Mother and Daughter in the Garden
Updated: Feb 10
By Sean Chou
It was early afternoon and I spent it with Mother, walking in the garden with her with one arm wrapped in hers. We moved in a slow, gradual movement, like nuns in a monastery; the image made more vivid in my mind as we moved with our arms clasped together, the cuff of my jacket chafing against my wrist.
I had walked with her in the garden many times before. Walk was not an accurate word, though - our movement was too slow for that. It was more like an amble through the flowers and neighbouring leaves that would occasionally brush our shoulders and reach across like they were offering alms to us.
Each time I was in the garden with Mother, it felt different. The path we took was about the same, starting from the bushes and moving to the roses, before tracing the path back to the start again. And the physical movement was the same too, our feet brushing past debris on the ground and making a swishing noise that seemed to accompany my thoughts, as well as hush them.
But the quiet and stillness of those afternoon walks with Mother couldn’t completely silence my thoughts, but rather laid the bedding for those searching moments I had late at night when I was alone but still thinking about her.
Mother had been diagnosed with dementia five years ago. The news came to me as a shock, but not a surprise. Dementia ran through the family, as I heard from my mother when she talked about looking after her own mother. I remembered those moments more for things that were left unsaid, the silent expectation that soon it was going to be my turn to look after her, like a duty passed on with every generation from mother to daughter.
I was alone, looking after her. My dad was non-existent from the very start of my life and I had not heard from him for many years. And my older sister was not around anymore.
It left me to look after my mother. And I fed her, bathed her and clothed her like she was a doll I used to play with when I was a child. A rag doll that wore a plaid dress and had stumps for limbs, and I would tott it about the doll house that came with it, a tiny girl in a miniaturised world.
On that day, my arm gripping Mother’s, I was alone again with my thoughts. I thought about the little girl I was when I was younger. Whether I was born for that specific purpose of looking after her at the end of her life. And the same hands which had clothed and fed me had swapped roles with mine and were now wrinkling, losing me as they held me.
The first time my mother asked for my name was a year ago. Who is she, my mother would ask the carer who looked after her on the weekdays when I was working.
She’s your mother, the carer would reply, with a calmness that sounded like she had prepared for this moment and seen it many times with other clients before.
I had mentally prepared myself, too, for the moment when my mother could no longer recognise me as her daughter. But when the moment came, it felt no less devastating, like I could have made ribbons from the invisible string I felt had connected me with Mother all these years, now cut and estranged when she no longer recognised me.
I struggled with the forgetting. But often it was the remembering that was harder. Her memory was frozen up to the age of about 25, so she had no recollection of meeting my father or having me as a child. I was in my late forties now, and all those years that had elapsed between her 25-year old self and my late forties made me feel like I was the older one that was carrying the memories of two people. But of course, I wasn’t with her for those years before she had me, and often when she recalled the past it ended in a pause which stretched into silence, her gaze looking askew at something in the distance as she entered into a trance-like state.
I wanted to rescue her when she entered into that trance. She looked like she had come from another world and arrived on earth with a copy of someone else’s memories, and she could no more embody and relate back to those experiences than an alien from outer space could.
But the more I stayed with my mother, the more things changed. She didn’t enter into a trance anymore, but a mystical, contemplative state. She couldn’t speak sometimes, but she moved with me and lived by my nurturing hand as I fed her and took her out for walks. And she couldn’t recognise me anymore, but when I was with her, I felt a mutuality and care for her that seemed to transcend the need for her to recognise me because we were together and happy and living.
She was like a twin, the sister I never had. And often she did not just do things, but agitate them as gently as a stone thrown into a pond sends ripples outwards. She would look at a rose in the garden, bend over and clasp it to her nose and smell, before exhaling softly. It was in those tranquil moments that I felt most broken, because she took moments I had never stopped to appreciate before and held them up for inspection in moments that felt as infinite in depth as they were finitely bound in her departing life. And everyday life was frantic, getting to work and making plans for the future, but my mother’s existence became a call for calm that I listened to, at least, when in other moments I failed to faithfully heed to it.
Often, I moved with my mother like I was making a wish. I want you to get better, Mama. When will you get better, Mama.
I felt guilty asking for this, even in my head. It wasn’t even true, at this point I wouldn’t even know how to exist without my mother. The two of us were joined like a wishbone, and when I was going to be snapped off from her, I was going to be left alone with just memories of her that ran deep and enduring like a bone.
But just like a wishbone, when I held her like now, I felt her live a reality that was separate but adjacent to mine, connected by tissue that was renewed in the present but made fragile by it. I wished then for a better future with her, and my body was not just a wishbone but a weathervane. Like a weathervane, the direction it pointed to changed with every passing moment, but it always pointed to the future and something beyond it.
Come on, Mama, we got to get ready.
It was time for Mother’s afternoon nap, when I could get some rest before preparing for dinner. But when I spoke, I heard my mother’s voice this time when she spoke many years ago.
Come on, Julie, get ready for school.
And I stared at my mum then as she helped put my jacket on and brushed the lint off the lapel. I feel like the same girl now, staring at my mother, but this time building the world for her with my acts of care, a world that she was forgetting but I still crafted for her like an intricate love letter.
Sean Chou is a fourth year BA Social Anthropology student, and head of partnerships for Clare. "I enjoy reading in my free time and going out for runs. For me, writing is a tool of self expression and I intend my writing to explore issues which people feel strongly about but choose not to discuss."