Apr 102021

According to that young doctor her mother, Norma, suffered only from early onset dementia.
Marie helped Norma into the car after the appointment and stood there with no one to punch.
What interest did a new GP have in trying to connect with Norma or think about her history?
Marie’s sister and a brother shared concern but could also infuriate.
Stephanie, the younger sibling, lived abroad and had none of the strain, though Norma kept herself wrapped in a beautiful soft shawl – Stephanie’s expensive gift and their mother’s comfort.
While the eldest, Philip, visited Norma regularly – now thankfully without his wife – yet there was no telling him of any slippages Marie found in herself, which seemed to link with her mother’s far greater ones.

Marie recalled those early years when an urge to pee must have been over-ridden by longing to curl in the warm. Marie could dream details of walking to their cold toilet and, sure she had done so, pee with relief – then wake to another wet bed.
Her mother made no fuss over washing sheets and tried various mattress covers, yet Marie, now in her forties, dreamt public humiliation where a need to pee was thwarted.
Another disconnect increasingly bothered Marie.
She might be in a flow of images or the vivid and intense – then a shutter came down – the cut off absolute. And Marie would now wake with nothing from the night making the transition with her.
She knew only that what had been could vanish completely and how different it felt if some of her dreaming came through to morning.
Why should none of it be available? And what else of herself was not accessible?
With this questioning, it was scary to watch more and more slipping away for her mother.
The muddles came in for Norma after the death of her own, very old, mother and at first made sense to Marie. But by the time of the appointment, months later, whatever was happening to Norma was at a worrying new level, even her words began coming out in the wrong order.

Way back, their father had left abruptly for Australia. There had been another woman and she got pregnant.
Philip, then fifteen, began to sound responsible but it was Marie, two years younger, who took on caring for her nine year old sister.
Marie read Stephanie a story before bed, as their father often did, then made sure the school clothes were neatly put ready.
Marie worried if Stephanie would be all right. For both her and Philip, the good behaviour was also to prevent their mother’s defeat.
Darkness had some claim on Norma and the children had watched it swallow her before.
However, their father’s departure was not the startling news for Norma it was for his children. There was no hint there might be a mistress, but Norma had been skidding round suspicions without gaining a foothold.
Her history was used against her – he knew how troubled she could become – it was only old demons getting a grip, not anything real – she was always imagining too much.
He took Norma to the GP for medication, with a convincing, “better get on top of this before she falls too deeply for rescue,” while Norma herself had few words for her uncertainties.

Despite the weight on her, Norma pushed through blurred thickness after her husband left, as she had been doing those long confusing months before it.
The children remained alert but this was not to become even a semi-eclipse – that would not happen for a further nine years.
And Norma kept her gentle receptiveness. Unlike teachers or friends’ parents, Norma was never ready to impose or instruct and had a wider weave of curiosity over what kind of person each child might be.
Yet there remained a bleak enclosure, into which her three could not impinge. The children never spoke of fear of it expanding – not as abrupt take over – but as an inexorable increase until it became total, as on those times she had been taken away.
They had never known where and did not speak of their father’s widowed mother coming to take Norma’s place – a strong-minded grandmother, certain the children’s ways needed improvement and that her oversensitive daughter-in-law was weak.
She spoke sternly against Norma’s artistic temperament to her son or visitors which the children overheard.

It was when Norma’s father died and immediately after Stephanie left home at eighteen that something began to slip.
Marie, at twenty three and just married, felt more separate, having moved away from whatever stopped her asking Norma questions before.
Her mother was not out of reach but, increasingly, the absent Stephanie merged with Norma’s long dead sister, Colleen.
Philip wanted the doctors who had treated their mother previously. Marie overrode him after she found their treatment had been a series of electric shocks.
Little wonder Norma’s memory was dodgy.
Marie began to find out about the dead, Colleen, who loomed as Norma’s shadow.
The dates didn’t make sense.
Norma had been three months pregnant at the time of her sister’s death yet that was eighteen months before Philip’s birth.
The later hospitalisations, while she and Philip were small, followed two further miscarriages before Stephanie.
Only their mother’s defeat some years after Stephanie’s arrival appeared unconnected to any external event.
It was this episode that Philip and Marie remembered more clearly and, reconsidering those memories as an adult, Marie saw her father as unable to stand up to his own overbearing parent.
Perhaps that was part of his escape since his mother, disliking colonials as much as divorce, would never visit him and his second family. He returned to her only once, just in time for her funeral, when Marie was twenty. He invited his three once-abandoned children to stay with him in her house.
Philip, tall and upright and recently married, left with Norma immediately after the burial but the two girls spent a week with their father.
Marie regretted how, at that time, she was not quite ready to ask questions.

By twenty three, when Norma’s grim father died and Stephanie left for Australia, Marie felt the need to make sense of what she had lived through and questions were no longer out of reach.
Stephanie didn’t want to hear. She agreed Norma had been badly hit in her younger life but that wasn’t her business. History left a sticky mess and Stephanie aimed to discard it, taking with her only their mother’s great smile.
She was set on getting away and was well practised at stamping in opposition to things she faced.
While Philip, like his father, saw Norma’s distress as a medical matter.
Philip married early and as he grew more conventional, began seeing his mother’s artistic flair as a liability, though he had her weaving on his walls.
As Norma’s despair began to seep back, Philip’s wife became agitated that she hadn’t been properly warned.
She had seen Norma, though undoubtedly very good with their two babies, as uncomfortably different but not ‘mentally sick’ – now the interest she had in her mother-in-law was a diagnosis and whether their poor babies could be tested for Norma’s faulty gene.
At least Stephanie recognised the inheritance from those years growing up went beyond genetic concerns even if she, too, had no time for Marie’s detective work.

“There was only silence,” Norma repeated. She was ready to talk.
Her sister, Colleen, died and there was silence.
The parents never once spoke of Norma’s responsibility and their home became heavy with lifelessness.
If Norma hoped grandchildren might bring back some warmth, it proved a failure. Even Stephanie, who was the most like Colleen, barely got a smile from those distant grandparents.
As parents they put Colleen on a bus to visit her pregnant, very nauseous sister. Norma was eight years older and seen as the reliable daughter.
The blame was total.
There was no shaving off any edge of it with talk of Colleen’s impetuous, restless streak which no one had been able to dampen.
The parents did not say what a great-uncle told Marie, that Colleen was in a state and that was the reason her father paid for the eight hour journey.

Again and again Norma was making that phone call to her parents – standing in the police station and ringing to tell them she had been to the morgue. It remained a fault line where she fell, and with each return it was re-lived.
Colleen was not lost on her way back from a walk to the coast, while Norma rested, but found on rocks beneath high cliffs.
Had she fallen or did she jump?
Police found no sign she might have slipped.
If Colleen made a choice – and they would never know for sure – Norma’s guilt was in her failure to recognise its possibility.
How could she not have realised if her baby sister was desperate?
Of course Colleen was melodramatic and craving to escape their parents, but as light vanished and her sister hadn’t yet returned Norma’s concern was only that Colleen might have taken the wrong path.

Those disturbed months returned when Stephanie left home, but slowly ebbed. Norma seemed fine for fifteen years.
She kept her eye for the absurd and for beauty, along with responsiveness to others’ suffering.
When not absorbed by darkness, Norma offered attention to the troubled and was interested in whatever made life a struggle.
She was an engaged grandmother and superb weaver until another death. Norma’s stony mother died at ninety.
Then Colleen grew vivid again – often as the sweet baby Norma played with or pushed in the pram.
Other days Colleen was eighteen and heading off for a walk on the cliffs.
A hood of guilt began to cover Norma as grief for her mother and Colleen intertwined.
Norma’s spark went out and she began to believe herself the cause not only of her mother’s living death but this final one.
Slowly, Norma began to disappear beyond conversation with Marie or even a smile. Sometimes her speech slurred.
With a verdict of early onset dementia, Philip was quick to take on power of attorney but could not just sit with Norma.
He finally agreed with Marie’s insistence on a second opinion, based on more than a cursory reading of medical notes and inadequate tests.
They found Norma had been having a series of mini strokes and medication, coming too late, made no impact on a relentless decline.

Stephanie said she could not stay but flew in for two weeks.
Norma stroked the face of her youngest child and often called her Colleen.
Marie celebrated her sister’s arrival as she’d done each visit and made a fuss of her.
There was pleasure but also reinforcement of a long-held view of Marie’s that Stephanie felt entitled to have her every suffering seen and perpetually had some drama of herself.
Stephanie had several times rung just before flying off on an expensive holiday and expected Marie’s time and her concern for a minor affront blown up to an outrage.
Though a generous aunt, Stephanie had never put herself aside for a child and her doting husband agreed it was, “poor Stephanie,” except if he was drunk.
In turn, Stephanie had no patience for what she saw as Marie’s martyrdom. Why wouldn’t they all want just to get free of Norma’s messy history?
“Don’t imagine you love her any better because you have some fantasy of understanding. You’ll never be in her head. You are such a different character.”
Was she so different?
Marie felt close to her mother, even on mornings the carer said cheerfully, “Norma’s away with the fairies today,” as if it didn’t matter.
As Norma shrivelled and sank out of life, Marie sat on the small medical bed, putting her arms around the bones of Norma’s reduced body, as once her mother’s arms easily encircled her.
Norma might lift her head and there would be that mischievous smile, so open and private at the same time.
Those dark eyes still looked more penetrating than any others.
At moments her mother’s gaze would melt her and Marie wished to stay fully loving but knew that, as Norma went in and out of accessibility and headed towards dying, her own heart was finding protective rhythms.
Marie, recognising fluctuations in her courage and openness, noted how Norma kept one constant – she wrapped herself in that worn shawl.


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