Silver Lining

When I was my mother the other week, I read her this poem. It was new to me, and if she knew it before, she had forgotten it. We both enjoyed it immensely. And I loved the fact that we smiled at the same lines; looked at each other with the same delight in its discovery; lingered over it and exclaimed at the humour.

Strange that my mother’s dementia should have led us again to share poetry. Had she been one of those ‘marvelous’ nonagenarians who have retained full use of  their faculties, we would probably be having far more prosaic conversations.

As a silver lining, it ain’t bad. Continue reading

Replay: The Beginning

Another one from the archives. This was my second post on MyT in September 2008.

The Beginning

My boat owning status is the silver lining of a difficult cloud. My mother is in her late eighties, and prone to various physical and mental frailties that so often accompany longevity. A year ago, she left her riverside bungalow for a small flat in very sheltered accommodation.

We put her house up for sale at almost the exact moment the market crashed. It still hasn’t sold. But at least it’s given me somewhere to stay when I visit her. Not in luxury, but I have a bed and some pans and a plate or two. So I was there, late last summer, sitting on the floor, drinking a glass of wine and watching the ducks and swans go by. I thought how much I should miss the view once the place was sold and started to wonder about the future. Staying with Mum in her flat was a non-starter. The bathroom leads off her bedroom and the light goes on automatically when anyone approaches. In case she wanders, her door is alarmed at night. The chances of me not disturbing her are non-existent.

Maybe the drop in house prices would let me buy a bedsit somewhere nearby. It wouldn’t have to be much. I wasn’t looking for a view, just a spot the cat and I could call our own on our visits east. It seemed a good idea. House prices were less than half those in London where I live, and, even if I had to take out a small mortgage, surely it would be worth it. I’d be able to see Mum, and have a place to stay when I wanted to get out of town.

Back in London I began to surf the property websites. Disappointment; there were no bedsits for sale in the area I was looking. Stubbornly I continued to search, reluctant to give up my new idea. Then, just as I was preparing to concede defeat, up on the screen popped a picture of a boat. It was like a lightbulb going on in my head.

Over the next few days I called everyone I knew who had any boating connections and experience. Generously, they gave me their advice and I wrote it all down, almost filling a notebook.

‘Boats eat money,’ warned my cousin, but I was already hooked. My ignorance and lack of experience of all things nautical cancelled out by the words I had known since childhood: ‘There is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’

The power of poetry – Farewell

When a person develops dementia it is a huge challenge for everyone around them. But particularly for the person with the condition.
It is scary; disorientating; exhausting; sometimes a dark road where the signs are invisible. Anxiety can become an every day companion.

My mother has good days and bad days. Some days, – what am I saying? – most days, are a mixture.
Music; pictures; smells; voices can all help to anchor her in her perpetually shifting present.

When I saw her last week I took an anthology of poetry that she had given me. I knew she liked de la Mare, so The Listeners seemed a good place to start.

I was doing the washing up. Mum on drying.
“Is The Listeners one of your favourites Mum?’ I asked. She looked confused. I recited the first two lines. She joined in with the third. Then looked more confused. The words had evidently come to her unbidden; cemented deeper in her memory than her grandchildren’s names.
I knew we were onto a winner.

For a magical half hour I read poems to her while she sat transfixed. Both of us rediscovered poems we had forgotten. Both of us became emotional at certain lines.

I read de la Mare’s Farewell which I had studied at O Level and largely forgotten.
At the end, unthinking, I exclaimed at its power and said I’d like it read at my funeral. Mother agreed, nodding and smiling.
Or at yours, I silently added.

Farewell

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

Birthday weekend

By good luck, and great timing on my parents’ part, I was born on 1st May, which an enlightened government a few decades ago decided should be a Bank Holiday to celebrate Labour Day, which may have made Mother feel her efforts bringing me into the world had at last been recognised.
The only down side is that lots of people take off for the weekend, so you can feel a Billy-No-Mates if you want to celebrate the day.
Well, that’s my excuse for coming east for das Boot with Cat.
We got here yesterday evening after a journey that was less grim than I had anticipated. The forecast for the weekend was so dreadful, maybe some people decided to stay home and clean the windows. It did rain in the night, but today has been gorgeous. One of those absolutely perfect spring days. I forgot my camera or I’d nauseate you with pictures of trees in full blossom; bluebells; little goslings; blue blue skies with wispy clouds; roads where trees parade every shade of green; fields of acidic yellow rape.
Cat stayed aboard while I spent the day with Mother. She was on form, only getting our relationship in a muddle as the afternoon drew to a close. We opened the door into the garden; chose places to hang some pictures; lunched in sunshine and drank quantities of apple juice.
‘What do you call this?’ asked Mother.
‘Apple juice.’
‘It’s lovely. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it.’
Her joy in ‘discovering’ apple juice every time she has it, is about the only positive thing about her dementia. My aunt had bought a card and some chocolates for her to give me. I had to thank her and gently take them out of her hands before she opened them.
Now it’s a quiet evening on das Boot with Cat and the crossword. I’ve eaten a huge meal and friends are coming tomorrow.
The rain has just started. I’d batten down the hatches if I had any. As it is I’m making do with shutting the doors and the windows. Apparently we’re in for a huge storm at about four in the morning.
Not Cat’s favourite weather conditions, so it may be quite a night.

I’ve decided to save the champagne until tomorrow.

Thursday

This morning was stunning. I don’t care where you live, what you do, who you are, all of you would have wanted to be me at breakfast time. Blue skies, warm sunshine, gentle rocking of the water, birdsong, swans, geese, leaping fish and Cat. Also, a perfectly soft-boiled egg, lovely buttered toast and filtered coffee. And no one else about. I enjoyed.

It didn’t feel so good when I woke up. Or rather when I was woken up. Cat, who likes to sleep as close to me as possible when we are afloat, usually on my head, which he never does at home, decided to have a wash. So I was kicked repeatedly in the face as he carried out his ablutions. When I objected I got a very steely stare. Then he continued. I got up.

Breakfast over, I needed to get over to Mother’s. Cat recognised the routine. He curled up in a tight lonely ball in the sunniest spot in the fore cabin and let me get on with it.

Mother was looking lovely. Co-ordinated outfit, hair uncombed but nicely styled. Unmatching shoes. Very pleased to see me. ‘Do you know Isobel?’ ‘I am Isobel!’ It was one of those days when relationships were fluid for her. I kept calling her Mum but it didn’t always work. ‘You’re my mother?’ ‘No, I’m your daughter. You’re my mother’ ‘How did that happen?’.
Slightly at a loss, I showed her pictures of my father. ‘Did you know him?’ she asked.

Lunch was safer ground. I was also defrosting two inches of ice from the freezer. The river Cam is probably slightly higher tonight. Lots of cups of tea for mother, and glasses of water for me, later, I had cleaned the bathroom, all traces of faeces removed from everywhere; done four loads of washing; got her out of unmatching shoes into matching raspberry slippers; washed the kitchen cupboards; reclaimed two of her mugs from the staffroom; rehung a picture; kissed and cuddled her to the nth degree; washed out the cutlery drawer and all the cutlery; discovered a broken egg in a cup in a cupboard, disposed of it; soaked and then washed the cup; found the clothes stuffed into the medicine cabinet and washed them too; filed and cleaned her nails, read her a story, ‘The Cow who laid an egg’; and had a bath.

The drive back to das Boot made me think of Pseu’s poem about playing Billy Joel at motorway loudness. I had Cyndi Lauper. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Cat was soooo pleased to see me. Lots of headrubbing and purring, climbing all over me and telling me he’d missed me. I would have been happy for him to have shore leave but he wanted to sit on me instead.

I had a delicious supper, cooking as I watched a magical sunset. Tomorrow I’ll see Aunt and do Mother’s shopping. Then I hope to spend more time afloat, do some work and give Cat his fair share of attention.

Not a bad life.