My mother’s name was Lesley Jenner. She brought me up to call her Lesley, because she said she was a person, not just a mother. Lesley was brought up in Dunedin in a Jewish family and was a quiet and polite person who never asked for much. She had green fingers and loved to be outside in nature. Her habit of mind was scientific. Lesley died in the autumn of 2019, a week before Pesach. Immediately afterwards, and for several months, I was occupied with the administration of her death. This followed a period of several years when I had been much occupied with Lesley’s life.
In 2013, Lesley left her own home and lived with me while we waited for an apartment in a retirement village. She had told me years before that leaving her house would be terrible for her, and it was. When we picked Lesley up from the airport and drove her to our place in our tiny little car, she was solid and heavy in the front seat. Her face was set in an expression of absolute misery and she was silent, as if her closed mouth was all that was holding back an endless outpouring of tears.
Once Lesley was unpacked, I started trying to get some routines going. I remember bright spring sunlight shining into the dining room, matching my optimism that we would create a new life now, as people who cared about each other. My partner and I would share our life with my mother and that would help to make up for some of the gaps that were visible in her memory and thinking. We had shared our house with people before so we thought we could make this work. My mother and I would talk over tricky matters like money or what each person needed, and we would solve problems together. After all, I was fifty-nine now.
I imagined that Lesley would need lots of support to get her life re-established in Kāpiti, and I was ready to give that. But then, in my mind, a time would come when my mother was running her life again and some of it would be independent of me. With this in mind, I planned to do nothing else for a few weeks except keep her company and sort out her affairs after the move. Each morning, after breakfast, she asked, in her own way, for help with things. She wanted to email her friend, but the email looked different and she couldn’t work it. She could not find pens or rubbers and folders, or special kinds of exercise books. She worried that her bank statements only came once a week. Lesley wanted to go to the bank in person, every couple of days, and get a balance from the teller. She would never ask me directly to fix any of these problems but would just raise them as topics of conversation. After a few minutes I would realise that she was asking me to do something and I would offer to help.
It took me a few days, or perhaps weeks, to understand this process, because I had not lived with my mother for many years and I had forgotten her methods. In her Christchurch life, she would have driven herself to the shops to do these errands, but at my place she did not drive. I didn’t offer to help her learn to drive around our neighbourhood, because I didn’t think she would be able to learn her way around and drive safely. So each day we would go out together and buy what she said she wanted. Each day I would think that we had done what needed to be done but the next day, at breakfast, there would be a new list. Lesley fretted constantly about her money. I would get the receipts and the bank statements out and add up her income and expenses in a special accounting book with lots of columns.
She would sit beside me and nod, but I could tell she wasn’t reassured, because the same topic would come up just a few days later. It was if, on the day she left her own house, all the parts of her life were thrown up into the air and when they fell down, they no longer made any sense to her.
Lesley didn’t speak much when she lived with me and she didn’t smile when we did something nice, like go to a café. She would get up and have a shower, eat breakfast, come to the table when it was dinner time and eat whatever we had prepared, but there was no joy in any of it. Often, during the day, she would sit on the couch, her body squat and heavy and her lips in a tight line. I thought she was sad. I thought that her sadness was not a disease, like depression, but something normal caused by the loss of her city, her friends, her garden and her life befriending immigrants and investigating new species of tipulids.
I had seen my mother sad before. I had seen her put one foot in front of the other and work away at making things suit her better and I thought something like that would happen again, but it did not. I also thought, although I never said this to her, that the lost world was more an idea than a reality. In 2013 the city of Christchurch was nothing like the city Lesley had loved. Her museum and her art gallery and her favourite carpark near Ballantynes were all shut. Her own house had been shoddily repaired as part of the Fletchers Managed Repair scheme, and I was sure it was only a matter of time before cracks would reappear. Perhaps most importantly, my mother’s wonderful, interesting friends were as old or older than she was, and they could not help each other. While Lesley stayed in her house, and was reasonably well, I suppose she could imagine that everything was as it had been for the twenty odd years of her retirement. After some time, I realized that she was not just sad. She was angry at her situation, and probably at me.
With the move into my house a part of my mother’s life, for which I have no neat and tidy name, had come to live in my body. That part of her life had no size but a great deal of weight. Mostly I felt it in my upper chest, as a tightness. I remember sitting in my car at the beach with a friend one day shortly after Lesley had arrived, talking compulsively and repetitively about the weight of the whole situation. Meantime I tried to help Lesley feel like herself, albeit in a different place. I took her to the library, and for cups of coffee and introduced her to people I thought she would like. I went with her to her new doctor and dentist and I took her to an audiologist to get her hearing aids serviced and we went to the bank a lot. Then I would make lunch.
After lunch I went to my room to write. I closed the door, but Lesley would soon knock and very sweetly say that she didn’t mean to interrupt but what about something or other. I was used to having lots of space and silence and now I had none, not even in my bedroom, with the door shut. I could not leave the house because Lesley was not safe there by herself. I could not get a job because I couldn’t leave the house, and months went by when I earned nothing. One friend offered to come and sit with Lesley once a week while I went out, and I accepted that. I also organized for a paid companion to come for a couple of hours a week.
At night, after my mother had gone to bed, I was often in tears. I wondered if medication would help. I thought about my grandmother who looked after her mother-in-law for six months of each year. I thought about how all that caring rests on the assumption that older women are at home, with nothing else to do. I thought about the gap between women’s and men’s lifetime earnings. I read about the Universal Wage, and I thought that would definitely help. Adding my partner’s and my incomes together for tax purposes would have helped too.
I felt as though I was the spinster Victorian daughter who looked after her aged parent and did not have her own life, but, although I was under pressure, I did have a life. I had my writing. I also had a partner who loved me and supported me in every possible way. My partner’s parents were both dead. He had learned that things would get worse and worse and then one day it would all be over. He said that after it was all over, I would be glad for every single thing I had done to help my mother. He said perhaps I could look at this situation as my job. He said his job had good parts and bad parts as my one did. I found all of these comments helpful, especially the one about looking after my mother being my job. I would say that to myself often. After eight months, when an apartment became available, I did not suggest that Lesley stayed on with us, although I knew she would have liked that.
After Lesley moved into the apartment at the retirement village and then after she moved into a single room at the rest home, I visited often. I took her out to the library, for coffee and for ice-creams. I took her to look at the sea and the birds. I bought clothes and shoes for her so that she would look like herself, I wiped the surfaces of the furniture with lemon scented furniture polish so that she would feel as if she was in a well-tended household, and I took her to all her medical appointments. Almost everyone my age has lost a parent, and often the mother or father has had dementia and been ‘in care’, as my mother was, so I had heard friends talk about the practical aspects of that situation. But I had not heard people talking about the weight of having a parent inside you. I do not know whether other daughters and sons have felt this weight, or whether it was a particular feature of the relationship I had with my mother or my own capacities as a carer.
End of Part One. The second part of this essay will be published on Corpus on 7 December 2020.
Lynn Jenner writes and teaches essay, memoir and poetry. Her most recent book Peat (Otago University Press 2019) is a series of essays about Charles Brasch (founder of Landfall magazine) and the building of the Kāpiti Expressway. Lynn’s author website is Pinklight.nz.