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?

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