This is possibly the scariest time of my life. My dad is back in hospital, where he has been on and off for over a year now, and he describes himself as being on the pointy end of life. My mum is lonely and isolated in the north of Scotland due to circumstances. And my teenage sons are becoming increasingly independent and in 18 months, the eldest will be driving so they will no longer be dependent on me.
I’ve talked about firsts – and lasts – before. The first and last time things happen. Firsts are so exciting. Lasts are immeasurably depressing. And I am looking at so many potential lasts.
I know I should be celebrating each and every precious moments with my sons and my parents. I need to be celebrating the time we have now, as it is becoming increasingly precious. But all I can think of is how terribly fearful I am of a life without them. My whole life I have been a daughter, and for the past 18 years, I have identified myself primarily as a mother – not a wife or a teacher or a writer or any other part of me – as my entire life is consumed with the needs and wants of my sons. Oh, yes, and dog owner, to a poorly bred Cavalier named Piglet. Soon, I will have to stand alone, as just me.
My parents are divorced and both live thousands and thousands of miles apart in different continents to me and each other. Perhaps I will see them a handful more times in our lifetime. Every time I speak to them, I wonder if it will be the last.
Dad is in South Africa and I am in Australia, so often on a Sunday night, I get a message on my phone: “Hello, this is your daddy speaking….” And I know he is always there. It’s the resonate timber of his voice, his rational and reasonable approach to every disaster in my life, his calm haven when my life goes crazy, his moral compass, his never-ending guidance.
Once he was a blur of intellectual energy, up late at night, reading, writing, planning. Now he is fighting an auto immune disease and has had a few close calls where we worried he might not pull through. I saw him last Christmas and he was so much smaller now, shuffling along with the help of canes, taking long afternoon and morning naps, and when he bent over to pick something up off the floor, I watch anxiously. Now, feeling so very far away, I do not like to ask him how he is doing, and despite him assuring me he feels “fine” I know his life is constantly changing as he moves closer and closer, faster and faster, to leaving us behind. He will probably never travel out of South Africa again. And he loves to travel. And he has a wife, whom he loves more than imaginable, and my heart hurts for her too.
Mum, on the other hand, recently lost her long-term partner to dementia. For five years, she watched him slowly slipping away, not recognising her, and she said a long and bitterly drawn out goodbye. He was there in body, yet she had to mourn the loss of his personality, his fierce can-do attitude, remembering the vibrant man she could no longer find. The slackening of his mouth, the watering of his eyes, his confusion about what the hell was happening, broke her.
Now I sit by helplessly, watching her fight loneliness. She is lost, increasingly bewildered with life, and trapped in a cottage in the north of Scotland, her only security, with little chance to be with the her children.
I can’t bring her to Australia due to immigration laws and my financial inability to offer her full medical coverage. Yet my sons are still at school and I cannot look at leaving them for at least six years. I am devoted to my boys, so I am torn between love for my mother and love for my children. And no, the two do not mix.
My dear Mum, with her unconditional love and daily chatter on WhatsApp; nobody loves as fiercely as she does. Who will give me day-to-day advice on all the little things I face, listen to my boring fluff, give me pep talks on tidying up and de-cluttering. She asks for pics of me because she wants to see me, even though age is defiling my beautiful face she made. Who will obsess about my health and what I am wearing and eating when she goes?
Age starts to take away the fiercely independent people we know them to be, as they become more frail and vulnerable. I worry they are afraid. Already, I am grieving for the people they once were, the setting sun casting long shadows as they move into the omnipresent dusky death zone.
But it is my father’s illness that has seriously horrified me. It is like my anchor in life is being pulled up, I feel emotionally unmoored, adrift in the wreckage of lost love, lost lives, and my own shattered identity. I no longer seem able to get a grip on who I am, where I am, or my purpose, in the world.
I already know how exhausting and painful grief is, how it grips you in a suffocating web of physical and mental torment, like a disease eating away at your well-being. I’ve been suddenly widowed. And I’ve lost a small child to death. But this anticipatory grief is a whole new world, a no-man’s land between normal life and imminent death, of watching people, once the gods we worshipped, fading to beige and sliding away.
I’m 56 years old, but I still feel like someone’s child, and I am not ready to be an adult orphan, an inevitable and unwilling member of a mournful club of the broken-hearted.
I feel like the roots to my life are being eroded, rotting away with time. My parents are why I’m here and the one stable in my life, my constant, my stability and my haven. Yes, I’m a grown woman, a mother herself, and I can stand alone. But the thought of being without my mother and father makes me feel so very, very alone.
Somehow their ageing had taken me by surprise. I remember my mother as a very energetic walker, and she would stride out with me skip-running beside her to keep up. But on my last visit to my mother, she was this tiny and nervous little sparrow, tentatively navigating the pavements and stair, clinging to railings as if her life depended on it. When had this happened? I can accept that I have aged and I do not recognise myself a lot of the time. But somehow, I never thought about the fact that my parents will not live forever, and that as I get older, they move closer to heaven’s door on the conveyer belt of life. Even now, my brain knows they can’t live forever, but my heart refuses to accept that.
Half of me clings to Irish poet Dylan Thomas who tells us “Do not go gently into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The other half of me tries to console myself with John Donne whose poem comforts us with the idea that we will continue to live for evermore: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally /And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
Now, I like to cling on to the cliché of our parents living on in those left behind, that we are, in part, the collective products of those we love. You will find them in my bright and curious children, I will hear them in my laughter, I will see them in my dreams. And I will pass their stories to my children, who will in turn share with their children.
I read a Latin phrase the other day – et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt, meaning that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”. From the darkness into the light. I hope this is true.
But mainly I wish that old age was not a thing. I pray to any and every God out there that Dad gets well quickly, that my sons stay close forever, and Mum finds a way back to her family.