Four visits to my mother’s deathbed

1927_Klee_Variationen_anagoriaI told my colleagues that my mother was dying using the peculiar jargon of our trade. “I have made an application for Attendance Allowance- under the Special Rules- for my mother.” When I said she had only days left, my boss surprised me by giving me as much time off as I needed. I returned home to find her in bed, a week before she died.

We wanted her to die at home. We had a friend from the church who is a nurse, and my sister is a nurse. My father and I were fit enough. After we made this decision I had a client suffering from back pain and depression after nursing his wife through terminal cancer, but we were sure enough we could cope. We had the aids we needed. First, Dad had had a stair lift installed so Mum could go up stairs; then a wheelchair, so she could go out. She was embarrassed by the wheelchair, initially, because she did not want to be seen in this weak state, but soon got to enjoy sunshine and different views, as she was wheeled around. And now, we had incontinence pads for her to lie on, and a commode beside the bed. I arrived a week before her death.

All of her was in pain, but she would rather get up to the commode. As would I, of course. Elaine understood the steps involved, to move her legs, then get her into a sitting position, then lift her up, then turn her to lower her onto the commode. As the expert, Elaine preferred to do this herself, and I did it only once.

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I must be careful lifting you out of bed. Painkillers dull constant pain, but sudden shocks can still break through. You are weak, and need help with each step.

I roll you onto your side, facing the wall, then bring your legs forward, bending at the knees. Your knees are over the edge of the bed. Lifting you under your right shoulder, I raise you into a sitting position. You can put your arms round my neck. I embrace you, and lift you to a standing position. You are facing the commode, so we have to shuffle round until you have your back to it.

We step out of time into eternity. Two bodies are together, sensing each other. I am patient, happy in this moment to be supporting you. I will not rush, but take it at your pace. You relax completely. The pressure always to hurry up and get it done is gone. It is only a second or two, but in that moment I feel the certainty of Love. I feel it from you. I know that I communicate my love for you. Love flows both ways, and we are both aware of it.

I lift your nightdress at the back, to maintain your modesty as much as possible, and lower you onto the commode. Then I help you back into bed.

After you died, I decided that that would be my primary memory of you- one embrace in total Love. The other main memory I picked was you picking me out of Loch Lomond, wrapping me in a towel, and carrying me back to the camp site- I felt at the time I was old enough to walk, but chose to see your loving care in that.

I have a memory which shames me, which I have told no-one: sent to the Klee, arrival of the Jugglerstown centre for a flannel for a bed-bath, I had a choice between one for an adult, undecorated, and one for a child, with Postman Pat on it, which was wonderfully soft, far softer than the other. I chose the adult one, for appearance’ sake, though she needed that softness. Perhaps she would have, too- appearance is important to us.

Then I sat, on her seventieth birthday, beside the bed, not touching her- reading, to pass the time.

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On your seventieth birthday, Dad bought you a dozen roses, and placed them in a vase on the window sill. He thought, after, he Efflorescence, Kleeshould have bought them earlier, as he did not think you noticed them, but they were for him rather than for you. He sat downstairs or busied himself, and I sat by you reading- The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman, about how von Kluck catastrophically turned away from Schlieffen’s projected encirclement of Paris. I sat there, and you lay on your back, with your arms above the covers. Perhaps I misremember that detail.

The day after, you were unconscious, and I sat beside you, reading. You started to foam at the mouth in the evening. Dad came in, got distressed, and tried to wipe the foam away. Then you stopped breathing.

Elaine came over and the GP visited to check details for the death certificate. I thought I should be upset, but it seemed I was not: I was unconscious of feeling anything.

Around that time I decided “I do not want to be a sad, lonely pervert- I want to be a happy, gregarious pervert,” joined the transvestite club, and met other trans women. Before, I had felt such disgust for myself that I would buy clothes and soon after throw them away- I sought aversion therapy because either trying to make a man of myself, or cross-dressing, would be bearable but rapid shifting between the two was not. Four years later, though sure I would be sacked on some pretext, I realised that I could not bear not to transition.

More than once I lay curled up on the bathroom floor weeping “I am Not a man” and it was in your voice I heard The Carpers. From the back of my head on the left, they said,

Stop this.
You are play-acting.
Stop being so childish.

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Efflorescence, Klee, in partIn 2003, I went to the Quaker Summer Gathering.

“You are on a very long journey,” said the woman. Oh yes, I have turned myself inside out- but I did not have the words for it then, only the struggle and the anger. A week on a campus with Quakers was the perfect place to poke my illusions, and show me what matters to me.

We are an odd lot. We like to imagine ourselves calm and wise, so avoid the appearance of conflict; and “Plain-speaking”, so dive into it. I like getting to know people. I met a man who had led a committee of twenty and 125 volunteers for two years fundraising for a statue of Walton in Oldham, where Walton was born; they had raised £3000, and would have been better spending their time in menial jobs for the money. I joined a couple walking across the campus, and when the wife went off to get coffee the husband said, “Do you mind if I speak bluntly? Are you having a sex change?” I could wish these people less perceptive, sometimes. They notice so quickly. One said it was obvious I wore a wig, because it was flat, not moving like real hair.

We were assigned small groups, to spend an hour together each day, but our two facilitators had not had time to discuss how they would run the group beforehand. A woman told me she had been playing croquet when “this idiot” came over and demanded her friend go to discuss the group. Of course she refused. I got irritated that we spent the first of our five hours together discussing how we might spend the time- I wanted more structure- but when Philip produced a conch for people to hold, so that one person would speak at a time, Peter picked it up and said he did not want to proceed in that way. Next day some were missing.

We hurt, and we opened. Jeff was alcoholic until he decided he had to Be Himself or die. When I said I had avoided suicide by deciding that I must not hurt my father, a woman said how serendipitous the conversation was, as she sought to console her friend whose daughter had killed herself. So I shared about how angry I felt about the oppression of my kind and the lack of self-worth we feel, and how liberating transition is- like moving from monochrome to technicolor.

During the week, I went to Leicester to consult with Dr Khoosal, a psychiatrist. I needed a second opinion so I could have my penectomy and vaginoplasty. He told me I was not ready: I needed laser treatment to remove my pubic hair and speech therapy. He thought I should not have testosterone suppression. Until I sorted all this out I could not have the Op. When I finally brought myself to open his letter weeks later, I found he recommended surgery: he had seen my distress, and changed his mind. However I left Leicester unable to express my misery or anger. I curled in a ball on the floor, and my friend covered me with a blanket.

I met a woman who had transitioned ten years before. She told me that she had put transition behind her and was simply a normal woman- an enviable state, I thought. Then she moaned about her wife and about transition experiences: she still felt the same anger. I asked a solicitor in the Blue Group what was the effect of a decree nisi without a decree absolute after ten years, and she revealed she was the trans woman’s daughter. Despite all my sharing, she had not thought to tell me before.

Before transition, I had loved country dancing. I could get high on movement, music, touch and eye-contact. I travelled to Germany in a demonstration team. Now, trying it in an afternoon session, I got angry with the others bodging, and laughing at their mistakes and ungainliness- this can be so much more! Worse, I was embarrassed and uncomfortable dancing on the man’s side, and confused on the woman’s. I left early. On the Friday evening I danced in the closing Ceilidh. Yes, I see other people are enjoying themselves, and still feel angry. So I went to find Anthea, the healer.

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This is not what I do. This is not who I am. This is not what I believe. But it might be. And that might be good.

When do you change your mind? There was a time when I was absolutely certain of my former understanding. Now I know different. In between came a series of experiences challenging my earlier view and opening me to a different one, then confirming that different understanding. I have moved from right to left, Caliban to Ariel, rationalist to mystic, self-denial to self-expression, and in this experience my old way fractured from top to bottom, and green shoots of new life poked through.

Efflorescence, Klee, a bodyNoticing everything is bliss and danger, distraction and- I notice
everything. I see the marks on the floor from the wrong kind of training shoes, the bars on the walls and the ropes from the ceiling, the sound my footsteps make, Anthea’s footsteps though I do not see her, no, I glance at her then drop my eyes. The sports hall expands, its ceiling the sky, its walls miles away, and I sit on the floor, resigned to whatever might happen. The way of being in me which would have been dismissive, judgmental, denying any possible value in this is silenced by my pain, but I am not, yet, a believer. I fear, but have sufficient trust in Anthea’s good-will and ability to hold the process that I go along with it. I see no alternative.

Anthea creates a flowing circle of healing energy around me so that only the highest and finest energy may come through, and asks me to focus on my chakras, a concept new to me. What colours do I see? I have no mind’s eye, so if I close my eyes cannot see anything, such that if I imagine a room I will imagine a verbal description of it. She insisted, and I plumped for red.

“Imagine your coccyx uncurling beneath you, extending downwards into the Earth. It roots you in the Earth, in our Mother Gaia, and energy from the Earth flows up for your healing.”

I try. I really do. I imagine my coccyx warily pushing down into the Earth, but it pulls back, unable to trust.

I speak my pain. I am begging that psychiatrist. “Do you have any idea what I feel? What did you do to diagnose? Can you not see that I am female?” Then I speak my anger at my mother. I imagine her on her death-bed, in the middle of that sports hall, and I prowl round it screaming at her. The foam is on her lips. “What did you mean, you still have work to do? Did I ever smile? Did you ever smile at me or touch me?”

I hear the Carpers at the back of my head. There are three of them. Anthea tells me to sit them in a chair in front of me, then bring them into my heart and love them. At this moment I realise:

I can channel the healing energy of God.

The first is like a baby whom I can pick up and cuddle. The second has a chalk-board and chalk, to lecture me. The third is black, a mass of energy. I need to make friends with it, as with a wild predator. I need to integrate, love and calm these aspects of me.

God’s Love is intimate.

At Anthea’s suggestion I have a shower then go to bed. In the shower I feel the healing energy of God channelled through my hands.

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Abstraction with reference to a flowering tree, Klee, lightThe sins of the fathers are visited on the children to the tenth generation, and Robert Hoffman sought to break that chain. During the Hoffman Process, a week long immersion in techniques to connect participants to our inner inspiration, to confront us with ourselves, and to free us from patterns inherited from parents in imitation or rebellion, I visited my parents’ deathbed again. Four years afterwards, though I have not escaped my parents’ programming, I find the model useful. I don’t use the “tools” to let my unconscious speak, because I find they work in particular heightened circumstances rather than the quotidian, and I have the Quaker meeting for that. Or perhaps because I am frightened of going into such a magical, mystical world, where I see in metaphors the reality which fails to correspond to my apparently rational illusions.

Twenty of us sat in a large room visualising our parents’ deathbeds, whether or not they were already dead, surrounded with mementoes of them, crying our hearts out. How to describe, introduce or capture that scene eludes me.

Also that weekend, I lay supine, a helpless baby, and she said to me, I don’t want you. While I have no conscious memory before I could walk, I trust this unconscious memory or reconstruction, just as when in counselling I went back to the pram under the tree- you told me that I liked looking up at the leaves in the wind- I felt such rage and terror. I went back there. At the very least my unwavering belief makes it real now.

Klee- A young lady's adventure in partAt the CAB I met the demon mother with her son, who had lost benefit through being found fit to work. When I asked him about how he felt, she answered. One of the points available was “does not care about his (sic) appearance or living conditions”. The doctor had written “Appeared well-dressed today” and she started to wail. “He only dresses well because I make him. I even have to shave his head, or he would let his hair grow long, and untidy, and dirty.” There was nothing wrong with the man that liberation from his mother would not cure, yet when I thought of her I felt my own mother was worse.

And there was my friend showing grief twenty years after being 24 with a new-born, and no idea what to do with it, and her shame and distress now, as great as at the time. I don’t have any, but I understand that bringing up children is not easy. We all have these memory-scars, where if you touch them our pain is as great as ever. My mother’s solution, to control every aspect of my life, could be faulted, but it really was the best she could do. She didn’t understand, she didn’t see anything better, she did not have infinite resources money or energy, and she did her very best.

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In 1976 I burst into tears, and until September 2010, I could have told the story with quite as much emotion as I had initially. My mother wanted to show my piano-playing skills to her friend, and I chose to play a piece by Bach. She thought I would be better to play something more complex. I cannot say why I wanted that piece: it could show my feelings is a later construct imposed on the unknowing younger me. Perhaps I was frightened of making mistakes and thought I could play it note-perfect. My mother insisted, and I burst into tears.

Until September 2010, at the age of 44, I would have told that story and ended in a distraught climax:

SHE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND!

And then, in September 2010, I suddenly got it. Oh, right- she didn’t understand. She just didn’t. She did her best, and she missed stuff- just as I had, in expecting her not to. This was a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation, long after she died, and also a moment of growing up- though not the moment, just one in a series- accepting you as a flawed human being, and accepting my past as good enough.

So I returned to your deathbed.

I pick up your hand, and pay attention. I caress your finger tips. If you notice me, respond! You breathe lightly and quietly. I notice no response.

-Go back a day!
-No, this moment too is precious-
Paul Klee- Twittering machine (in part)I would like you to know I am here. I would like you to know I love you. I would like you to know that I admire you, and care about you- everything to build you up, everything to make you happy. There is nothing to fear, now, what’s past is gone, but it too, now, may be beautiful for you. It was alright, really, even then, even when the rain lashed down and you gritted your teeth and put your head down and trudged on- though others saw the sunshine, and danced.

I would like- nothing. I would like this moment, now, while it is, while you breathe and I am here with you. Each human being is a beautiful thing. There is no ideal for skin, no perfection excluding others, for all is perfect: wrinkled dry skin is all it needs to be. We have managed you as you might like: we changed the pad under you, and the covers are neat, not too heavy, warm enough, the sheet ironed. I am glad your hand is above the covers. It is so beautiful, the bruises cannot disfigure it.

I would like it to respond. Some answering pressure. This has to be enough, but-

Go back a day. It is your birthday, and Dad has a dozen red roses in the vase on the windowsill. Go back a day, because I can, because this time is mine, in my control. I see you and not you. I can make of you anything I like, any response, and I can respond in the most perfect manner, for this is that time in bed when the perfect repartee comes too late- no, analysing the job interview with a view to answering better next time- or, healing the past, for though it is too late to heal your hurt it is not too late to heal my own. So as little fantasy as possible: you as real as I may imagine or remember you, though of course there are the bits I shy away from, perhaps without knowing it.

We are alone, for Dad has reasons to be elsewhere, and Elaine is with her children who are too young to be here much. It is just you and me. Now, several things happen, at once. I take your hand, and you give mine a light squeeze- we are both holding hands, both here, now. A tear escapes your eye. I kiss you. All is Love. Or there is an imperfection, something for me to regret or resent, for part of Everything is Perfect is the effort, the reconstruction, the acceptance, the seeing, and these are not easy or instantaneous. Or there is again no response- I think there was little response by then. I have all the time I need to show my love to you.

After this, I thought I could return to visit you there, where you were powerless and I could be as I wished, at any time. Then one day in counselling, I had wondered if I would play the Empty Chair with you, or visit your deathbed again- but I have nothing to say, and no purpose in saying it. Whether I express rage, or love and care, so what? The bed spins away, receding to a point on the right, and vanishing.

3 thoughts on “Four visits to my mother’s deathbed

  1. Clare, this is so powerfully written. A difficult story but told with skill and grace. Your sense of humour shines in your photos and art, but here your courage and humanity shine. Thanks for posting. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work..

    Like

    • Thank you.

      Welcome, Aileen. I love the portrait on your welcome page, and your poetic style of writing. Certainly people outside Ireland will be interested. As for the photos, it is amazing how the view of the road to the lighthouse is fairly standard, yet the sky behind it fits so perfectly, the light round the crown. It is a beautiful shot.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Four visits to my mother’s deathbed – The Melodramatic Confessions of Carla Louise

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