The Guardian newspaper invited readers to compose a two hundred word letter for Mothering Sunday starting ‘Dear Mum.’
I decided to enter mine which was duly published in the Family section on Saturday March 14.
Here is what I wrote:
Communication was never your strong point.You ended up in San Francisco never thinking to tell us you had gone. My brother thought you were going for a week. In fact, you had no intention of ever coming back. The call came to say you had collapsed. You were in hospital with suspected cystitis. The truth was you had bladder cancer. The truth was that you ran away knowing something was wrong. You ran from the oncology appointments, from your bloodstained sheets, from your terrors, from the very people who could help you. Your life was always fraught with illness, real or imagined. You argued with doctors and saw conspiracy everywhere. We, your daughters, struggled with guilt and anger and didn’t speak for twenty years, yet we arrived together at your bedside and you knew what that meant. “Am I dying?” you wrote on a scrap of paper as you lay unable to speak. “No” said my brother and he took you for a pedicure to cheer you up. The sight of your feet, each toe painted shiny pink, made me cry.
Two hundred words is a good discipline. But of course so much has to be left out.
Like the fact that I only discovered she had gone to America just before Christmas when I got in touch with my brother. For days- I forget how long actually- I had been unable to contact my mother. Her answer phone, when we eventually got to it, was full of messages from her sister, and friends all asking her where she was. I found out that a neighbour was minding her cat and that she had gone on holiday but hadn’t come back. My mother loved her cat, yet she had abandoned it. Her house looked ransacked but then it always had. I linked up with my brother using Skype and there she was, sitting in a chair in the corner of the screen, looking far away and absent in every way possible. My brother was full of how he had been taking her out and about in California, to beaches and forests and parks but she seemed unresponsive when I asked her about it, as if she was removed from herself. This strange faraway distancing had happened the previous summer when, sitting in my garden she had drifted in and out of sleep, unable to connect with what was happening around her. But then had come an amazing awakening as she began to talk animatedly about visiting an Art Gallery with me as a baby. It was the first time in years that she had connected to me and we talked about paintings and books and I began to feel, as I had so many times before, that maybe we could have a real relationship, but then just as suddenly she sank back into her trance like state and it was over. Why did I not see this as a sign of something wrong? I suppose it was because I could never quite place her. She lied and manipulated and behaved like a child and I reacted by being alternately hurt and guilty, always trying to find common ground, always trying to mend her broken sense of self, always, inevitably, failing.. It left me hopeless and helpless, angry and upset. My feelings were mixed when I saw her on the computer screen, totally oblivious to the worry she had set in motion. I felt concerned, anxious and angry but none of those were new feelings . Yet this felt wrong and odd yet my brother seemed so breezy about it all.
So there was all that which two hundred words cannot convey and then there was the fact that when I got the call, on January 19th 2001, to say she had collapsed, I was in the middle of a school Ofsted inspection and already stressed to say the least. Then there was the fact that, not having spoken to my sister in more than twenty years, I had to ring her with terrible news as the diagnosis went from nothing to worry about at the end of January to terminal cancer by the beginning of February . And there was the fact that neither of us had ever flown before and suddenly we had to plan eight hour flights to America.
We flew out on January 6th 2001.
I took both my daughters with me but my sister, bravely, flew alone.