Today I went to visit my mother in her nursing home, as I do every weekend. At 94 and in the aftermath of a series of small strokes, she’s lost to us now. When I wrote about her a year ago she was still able to take in and process brief and simple utterances and she could, on a better day, manage a brief and simple response. Now she functions in three alternating states – a benign, smiling silence during which she holds my hand and stares searchingly into my face; awake but entirely unresponsive to word or touch; deep, impenetrable sleep.
There is a fourth occasional state, which appears to be on the increase. Here she becomes suddenly and unaccountably distressed, this arising without warning from one of the other conditions. These episodes are particularly unsettling because they manifest as pure terror, unmoderated as they are by any capacity for self-activated reasoning or response to comfort and reassurance from without. During them she keens at increasing volume, her voice, normally never raised above whisper level, now rising in an awful ululation. Sometimes she will accept a drink and afterwards will settle; at other times the clamour has to be borne until it passes. Today we had to wait.
Two years ago I completed a poem called Still Life in which I tried to come to terms with the disintegration of the ‘self’ that I recognised as my mother. The process of composition helped me to objectify my perception of this slow abnegation, enabling me to accept without guilt a conviction that peace is her due now and that life should let her go.
Each morning they organise your bones
into the wheelchair, stack you leaning
out of kilter. Thus I find you, wall-eyed,
feather pulse and mouth ajar. This is
a stillness you are learning as silence
silts up your blood. I name you: ‘Mum’.
I call, quietly at first, as if this were
only sleep and you might resent the passage
interrupted. But your shade is walking
a broken road on the far side of dreams.
I keep my coat on, lean in the doorway,
breathing in the alkalines and salts
that are your presence in this world.
Beyond, through narrow windows, rain
drifts like smoke. The trees shift
their high shoulders, hefting their leaves
like heroes. I can see the lift and fall
of their evergreen breath, the slow,
dispassionate pulse. Such senseless beauty,
propping up the sky as if there were no
tides turning or falling stars, no ashes to dust,
no time at all. You speak – a half-word,
cracked in the middle. Syllables drift
like fumes. Somewhere in that steam
of meaning, the filaments of memory:
the horn’s tip of a lover’s moon,
a song’s powder, the eye’s tail catching,
not quite catching, doorway phantoms,
window ghosts. Grief crosses my mind:
its hydrogen release – from local pain
to lachrymae rerum, all in one ball
of fire. Easy, it would be to cauterise
this lassitude, here against the lintel,
watching not the rise and fall of your
fish-breath, your insect pulse, but
the immortal trees beyond. Too easy;
but death looked in and turned away,
indifferent, and now it’s down to me,
the blood-bearer, to wish away your life
for you. The house ticks and hums.
A voice calls out, thin and querulous;
another coughs. I turn down your light.
There, against the window, dusk outside,
you are becoming your shadow
cast against the shifting of the trees.