This is a picture of schoolgirls about to begin a race. The event is a school sports day. The year? About 1936. Can you remember what you felt like, as a child, to be in such a line-up? These girls’ faces reflect several different attitudes to the race. Bizarrely each child has a bucket at her feet, for what purpose I have no idea. But two or three are so keen for the race to begin that they stand poised, each with one foot forward, eyes on the starter. One is hesitant, her finger on her lips, whilst another taller girl looks slightly puzzled. There is one child for whom the race is hardly happening at all. More interested in the bucket, number 10 stands with her feet neatly together, apparently unaware that the start is imminent. She is the girl who won the race, and that girl became my mother.
I am always keen to explore the idea that nothing in life ever turns out the way you expect it to. ‘It’s character-forming’, my mother would tell me at the end of a school day when everything had gone wrong. There are those who plan everything, even down to the number of children they will have, and for whom life never appears to be as harsh – until they are dealt a body blow by a whimsy of fate. For others it is enough to muddle along, attempting to ride the storm.
In the latter part of (to me) a rather sad life, my mother has become withdrawn and lives a reclusive life in which she is often angry. She is very crippled and pain plays a huge part in her grumpy attitude. You can see from her whole stance in the photograph that she was never one to be dictated to. Her home and family mean everything to her, and woe betide anyone who suggests anything which might change the status quo.
So a life-threatening bout of a severe flu virus which resulted in her being driven away from her beloved home in an ambulance seemed like the end of her world. And, for those of us close to her, the end of ours too! I count myself fortunate to have known my mother for such a long time, when others lose theirs at a much younger age. Yet however prepared you are for the death of a parent, the reality of it is most certainly one of those body blows from which you do not recover, exactly, but learn to adapt. We were all convinced that her time was up, but we had to consider all options. We held many and various discussions about how things would have to change should she survive, what should and what must happen, and how on earth would we achieve those changes.
She has surprised us yet again. After a roller-coaster ride in the hospital, where the nursing staff all deserve individual medals for putting up with such a difficult patient, she finally stopped fighting them and allowed herself to be – not cured, exactly, but made better. And now, suddenly, she is back at home again, while we are all recovering – totally exhausted from two weeks of long, difficult travelling to visit, to comfort and to reassure her that we would not leave her in hospital or forget her.
And so we gradually return to normal. Or do we? Should we allow things to go back to how they were, or should we try to make those changes of which we spoke in hurried, whispered, worried tones? She has no idea how devastated some of us were, or how difficult our journey through this has been. How can we possibly disturb her frailty at this stage? Of course we can’t. We’ll do it all again, I have no doubt. It is enough that for now she is still here, and we love her!