It's been ages

by Michael Mallows

[This article was originally published in Elders, The Journal of Care and Practice, Volume 1, No. 3, of July 1992 and was subsequently reprinted in Groupvine Volume 2, No. 1 of Autumn 1993]


She's getting frailer now.  The Alps of the staircase a constant reminder, she says, with irrepressible sardonic humour, that she's over the hill.  Breathless, she pauses once, sometimes twice, before achieving the summit of the upstairs landing where, struggling to regain her breath, she looks back down the years.

Excruciating chest pains accompany a walk around the supermarket, even with me pushing the trolley, but she won't consider relinquishing her 20+ a day habit.  Well, habit is the most powerful force in the Universe.

The chest pains compelled her to keep the doctor's appointment I'd recently made for her.  Her greatest fear has always been cancer, and her worst nightmare might be confirmed by the results.

Recoiling from the coughs and splutters ricocheting around the waiting-room, my mother sat, shoulders hunched against the looming Truth.  I wanted to reach out and make it all OK again, to make her young and vibrant, fit and able, sure-footed among the foothills of daily problems.  Impossible, of course.  Still, I wanted to shout against the dying of the light, wishing that love were sufficient to move the mountain of time and fear which shadowed her like a cloud.

"I resent wanting to do things and my body won't let me," she had confided a little while ago.  Then, too, I had wanted to make it all OK - for her, for me, for the whole world - if I but could.

There is something indescribably sad in seeing a body, once full of life and love and passion, less solid than it has been, dwindling into itself, wasting into insubstantiality.

Her life, these more than three score years and ten, has been full of incident, drama, delights, tension, pain.  She has coped; no, she has triumphed over poverty, homelessness, bereavements, cruelty, betrayal, and other struggles which I know I would not have had the strength to deal with.  She has seen fickle men transmute into feckless husbands, and borne nine of their children, including one surviving set and one stillborn set of twins.

As a mother she has had to deal with drug abuse and sex abuse, with rat-infested accommodation and grappling to keep a roof over the heads of her family when her second husband, or one or other of her offspring, have been driven to meet their addictions at her expense.  Not for them the constant nagging worry, the debilitating fear when risking court cases, bailiffs, embarrassment, shame, and all the horrors of hostels for the homeless.  If she has not always loved wisely, she has loved well.  If her sagacity wasn't always profound, her shrewdness often saw us through hard times and hungry Sundays.

Living her life with weak men and regrettable choices, she has been forced to take on a matriarchal role.  Even now, less robust than ever, because of an innate generosity of spirit which can still be misused, she subsidises grown men who may never grow up as long as she has breath in her body.  That is her tragedy and her triumph!

She has brought up her second family (four children counting her husband) with a lack of support matched only by the profundity of her love and the extent of her courage.

This courage I never fully appreciated until, as an adult, I assessed what it had taken for her, a young woman in a strict family almost half a century ago, to have produced a child, myself, who was not only illegitimate but also the "wrong" colour.

Many of her overtly racist family made their contempt emphatically clear to her, insisting that she did not visit them with me because of the shame she had brought on the family.  The effects of my existence on people who should have offered more and demanded less, put my mother's courage into even sharper relief.

The things I am discovering about my mother continue to astound me.  She was good at snooker, was an extremely competent tennis player, used to cycle from the East End of London to Southend.

A picture of her at that time shows her looking out at a world which seemed to promise her everything.  Her hair is done up in a style popular just after the War.  There is a quiet dignity about her, and a look in her eye as if she doubts the promise will be kept.  Her looks are quite remarkable.  She was truly beautiful.

Strange, sad to think that such vibrancy can, partly because of the weight of years, partly because of the burdens she has carried, and still carries, be whittled away until it dwindles into frailty and hesitation.  Sad to see that incandescence fading, becoming dull, like eyes dimmed with regret.

World-wise eyes, having seen adventure and death, life in a thousand guises and a dozen countries, now look out of her window on a too rapidly changing, hostile world.  In a world which has narrowed down from big vistas to bingo halls, she solves jigsaw puzzles instead of the major problems of keeping a home and a family together.

I would like to make it all better, but she is trapped, as ultimately we all are, by our body's betrayal, by our partners failing us, by our children abandoning us, or by the myriad little jokes which Destiny has at our expense.

My mother was there for all of her kids when we needed her.   She has seen us, and fed us, and housed us through our moments of hunger and despair, of loss and laughter.  She has been there, not always wise but ever willing, not always capable but always constant.  She has been a source of comfort, a haven, an irritant, a fount of love and an anchor when the world or one's emotions have been in turmoil.

Perhaps we blamed her for being weak when we were younger and she could not tolerate the intolerable in her partners.  Ironic that now, as adults, all my siblings who are parents have, without exception, felt compelled to leave their children rather than stay in relationships they could not tolerate.

In fact she stayed with her second husband through the most appalling conditions and treatment, doing everything she could to maintain a home for their three children.  Those frail, thin arms once held lustful men and mewling babes.

Even now, in her seventies, she has to contend with some of the same pressures and problems, some of the same anxieties which, as a mother, have been her chain and her greatest expression of love.  She has been virulent in her protectiveness, and foul of mouth and temper when raising her brood.  Her strength has gone largely unsung, unnoticed, unheralded.  And, now that her bodily strength is waning, I want to give her the gift of new energy, lithe of limb and fleet of foot, sharp of eye and wit, she could run again, climb to new heights.  I cannot give this gift.  And I rage against the dying of the light.

I am angry, not at her, for her.  I am scared, for me, for us, for the whole human race.

That one human an have done so much, carried so much for so long, merits something more; but what can I give?  My love?  Of course, and my admiration.  More than that, I truly respect this woman whose quiet courage, whose dignity, whose undying love has been a beacon and a standard.

Seeing her, panting at little effort, or pleased with a small win at bingo, or eating half a piece of toast because she can't keep her food down, or holding her chest when it pains her, I feel such a helpless kind of love, and ache of love in my own chest.  I experience such an exquisite feeling of connectedness that I don't really know how to express it.

Of course I say "I love you", but it isn't much is it?  I also know that just I see the woman she once was in the sudden twinkle of her eye, or the girlish giggle of a shared joke or a silly anecdote.  I also see the man I shall become in the frail frame and the hesitant step.

I want to make it OK for her because I love her.  I want to give her new breath and rekindled dreams, but I can do little more than ease the nightmare of old age.  And that is a nightmare that lurks for all of us.

The years will burn away, like candles, flickering at the small breezes of self-doubt and unknown corners, or flaring up when love, incandescent at seventeen or seventy, makes us youthful.  Either way, as we make our way through the corridors of time, we leave behind us the burnt-out ends of our days and ways.

As we age we may learn to read between the lines etched on our faces, but age we must.  We may rage against snuffing of the candles, but, as we rush or creep towards the inevitable, we owe it to ourselves, here and now and in some bleak tomorrow, to live with the whole of our being, with every fibre of our being.  It is only thus that we can express ourselves in such a way that we are seen, in the twilight of our years, not as fading candles in a dimly lit room, but, like my mother, as shining lights illuminating paths for others to follow.

This is an acknowledgement of one woman's commitment to life over a long lifetime's experience.  It is a celebration of the wisdom which age bestows.  It is a  recognition of that decency and courage which shines brightly behind tired eyes and is reflected in all that older people have given.  My mother's life has not just been an example of these fine qualities; it shines as a beacon that others may find their way.


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[Nora died in October 1998]