"Saying Goodbye", by Lisa Baxter
I’m sitting in her quiet room, stroking her hair and holding her hand. There’s nothing much of her now, and she’s asleep. Peaceful. Without her false teeth, she looks so gaunt. But they can’t put them in, in case she swallows them. Not that she can swallow now. That’s why she’s here.
She looks so frail and harmless. I can love this woman, who is my mother. But can I tell her?
We have three hours together before my long journey home. I know it will be the last time. Even though the doctor says they sometimes revive. I can tell it won’t happen.
I can look back now without the pain and the anger, but it has taken a long time. There are still things I remember, which won’t go away however hard I try. The trip to the dentist, when I ran out because of the pain. No anaesthetics in those days. She caught me up and said ‘you wait ‘til I get you home.’ Nothing unusual in that. Lots of parents say it, I think. She grabbed my hand and squeezed so tight that I thought my knuckles would break. That was one of her ‘tricks’. Another was to pull my hair until I felt it would come out at the roots. All things that wouldn’t show, but were very painful. I went back to the dentist that day and endured the agony. What might have happened when she got me home was too awful to contemplate.
But it was the emotional abuse that was worse. Sticks and stones, as they say. The constant undermining. ‘You’re worthless, you’re evil, you’ll never amount to anything.’ It took me a very long time to realise that she was actually repeating a script that her mother used on her. But the damage was done. I like to think I have amounted to something, and I know I’m not evil, but I do feel pretty worthless most of the time. And the sad thing is that I never learned to trust people, because I couldn’t trust her.
And the fear was constant. I never knew what was coming. I couldn’t guess what action of mine would be interpreted as ‘bad’, so there was a relentless gnawing anxiety that I would be punished. I might be hoisted aloft on the clothes airer, or have my fingers pulled apart. She did leave me alone in a room a lot of the time. It was lonely, but safe, and I think now that this was her attempt to protect me. It was as if she went into a trance-like state where she would become another person at these times of rage. And perhaps she was slightly confused when she came ‘to’ afterwards.
Some of the lesser abuse consisted of promising me treats and then withdrawing them because I had done something wrong. The children’s party at my father’s office. A grand affair, fancy dress with lots of delicious food and a magician. We didn’t have things like that when I was a child, so it was a real treat. I can’t remember now why I wasn’t allowed to go. Then there was the birthday party. I wasn’t permitted to have them unless I could pay for everything, and organise any games. So I think I only managed to hold one at the age of 11. I saved for months, and in addition to the food, I bought two presents for the winners of the treasure hunt. Of course I couldn’t take part, only watch, since I had hidden the treasures myself. My friends looked for ages for the treasure after the two presents had been found, expecting – perhaps not unreasonably – that they would have one gift each.
Sad to say I have no happy memories of my childhood.
It was only years later talking to my cousins that I learned they had similar experiences, some of them worse. It seemed that our mothers’ mother, grandma Sadie, didn’t like girls. She resented the constant cycle of childbirth in a time when no contraception was available. She didn’t mind the boys, but the girls were only useful for housework and to be punished. As a result, our mothers had no role model for mothering.
My life has become the inevitable round of failed relationships and friendships, but it was having children of my own that brought some kind of healing. Postnatal depression comes in a variety of guises. I know that when I had my son I was sad for three years, but was determined to be a better mother than my own. I had therapy, and I learned to see my mother in the context of her own family background. I understood how she’d been abused, and I was able, if only at times, to feel compassion for her.
My survival mechanism was anger. I managed to cope with the world by being aggressive. I got qualifications, and good jobs, and although I rarely made friends, I climbed a ladder. My brother retreated, became a hermit, and I think I’ve done better than him, but we are both quite damaged.
As the years passed, and I had a daughter to complete my family, my estrangement with my mother began to dissolve. It was all very tentative at first. She and my stepfather would visit and play with the children, and because they had come a long way, they would stay overnight. But these visits were strictly limited and controlled. I would get cross quite quickly.
The greatest sadness for me at the time was that I could never have the conversation with her about my feelings. She would just get defensive, accuse me of being evil and telling lies, and that’s as far as we would get. Loggerheads. It was very frustrating and unsatisfactory, because I felt that if there had been some acknowledgement, however small, that she felt a little responsibility, then it would have made so much difference. It wasn’t to be.
As she got older, she became demented. Not an angry, disruptive confusion, but quite a happy and funny one. In some strange way, this is what has done most of the healing. In her 90’s she fractured her hip and was hospitalised. My son and I went to see her. I was concerned because the water jug was the other side of the room and she may have been thirsty. ‘Would you like a drink’, I asked. ‘Oh yes, I’d love a whisky and soda!”
There was another occasion when we took her out for a drive and stopped at the local winter garden café for a cup of tea. She talked to my children quite happily, and then said, ‘but if only your mother was here.’ I was sitting next to them.
For the past two years, she hasn’t known me. People often get distressed by this, but I feel as though I have had a better relationship since the dementia than at any time before. I could never say I loved her though. That would have been too much.
So I’m sitting here today at her bedside. The staff are giving us time in addition to visiting hours. They asked if we’d like to wet her lips if she wakes, but she hasn’t done so yet. I have my daughter with me. She’s fetched tea from the café, and sat and chatted while we’ve both taken turns stroking my mother’s hair.
And now, the time is up and we must go. I need to say something. Goodbye at least. So I do: ‘goodbye’. She stirs and says, ‘night, night.’ Like a little child. Then I say, ‘we love you’. I can’t quite speak for myself, so I include my daughter as well, but I think the sentiment is the same.
And as we leave, I feel that it couldn’t have been any better. It’s a good completion, and I can’t imagine being angry with her again.
Highly Commended, While There's Still Time: Writing about putting things right
About the author
Lisa Baxter lives in Devon with her partner Bob and dog Chloe. She has two grown up children who spend time living and working in the UK and overseas. Lisa is a retired further education teacher and psychologist, and has worked in NHS and social care settings supporting people through mentoring and education. In her retirement she aims to do more creative writing, as well as enjoying the wonderful Devon coast and countryside with her family.