I was scrolling through a number of essays I hadn’t looked at for a while and came across this one, which I wrote after visiting my elderly mother a few years before her death. This is not a series of amusing anecdotes, no embellishments of a personality, or extolling of one’s virtues; just a story of a daughter visiting her mother and the impact of becoming a stranger to the woman who had given her life.
Wairarapa was once famous for its stark coastline and pounding surf but these days it is better known for its restaurants, wineries and olive groves. On any given weekend, towns like Martinborough and Greytown are the places to be, that is, if you are not Mum and me.
For many years my trips down from Auckland have not been to partake in wine-tasting or fine dining unfortunately, but to visit my ninety-plus-year-old mother who resides in one of Greytown’s nursing homes.
I stay in motels when I visit, and although I can endure restless nights and scrappy meals well enough, the loneliness is downright unbearable. Mum’s increasing frailty means that trips with her to Martinborough to seek out the school she used to teach in, or to Masterton to look around the art gallery, have slipped into the ‘too hard’ basket. Still, she is always eager if the weather is fine to be taken up town in a wheelchair. Mum, always a forthright, talkative person, is oddly quiet some days, and my voice, as I point out sleeping kereru or kowhai in bloom, is often the only one breaking the silence.
After twenty-five minutes of steering around lumps, bumps and curbs along the back-streets we arrive in the centre of town. We are ogled by toddlers in strollers, who probably think Mum a strange baby, and adults who step back, with pity written over their faces. I park the chair outside the Deli and help Mum climb the few steps inside. She loves their pies, cakes and coffee, and that’s what we always order, until the steps make the small treat a large hurdle. Still, there is always window-shopping in the antique and art shops and if Mum feels up to it, a browse around one or two bookshops. And sometimes, because she forgets rather quickly, we might repeat the same scenario.
I am used to Mum introducing me several times to the same person but now she has trouble remembering my name. I want to sob on a shoulder and bellow “my mother doesn’t know me” to the first person I see. I want to throw cushions or thump the walls of her room, or scream and scream and scream. But I don’t of course. I do as I’ve done for a long time now; I calm down and find ways of coping.
On my next trip to Greytown I choose a Bed & Breakfast to stay in, with pink roses espaliered across a green door and its own little courtyard garden. I re-discover the delights of a sound night’s sleep and the bonus of good company.
As I stroll to the nursing home in the morning I am aware of the sun warming my skin. For the first time in ages I believe I am ready for what the day might bring. Mum is sitting on her bed when I walk in and looks up smiling. I call out “It’s me,” and stoop to kiss her cheek.
“How lovely to see you dear,” she answers, and pats the mattress beside her. I sit with my hip nuzzling hers and take Mum’s hand between both of my own. I squeeze her fingers gently. “Would you like to go for a walk?” I ask.
“That will be very nice dear,” she replies. And a few minutes later she says, “I don’t think I’ve met you before but you do remind me of someone.”
“I look a lot like your daughter,” I say, before settling Mum in her chair.
Note: (Wairarapa is a region north of Wellington, New Zealand)