On Time

14947785_10154825019871042_8680925260221803816_nMy mother was early for everything. She believed deeply that both that punctuality was the politeness of princes and that if a travel delay could occur, it would. As a result, she left hours of time for delayed subways, traffic jams and accidents whenever she traveled. From an early age my brother, sister and I became used to arriving cinemas not merely in time for the previews (and later both the ads and the previews) but with time to spare before.  When flying, we would get to the airport not the recommended two-to-three hours ahead of departure, to deal with long check in and security queues, but another hour or so on top of that, when the predicted traffic jam on the way to the airport failed to materialise. It is a habit all three of us have internalised, adopting or reacting against in varying degrees. Now, living at wide geographical distances from each other and our parents, being early has become an important part of our common heritage.

* * *

My mother died six weeks ago, age 73. She left, as always, far too early.

* * *

Time does funny things when you are caring for the ill and dying. The final month of my mother’s life was the longest I have ever lived through. Life was on hold for me and my family. The deadlines which have governed so much of my adult life ceased to matter to its structure, ceased almost to exist at all. Time was measured out in taxi rides, subway delays and promises that we would hear about a hospice bed by next week, Wednesday, that evening, soon. And yet the week I took my children to the seaside, on my own and away from my mother, a week that by all expectations should have stretched out endlessly through stress and worry, passed by in a flash, a suspended interlude of reading, swimming, laughing, paddling, digging and reflection. The day the much-desired hospice bed became available was mainly spent waiting – for the paperwork to be completed, for the doctor to come and see my mother – or driving in entirely the wrong direction, an error which meant my mother’s carefully timed dose of medication was missed. Boredom and anxiety should have stretched the day to eternity; yet it was only when I arrived home that evening, 12 hours after I had left, that I realised just how long it had lasted. By contrast, the hours between 8 and midnight, when I kept vigil at my mother’s bedside for three nights during her final days, drew out endlessly as I listened to her sedated breathing, willing each agonizing, eternal pause between breaths to end.

* * *

And then there were the moments when caring meant stretching out to touch hands with the past. On an earlier visit, when looking after my mother after she had come out of hospital following an operation to fuse her spine, fractured by the pressure of the cancerous tumours that had invaded it, one of my main tasks was to help her shower. Washing her hair and towelling her dry, I was echoing her bathing of me as child and my own bathing of my daughter, linking age and generations through caring touch. I don’t know if my brother, cradling our mother in his arms, with touch the only tool at his disposal to help her contain her pain, felt the same inversion of the parent-child relationship, but generational reciprocity echoed there too. And there were the couple of times my sister, sister-in-law and I shared the task of cleaning and changing her in her final day. In those few moments, within the wider pattern of caring shared among all her children, it felt as if we three joined the long, long history of women caring for the ill and dying in domestic spaces. All the modern technologies and advanced analgesics which we turned to help my mother keep pain as much at bay as possible in those final days could not replace the need for caring human contact, contact which had the power, at least in my case, to take us beyond the immediacy of family relationship and weave us into a longer narrative of human history.

* * *

Time, according to the cliché, is a greater healer. The witness of the many friends and acquaintances who share the common but entirely unique grief of losing a mother is contradictory on this subject. Some have learned to accommodate its ache; for other, the pain has become in time different but not less. Today I remain in the midst of mourning, sideswiped at unexpected moments by furious anger at the fates that did not give my mother more time – time to welcome grandchildren and watch them grow, to celebrate her children’s achievements, to see more films, television programmes, theatre, to read more books – and then to tell us precisely what she thought of them. I still find myself in tears at odd and unexpected times – on the train, on street corners, walking my children to school. I hope that, in time, I will learn to live in a more comfortable way with this new reality of loss and absence that I inhabit. In the meantime, all I can do is take my memories of my mother – her gifts and her faults, her idiosyncracies and habits, her passions and mundanities – and make them transcend time by writing them into my history.

* * *

Mum was the first and most loyal of my readers, whether of my articles, my books or this blog. On the day of her move to the hospice, stuck in traffic on the FDR Drive, with her pain medication wearing off, she asked me if I was planning any more blog posts and, if so, what. Yes, I said, I’m planning to write on care and temporality, but I’m not quite sure how yet. This is that post.

* * *

There have been many who have taught and inspired me over the years, many of them women. All have, over time, shaped me into the historian and writer that I am today.  But first, last, and always, there was my mother.

* * *

In loving memory of

Joanna Anderson

30th July, 1945 – 30th August, 2018.

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Talking about caring

I am still planning on writing a post about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, VC, but while I wait to hear from someone who has done far more research into his life than I have yet done about a query, I am also helping organise the ‘Who Cares?’ conference to be held in the School of History at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017. In particular, I have been approaching people to ask if they will talk about their personal experiences of providing care as academics.

So far, everyone I have asked to contribute has responded positively, not to say enthusiastically, providing evidence that there is an appetite for having these discussions within the academic community.  This has been a huge personal relief to me as I have been finding it surprisingly uncomfortable to make these approaches in the first place.  While my head has been telling me that these are conversations we need to have, and have in public forums, not privately behind closed doors, my gut has been questioning whether these really are conversations people want to have and are comfortable having.  Are these subjects too personal?  Should we be combining our work and family lives in this way?  Do we risk one colonizing the other in unhelpful ways if we start to blur whatever boundaries we may have established as individuals to maintain our sanity?

I am hoping that all these questions will be explored in March.  But even if they are not discussed directly, then at least the very fact that I feel such discomfort has reaffirmed for me the importance of starting and continuing these discussions as part of our professional lives.  The more openly we can talk about our family responsiblities and how they combine with our professional commitments, the burdens they place on us and the support we get from our colleagues and communities, the easier it will come to have such discussions and to establish good practice for all concerned.  If the end result is a free-flowing discussion where everyone feels heard, then it will have been worth every gut-tightening moment of anxiety that organizing this event is causing.

In the meantime, I am hugely grateful for the generous enthusiasm of colleagues who have agreed to contribute.  It will, I believe, be worth all our effort.