Looking after Mum

When I was young, my Mum was always there. She worked hard, looking after the house, cooking and cleaning, and doing all the washing and ironing. In addition to this, she also had a full-time job, and looked in on her own parents, as well as her sisters and brother. She rarely told me off, always seemed pleased to see me, and gave me constant encouragement in my school work, reading, and the development of my imagination. If I was ill, she tended me, sitting up all night by my bed if need be. She worried constantly about my eating, to the extent of overfeeding me, and making sure I always had sweets, and any other treats I desired. Though not a spoilt child, I was certainly a well-nurtured one.

As I got older, she continued in kind. When I was on school holidays, she arranged for her mother to look after me. Once I was old enough to assume some personal responsibility, I was given a key, and a comprehensive list of instructions. How to use the cooker, the way to make up the coal fire, and not to let strangers into the house. I would spend my time reading, amusing myself with my large collection of toys, or perhaps playing outside with friends, and occasionally visiting cousins, as they all lived nearby. She took me shopping with her on Saturdays. We would go to Deptford High Street, then a bustling market, with fine shops alongside; or perhaps further afield, to Lewisham, where there was a  department store, and lots more shops to look at. I would always get a small gift; a plastic soldier to add to my collection, an animal for my toy farm, or some new coloured pencils. On our return, we would usually stop off at my Nan’s grocery shop, to collect sliced meats, cheese, and other small items.

I didn’t mind going, as Mum treated me well during our outings, and appeared pleased to have my company. Sometimes, when the school holidays came round again, she would be allowed to take me to work with her. I loved my trips into The City. The office she worked in was the headquarters of a Jute importer, and her colleagues were always very kind to me. I was allowed to use a typewriter, and I would help out by getting stationery from the stores, and filling staplers, or using the mimeograph machine. (An early type of duplicator, the forerunner of the photocopier)

During my teenage years, she endured my disapproval over our move to Kent, and my frequent absences, as I stayed with friends or family in London, to show my annoyance at this uprooting. She saved hard, and paid for all my driving lessons, convinced that my life would be happier once I could drive, and then come and go as I pleased, free from the constraints of public transport. She was right about that of course, but then she was often right about a lot of things.

She managed to hide her great disappointment, when I left school earlier than planned, comforting herself with the fact that I had done well in my exams, and that I had a good job to go to. She even came with me for my interview, accompanying me on the buses and tube, to make sure I didn’t get lost, and arrived on time. I was outwardly embarrassed, but secretly pleased, as the tube network was unfamiliar to me, and she was very experienced in travelling around London.

Once I had a car to use, she would occasionally slip me some extra money, so that I would always have ‘enough petrol to get home’, was her way of justifying it. During the years that I did not get on with my father, often resulting in acrimonious disputes, she would usually take my side, on the grounds that their problems should not be blamed on me.

When my parents split up in 1975, she was sure that we would stay together, even though I was 23 years old. I had lived away from home for a short while, some years earlier, but had returned when my friends had moved out of our shared house, and also because my father’s frequent absences made Mum lonely, and I knew that she liked me to be around. When she received her share of the money, and announced her intention to buy a business, an off-licence in Clapham, she assumed, without asking me, that I would go with her, and help to run the shop, which we also lived in, in two flats above.

For the first time in my life, I began to realise that this looking-after thing went both ways. It still did not occur to me that I would ever actually have to look after her though. She was 51 years old, fit and well; she had a good mind for figures, and a desire to work hard, so I doubted that I would have to do much more than to be a shop assistant.

For the next two years, I did my best to be a good son, and carry some weight in the business. But I was approaching the age of 25, and I wanted to marry, move into my own flat, and start my life properly, away from the ties of home. I got another job, married, and moved out, agreeing to help out in the shop some evenings, and most weekends, with a part-time assistant employed to cover other times. Despite my new found independence, Mum still looked after me. My car was run ‘through the business’, greatly reducing costs. When we hit any financial problems, however small, Mum would contribute some money to help out. She would also buy us gifts, usually unwanted, and often inappropriate. Our taste was younger, and at the time, more fashionable; but her intentions were always good, and her heart was true.

Years later, when I split with my wife, Mum was there, giving me consolation and good advice; taking my side, yet cautioning me on my own shortcomings, and urging me not to repeat mistakes. By the time I married for the second time, she was 65 years old. She had given up being a shopkeeper long before, but still worked every day; cleaning, ironing, and looking after children, for various people in South London. In her way, she was still looking after me, buying me a new washing machine as a wedding present, and inviting us to Sunday lunch, whenever I was not at work.

She never asked me for anything, outside of an occasional lift to the PDSA at New Cross, when she had to take one of her dogs or cats there. Seven years later, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and she had to go into hospital for treatment. She asked me to take care of her dog. That was all, nothing else, nothing for herself. During her stay in hospital, she experienced breathing difficulties, the start of a long period of suffering with such ailments. I started to see a time when she might need me to look after her, but it was not to be then, as she still had a lot of fight left.

Once recovered from her treatment, she continued to work, just reducing her hours, and keeping to less physically demanding jobs. I split up with my second wife in 1997, and by this time, Mum was 73 years old. She was less active now, and her breathing difficulties were beginning to get worse. I had moved right across London, and was living in Borehamwood, in Hertfordshire, a considerable distance from her home in Peckham. Still working shifts in the Ambulance Service, I found it increasingly difficult to get over to see her very often.

She was becoming crankier, less patient, and considerably more outspoken about everything. She was also having to be admitted to hospital more often, eventually having to give up keeping her pets, as she could no longer manage the walks, or the responsibility of caring for them. She became reclusive, rarely going out, save a weekly trip into Peckham, to collect her pension, and get some shopping. Her world was changing. The shops no longer sold the things she liked; they were now selling yams, cassava, and dried fish, catering to the increasing African population of the area. The local friends she had known for years were dead, dying, or moving into care homes. Her new neighbours were strangers to her, and many were originally from Africa, or the West Indies.

I met Julie in 2000, and by the time she met my Mum, it was at the side of her hospital bed, when she was once again admitted unable to breathe properly, and not expected to survive. Mum was now almost 77, and very different from the woman I had known previously. She had become somewhat intolerant, often racist, and relentlessly bitter about the hand that fate had dealt her. Her softness had gone, replaced with hard opinions, stubbornness, and intransigence. If I arrived late for lunch, held up at work, or delayed by traffic, she would brook no excuses, and be in a foul temper, telling me not to bother to come again. She did like Julie at least, which was a blessing. She also continued to be immersed in her family, and her few close friends that remained. Then she fell in the street, and broke her hip.

After the operation on her hip, things changed for us completely. She could no longer cope at all. We lived in a tiny flat, so she could not live with us, though she did not want to anyway. She had to have carers at home, call upon neighbours to help, and depend completely on outside assistance from me, and some of my family for the first time in her life. I had to go over and cook meals, get her shopping, take her washing, and liaise with others to sort her out when I was working. We had to secure additional benefits for her, and to a large extent, restructure our lives around her needs. At the age of 55, I was finally looking after Mum.

She wouldn’t really let me though. Her obstinacy became hard to bear, as she declined physio to recover from her surgery, sacked carers out of hand, and would do no more than to sit in a chair, watching TV for twenty hours a day. Her mobility suffered, her breathing suffered, and her mood declined into a state where she was little more than moribund.

We were all dragged down with her. She refused to concede that her hearing was impaired, so she watched TV with the volume on full, at number thirty, much to the annoyance of her neighbours. It made conversation impossible, and any suggestion that it was too loud, would bring on a black mood, and no further response from her. Similarly with her personal cleanliness. If anyone suggested that she did not bathe, or change her clothes frequently enough, she would argue and shout, eventually asking you to leave.

She lost all track of time, and would telephone people at 5am, insisting it was 5pm. As her health deteriorated, so did that of those looking after her. I was working shifts, going over to Peckham twice a week, often after a long day. I would then go and get her shopping, sort out her washing, cook some meals to be left in the fridge, and get home late, having not eaten, or seen my wife. I became run down, worn out by it all, and could see no light in the future for her, or for any of us involved in her care. She refused to discuss moving, even to a ground floor flat, let alone into some form of care. Her constant admissions to hospital, meant visiting the ward daily, or getting a friend or relative to go, when it was impossible, due to work.

The Mum I had loved, and who had cared for me so lovingly, and for so long, was someone I no longer felt the same connection with. And although I still loved her, I found it hard to actually like her. The last two years of her life were two of the worst years of my life as well. Confusion, brought on by what we later discovered, was a series of small, undiagnosed strokes, started to overwhelm all our lives. She would telephone constantly, telling of pets, long dead, that had ‘returned’ to her flat. She would spend evenings with her mother and sister, both also long departed, or imagine that she was abandoned in a cave, left cold and alone, a metaphor for her inner despair.

I would go over to get her shopping and do her cooking, and she would tell others that she had not seen me for weeks. She refused to wash, or to care for herself at all, by not taking any medication. We finally resorted to hiring a carer, someone who she trusted, to come in every day, to wash her, and make sure she had eaten. She rang the GP, and the emergency ambulance, on a regular basis, and we had to constantly rush over to the A&E, expecting the worst. On arrival, she would usually exclaim, ‘you took your time’.

As this continued, I despaired of ever being free of this commitment, which was making me ill, and stopping my life making any progress. I was wrong of course, I see that now. I should have just done it all, with a happy heart. Nothing should have been too much trouble, for the mother that gave me life, then made sure that I enjoyed it, for as long as she could. The few years of help that she required was nothing, compared to a life devoted to my welfare and well-being. She never once let me down, and she was always there for me, whatever she may have thought about my mistakes, or bad choices, She was never critical of my efforts, and beamed with pride at any of my achievements, however small.

She was a perfect Mum. When I was finally called upon to return the favour, and when she needed me most, late in life, confused and infirm, I should have done more.

I will never get the chance to go back, and to do it properly. And I will always regret that.

57 thoughts on “Looking after Mum

  1. We all get ‘compassion fatigue’, so don’t beat yourself up, Pete. I had to look after my mum for 40 years, as Dad died very young. The last 5 years were the worst. Their personalities change with depression at the loss of their mobility and independence. By caring for our mothers we know what we’ve got coming!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m an only child as well, so it’s hard because we onlies have to shoulder all the burden of care. Mum depended on me for all her shopping, entertainment and personal care. She wouldn’t let the carers do anything except cut up her broccoli! Sometimes Sam and I used to go out on a Sunday and tell her we were going to see his mother. In that way I knew she wouldn’t want to come with us. Sometimes you need a day away from it. Mum then let the carers look after her, as she knew I wouldn’t be going there that day. I’d suffer for it the next day though, when I’d be greeted with ‘Hello stranger!” It’s only by going through this experience that you learn how not to treat your own kids…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That sounds familiar. As I worked shifts, I had to deal with the issue of not being able to visit when I was on night duty, or working weekends. I have two female cousins who were an invaluable help to me on those occasions, as well as one of Mum’s neighbours, who checked on her whenever I couldn’t get over to see her.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a lovely tribute. Old age is so brutal. My Ouma became obstinate in much the same way your mum did… refusing physio, refusing to eat, wash, take meds etc. She lived with my mum and aunt in the hotel where they work for my cousins and drove them nuts. With little appreciation for her care. And this without the close connection you had with your mum. She was quite a cruel woman based on my mum’s stories… although she was sweet to us as a grandmother.

    I am not sure what will happen with my parents. Both my brother and I live abroad. My dad and his partner live in a retirement community and have provided for their own care within this for the rest of their lives. My mum will probably end up being cared for by my cousins, probably with financial help from me. I guess we will see.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Friend. I understand. I had my grandmother and an aunt live with me. When they passed, I could only think of what more I should have done. They both helped me grow up and I could never have repaid that-Your post moved me to tears. What a beautiful heart you have.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We are right in the middle of this crisis now. Two people aged 90 need us. We got to the same stage as you and finally had to admit we were not keeping up the standards of care needed. Very reluctantly and with a heavy heart we placed them in a wonderful 5 star care home. We had no idea how much it would cost at first. Fees are £2,500 a week. We have had to sell their family home where they hoped to live out their days. But they are being really well cared for, and we have managed to keep a roof over our heads and keep our business going. We now ensure we visit every few days to chat to them and sort out any little problems such as lost glasses, hearing aids, clothing, hospital appointments, prescriptions, which are seriously never ending. Thanks for sharing your post. You are not a mother, so you won’t know this, but I can assure you that whatever happens, you always love your children. And you forgive them everything – because that is what mothers do. I promise your mother was the same. You did your very best, and more than some would do. In these sad circumstances we have found that enough is never enough. We cannot make them well and young again. It’s a constant battle to just keep them safe. We talk for the first half hour of every morning about our relatives, and they are what we discuss for the last half hour of the day. It is unrelenting. Sending best wishes to you. your mum would have wanted you to have peace of mind – and not to have any sad thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Karen. Since writing this in 2013, I have come to terms with what I was able to do. We didn’t have the money for a proper care home, and my mum would have refused it anyway. But we did have enough to pay for a lovely lady who attended to her twice a day, every day.
      Glad to hear that you are managing to relax a little, now your dependents are being suitably looked after.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We went through similar with the OH’s mother who died before Christmas. Although we did our best (even moving to live nearer in 2011) nothing ever seemed to be good enough. It is hard. And it does take it out on those trying to provide care. She was very antagonistic towards me at times and made up horrible stories that she told to anyone who visited her. My way of coping was to take a back seat and manage affairs from afar, the OH still visited though and I know it took a huge toll on his life. I don’t think you can or should have regrets Pete, you did the best you could.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think OH felt guilty after his mother died because he also felt he should have got her into a home, but she kept refusing and you feel you can’t force someone, even when you can see how much they are deteriorating. He also felt relief that it was all over which is normal as she had been a huge worry since 2010, but made him feel guilty too. I really hope I’m not a burden on my kids!

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        1. When we suggested residential care, my mum became hysterical, and told me not to come back if I ever mentioned it again. Many people seem to be settled into the idea of spending their final days in their own home.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Same here! We did find a lovely place not far from where she lived, but she died before she went in for respite care. Sometimes I wonder if she deliberately starved herself over the last six months as she barely ate anything other than toast and marmalade.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Pete,

    I lost my mother when I was 20 so I never saw her as an old woman. But I did see her as a mother dying from cancer. We just went through a similar situation with David’s mom and it was not easy. She also had unkind words for him toward the end and it has stayed with him. I think we forget when our moms were caring for us as children and young adults, they were at the height of their physical and mental abilities. When we care for them in their decline, we are often aging ourselves which plays into the difficulty.

    Just as I try not to remember the times of our parents death as a testament to their life, I also try to remember this time is never a testament to the life long relationship we had.

    Beautiful tribute, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on beetleypete and commented:

    After the post remembering my Mum’s birthday this week, I was interested to see something similar on the blog of American writer, Pete Springer. That reminded me of this post from 2013, which few of you have seen before. Anyone who has ever cared for an elderly relative might be able to identify with this.


  8. So sorry that you had to endure this period in your mom’s life, Pete. It is so hard to see our loved ones decline physically and mentally. One of the hardest things for me was to watch this vibrant soul who loved to socialize and walk daily be reduced to someone who slept most of the day. Unlike your situation, my mom remained pleasant, even as her dementia began to take hold. I hope with time that you’ve allowed yourself to escape the guilt that anyone in your situation would experience., I think you are wise to remember all of the good things about your mom in her younger and more vibrant years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pete. Since I wrote this, I have ‘forgiven myself’. 99% of my memories of my Mum are good ones, and this was just recounting a dreadful time close to the end. For her, me, and all our family.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m glad that you’ve forgiven yourself. We are all imperfect in individual ways. It pleases me that so many of your memories are happy ones. Your mom did one thing particularly well—she raised a fine son.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. My dear friend Pete,

    I wish I could give you a big bear hug right now. It is natural to feel haunted by the things we could have done, or could have said, in hindsight. But the truth is that we do our best with the resources (both mental and physical) available to us at the time, and that has got to be enough. If your dear mother suffered a series of minor strokes towards the end, then this explains her attitude and temperament, both towards herself and her treatment of you, and others. There really isn’t much more you could have done; it is very clear that you sacrificed your wellbeing to do what you had to do during those last couple of years. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, CELEBRATE the loving and wonderful relationship you had with your mum all those years. This is a gift that will afford you with many tender memories over the years. You had a strong mother who loved and supported you in everything you did; not all of us can say that, Pete. You are one of the lucky ones. And by the sound of things, so was she.

    Big hugs,
    A xx


    1. Thanks very much for your thoughts and kind sentiments A. It was more a recollection than a self-rebuke, and it just so happened that it was on my mind a lot that day. Best regards to you as always, Pete. X


  10. To my darling husband, you were a wonderful son to your mum, yes the last few years were hard but you never turned your back or gave up on her. I know how your last conversation with her plays on your mind but she didnt realise that argument happened, she was too confused. Yes she said some hurtful things but again, she was unaware, it was the strokes.
    I had many conversations with your mum whilst you were at work and she may not of said certain things to your face but she ALWAYS spoke of you with a great deal of love and pride, and on more than one occasion said she could not of wished for a better son. So please stop beating yourself up, we couldnt of done anymore than we did.
    She is at peace now, away from all the pain and confusion. May she rest in peace.

    Julie xxxxxx


  11. Pete: Don’t beat yourself up about what you didn’t do, you did plenty believe me and certainly a lot more than many others. Mums are mums, they are special, not like dads at all; what Vi did for you is a natural thing, mums can’t help it. There are mums who have been horribly mistreated by their sons or daughters most of their lives but, they will still love them whatever they’ve done in the past or will do in the future. BPC


    1. I think it is because our last conversation was an argument Brian. After all those years, I didn’t seem to be able to do the right thing at the end. I know what you are saying, it just plays on my mind at times.


  12. Dear Pete, sometimes what you do is enough even though is seems not to be. We cannot compensate people (our mothers, mine was the same) for their loss of valued control over their lives.
    Love and all the best, Ro xx


  13. You write about your experience honestly and beautifully. I almost don’t know what to comment since my own experience is so fresh in my mind (I was 26 and mum was 60 when she died 5 years and 1 day ago — yesterday was an anniversary of sorts… and I have been writing about the same topic). I don’t think we are ever ready when it’s our turn to take care of our parents. Thank you for sharing.


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