Three years ago today my mother died. It was very sudden, very unpleasant and very distressing for my family. For me personally it was very strange. I stepped into the role of organising everything, being the sensible, capable one that just sorted it all out. That role meant that I could do the whole stiff upper lip thing – holding my father up, reassuring him – so I embraced the endless paperwork thankfully.
My Mum and I never had the closest of relationships, not helped by my parents’ total reluctance to accept me for who I really am, rather than the person they chose to see, or wished to see. My being gay was at best an embarrassment, at worst a cruel way of denying them what they had hoped for in a daughter. I was never able to deliver the fairy tale wedding, the doctor or lawyer husband, the joy of adoring grandchildren. The fact that I probably wouldn’t have delivered any of that if I had been heterosexual is somehow irrelevant.
Over the years, I had stopped trying to make them see that their choices were not for me and just settled for polite conversation that conveniently glossed over anything that might trigger any kind of upset. I still tried to quietly voice alternative perspectives, but in an attempt to nudge rather than transform. I suppose I had hoped that, with societal change, my parents too would come to realise that not being like them wasn’t a crime. For example, that being gay was hardly the worst thing to happen – that it was just a different normality.
With the suddenness of my mother’s death came the realisation for me that my opportunity to reach her, to have a conversation woman to woman rather than disappointed mother to disappointing daughter, was gone forever. My grief was for 60 years of lost conversation and understanding – for what might have been if we had been able to find our way to a place of acceptance. What a waste!
That lesson learned, I have been trying to build a better understanding with my father. I don’t know if I’m getting anywhere. We differ in so many ways – our politics are miles apart, our tastes are different, our aspirations are different. I have never wanted the kind of future that my father worked so hard for all his life – something that never helped our relationship. The gay thing? I mention it and he avoids it, like an unpleasantness in the family that must go unmentioned. If I had a partner I know that she would not be welcome to stay at his home. It wouldn’t be spoken, but it would be made obvious, just as it always has been.
We were both adjusting to the new normal of it just being he and I when I visit him. Without Mum there to tell us not to, we are finally free to discuss politics and the state of the nation, to argue even, and that is good. It’s several notches closer to the kind of honesty I would hope for in my family. He even admits that he is now freer to make friends with his neighbours and he has built a rewarding social life for himself, without my mother’s hermit-like preferences holding sway.
Another issue that we can discuss is his fear for his own future. His health improved without the strain of caring for my mother, but now is declining in small steps. He adapted remarkably well to his widowed state, despite being crushingly lonely at times. But the thought of being dependent on the carers that visited three times a day for my mother is haunting him. Just thinking of the potential need for the sort of care that he sees as involving loss of dignity has been enough to trigger conversations around ‘do not resuscitate’ notices. He saw the distress that such care caused my mother and in that he sees a future that he is unwilling to accept but feels is inevitable.
For me, I see nothing that so many others in my age group haven’t seen and experienced in their own families. But like so much of life, it is only when you personally experience something that the harsher truths are laid bare. How many times have we heard new mothers say ‘nobody tells you about….’? How many of us were shocked and appalled by the truths of the menopause – ‘nobody tells you…’? I have long saluted women that go through childbirth. I came to hugely respect women who somehow manage to hold down a job and run a family when the menopause is tearing away at their physical and mental wellbeing. And now here I am joining another sisterhood – those with aging parents facing life’s biggest questions.
I thought in my youth that my life bumped into to a new normal on a regular basis, most of which I deftly swerved. But that was nothing compared to now. There seems to be a new normal lurking round every corner. But I have observed that many people, as they get older, simply accept their new normality, stepping into it with a reluctant shrug. I have also observed that those who get the most joy out of life, at any age, are those that flick off most versions of normality. And so we will each go about adjusting our lives one way or another, accepting or refusing each encroaching new reality and we will find our way to our own new normal.