It was my mum’s birthday on the 19 July. She would sing a song as we walked along. I don’t remember it very well as it was a long time ago that we walked along as a family but the bit I do remember was…”Keep your eyes on the path or you won’t see the boggy bits!”
We used to visit the Lake District often in my childhood. My parents lived in Barrow at the time I was born, and notwithstanding the glories of Walney Island close by, we found the fells of the Lake District utterly enticing. The fells are glorious. The bracken in red, green or blackened by wild fires in the lower slopes, the wonderful lakeland sheep so characteristic of the place. The hanging valleys and numerous waterfalls. The clouds swirling around the peaks and rolling down the slopes. The rocky crags and grassy slopes. The views of a thousand other summits seen as the top is reached, and the satisfaction of gaining the tops. And most of all the tarns. Large ones and small, silent dark pools and reedy marshes. I must have swum in every one we passed on some ascents on hot summer days. I adore their silence and their remoteness.
Mum phoned me at work one morning in August 2007. “Hello mum,” I said, quietly and reluctantly. I didn’t much like her calling me at work. In an open plan I.T. office the intimacy between a child and mother feels out of place. The conversation will be heard by everyone, as all my colleagues are usually silently coding, and my voice is easily heard over the sound of typing and quiet consultation between developers. In fact the loudest continuous noise is that of the computers, or perhaps the air conditioning units. I feel self-conscious about what I say and how I sound. After all, when other colleagues are called by their wives, husbands, or partners it is always entertaining. There are some who, like me, barely utter a word, and others who banter with them, evidently hoping we will all think they are very brilliant. And also those who sound, frankly, as though saying anything other than what their partners want to hear will only cause trouble for them when they crawl home.
Mum told me she’d been to see her consultant and he had told her she had inoperable cancer of the liver, in two nodules. She told me he thought it would be best if my brother and I visited the hospital and spoke to him, so we understood the situation. I was fairly offhand in my response.
“Oh dear, that’s not good.” And, “Yes, of course I’ll go, how are you otherwise?” I doubt any of my colleagues knew my mum had just told me she was going to die soon.
I might appear cold, and a little bit unloving, and perhaps there has always been something a little cruel in my nature. Truth is I always found life to be cruel; so cruel it felt right to mock it with my own cruelty. Macabre jokes amuse me. Are they even jokes? I used to visit my parents once a month, at least, plus a few more occasions when I’d be invited or expected to appear. I recall thinking once that if my mum lived another ten years, I’d see her again roughly 150 times. I recall saying it. I recall saying it to mum. It was with a bitterness towards this cruel life, and a realisation that I wasn’t visiting enough. My mum understood me, though she may have wished I had not said it. On another occasion we were chatting to each other about her declining health, and I pointed out that if she needed a kidney she ought not to come to me as I was thirty years younger and had more use to make of it. These comments hurt me now, more than they ever hurt my mum. But I kept other things from her. It would not help to talk of my marriage and its ups and downs. I never told her how I felt about myself. Except in her last month, when I told her why I didn’t want children. But I kept a bit back even then.
She was born in 1935. She loved to read. She read well. She was astoundingly knowledgeable about Dorothy Wordsworth. Mum worked as a teaching assistant at times and volunteered at Sure Start and the Citizens Advice Bureau. She got a degree in English Literature in her 60s.
Her health was always an issue. She spent a whole year in hospital with an unspecified illness as a teenager and had one of the first hole-in-the-heart operations in her early twenties. She took digoxin for the rest of her life. Her final years were blighted by a painful hip joint that was ultimately replaced, and various cancers.
She loved children and wanted more but struggled to conceive. She adopted my brother, then had me, then almost adopted Laura Ann Marie (her birth-mother changed her mind). Then ten years after I was born she had my sister, who has since renamed herself Laura. Everyone in my family has changed their name. Dad was George for a time but is back to being Derek. Mum, irritated at Dad’s change of name, chose Sheila as her name and used it on legal documents. My brother Hamish was actually named Colin by his birth-mother. And I was not always Kate! In Kenya she took in a little girl, Muthoni, who lived with us for a couple of years and went to school with my sister.
My sister got cerebral palsy, and my mother’s religious faith led to trips, just her and my wheelchair-bound sister to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and later to Lourdes. I’m so proud of her strength and determination. Baffled by her faith.
We rambled wherever we lived and we moved a lot. My mum was born in Loughborough, and as an adult lived in Bolton, Barrow, Ndola, Groby, Nairobi, Sheffield and Swinton. We moved house very frequently in both Ndola and Nairobi. Every couple of years. No house felt like home to me. The Lake District was a special place for all of us—near us when we lived in Barrow where I was born. My parents joined a walking group there and I was carried on dad’s back when I was just a baby. We visited the Lakes often, all my life. And every visit was about walking on the fells, with perhaps just a little devoted to Dorothy Wordsworth.
Mum is the source of my ethics, my liberalism, what kindness I have. In the last four years of her life we took day trips together to mark her birthday. She lived much longer than she’d thought she would but was in frail health for her last years. She would choose the place and we would drive there. We went to the seaside, to a safari park, to a Stratford play, and to a horse-racing course. We both loved those days out and talked more to each other during them than in the rest of the year.
It was on these trips that I first heard of my dad’s infidelities, and the struggles mum had had with keeping the marriage despite them. I don’t think there was much respect on either side after that but there was still so much caring evident whenever I saw them. My mother’s strong faith carried her forward, and I guess my father just preferred life with her than the thought of living without her.
The consultant was as vague as those in his profession usually are. All he was certain of was that operating to remove the cancer was no longer a reasonable option. He said my mum might live another few months, or a few years. She was dead inside a month.
That last month was also, coincidentally, the time Maggie and I sold our house. We hadn’t completed the purchase of our next house yet, so we stored our belongings at Maggie’s parents’ house, in every available space, in rooms, the conservatory, garage, and storeroom. We put up a tent in the back garden and slept there. Our cat slept with us. One night, in the small hours, we got the call that Maggie’s daughter was in labour. I drove round, collected her and her husband, and took them to the hospital. Jack was born later that day. A week or so later we all visited mum with Jack, and mum was able to hold this new life as her own was ebbing away.
That last month was cruel. Mum was very soon too tired to get up from her bed. Her weight, which had varied through her life but lately been healthy, dropped off her. She was too sick to eat a reasonable meal. In the end she was emaciated and really died of starvation before the cancer could kill her. I visited more and more frequently as the month progressed, as it became obvious that her time was short.
Or was it, “Keep your eyes up ahead, and you won’t see the boggy bits!” I think it was.