Sunday, March 18, 2012

A blog for mother's day

First an apology. I think this is the longest I've ever gone without blogging. Partly because I have been caught up trying to finish my latest wip, This Christmas (a follow up to Last Christmas if you're interested), which I delivered hideously late at the start of last week, and also partly because I've found writing intensely difficult over the last few months. I really wanted to write a piece celebrating my mother in law's life, but I've found it impossible to get my thoughts together in any kind of coherent manner. For someone who always wants to write down every single experience I have, it's been a weird feeling, but in the early days after Rosemarie's death I was so wrung out and exhausted, the effort of writing was completely beyond me. However, Spring is sprung, I've finally hit my deadline, and today seems a good day to marshall my thoughts together.

So here goes...

Rosemarie was quite unlike anyone I have ever met. She was without doubt one of the kindest, most considerate people I have known in my life, but with a steely determination which meant that she could be quietly manipulative at times about getting her own way. When I first met her, I found this aspect of her personality somewhat overwhelming. Whereas my parents were relatively laid back about what we were up to at any given time (frankly with eight children I think that was the only sane choice), my parents in law seemed to want to know every intimate detail of our lives in a way I found hideously intrusive. It's a question of style and what you're used to (I know my other half finds my family equally baffling at times), but the one thing that was always clear was from the moment we got engaged, Rosemarie welcomed me into her family and treated me like the daughter she'd never had. Sometimes this could have unintentionally hilarious consequences: for the first few Christmases of my married life I was indundated with clothes which I'd politely accept and hide away in the cupboard. (I still have a set of lacy knickers which I can't quite bring myself to wear, nor to throw away). My mother in law had many virtues but a high sense of fashion wasn't among them. She always bought quality, but her idea of what would suit a young woman of 24 and mine were shall we say, at variance. On our first trip to Germany, her sister Gisi who lives in a home out there, was clearing away a load of clothes, which we duly took back home. I and my then sister in law spent a wretched afternoon politely refusing item of clothing after item of clothing as being not quite what we'd wear (though Gisi, it has to be said was stylish in her time, but the clothes we were choosing were already about 30 years out of date). "Oh what a shame!" Rosemarie said after each item of clothing had been dismissed, "And it's such good quality!"

Such good quality... was something of a catchphrase. When we cleared out her flat just after Christmas, we found clothes she clearly hadn't worn since the 70s, but the quality was exceptionally good. Having understood her a bit better by then, I now realise that growing up as she did on a farming estate, where her clothes were made for her by the local dressmaker, and a girl would still store up good quality tableclothes and linen for her trousseau, Rosemarie must have been in a permanent state of bafflement of as to why such things aren't valued now. Sadly most of what we found that was left from those days is no use to anyone today, although we couldn't bear to throw out some linen napkins with her intials embroidered onto them; a link to a far off, nearly forgotten time, when things were made to last.

Over the early years of my marriage, I often felt frustration mixed with affection for Rosemarie. She always tried too hard it seemed to me; she was always affectionate, but for a buttoned up Brit, a little too touchy feely. There were times when I felt she thought I could be looking after her precious son more often. And moments of high tension, like the time she decided to wash our bedclothes when we were away on holiday. Anyone else would have known that was a no no, but Rosemarie was genuinely trying to help, and would have been hurt to know how intrusive I found it. So of course, I couldn't tell her. I often wished she would just step back a little so we could get on better.

Once the children came along that tension increased. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, that her sons never had a dirty nappy. By dint of holding them over a potty when they'd been fed, these perfect babies made her life spectacularly easy. It is hard to accept that you're not being subliminally criticised, when you get told this constantly. Except, I'm not sure that she was. Her memory was no doubt slightly skewed and she had rose tinted coloured memories of her sons' infanthoods, but I also think now she was genuinely trying to help. Me being a new, slightly over sensitive mother took exception to this. Probably rightly. No one likes being told how to do it by their mother in law, especially when you know she means so well. I'm sure at times Rosemarie was as baffled by me, as I was by her, but even so there was affection on both sides, as much as bewilderment about the stance the other had taken. And of course, a shared love for her son, which makes for a bond in itself.

Our relationship changed forever in February 1997. Up until this point, my inlaws had been living in the family home in Wallington. Rosemarie had cared for her own mother in law till her death in 1991, and had by then been suffering from the benign essential tremor which blighted her later years, for a decade or more. She had given up driving, and relied on Roger to do all the shopping, being unable to make the walk into Wallington on her own. In their mid seventies, we always imagined that Roger would have to care for her. But then, Roger had a massive stroke, and was rushed to St Helier hospital, where we were all summoned to what we thought at the time was going to be his death bed. As it happened, despite being given a very poor chance of survival, Roger proved made of sterner stuff, and after two weeks in a coma came round, and slowly fought his way back to reasonable (if never again good) health. Poor Rosemarie was all at sea. For starters, as was the way in marriages for her generation, Roger did all the paperwork, and she had no idea how to run the finances. And then, there was the day to day management of the house, which was now to big and impractical for two old people of increasing infirmity. It became clear that they were going to have to sell the house, which is how we found ourselves several months later having both of them to stay while the flat we had found for them up the road was being decorated.

Rosemarie cared for Roger for the next six years. Being Rosemarie she did it with a cheerfulness and determination, which belied the difficulties involved. Roger could have had carers four times a day, but she wouldn't have that, so she would still help him get up in the morning, never went to bed till he was settled for the evening (dearly as I loved Fil, he could be terribly selfish, and was never comfortable in bed, so slept in a chair all night. Part of Rosemarie's daily routine involved putting his feet up for the night - before which point she couldn't sleep). I really don't know how she did it without killing him, quite frankly. The demands of caring for him, when her own condition was worsening would have sent anyone else demented, and yet the only time I ever saw her lose it was just before the end, when we managed to get her some respite care. The night before he died, remarkably she managed to get him to and from the loo on her own, not once, but several times. Spouse and I could never work out how she did it, but somehow she did.

At the time of Fil's death, our children were still very young, and I am sure they were the main thing that kept Rosemarie going during that difficult period. It was the only time I ever saw her downhearted. I saw her cry often; she was an emotional person, who cried when anything upset her, but always had the ability to snap herself out of it. But after Fil died, she sat at our dining room table weeping, unable to see a cheerful future for herself. Our wise GP prescribed antidepressants, which saw her through until a point when her innate happiness returned.

Because, at heart, Rosemarie was a very happy person. She took pleasure in the simple things in life: playing ball with her grandchildren - even if she couldn't run round the garden with them, but would have to play catch from a sitting position; being thrilled with their achievements large and small; struggling for years to come to their shows, their Christmas fairs, and carol concerts - and even when she could attend no longer, loving to see the programmes of the shows they'd been in; and being thrilled to become a great granny aged 81.

Rosemarie was widowed at 78, and already used a pusher to walk with. Plus she was living several miles away from all her friends. Unlike my mother who was widowed much younger, and was therefore fit enough to make a single life for herself, Rosemarie's options as a widow were much more limited. And yet, being her, she as ever made the best of it.

For years she would go into town in a taxi, getting out at the Nat West where the staff all knew her, drawing her money out, then tottering around our local shopping centre with her walker (which she referred to as her steel horse), before returning to the bank, where the bank staff who all loved her (like anyone who had anything to do with her - all the carers, the nurses and doctors fell in love with Rosemarie), would order a taxi to take her home.

She used to take herself off into the park, making sure she got her daily walk in, to keep herself fit. Even though it took her an age to get in and out of her flat (which had an inconvenient step, which wasn't easy to negotiate with a walker), she would make herself go out. As time went on and she became more infirm, this became harder for her to manage, and for the last two years, she was obliged to stay inside, unless we were able to take her out ourselves. For someone as at home with nature as she was, this must have been a huge trial. And yet again, she never complained. But relished the opportunities to spend sunny afternoons in our garden, when we'd come and pick her up in her wheelchair, and take her down the road. Again, Rosemarie took pleasure in the little things, like watching her son plant potatoes, or her granddaughter aloft on the roof of the shed Spouse built a couple of years ago, or being given the guinea pig to hold by no 4. (I think she was nearly as distraught as the children were when we had to have the rabbit put down last year.)

And so Rosemarie's life continued, becoming incremently more and more difficult. Where she had managed completely alone, three years ago it became clear she couldn't cope without help, so to begin with she had a carer once a day. Cooking was becoming a liability, so I used to cook double quantities of everything and furnish her with pies and stews, which she was still able to heat up herself. Then that September, she had a fall. Ironically, the only time she ever pushed her community alarm the damned thing didn't work, and to our horror, she spent the whole night on the floor. When she was found the next day by the carer, the ambulance men had to break in and turn her oven off. "Do you know, Jules," she said to me when we were sitting in casualty, "it must have been misty last night, as there was a fog in the hall." She still hadn't realised her quiche had nearly burnt the flat down.

We thought then, that we were going to lose her. She spent the best part of four months in and out of hospital, at one time, so confused we wondered if she'd ever become coherent again. But remarkably, she pulled herself together, and got home where she now had carers four times a day, and meals on wheels delivered daily. For the next year, before she was diagnosed with leukaemia last May, she and we had a special and blessed time, when we could enjoy each other's company and be grateful she was still with us.

I've talked alot about how things were when I first knew Rosemarie. But the last few years of her life obliterated any tension an irritation that may have been between us. I looked after her a great deal. Filling in when carers weren't able to get in, or were late turning up in the mornings, taking her to all her appointments, writing all her Christmas cards for her (an annual ritual which involved me consuming ALOT of red wine), sitting in the last year watching ITV3 with her in the afternoons; holding her hand in reassurance during yet another hospital visit. I'm sorry she had to suffer with all the indignities of old age, and the pain she had to endure, but I'm not sorry we became close because of it. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to be so close to her at the end, and to have helped, her I hope, in some small part cope with her suffering.

Rosemarie taught me what it was to love and be loved; to hope when hope seems fruitless, to keep going when there seems little point. She was the kindest of people, the happiest of people. I was so lucky she was my second Mum. My life was the richer for having her in it, and so much the poorer now.

RIP Mil, I'll never forget youxxx