It is six years since my husband Simon and I upped sticks to rural south-west France. I always knew I would be returning to the UK reasonably often to help care for my ageing mother and my first trip back was four weeks after we moved.
Thus began a relationship with airports I never expected, with more than 100 flights between Bergerac and Stansted. Like growing numbers of younger expats, we return on a very regular basis.
There’s no doubt my mother is a lucky lady. Born in London suburb Hillingdon in 1917, she married my father during the Second World War and they moved to an Essex farmhouse. My two sisters were born 11 and eight years before me so I spent most of my early childhood running wild with my best friend nextdoor, soaking up her colourful Bohemian family life.
My mother knows she’s lucky but it’s still not easy. She wants to remain in her home until carried out in a box. Her GP calls her Lazarus.
She is in pretty good health, apart from being 101. Almost clapped out, she agrees.
One sister is retired and lives across the road from her, the other is retired and lives next door. Yes, no need to ask. I feel guilty.
Arguments start, tempers fray, relationships strain; ingrained behaviour forces itself through all our relationships. On a bad day it’s hard.
So my commuting has become a way of life for us all. When I expected to be slowing down, I am working harder than ever, with regular Ryanair trips to give my sisters a break, plus fitting in a full-time job.
My sisters bear the brunt of this daily.
It’s very stressful, the relentless knowledge their days are dictated by caring for our mother for an unquantifiable number of weeks, months or, dare I say it, years.
As bickering sisters, we are not pretty. It’s hard for us all, and so much better when we can all pull together.
Perhaps, though, it’s hardest for my mother, who experiences frustrations, but cannot now always communicate them.
Stepping into her house, my hectic life goes into slow motion. Toilet visits need assistance and take 10 minutes at least. Meals, enjoyed one day, can be devil’s food the next.
Every day is spent either in bed or sitting in an armchair in front of tennis on the TV, depending on how she feels, which is mostly exhausted and sad.
Mummy has become thinner between my visits. It’s not something my sisters would notice as readily, as they see her more often.
Changes in her behaviour become more frequent and more exaggerated, switching one minute to the next. Tears happen daily, like the often childlike manifestations.
However, she’s not a child. She’s a fully grown woman and as her mind comes and goes, so does her physical ability. Some days, for some moments, she is able to walk a few steps with her two sticks.
On a bad day, everything has to be done for her. And I mean everything. Often now, it’s 24-hour care, seven days a week.
Today, during a new worrying spell, she was trying to recite the 12 times table while pulling at her sleeve for over an hour. There’s the head nodding, too, which goes on for hours. The Bitch Daughter From Hell in me just wants to scream “Don’t do the head thing!”, but of course I don’t and I won’t.
Bowel movements assume monumental importance, as does denture fixative.
Her frustration is immense; as is ours. Seeing gnarled, arthritic hands struggling with fiddly hearing aids and batteries, I want to step in and help. Sometimes I do, but others, I feel I am eroding her failing independence even more.
No doubt, she’s a tough old bird. There are urine and chest infections aplenty. It was on my visit prior to her 100th birthday celebrations when one of those reared its head. Amazingly, as her fever peaked, the frail and feeble centenarian found strength to start running round her bedroom like a five-year-old. A 100-year-old child.
Her eloquent lucidity confirms her as an adult. Just today she was telling me of happy times when she was the only female civilian working at Bomber Command in Uxbridge. Times when everyone was kind to each other, as you never knew if it would be your or your colleague’s or neighbour’s last day.
Yesteryear so vivid; yesterday a mystery.
Her wish to get stronger increases with her inability to do so. We know it’s not going to end well but how much more does she have to go through?
It’s the hardest thing in the world hearing her begging to be released from her life. Knowing you want it, too, floods guilt through every blood vessel.
We hang on to the rarer and more precious times when she is the mother I recognise. Yet, despite her deepest wishes, life is hanging on to her.
Perhaps packing her off into a care home would have seen her off years ago, but that’s not what she wanted.
Perhaps lesser care would have seen her off earlier, but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had done that. I do it because I love her without question and totally unconditionally.
The stress and strain is enormous but I would do nothing else.
One day the telephone call will come, or I will walk into her bedroom and find she has started The Big Sleep. Mummy will have breathed her last.
Will I miss the ear-splitting TV volume? Not a bit.
Will I feel guilty that I wanted to be doing something else on those days she needed me? Doubtless, but I hope I remember I was there when I could be.
Will I yearn for just one more touch of her wrinkled hands? You bet.
Will I cope? I presume I will have to.
Will remaining relationships that have been tested to the limit and back restore themselves? Who can say? But I know one thing: life won’t be the same without her.
Until then my commute continues, out of duty, responsibility and courtesy but most of all for love and to say thank you. Because now, Mummy, it’s my time to care for you as you did for me.