Caring for ageing, ailing parents requires selflessness and strength. When writer ELIZABETH HAY’s parents needed her most, she looked after them until the end
A few months before my mother died at 92, when she had a lot of dementia but also moments of great lucidity, she said, “I’ve had a good life, all things consoled.” She meant to say, “all things considered.” But what she said, she also meant.
Her words blended the poetic loss of language that marked her in the end with the humour so typical of her, and gave me the title for my book. All Things Consoled is about my mother and father at the end of their lives. More broadly, it’s about being the daughter of this formidable, colourful, eccentric pair.
My mother was a painter and the most frugal of women and most loyal of wives. My father was a teacher with a violent temper and a restless, competitive, blunt, and melancholy nature. I wasn’t close to either of them when I was growing up, but later, after I left home, I fell in love with my creative mother. My father and I loved each other, but our love fell far short of easy affection. We were never comfortable with each other.
I didn’t intend to write a memoir. I thought I was writing a loose collection of autobiographical stories, some of which were about my parents as they entered the tragedy of living too long. But when my editor read the manuscript, she saw the shape that I had failed to see. “Start with the crisis in your mother’s health,” she urged me, “and the arc the book follows will be mortality.”
Starting with the crisis meant starting with the moment in 2008 when my parents could no longer manage on their own in their home in London, Ontario. They agreed to move across the province – a seven-hour drive – to my side of Ontario, into a retirement home in Ottawa, a five-minute walk up the street from where my husband and I live. The next three years, their final years, would be the hardest in their lives, and in mine too.
The gauntness of my mother’s face, her white hair, and her high cheekbones made her look leonine. The resident doctor said she had come into the hospital with pneumonia. The strep bacteria had entered her bloodstream by way of her lungs and travelled to her knee, where it seeded out, as he put it, gathering there and going to town. The surgeon warned that the infection might come back, despite the antibiotics being pumped into her system … At home, my father freely admitted that he could not look after her anymore. We should dispose of the paintings, he said, sell the house and get accommodation.
It had never been part of their plan to be a burden. Once, when they were still hale and hearty, they had joked about how when the time came they would join hands and race to the compost heap in their back garden and jump in. In Ottawa, trapped as they saw it in an overpriced nursing home, they would lament, “We’ve had wonderful lives. Why can’t we just go?” Instead, they had to endure the long, slow drip of their ancient, leaky selves.
On one of her good days, as my father called them, when nothing was amiss and she and I were alone, I asked her how she was. She stared at the wooden coffee table in front of us before she answered. “You can live too long. All the children are grown up, they’re fine, they’re doing well. All the potatoes are peeled. I had fulfilling work and I can’t do it any more. Not everyone feels this way but this is how I feel. This in-between filling-in is hard.”
I was reminded again of Samuel Beckett: You can’t go on; you go on.
I asked her how Dad was doing. My mother took even longer to answer, saying finally that he enjoyed reading the newspaper every day. “We’re not enraptured with this life,” she said.
When I look back on it, there were many things that helped me cope with my constant worry and fatigue, unhappily laced as it was with resentment and self-pity. My husband was unfailingly steady and generous. My three siblings (all of whom lived at a distance) were never in disagreement with my parents or me about the fundamentals of what should happen. My parents were deeply appreciative of my help, for the most part. I drew rather closer to my father. And I kept writing.
I was in dangerous personal territory, a fraught border country in which my parents were sliding into neediness and I was rising to power yet losing my own life. Taking care of people has never been my idea of embracing life. On the contrary, it’s the best way to ruin it. So why did I do it, I ask myself looking back. I wanted to look after my mother; I wanted to prove
I could be generous for once in my life; I saw no alternative. But something else was going on too, namely sibling rivalry and pride. The child’s need to be the one who mattered most. Yes, I volunteered to take it on, but there was never a moment when I didn’t wish to be let off the hook.
A wise poet friend put my situation in perspective: “You must know that though it’s hard and time-consuming, you are doing what you can to ease their final years in this very difficult world.” I copied down her words and put them where I could see them every day.
I have been writing about my mother and father all of my writing life, in notebooks, in veiled fiction, sometimes in real-life stories I couldn’t publish for fear of hurting them. In my late thirties I wrote a hundred or so pages about my father’s outbursts of anger and contempt, and about my anger with him and with my mother too. Then I put the writing into a box where it gathered dust. After they died – my father in 2011 and my mother seven months later – I didn’t have the heart to revisit all of that. It’s too late, I thought. They’re gone, the anger’s gone.
But it wasn’t gone. Old complications lie in wait, as I say in the memoir. I suppose that’s what the book is really about: the endless emotion that sweeps through us when we relive our lives with our parents, and then without them.
I didn’t have to worry about their reaction to the book, but there is always someone to worry about. I felt fairly sure that my sister and my oldest brother would take the book in stride. But I lay awake at night worrying about the reaction of my other brother, the one who was very close to my father. That was a year ago and my siblings are still talking to me, which is all I care about. I am too old to lose family or friends over something I’ve written. I’m also too stubborn and independent (my father’s daughter) to allow friends or siblings to modify what I write.
I still think about my parents all the time, yet my head is less crowded with them now. I have more room for them even as they take up less space. This must be because of my efforts to portray them in all their complexity. To do them justice, I had to fully exercise my sympathetic imagination and see all sides. As a result, the old complications have been put, at least partly, to rest. All things considered, some things consoled.
All Things Consoled: a daughter’s memoir, Elizabeth Hay, MacLehose Press, is out now.