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.”
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
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.
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).