Diane Brown explains how writing a poetic family history brought her parents springing back to life.
A friend who rang on my birthday asked what I was doing. Writing a blog about Taking My Mother To The Opera, about dementia and brain damage, I said, so a nice cheery day.
In truth, I found writing about my parents difficult and sad at times but also funny and strangely joyful. Dementia had taken some of my mother away and my father had died by the time I began to assemble the book with old and new poems. It became a way of re-engaging with them as they miraculously sprang back to life.”
I did not plan to write a book. My parents are/were private and in many ways unremarkable, living quiet lives, focused on family and home. Much to their puzzlement and occasional angst, they produced me, a daughter who revealed family situations and conversations in poems and thinly disguised fiction. When Dad told me Mum had failed the dementia test I wrote about it as a way of processing the information.
Your mother’s house
has no windows, her clock’s missing
numbers, and she has no idea
what day it is.
I was disturbed about Dad’s stricture not to tell Mum. She’d expressed uneasiness about her memory. She’d often told me she should have been less compliant and here I was not standing up to him. Not telling my mother when she could still understand that banging her head against the wall was not going to make any difference.
A year or so after my mother’s diagnosis, my father had a catastrophic stroke. The phone call came in the middle of the night. By morning I was on the plane to Auckland, prepared, and perhaps hoping, for the worst.
you’ll put a pillow over my head,
if I end up in a bad way, he once said.
He was curled up in a foetal position and writhing in pain. I called a nurse to give him morphine. He was not hooked up to fluid. Clearly they were hoping he would slip away. After all, he was 92. I dripped some water into his mouth. The next day he was sitting up and eating. If I saved him, I did him no favours. He was incarcerated in a locked private hospital, mobile but with severe fluent aphasia, speaking gibberish save for the odd perfect phrase. “Stop making that noise,” he told a fellow patient, and to me, “Don’t cry, I love you very much.”
Communication was difficult but from gestures and occasional words spat out, I knew he was anxious about my mother and very afraid of a patient he thought was trying to kill him. He passed me bits of paper torn out of magazines. If it was a code I could not decipher it. Nothing new there. He once told me I had no idea about his experiences in World War 2 as a stretcher-bearer. Now it seemed his nightmares of the past had viciously returned. After eight months, he escaped on a stolen walker, belonging to a patient born in 1950, so it was confusing for the ambulance staff called to a man who’d collapsed on a footpath. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.
How could I not write of this? Typical of Dad, I thought, to take charge and go the way he wanted to, on the run and not in his pyjamas. It was a poem of celebration really.
he’d chosen this: to go not in bed,
surrounded by strangers but hurrying
down the road to home and wife, the other
great and true beauty in his life.
And what of his true love, my mother, who had been controlled but was also, as Dad said, “‘the love of his life”? It’s ten years since that dementia diagnosis – which I eventually told her about (it was forgotten within minutes). She’s 96 now, in a hospital rest home and confused about many things, but she recognises family members and seems to have passed through a long period of anxiety to a place of serenity. She’s the calmest patient in her ward and the nurses’ favourite. Asked recently how old she was, she said, “about 70.” “How old am I?” I asked. “About 30,” she said. Perhaps she’s found the secret to eternal youth.
Students often ask me if it’s right to expose so much of others’ lives. There is no right or wrong answer. My mother seemed pleased to feature on the cover. “I read your book,” she said, but her lack of questioning my version revealed she was unable to process the story.
I wanted to explore if my parents were still themselves, even if they couldn’t communicate or remember who they had once been. I get annoyed when people talk baby talk to old people. I talk to Mum as I always have. “Stop arguing, you two,” one of her fellow residents said one day. We were half-squabbling about something silly. Sometimes she retaliates with a sharp observation and I think yes, there she is. And Dad was there too, right to the end.
It’s a privilege to share something of their long ordinary/extraordinary lives. This amended extract below, is about speaking at dad’s funeral but could apply equally to Taking My Mother To the Opera.
So I laugh, tell jokes,
a performance so polished, I’m watching
myself in the wings, knowing
I’ll be embarrassed later, but hoping
they see I’m trying to do them proud,
hoping they know what they’ve given me.
Diane Brown is a novelist, memoirist, and poet who runs her own creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin.
Her publications include two collections of poetry (Before The Divorce We Go To Disneyland, and Learning to Lie Together); two novels (If The Tongue Fits, and Eight Stages of Grace); a travel memoir, Liars and Lovers and a prose/poetic work, Here Comes Another Vital Moment. The poetic family memoir, Taking My Mother To The Opera, was published in 2015 by Otago University Press.
In 2013 Diane was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to writing and education. She lives in Dunedin with her husband, author Philip Temple.