On Mother’s Day

On the first Mother’s Day since Mum died, I wander around the house like a ghost, unable to settle to anything. I would always have rung Mum to see if she liked whatever pretty thing I had sent her, and to see if the Mother’s Day card had hit the spot. Everywhere I look  there are signs of happy families, complete with live mothers. We can’t get into our usual place for Sunday breakfast because it is completely full up from 8 a.m. Muswell Hill is full of young people carrying bunches of flowers.

I have joined yet another ‘club’, the ‘Problematic Mother’s Day’ club. For those who have lost their mothers, those who wanted to be mothers and weren’t able to, those who had abusive or alcoholic or troubled mothers, today, like Christmas, throws up the contrast between what things are ‘supposed’ to be like, and how they actually are. Real life is messier, infinitely more complicated. This year, Mother’s Day is about gritting my teeth and getting through, one hour at a time.

I do still have one parent alive though, and so I  ring the nursing home to see how Dad is  getting on.

‘I’m on a boat’, he says. ‘I’ll be gone for forty days’.

‘Where are you going, Dad?’ I ask. I’ve learnt that it’s easier for everyone if I join Dad in Dadland rather than attempting to drag him into the ‘real’ world, where he has dementia and his wife of 61 years is dead.

‘Northern China’, he says, emphatically.

‘You’ve not been there before, have you? It will be an adventure. I hope the food is good!’

I’m not sure if Dad is remembering the business trips that he used to take, or the cruises he went on with Mum, or if this is a metaphor for another journey that he’s taking. But I am sure that it could be all three explanations at once.

‘And I’ve done a picture of a rabbit with a bird on its head’.

‘That sounds fun Dad, I know you like painting and drawing’.

‘It’s with crayons’.

‘Well, they’re a bit less messy’.

Dad laughs. There’s a pause.

‘I haven’t been able to talk to Mum. I ring and ring, but she never answers’.

I wonder if he has actually been ringing the house and getting Mum’s voice on the answerphone. He is convinced that she is cross with him because one of the ‘young’ female carers at the home ( a very nice lady in her fifties) helped him to have a shower. He went to the funeral, and was in the room when Mum died, but he doesn’t remember.

‘She’s away at the moment Dad’, I say, ‘But she loves you and she knows that you love her’.

‘That’s all right then,’ he says. ‘But I have to go now’.

‘Love you Dad’.

‘Love you n’all’.

It’s as if, in his dementia, Dad is returned to some earlier version of himself – more placid, less anxious. His calls to my brother have gone from 43 in one day to once or twice a week. I am not sure if this peacefulness will last, or if it presages a movement to another stage in the progression of the disease, but I am grateful for his equanimity. Somewhere inside this frail, vulnerable man there is still my Dad, and I feel such tenderness for him.

I walk to the bedroom and look out of the window. There is something totally unexpected in the garden.

A grey heron is in the pond, and, as I watch, s/he spots the rounded head of a frog. Once the bird is locked on target, there is no escape. The heron darts forward, squashes the frog between the blades of its bill and waits, as if uncertain what to do. The frog wriggles, and the heron dunks it into the water, once, twice. And then the bird throws back its head and, in a series of gulps, swallows the frog alive.

I don’t know what to do. I feel protective towards the frogs, but the heron needs to eat too. The frogs have bred and there is spawn in the pond, so from a scientific point of view there is no need to be sentimental. But still. I have been away in Canada for two weeks, and I suspect that the heron got used to visiting when things when quiet. The pond must have had a hundred frogs in it when we left. Hopefully some of them quit the water once the breeding was over, because on today’s evidence the heron could happily have eaten the lot.

What a magnificent creature, though. It is such a privilege to have a visit from a top predator. Close up, I can see the way that those yellow eyes point slightly forward to look down the stiletto of the beak, and the way that the mouth extends back beyond the bill, enabling an enormous gape. The plume of black feathers at the back of the head show that this is an adult bird, perhaps already getting ready for breeding. S/he leans forward, having spotted yet another frog, and I decide that I’ll intervene. I unlock the back door and open it, but it isn’t until I’m outside on the patio that the bird reluctantly flaps those enormous wings and takes off, to survey me from the roof opposite.

I know that I won’t deter the bird for long – after all, I will leave the house, and the heron will be back. But there has been so much loss in my life in the past few months that I feel as if I have to do something. The delicate bodies of the frogs seem no match for that rapier-bill and there is something unfair about the contest in this little pond that riles me. We are all small, soft-bodied creatures, and death will come for us and for everyone that we love with its cold, implacable gaze, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes throw sand in its face. I am so lucky to have the graceful presence of the heron in my garden, but today, I want to tip the balance just a little in favour of the defenceless.

17 thoughts on “On Mother’s Day

  1. Anne

    As a member of that club I feel great empathy for you. As one who enjoys birds, I am in awe of the photographs you have taken and your wonderful description of the Grey Heron.

  2. Andrea Stephenson

    Beautiful Vivienne. I clearly remember those feelings of being in that club when my dad died and seeing families with dads everywhere. It didn’t feel quite so raw when my mother died, I’m not sure why, but it is strange and lonely to not be part of something that the majority of people are celebrating. We have a heron that often appears in the dene nearby and I’m thrilled each time I see him, but I’m glad you intervened for the poor frogs on that particular day!

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks, Andrea….when I came home I thought that the tadpoles had failed too for the first time ever, but today I discovered a seething mass of them, so hopefully frogs will continue in the pond. I haven’t seen a single adult though. The heron must have been having a right old time while I was in Canada….

  3. Alyson

    Must have been a tough day for you as Mother’s Day ephemera was everywhere.

    I am always interested in hearing about your dad, as my my mum (having moved into a care home a week later) seems to be on a parallel journey. I too have to check myself, and go along with her perceived reality, as to argue would be pointless. We took her out yesterday however and she is just so easy to please nowadays so a real joy. Babies and children fascinate her and we always have to stop and talk to them – Fortunately their parents recognise her condition and indulge her. Hope your dad’s 40 day boat trip is a successful one!

    1. Bug Woman

      I will try to take Dad out more often now that spring is here, but even though he’s lost weight he’s a bit of a hefty push in the wheelchair and I have a dodgy back. And yes, Dad is really easy to please too. I brought him in some polo mints and some dairy milk chocolate and he couldn’t have been more delighted.

  4. Alyson

    Sorry meant to mention the heron too – lovely pictures and description. Ironically only yesterday we spotted one next to a piece of flood water on our local golf course – an amazing looking bird.

  5. Laurin Lindsey

    It must have been hard knowing its Mother’s Day and she is gone. She will be always in your thoughts and precious memories. As a child my great grandmother had dementia. I enjoyed visiting her in the home and playing with her. We would take her baby doll for a walk and other fun things. As an adult I can see why my mother was frustrated. And her own mother had died early so she was left to take care of her grandmother. The heron is beautiful and the cycle of life is hard to deal with when you are sensitive. I am with you, I love frogs! HUGS

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Laurin, much appreciated! I can imagine that as a child you don’t have all the preconceptions about how an adult ‘should’ behave, and so it’s easier to join them wherever they are. I remember playing cards with my Auntie Mary, who had learning disabilities, and having a wonderful time.

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