A letter to … my mum, who refuses to be old, though she’s 94


Can I persuade you to accept that you are getting back what you have always given out: love, help, guidance?

At 64, everyone thought you were the new 54. Even at 93, they said, “I can’t believe it, she’s more like 83.” In your late 70s, you stopped racing your motor scooter down country roads delivering newspapers to “the old people”. It was a farmer’s string across a lane, to guide his cattle, that ripped you off your bike and dumped you in the hedge.

Two months later, hating being looked after, you were as right as rain. Back campaigning for the Labour party. On the committee for Women’s Aid. Putting everyone’s problems right.

Now you are sleeping for much of the day. When you’re up, you smoke your infernal roll-ups and say, “This is fucking awful. What am I to do?”

I say, “You’re 94, don’t do anything at all. That’s what I’m here for. Someone will be here all the time.”

But this huge loss of capacity is such a cruel blow for someone who has always been on the go, always in control, always providing.

I’m getting so much from being with you this month. I realise you have had no chance to learn how to be very, very old. It’s come upon you so quickly because you missed out the stage called “being very old”. You used to love the quote, “It’s a bugger being old.” But, until recently, you’ve looked after yourself on your own, kept fit and healthy, and entertained your friends like a woman half your age.

We kids have seen “very, very old” coming over the past year, but it’s only really hit you just now. Those falls were a setback. The urinary tract infection was a game-changer. But your brain is still sharp. (I’m still not good enough for you at Scrabble.) You keep saying, “Sorry. This is pathetic.” Worse, you say, “I feel bewildered/lost/helpless.” Then you came up with “hapless”.

But you’re not actually miserable, or pitiable. Your body isn’t going to work much better, but I can help you to rethink and rephrase.

I’ll be just like you if I reach 94. A lifetime of doing it all and doing more is hard to put down. My own hyperactivity is a manic defence, continually breached as I witness these changes in you, as my love for you is revived.

Your parents and siblings are fascinating for me. I didn’t know your dad, but I was told to revere him. “Get up or I’ll knock you down,” was one of his sayings that made me laugh when I fell over, and then that idea shaped my own development. He had another funny line while his daughters put their PE kit together for school: “Gym today, girls? Lucky Jim.” Maybe not so funny nowadays.

You paint a vivid picture of a large, sporty, middle-class family with a jeering and domineering ethos. Much later, you saw the implications of your father’s decision not to pay for you to stay on at school – “Why bother? You’ll be married soon.”

Feminism made a lot of sense to you. Your intelligence blossomed as new friends lent you books.

Can I persuade you simply to accept that you are very, very old? Not ill, not useless – just, suddenly, 94. And that you are getting back what you have always given out: love, help, guidance. On your birthday, you said you don’t really like getting presents; I can see it’s hard for you to receive. But now you have to learn how to do just that. “Accepts” gets a lot of points in Scrabble if you place it well. theguardian