. He was ordering food for the four of us who had arrived. At 3.30pm, when I left the hotel, one person had just arrived. At no stage were all eight seated.
It might not have been a disaster had my mum been able to attend. She was the figure of calm. She was strong, even in the act of dying. She probably suspected that had she shown more fear some of her children, always her greatest concern, might have a breakdown. I was close.
Being a live-in carer for a loved one is an important, rewarding role, one which prolongs lives and is part of what makes us human. It is also hard, it is anger-provoking and it is frightening. I was powerless to provide anything but palliative care to my mum, whose body was experiencing a procession of destructive events which were eroding her humanity.
I felt a primal fear and wanted to run away. I didn’t, but it would be inauthentic to deny that I wanted to, that fighting the urge had consequences. It changed my feeling towards those who were dealing with the same emotions, siblings who also wanted to run away.
For the carer, your journey through life changes at the crossroads that leads towards your loved one’s termination. As you try your best to slow down that journey, you slow down your own. You stop making your own imprint. You feel invisible. You feel alone.
I think that is why I felt so let down by my siblings at a moment when we were about to be pushed to the bottom tier of life’s penny waterfall machine. I wanted my siblings to stand with me and declare “I’m Spartacus.”
Instead, throughout “lunchtime”, my phone pinged with text messages that figuratively read:
I should have known that trying to get people with severe chair allergies to sit around a table is to create a Petri dish for the cultivation of anxiety. It wasn’t the first family meal to be a shambolic affair. It was part of a long lineage of family chaos.
I was cat-herding, an action made by someone who craves a justification to express their sense of dissatisfaction and who wants to be a police officer of morality. I wanted to scratch them from my kidney list. I wanted to tell them to fuck off.
I knew my siblings were cats. In this context, usually, I am also. And maybe that’s the point: most packs of middle-aged siblings are cats. It is, partly, why it can be so tense when the last stages of a parent’s life throw you together. There is an important task to perform but the platform from which to work has dangerous foundations because it was built with alphabet bricks and Play-Doh.
Just a three-minute walk away was the family home in which my mum had become imprisoned living out her last days. For those supposed to be at the table, the property, bought in 1972, had gone from home to hotel to hospice. It was a place which provoked difficult emotions, a place that could now induce fear.
Apart from one sibling, none of us wanted to be at the meal. There is an internal pressure created by the group that makes it hard to resist long spent behavioural patterns. I felt like I was crawling backwards into my crumpled pupa.
The roles that we absorb as children are like being ascribed parts in an infant school play. No one auditions: you are chosen by the hand of family history. They are frequently unwanted, sometimes inappropriate and, occasionally, a way to perpetuate the family drama.
When the group reforms, whilst still nauseous from the smell of the mothballed costume you’ve been forced to put on, memories seep back into your conscience.
Had we all sat around the table, there could have been a recall of: a crushed childhood art project; spectacles drawn on a school photograph; receiving a Christmas present of 20 Embassy No.1; someone plonked on a mantelpiece and treated like a marble bust; being made into a snowman by a head-to-toe covering of self-raising flour. It’s hard to imagine the person who was once an involuntary snowman wanting to shout, “I’m Spartacus.”
In the movie, the slaves are rebelling against a demonised version of a patriarchal figure. Siblings would only have a similar moment of solidarity if their parents were demons.
However, it is naïve to conclude, as I did that day, that their interpretation of “I’m Spartacus” was a “fuck you” to me. I think they were all acting through self-preservation, protecting their ageing autoimmune systems and sparing themselves the expense of Sudocrem. You can’t run away from your mother’s bedside, although it can be terrifying. You can run away from a family meal, which can also be terrifying, as the group doesn’t have a function anymore.
That afternoon felt like a series of endgames: the ending of a generation, the ending of a life and the ending of one of the reasons to get together. It’s was also the ending of the time in our lives when we were somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son and we knew that might change the way we are somebody’s brother or somebody’s sister.
A short time after that meal saw the ending of my mum’s fear of chairs. She became bed-bound. She spent her last four weeks in a hospice. Recently, the family managed to sit down for lunch in the same hotel to mark the interment of her ashes.
If it is true – and I think it is – that the last thing parents teach their children is how to die, in death, as in life, my mum was an excellent teacher. I can’t say my mum died without fear. I can say she was dignified and she managed her fear. The rest of the family had lapses of dignity and heaps of acting out our fears.
I can’t say she lived without fear. However, it usually only manifested itself when she worried about us, which she did, a lot, with justification. She often told me so, as we sat in the kitchen.
My family don’t think chairs are evil: by avoiding them, they are staying out of the group dynamic. When we don’t have to sit down together, we are ok.
On the evening of the disaster, my brother and sister did me a favour. They installed a workstation in the house.
It is where I wrote this: sitting on a good seat, at a table for one.
R.I.P. Mary Rosalie Fitzgerald
“She received love because she gave love.”
Read David's other blog post about his father here
The Dying Matters Coalition is led by the National Council for Palliative Care,
the umbrella charity for end of life care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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