The sea, the sea

Every year we take the children to Cornwall for the second May Bank Holiday to stay in my mother-in-law’s cottage. Every year since we started this tradition it has caused Mum to rail against me for a good two weeks before we leave, her anxieties and panic and fear coming together in a perfect storm of rage.

May 2015 is different. Mum is careering towards another stretch in the Mental Health Unit and Dad is waiting to be admitted to have his leg amputated. Mum is, of course, wrapped up in far more nightmarish thoughts than whether or not I will spend the Bank Holiday with her. She is consumed with panic about Dad’s death sentence, not to mention his imminent operation. She is at once eaten up with fear and at the same time unable to voice it. Her anxieties are instead projected on to the contents of the fridge and her wardrobe, both of which are full to bursting, both of which she constantly frets are empty.

We are all of us in a similar state: in two minds. Dad is in two minds about being back home. He is relieved to be off the ward for a short while; to be able to see his friends and sit in the garden. He is also, however, finding Mum’s behaviour heart-breaking. She cannot cope with the chaos he has brought into the house: his weeping leg which will not heal; his cancer; his death, hanging over them both, implicit in every act, decision and spoken word.

I am in two minds about Mum: on the one hand I am angry with her for not looking after Dad. On the other I am angry with myself. I know she cannot look after Dad. Maybe I am not in two minds at all. Maybe I am simply angry.

I am also tired and I need to get down to our little sanctuary on the far south tip of West Penwith. I feel guilty about needing this, but I know something in me will implode if I do not get down to the sea this weekend.

‘I don’t think I should go,’ I tell my sister.

‘Yes, you should,’ she says, knowing this is what I want to hear.

And so we do, and I sit on the granite rocks and I look out across the green-blue millpond-calm bay, and I watch the shags and the rock pipits and the swifts that dart and dance across the water, and I think, ‘Dad would love this.’

Dad loves water. Dad loves birds. Dad loves sitting in the sun, his eyes closed, his face tilted to the light, his gentle mouth smiling.

I wish in that instant that I had braved Mum’s rages and panic attacks and hatred of mud and rocks and damp and wild animals and Nature in general, and that I had brought them here while I still had the time. I wish I had got up early with Dad and walked down through the woods, stopping to take in the majestic flight of a buzzard, chuckling at the rabbits bounding from the undergrowth. I wish I had shown him the easy way across the rocky bay down to the edge and dared him to jump into the icy water. I wish, I wish, I wish …

Since making the decision to have the amputation, Dad has been talking happily of rehabilitation, of getting back into his beloved kayak and following the kingfishers along the Medway. I know now, staring out to sea, that this will never happen.

He will never see the river again. He will never see the sea. He will never swim, kayak, paddle or dangle his feet in fresh, cold, blue-green water ever, ever, ever again. But whenever I am staring out across a river or a stream or a sun-speckled bay, I will remember him and smile.


The Shock of the Fall

Sunday, 5th July 2015. I have just arrived at Stanmore where Dad is still recuperating from having his leg amputated. The drive from home takes around two hours. I sit for a moment in the dilapidated car park and take a few breaths. I hate this place. I hate it for its building-site ugliness; its Victorian architecture no longer fit for service, patched together with shonky 1970s plastic-and-breeze-block nastiness. I hate it for its smells, for the state in which I invariably find the toilets, for the silence of the corridors. I hate it for the amount of time it has claimed from my father’s life. I know that of course I should be thankful that it has undoubtedly done a fair bit to prolong his days. But I do not feel thankful for anything right now.

My mobile rings. It is my sister. I think about not answering, but the thought of procrastinating a moment longer while I listen to my sister’s cheery voice is too tempting.

‘It’s me. Mum has had a fall.’

‘No!’ Fear and panic, always near the surface these days, rush to my chest, squeezing the breath out of me.

‘It’s OK. Marina found her. This is actually good,’ my sister is saying.

I realise she is sounding elated. Why? What is remotely ‘good’ about this? Our father is lying in a bed with only one leg, waiting to be discharged home to a woman who has just fallen. This is the nightmare I have been terrified would become a reality.

‘Mum is in Pembury hospital. I called the GP and he sounded excited,’ my sister says. ‘He said, “This is our chance”. We can get her into a home from here,’ she goes on. ‘We can take control. This is proof that she cannot be left alone.’

I hope she is right, but from where I am standing the mountain still seems impossibly high, cut through with precarious crevices, ravines and pitfalls. We have carried our hopes gingerly up this path before, only to watch them snatched from our hands and dashed on the black rocks below.

‘We need to get her assessed by a psychiatrist while she is in Pembury,’ my sister says. ‘We need to push for this.’

We end the call and I go in to see Dad. He is asleep, propped up. his mouth partly open, his face smooth with morphine. I look at where the sheets fall away flatly from his torso where his right leg once was. I look at his hands; his gentle, loving hands, rested on his lap. I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him that his wife of nearly fifty years has fallen and is now in a hospital seventy-five miles away. I can’t tell him what this means: that she will most probably not be at home when he is discharged. I can’t begin to think through the consequences of this.

Dad opens his eyes. ‘Hello, Anna love.’ He smiles.

I smile too, take his hands, and start to explain.

Mothering Mother

It is May 16th 2013. The day before we finally cave in and take Mum to A&E. I have spent all day on the phone, trying to get someone out to assess Mum or at least help us to calm her. She is pacing up and down and round and round and talks incessantly about the house falling down and the fridge not working and there being no food to eat and how everything is filthy. Dad has retreated to his study. I have tried to encourage him to get out, to go for a paddle. He hasn’t got the energy.

Suddenly Mum turns on me. ‘I need to wash my hair. It’s disgusting.’

It is a relief to have her talk about something new, even if I immediately recognise the signs of a new obsession.

‘OK, I will wash it for you.’

‘No, you can’t.’

‘Mum, I can and I will. You have burnt your hand with caustic soda. It is bandaged. You are not allowed to get it wet.’

Mum proceeds to whoop and moan and walk in circles, repeating that she needs to wash her hair herself.

Eventually I manage to lead her up to the bathroom and I begin running water into the basin while I talk to her as calmly as I can. I don’t know what I am talking about. It doesn’t matter as long as I can keep her from leaving the room. I need to keep her away from Dad. I can’t allow her to upset him again.

‘I want you to use the red cup,’ Mum says.

‘I know.’

‘The red one. Up there.’

‘I know.’

‘And don’t drip water everywhere.’

‘No. I won’t.’

Mum has an aversion to drips of water on surfaces. She also has an aversion to showers. She has always washed her hair in the basin, using a red plastic cup which we used to take on picnics. I remember the warm orange squash that was poured into it. It always made me gag, but I drank it anyway. It was often more than my life was worth not to.

I finish filling the basin with warm water and fetch a towel to put over Mum’s shoulders. I gently press her down, asking her to bend over the basin, and explain that I am about to pour water over her head.

She becomes meek, doing as I ask, dipping her head down.

I scoop some water into the cup and then empty it over Mum’s hair. Her white roots flatten and the skin of her scalp is revealed. It is so pale, so pink, so pure-looking. Baby-soft.

‘Is that OK?’ I ask.

‘Hmmm.’ Mum almost sounds content.

As I look at Mum’s fragile scalp and listen to the quiet trickle of the water running off her, I think that the last time I did this was for my children, a good five years ago, when they too had an aversion to taking a shower. I would tip them back in the bath, holding their heads with one hand to make sure they didn’t fall back and get water in their eyes. Then I would massage shampoo gently into their soft pink heads. They would smile up at me. It was always a pleasure, washing their hair for them.

I try to stop them, but the tears come, blurring my vision. How have things ended up like this? With me here, an adult in my childhood home, in the bathroom where my mother once washed my hair, tipping me over this very basin in this exact same way, rubbing shampoo vigorously into my hair, inadvertently giving me a head massage.

How have I ended up mothering my own mother?

Everything is Fine

It is Sunday 25th May 2014. Mum and Dad have just gone home after spending a couple of days with us. Mum has been difficult: moody, irritable and attention-seeking. Dad at one point says, ‘She must be getting better because she is getting crosser.’ He tries to laugh. We all do.

I heave a huge sigh of relief as I wave them off. The black cloud which Mum brings with her, both literally and metaphorically (she has always brought the weather with her) clears minutes after Dad’s car turns the corner in our road. At the same time I feel a sinking sadness as yet again it has been a fraught visit and I know I should have taken more deep breaths, tried to ignore Mum, tried to get Dad to come out for a walk on his own . . .

We retreat to the four corners of the house, each seeking refuge in the peace and quiet after the storm that is a visit from Mum. Ever since she has been on the medication she has been even less predictable in her moods. We walk around her on eggshells. Will she explode with anger? Will she be anxious and timid? Will she hyperventilate, shake, talk incessantly on a loop about her latest obsession? Or will she bathe us in one of her beautiful smiles? The latter is such a rare gift that I can feel myself holding my breath on the few occasions that I am lucky to receive it.

Later that evening I see that Mum has left her favourite umbrella behind. I think about posting it the next day, but then worry that a parcel arriving unannounced will not go down well. Also if Mum gets home and finds she has lost the umbrella, that may cause untold problems for Dad. So I phone.

‘Hi, Dad. I hope you had a smooth journey home. Just calling to say Mum left her umbrella–‘

‘Well, she won’t be needing it. She’s in hospital.’


‘We got back, had some supper. She went upstairs, then came down and told me she had taken all her pills. All of them. She didn’t want me to take her to A&E, but I did.’ Dad sounds exhausted. And angry. Very angry.

I don’t know what to say to Dad. I ask if he wants me to drive down. He doesn’t. He doesn’t want to talk either.

Over the days that follow, I feel his anger invade me too. I know I should feel pity – pity for my mother, pity for Dad as well. But instead I feel myself drowning in anger. Mum didn’t mean to kill herself. That is what we will be told over the weeks that follow. She is not a danger to herself or anyone else. She simply needs closer monitoring at home. She would not have managed to kill herself with the pills she took anyway. If she had been serious she would have taken Paracetamol or similar. She does not need to be sectioned. She is fine.

Ah, well, that’s OK then. That’s a huge weight off my shoulders. My mother has taken an overdose, but everything is fine.

Eventually the day will come when Mum is detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. It will take months and months of writing letters and making phone calls and going to psych reviews. My sister and I will vent our anger in front of carers and social workers and GPs and psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses, asking over and over for help, for understanding, for support for Mum and Dad.

But for now, everything is fine.

Martin: the Kingfisher

The night before I am due to go with Dad for his appointment with the oncologist, I am staying with him and Mum in my childhood home. We have spent the evening looking through the Lasting Power of Attorney for Mum, and Dad has shown me where his Will is. It has been horrible. Mum has been extremely panicky and difficult to calm. I have struggled not to cry. Dad has struggled not to lose his temper.

And now I cannot sleep. Usually when I can’t sleep, I read. But I don’t want to read the book I have brought with me. I need something more comforting.

I go out on to the landing where there is a small pine bookcase, rammed with children’s books which have survived – just about – three generations of grievous assaults by sticky fingers, biros, felt tips and even (the shame!) scissors. I run my fingers along the broken spines of the Beatrix Potters. I find the copy of The Hobbit, read so many times that the pages fall out when I turn them. I pull out the Mr Buffins and I leaf through the Orlandos. I remember the times Dad would come home from a long, hot, sweaty commute and sit on the end of my bed, putting on voices; becoming Gollum, Jeremy Fisher, Tabitha Twitchit and the rest.

On the bottom shelf, stuffed in between an illustrated children’s Bible and an atlas, I find a large slim picture book with cardboard covers entitled Martin: the Kingfisher. I don’t remember seeing it before. It is a natural history book by a French writer, Père Castor.

Martin is Dad’s name. His only Christian name. It is also the old name for a kingfisher: St Martin’s bird. It is still known by this name in French, Italian and Spanish. Dad has always had a thing about kingfishers. But then he has always had a thing about the river. Born and raised in Maidenhead, he was perfectly placed to run down to the Thames to look for wildlife, go dipping for small creatures, or – his favourite occupation of all – indulge in some ‘messing about in boats’.

Later in life Dad became a proficient oarsman, rowing for his school and college. When his back started to give him trouble in his forties he swapped his blades for a paddle and took up kayaking. He loved nothing more than ‘going for a paddle’ on the Medway and would take me and my sister out at weekends.

‘There!’ he would shout, as we coasted on the current, letting the river take us round a bend.


‘A kingfisher – you missed it, again!’

We always missed it.

I leaf through the book. It tells the story of the little kingfisher, Martin, who defends his territory on the river with pride. One day Martin meets Martine and they mate for life, as kingfishers do. I read that Martine ‘fidgets about, never very far away from him’ and ‘talks to Martin in a very determined way, without ever stopping to close her beak’. I smile as I think that Dad has chosen just such a mate for himself. I read on: the two birds ‘never leave one another. Never.’

I close the book with tears rolling down my face: the story seems so apt, so revealing of dad’s nature. I don’t know it then, but this book will become even more significant to me as the weeks and months go by. I never spotted a single kingfisher on any of the occasions I was on the water with Dad, but I am to discover that the kingfisher will appear again and again in the weeks and months that follow – he will be in photos, in conversations, even on objects we find when we come to clear the house. And, of course, he will be down by the river, which in itself will become a special place. He will become a talisman for me and my sister. A way for us to hold on to our dear dad, Martin. Martin the kingfisher.


A strange elation settles on us when we leave UCLH. We are like kids let out of school early. We are demob happy.

‘Let’s go out to lunch!’ Dad says, his eyes shining.

He has already devoured a mound of congealed macaroni cheese bought from the hospital canteen, but he looks so excited at the idea of going out. In any case, I realise he most probably has not had a decent meal for months. The food at Stanmore was bland at best; completely inedible at worst. The food at home has not been much better since Mum became obsessed with iceberg lettuce and ham for every meal. And Dad is a foodie, so this has been torture.

‘There’s a Turkish restaurant near here – or there used to be,’ Dad is saying. ‘I think it’s called Tas.’

My sister Googles it and we see it is nearby. Not near enough for Dad to hobble to though, so we hail a cab. We are giggly and giddy as we speed down backstreets, Dad reminiscing about going out for evening drinks, passing landmarks he has known so well from his working life in the City. It is as though we are running away. Playing truant. Cheating on someone.

It is early and it is Tuesday, so we are the only ones in the restaurant. We are welcomed warmly with cries of ‘Merhaba!‘ as we are shown to a table. Dad picks up the menu and is already trying out his Turkish, reading out the names of the various meze, attempting to remember the bits of vocab he has picked up over the years. I have recently been to Istanbul, so we quickly get competitive. This is what we do: talk endlessly about language and food and drink, interspersed with bad jokes we have told and retold so many times we can finish each others’ sentences. My sister rolls her eyes, but she is smiling and laughing along.

It feels like a celebration as we work our way through plate after plate of meatballs and aubergines and yoghurt and cheese and olives and stuffed vine leaves and marinated red peppers. We share a bottle of wine, acknowledging how ‘naughty’ this is for a Tuesday lunchtime. We almost forget what it is that has brought us – Dad and his two daughters – out for a meal. We have never done this. Never gone out, just the three of us. Mum has always been there, taking centre stage, fussing over whether we will be too late or too early, scrutinising what Dad is eating, complaining about what she is eating, draining all the joy and energy from any time we have ever had together as adults. Maybe that is why we feel naughty – because we are cheating on Mum?

We admit ourselves defeated by the food. Dad insists on paying and then he gets up to go to the bathroom. He labours down the stairs, dragging his useless leg behind him, refusing all offers of help. The laughter and smiles fade as we watch him go.

The next time the three of us will be together will be the day Dad dies.

But we don’t know that on May 12th 2015. All we know is that we have had a lovely lunch, laughing until our sides hurt, eating until our bellies ache, drinking in the middle of the day, celebrating life in the face of death.

For a few hours, we have escaped the inescapable. We haven’t been cheating on Mum. We have been cheating on death.


It is Not My Death

It is 12th May 2015. Dad has an appointment at the Macmillan unit at UCLH with his oncologist. My sister and I say we will go with him. We have left him to go to too many appointments on his own. We cannot let him this time.

This appointment is different from all the others. Today we will not be discussing treatment. We will be discussing amputation.

The orthopaedic surgeon who removed Dad’s tumour has observed how Dad’s leg is refusing to heal. He has advised that Dad would be ‘more comfortable’ if his leg were amputated. This is not something we have seen coming. It is also more than our mentally ill mother can bear. If she could not handle Dad having an open wound in his leg which needed dressing, debriding and vacuum-pumping, she cannot abide the thought of him being, as she sees it, mutilated.

For once, I can see Mum’s point of view.

My sister and I know we will have to navigate the appointment carefully. We have so many questions we want to ask, but it is Dad’s appointment. We have to keep reminding ourselves of this fact when Dad seems, at first, only to accept what he is told, when he stays quiet, when he simply ‘hmmm’s and nods.

At no point does the oncologist explicitly say ‘there is no more we can do’. She offers more painkillers and a further course of chemo, or ‘mouse pills’ as Dad calls them. She is reluctant to endorse the view that amputation is the best way forward.

‘You say you don’t think I should take Professor Briggs’s advice,’ Dad says, his jaw tight, ‘but you’re not giving me much of an alternative. I don’t want to go back home and sit around, waiting to rot.’

The oncologist shifts uncomfortably in front of her computer as she explains again the pros and cons. It is clear she is struggling to find the right words. She talks about this being a very ‘unusual situation’. She says she is ‘alarmed’ at how ‘aggressive’ the cancer is and that ‘it is spreading fast’.

‘The amputation may well solve nothing,’ she says. ‘The top of the leg has already been compromised, the cancer has spread so far. The surgeon would have to perform a disarticulation through the hip and possibly cut into the pelvis as well . . .’

I stop listening as unwanted images crowd my mind.

Instead I watch Dad closely. He is not reacting well to the oncologist. Even as he listens to her outlining ‘the options’, I can see he has already decided to ignore her opinion. He has been dismissive about the mouse pills for a while now. I can’t blame him. They haven’t worked. But still: amputation?

‘Are you sure you have thought about this, Dad?’ I ask. ‘You’ll be in hospital again. You have only just been discharged. You’ll have a long recovery from a major operation. Are you certain you want to go through with this?’

I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from screaming the subtext to all this which is, of course: You have less than three months to live! I don’t want you to do this!

But it is not up to me. It is not my leg. It is not my life. And it will not be my death.