I didn’t know it at the time, but one year ago almost to the day, my mum would be at my birthday celebrations for the final time.
Less than two months later, she broke her ankle while trying to “escape” from a respite facility, and seven weeks after that she went to live in a secure dementia ward, where she is as I write this.
The strange thing is, as I look back on the past year, I know it’s been a better year for me, and I think for my family, too.
In fact, for me, the past year has been better than any of the previous five. From the moment mum was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s it seemed that our family’s world tipped on its axis and it stayed off-balance for the best part of half a decade.
As her condition worsened, and she disappeared from us day by day and piece by piece, my ability to cope with what was happening waxed and waned from so-so to shit-house.
For the first two years of mum’s illness, I got pissed a lot. Strangely that didn’t make anything better or change a solitary thing. For the longest time, I couldn’t talk about what was happening to her – and to us – without sobbing uncontrollably in some type of snot-infused premature bereavement. My inability to verbalise what I was feeling – grief – came out through my words in this blog and I am grateful that sometimes, back then, I chose to write, instead of drink, my pain away. Sometimes.
Then I decided that maybe my drinking wasn’t “normal” so I quit for 18 months. I understand now that my drinking at that stage probably wasn’t normal, but that didn’t make me a problem drinker. It made me a woman who was grieving her mum and who didn’t know how to feel the feels she was feeling.
Staying off the sauce, though, was mostly good because I learned how to face the worst thing that had ever happened to me – which was losing my mum, who was also one of my best friends, far too soon – without disappearing into the rabbit hole of a vodka bottle to make it all “go away”.
And then this year happened. By then I’d said goodbye to a bad relationship and a job that didn’t make me happy. Both of those decisions, I know, were partly informed by mum – it was if she was still guiding my hand even though she could no longer tell me what was the best thing for me to do.
Then mum never came home again after her accident and I had to learn how to visit her in an environment that I found so challenging I’d often be left in tears as I stumbled out of that long corridor into a sunlight I struggled to see.
But working for myself as a writer, from wherever and whenever, brought me so many adventures, so much freedom, and so much love (some of that love was only temporary but, man, what a temporary it was!) that after years of more shade than light in my life, the equilibrium started to tip back in my favour.
I wrote a movie and also learned to surf. And while mum might not have approved of my new obsession (I know my dad doesn’t), I’m sure she would’ve been out there watching me sooner rather than later if she could have.
In fact, I think surfing is possibly a gift from her, because her illness was part of the reason why I waded into the waves in the first place. It’s her life cut short which continues to make me try to live mine with everything that I’ve got. Perhaps that philosophy is her final gift to me.
So, I’ve learned how to visit mum and accept where she is and who she has become. I’ve learned that she is happy and safe and I’ve learned how to find joy in the simplest of things such as throwing a ball to each other or helping her to read the hands of the clock on her bedroom wall. And I think we’ve all learned how to breathe again.
So, as I turn 44 in a few days, I know that I’ve had a better year. It will be my first birthday without my mum at the celebration, but my dad, my step-parents, my brother and a small assortment of my crazy friends will be there to help me fill the void that she has left behind.
And I get the feeling that with a cracker-jack start like that, then next year will be an even better one for me – if only I remember to seize as many days as I possibly can.