Foz is from Somalia. 

She steers my mother slowly across the care home lawn. A ship of state adrift on a sea of green. 

“Here are my two favourite girls,” I call from the shade of the arbour. Because if I wasn’t jolly I’d cry. 

“Haven’t seen you for a while,” I remark as she lowers mum onto the garden seat beside me and relays two porcelain hands from hers to mine for safe keeping for the next half hour. “Been on holiday?” 

“I’ve been to Mogadishu,” she says and then adds quickly before I have time to ask something crass like oh what’s the weather like there at this time of year  “to bury my mum.”

To bury my mum.  

I want to reach across my mother’s head and hold her hand. But, of course, social distancing has made human instinct less instinctive. So words are our lifebelts. To stop the grief sucking us down. 

Her name was Fatima. She was 60. A proud mother of four. Two children seeking new lives in America. Two here in the UK. Widowed four years ago so alone in the Somali capital. Taken by Covid before Foz could say goodbye. So she went instead to bury her. And then had to pay for hotel quarantine on her return. Red lists and all that. 

These are the bare facts. 

I look down at the mother who’s left. 

“You can share mine. She can be your honorary mum.” 

Still Life

Shackled by time slippers shuffled
Stooped to the high-backed seat
Queen throned, grey crown ruffled
Prince and Princess at her feet 

The Prince takes a marbled hand
But a child’s touch cannot reach beyond
Their birth to a foreign land 
To retrieve lost memories fond

In her realm time and place are a synaptic jumble
Behind curtained lids sightless pupils dart
O’er a past decaying to a mumble
As mind and body part

On a pedestal a not-still life 
Head set in stone yet body moving
To the heart beat of a mother and a wife 
Her monumental presence soothing

This poem came to me after visiting my mother in her care home with my sister, Joanne. It was our first visit in six months because of Covid restrictions and only the second time we’d seen her in a year. I had originally planned writing about how hand holding is central to human relationships and that holding hands through surgical gloves is wholly inadequate – perhaps surprising given that latex is thinner than a sheet of paper. But it turned out there wasn’t much poetry in PPE 😷 and I was stumped until leafing through Poems of Today, an anthology of poetry I serendipitously discovered later that same day on my mother’s bookshelf. In it I was struck by Midnight Lamentation by Harold Munro and in particular by the last verse:

I cannot reach beyond
Body, to you.
When you or I must go
Down evermore,
There’ll be no more to say
-But a locked door.

The locked door image resonated as a metaphor not just for death but for the death of memory that is dementia. Another book on mum’s shelf (and on mine too) – A Shropshire Lad by A E Housman provided the metre.

Mother’s Day

Dear Mum 

You didn’t like people making a fuss of you. So you weren’t a big fan of Mother’s Day. 

Before it all became what you disdainfully called Americanised, I do remember me and my sister bringing you breakfast in bed. Dad was in on the annual conspiracy and I’m sure you knew what was happening from the clatter in the kitchen. But you always feigned surprise when Joanne carried in the tray and I, her younger brother, theatrically threw open the curtains to let the morning shine on Kellogg’s Cornflakes, a boiled egg and toast (which left crumbs on the sheet we could feel through our pajamas when we were allowed to snuggle up next to you). Thank you for your indulgent smile that morning and every morning.

You still have it. Dementia may be emptying your mind. But it’s not draining your face. I’m picturing it now. It’s your gift to me this day (because mothers everywhere give far more than they can ever receive). 


Social distancing

Sheila is 85 years old.
Sheila has dementia.
Shelia lives at Ridgeway Lodge care home.

At night she curls herself into ball and sleeps under a single sheet.
Like an ammonite in a museum cupboard.

Visitors need a PIN number to get in.
Just four digits.
But ten thousand possible combinations.

1 2 7 9

First a one and a two, then a seven and a nine
More a pattern remembered, not numbers, a rhyme
But the rhyme is not working. All visits are banned.
I can no longer sit and just hold her hand

1 0 0 0 0

So now I’m holding her hand in my head
And I’m that ammonite curled up in my bed.
Eyes screwed shut against the start of the day
Ears not hearing the birds as they play
But feeling the flesh of my kith and my kin
The warm reassurance of skin upon skin…

1 9 6 4

My earliest memory. Here roles are reversed.
The mother is young it’s the child who’s nursed.
A doctor is summoned. The boy is not well.
Perhaps scarletina he really can’t tell.
And my eyes are screwed shut as they kneel to pray
Ears not hearing a word that they say
But feeling the flesh of my kith and my kin
The warm reassurance of skin upon skin…

2 0 2 0

The warm reassurance of one hand in another
First mother to child and now child to mother
We speak mostly nonsense because how do you say
That you might not be back for a month and a day
So my eyes are screwed shut because I don’t want them to be
Ears not hearing her last words to me
But feeling the flesh of my kith and my kin
The warm reassurance of skin upon skin…

“That’s nice.”

“That’s nice.”

“That’s nice.”

Unfinished memories

I’ve just found a notebook in which Sheila May Marshall started writing down her childhood memories. It might be written for my sister and I although not explicitly so. The first entry reads: “Your mother walked eight miles a day to and from school.

“Grandad met me at the ‘busy’ road.”

On the next page she’s written ‘schools’ in capital letters with a squiggly line underneath and listed those she attended from age 5 to 16. Tantalising glimpses of the child I never knew appear next to each.

During the war lessons were often disrupted as she and her classmates were led to the air raid shelters.

At Tollington School for Girls in Muswell Hill she wore a green uniform and was in Royden House – one of four named after notable women. Astor, Allen and Normanton were the others. I must look them up at some point. But for now I’m only interested in the notable woman that became my mother.

But the next page is blank. And the one after. And the one after that…

It’s only when memories are written down that they turn into a history that can be passed on.

Next to the notebook is a contact directory. The oldest entries are in the neatest handwriting. Names I recognise. Tom and Elsie. Madge and Harold. John and Audrey. Uncles and aunties. Tom who worked full time until he was 91. Harold who said heavens and by jingo. Madge who made impossibly sweet tea with evaporated milk that my sister and I fed to her aspidistras when her head was turned. But their names are all crossed out. And next to one of them are the letters R.I.P in a much more spidery hand.

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about dementia prompted by my mum’s diagnosis with the disease.