Last year I attended a writing meeting on the 18 December with my writing group the Pink Ladies, feeling on top of the world. My novel was going well, family was good, life was great. There were stresses on the horizon-mum had two operations coming up in the new year and I was having to take over more of her care, but everything was manageable. On the 27 December my stepfather passed away and my life broke into before and after. On the 29 December we buried him.
For the next three days we pulled together as a family to care for my mother. On Tuesday 1 January she was admitted to hospital with a complete breakdown. Every day she is coming back, bit by bit, there are glimmers of her returning to reality. Life is so tenuous and hard at the moment. The future is a dark uncertain place. My every day revolves around arranging what she needs, visiting her in hospital, coordinating her care for her health problems. Cycling through grief that fells me on a daily basis, grief for the loss of my stepfather who was the closest thing to a father I have had in the past 31 years. Grief for the life my mother had that is over. Grief for the life that we must now all embark on. Grief for my stepfather and the pain that he was suffering that I didn't know about.
I am frozen in time and all I can do is take one step in front of the other and cycle through this. Life changes on a dime. We all know that. Knowing it and experiencing it are still very different things. I know we're going to be okay. I know my mum will be okay. All I can do now is endure until life is better. There will be life after this. I just don't know what it is or what it looks like. But I have to believe. In the meantime to survive I have to write. Write my way through this. So that's what I'm doing.....
I sit with Mum in hospital, the colouring sheet in front of me. She talks, without taking breath, telling me about the new religion she has started. “I know everything. I know what it all means,” she says and picks up the colouring book I bought her. “Read here.” She turns to the introduction and I read it to her.
Within a minute her attention wanders and she starts speaking again. The words pour out of her. I concentrate on the colouring book, the soothing feeling of crayon the page, colouring in geometric shapes, focussing on which colour to put where, ensuring that I look up and make eye contact with her, repeat back what she says, respond with a quip every once in a while, nod affirmatively, and let her words wash over me like waves on an ocean. Let them wipe me clean. She needs to speak, she needs to be heard. Between the moments of delirium there are clues to her condition. When she tells me she was raped during the night, chased around the room, I enquire about the UTI she was diagnosed with in the emergency department. Is she receiving antibiotics?
The antibiotic treatment was not transferred, the nurses tell me. They have to get a urine sample and test it before they can begin treatment. For 24 hours they try without success. At my next visit I urge her to drink and then go to the toilet. A nurse helps to collect the sample. It takes three days for the results to return and they commence antibiotic treatment again. I feel like a failure as a daughter for not following up earlier about the antibiotic treatment continuing. I assumed that it was. My assumptions keep proving false and she suffers for it.
When she tells me there are insects in her ears, those are the vertigo stones, swishing around, disrupting her balance. I am at the movies, attempting to have a much needed outing with my daughter and husband, trying to imitate normality. It occurs to me that I should check my phone to see that there are no calls about Mum. A missed call from the ward. She fell out of bed that morning. They heard a scream and found her on the floor. She was checked over by doctors and was uninjured. I am stuck, do I return to the movie, attempt normality. After running on nothing but adrenaline for 10 days I feel weak and need to eat. It’s not safe to drive as I am. Do I jump in a taxi and hurtle to the hospital? They said she was all right. I decide to have lunch and then go visit. When I arrive she is all right, but incoherent. She can’t tell me what happened. Someone was chasing her, tormenting her, but she can not be clearer than that. She is frail. As I walk her from her room to the communal area she wilts, and grabs hold of my arm for balance. The next time I go to the movies I rest my muted mobile phone on my stomach so that I can feel the vibration of a phone call.
Later, when I return from hospital, my daughter asks if our lives will ever be normal again. “Of course,” I reassure her, a pit in my stomach opening up. Will it though? There will be a new normal, perhaps, but I am now forever on call, primed for the ringing of my phone, to know about Mum. She has so many medical conditions. I am chasing doctors, chasing follow up treatments for the parathyroidism she was diagnosed with 8 months ago, and still has not been treated. It is growing in her throat, making it hard to swallow. She tells me she needs water, otherwise she will die. Another manifestation of real symptoms into her manic framework. She will not die without water, but it is bothering her, hurting her, making it hard to swallow.
The parathyoiridism is leaching calcium from her bones. She has arthritis in her pelvis and legs, has to be put on a waiting list for knee surgery. The calcium has calcified her kidney. She has regular appointments with a nephrologist. She is in a psychiatric ward. The doctors there treat her psychiatric condition, the Bi Polar she was diagnosed with over 40 years ago. I am the one who has to ensure that all other treatments are being followed up.
Going to the hospital and sitting with her become an oasis. In these moments of time I can just colour in and listen. Soon the sound of her words and the swish of the crayon go together. She sees this as her time to proselytise, I see it as the time to investigate the madness within. To see how close she is to returning back to herself. Is the mania losing its grip?
Her eyes are not glowing the way they used to during a manic episode. They look tired and calmer. Is it a transformation brought about by her breakdown in her sixth decade or is it because this mania is grief induced, a different beast. People get unhinged from grief, even if they are not diagnosed with a mental illness. Could this just be a natural break, a fracture in her reality as she attempts to piece together her life before he died, and to accept the life that she is embarking on now.
She asks me how long she was in hospital. I tell her it’s been a week. I outline what happened. Another positive sign. She is coming back to reality. She is in the high dependency ward with a shared bathroom and is bothered by it. I help her shower by standing guard, getting the toiletries from the nurses as they are kept locked away. The first few times she is singing, talking the whole time, her words echoing off the tiles. Yesterday there was silence, she said a few things, but was not talking constantly. Another good sign.
The tension inside me is beginning to loosen. But another battle is about to begin. As she comes down from her mania she will need to process her grief, think about the life she will now live. The future is scary and uncertain for all of us. I don’t know what it looks like. I have to flow down the river, not knowing the destination. There will be rough weather and extreme weather events. I have to hunker down and wait out the storm.
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