When I was young, my Mum was always there. She worked hard, looking after the house, cooking and cleaning, and doing all the washing and ironing. In addition to this, she also had a full-time job, and looked in on her own parents, as well as her sisters and brother. She rarely told me off, always seemed pleased to see me, and gave me constant encouragement in my school work, reading, and the development of my imagination. If I was ill, she tended me, sitting up all night by my bed if need be. She worried constantly about my eating, to the extent of overfeeding me, and making sure I always had sweets, and any other treats I desired. Though not a spoilt child, I was certainly a well-nurtured one.
As I got older, she continued in kind. When I was on school holidays, she arranged for her mother to look after me. Once I was old enough to assume some personal responsibility, I was given a key, and a comprehensive list of instructions. How to use the cooker, the way to make up the coal fire, and not to let strangers into the house. I would spend my time reading, amusing myself with my large collection of toys, or perhaps playing outside with friends, and occasionally visiting cousins, as they all lived nearby. She took me shopping with her on Saturdays. We would go to Deptford High Street, then a bustling market, with fine shops alongside; or perhaps further afield, to Lewisham, where there was a department store, and lots more shops to look at. I would always get a small gift; a plastic soldier to add to my collection, an animal for my toy farm, or some new coloured pencils. On our return, we would usually stop off at my Nan’s grocery shop, to collect sliced meats, cheese, and other small items. I didn’t mind going, as Mum treated me well during our outings, and appeared pleased to have my company. Sometimes, when the school holidays came round again, she would be allowed to take me to work with her. I loved my trips into The City. The office she worked in was the headquarters of a Jute importer, and her colleagues were always very kind to me. I was allowed to use a typewriter, and I would help out by getting stationery from the stores, and filling staplers, or using the mimeograph machine. (An early type of duplicator, the forerunner of the photocopier)
During my teenage years, she endured my disapproval over our move to Kent, and my frequent absences, as I stayed with friends or family in London, to show my annoyance at this uprooting. She saved hard, and paid for all my driving lessons, convinced that my life would be happier once I could drive, and then come and go as I pleased, free from the constraints of public transport. She was right about that of course, but then she was often right about a lot of things. She managed to hide her great disappointment, when I left school earlier than planned, comforting herself with the fact that I had done well in my exams, and that I had a good job to go to. She even came with me for my interview, accompanying me on the buses and tube, to make sure I didn’t get lost, and arrived on time. I was outwardly embarrassed, but secretly pleased, as the tube network was unfamiliar to me, and she was very experienced in travelling around London. Once I had a car to use, she would occasionally slip me some extra money, so that I would always have ‘enough petrol to get home’, was her way of justifying it. During the years that I did not get on with my father, often resulting in acrimonious disputes, she would usually take my side, on the grounds that their problems should not be blamed on me.
When my parents split up in 1975, she was sure that we would stay together, even though I was 23 years old. I had lived away from home for a short while, some years earlier, but had returned when my friends had moved out of our shared house, and also because my father’s frequent absences made Mum lonely, and I knew that she liked me to be around. When she received her share of the money, and announced her intention to buy a business, an off-licence in Clapham, she assumed, without asking me, that I would go with her, and help to run the shop, which we also lived in, in two flats above. For the first time in my life, I began to realise that this looking-after thing went both ways. It still did not occur to me that I would ever actually have to look after her though. She was 51 years old, fit and well; she had a good mind for figures, and a desire to work hard, so I doubted that I would have to do much more than to be a shop assistant.
For the next two years, I did my best to be a good son, and carry some weight in the business. But I was approaching the age of 25, and I wanted to marry, move into my own flat, and start my life properly, away from the ties of home. I got another job, married, and moved out, agreeing to help out in the shop some evenings, and most weekends, with a part-time assistant employed to cover other times. Despite my new found independence, Mum still looked after me. My car was run ‘through the business’, greatly reducing costs. When we hit any financial problems, however small, Mum would contribute some money to help out. She would also buy us gifts, usually unwanted, and often inappropriate. Our taste was younger, and at the time, more fashionable; but her intentions were always good, and her heart was true.
Years later, when I split with my wife, Mum was there, giving me consolation and good advice; taking my side, yet cautioning me on my own shortcomings, and urging me not to repeat mistakes. By the time I married for the second time, she was 65 years old. She had given up being a shopkeeper long before, but still worked every day; cleaning, ironing, and looking after children, for various people in South London. In her way, she was still looking after me, buying me a new washing machine as a wedding present, and inviting us to Sunday lunch, whenever I was not at work. She never asked me for anything, outside of an occasional lift to the PDSA at New Cross, when she had to take one of her dogs or cats there. Seven years later, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and she had to go into hospital for treatment. She asked me to take care of her dog. That was all, nothing else, nothing for herself. During her stay in hospital, she experienced breathing difficulties, the start of a long period of suffering with such ailments. I started to see a time when she might need me to look after her, but it was not to be then, as she still had a lot of fight left.
Once recovered from her treatment, she continued to work, just reducing her hours, and keeping to less physically demanding jobs. I split up with my second wife in 1997, and by this time, Mum was 73 years old. She was less active now, and her breathing difficulties were beginning to get worse. I had moved right across London, and was living in Borehamwood, in Hertfordshire, a considerable distance from her home in Peckham. Still working shifts in the Ambulance Service, I found it increasingly difficult to get over to see her very often. She was becoming crankier, less patient, and considerably more outspoken about everything. She was also having to be admitted to hospital more often, eventually having to give up keeping her pets, as she could no longer manage the walks, or the responsibility of caring for them. She became reclusive, rarely going out, save a weekly trip into Peckham, to collect her pension, and get some shopping. Her world was changing. The shops no longer sold the things she liked; they were now selling yams, cassava, and dried fish, catering to the increasing African population of the area. The friends and neighbours she had known for years were dead, dying, or moving into care homes. Her new neighbours were strangers to her, and many were originally from Africa, or the West Indies.
I met Julie in 2000, and by the time she met my Mum, it was at the side of her hospital bed, when she was once again admitted unable to breathe properly, and not expected to survive. Mum was now almost 77, and very different from the woman I had known previously. She had become intolerant, racist, and relentlessly bitter about the hand that fate had dealt her. Her softness had gone, replaced with hard opinions, stubbornness, and intransigence. If I arrived late for lunch, held up at work, or delayed by traffic, she would brook no excuses, and be in a foul temper, telling me not to bother to come again. She did like Julie at least, which was a blessing. She also continued to be immersed in her family, and her few close friends that remained. Then she fell in the street, and broke her hip.
After the operation on her hip, things changed for us completely. She could no longer cope at all. We lived in a tiny flat, so she could not live with us, though she did not want to anyway. She had to have carers at home, call upon neighbours to help, and depend completely on outside assistance, from me, and some of my family, for the first time in her life. I had to go over and cook meals, get her shopping, take her washing, and liaise with others to sort her out when I was working. We had to secure additional benefits for her, and to a large extent, restructure our lives around her needs. At the age of 55, I was finally looking after Mum. She wouldn’t really let me though. Her obstinacy became hard to bear, as she declined physio to recover from her surgery, sacked carers out of hand, and would do no more than to sit in a chair, watching TV for twenty hours a day. Her mobility suffered, her breathing suffered, and her mood declined into a state where she was little more than moribund.
We were all dragged down with her. She refused to concede that her hearing was impaired, so she watched TV with the volume on full, at number thirty, much to the annoyance of her neighbours. It made conversation impossible, and any suggestion that it was too loud, would bring on a black mood, and no further response from her. Similarly with her personal cleanliness. If anyone suggested that she did not bathe, or change her clothes frequently enough, she would argue and shout, eventually asking you to leave. She lost all track of time, and would telephone people at 5am, insisting it was 5pm. As her health deteriorated, so did that of those looking after her. I was working shifts, going over to Peckham twice a week, often after a long day. I would then go and get her shopping, sort out her washing, cook some meals to be left in the fridge, and get home late, having not eaten, or seen my wife. I became run down, worn out by it all, and could see no light in the future for her, or for any of us involved in her care. She refused to discuss moving, even to a ground floor flat, let alone into some form of care. Her constant admissions to hospital, meant visiting the ward daily, or getting a friend or relative to go, when it was impossible, due to work.
The Mum I had loved, and who had cared for me so lovingly, and for so long, was someone I no longer felt any connection with. And although I still loved her, I no longer liked her. The last two years of her life were two of the worst years of my life as well. Confusion, brought on by what we later discovered, was a series of small, undiagnosed strokes, started to overwhelm all our lives. She would telephone constantly, telling of pets, long dead, that had ‘returned’ to her flat. She would spend evenings with her mother and sister, both also long departed, or imagine that she was abandoned in a cave, left cold and alone, a metaphor for her inner despair. I would go over to get her shopping and do her cooking, and she would tell others that she had not seen me for weeks. She refused to wash, or to care for herself at all, by not taking any medication. We finally resorted to hiring a carer, someone who she trusted, to come in every day, to wash her, and make sure she had eaten. She rang the GP, and the emergency ambulance, on a regular basis, and we had to constantly rush over to the A&E, expecting the worst. On arrival, she would usually exclaim, ‘you took your time’.
As this continued, I despaired of ever being free of this commitment, which was making me ill, and stopping my life making any progress. I was wrong of course, I see that now. I should have just done it all, with a happy heart. Nothing should have been too much trouble, for the mother that gave me life, then made sure that I enjoyed it, for as long as she could. The few years of help that she required was nothing, compared to a life devoted to my welfare and well-being. She never once let me down, and she was always there for me, whatever she may have thought about my mistakes, or bad choices, She was never critical of my efforts, and beamed with pride at any of my achievements, however small. She was a perfect Mum. When I was finally called upon to return the favour, and when she needed me most, late in life, confused and infirm, I should have done more.
I will never get the chance to go back, and to do it properly. And I will always regret that.