by Gerardine Meaney
Does darkness and death always finds its way to us through the wormholes of maternal mortality? I went along for a routine scan, with no symptoms, no bumps or lumps. I had felt so very tired for months and there were terrible tormenting headaches. I had put it down to ‘stress’, that holdall term for all our ills. Stress was where I lived. I had a demanding job and I demanded of myself that I do it not just well, but successfully, not least because it was so obviously not designed for a woman with two children and a dying mother. Three years earlier my mother was diagnosed with the Alzheimer’s disease which she had dreaded and which had been slowly, slowly developing for years. She always made lists of groceries, tasks, budgets, savings. The lists kept her going for years, the habits of decades of micro-organisation. She reared two children and put a bit aside every week for their education on the basis of a part time job and erratic child support, in the little window in history where council houses and maintenance grants gave her her chance. She worked in the sweetshop in the cinema, six nights a week, doing mental calculations in her head because the till was too slow. ‘Five choc ices, three cokes, two fanta, five packets of crisps,’ four clicks inside her head, a heartbeat to check the tot was right, ‘one pound, nine and si x. Will I throw in a little packet of jellies, bring it up to one pound and ten shillin gs?’ No one ever told her when she was a child that she was good at maths, or sums as she would have called it. I asked her once. Possibly it just seemed too unlikely, but then teaching nuns, as she described them, didn’t go in for compliments, not at all, and her home was a house of words, not numbers. I look back and think of all the other lives my mother could have lived, a multiverse onto herself, stand up comedian, saleswoman of the year, politician, mathematician. Not then, not in that place and time. And they would all have required her to stand still and stay quiet sometimes and that was not her. No wonder she oriented herself towards the future, steadily lodging ten pounds to its savings account every week.
Her time collapsed in on itself in two stages. First granny’s memory melted away, like a monumental glacier slowly sadly dissolving into the sea, disorienting all her tribe, for she was the anchor to the past who told us who we were. My mother had moved back to Waterford by then, to retirement and a council estate just on the edge of the countryside. She hated countryside, but she got the bus into the Clock Tower every day but Monday and met her sisters for coffees and lunches and lived without looking over her shoulder to see if my father had turned up again. Micro-organisation still to pay for the micro-pleasures, but she had an unlikely, indefatigable capacity for enjoyment. Then granny’s mind, which seemed all memory by then, began to fade and break and the sisters took turns every day to mind her and the brothers took their turn at night. It wasn’t enough, not in the end. Even a whole tribe cannot watch all day and all night over a mind that can wander dangerously, in its nightgown, in the streets, too near the river and the docks and no sense of present danger, just the call of a childhood home long, long gone. They were defeated by their care for her in the end and it brought back fear to my mother’s life, the fear it would happen to her too, as it had her grandfather years before. They all felt the abyss that seeps into your soul when your mother does not know you anymore. For how then are you to know yourself?
I hit the menopause the year my own mother was diagnosed, or rather it hit me. I was only 45, but because my mother was dying and I would so definitely have no more children, the thought got hold of me for a while that now I was more connected with death than life. The force of my daughters’s growth – pulling me forward towards the future, overflowing with their own lives’ possibilities – slowly loosened death’s grip. Rationally I know that cancer didn’t creep into me under cover of my own dark thoughts in the meantime or through the gap in my lifelong armour of optimism created by my mother’s worst fears coming true. Emotionally though, it felt, it still feels, as if my mother’s illness changed the story, changed the register of my life and created the conditions for all sorts of terrible things to happen. When I got cancer, I was in my early fifties, unfit, overweight, overstressed. It never occurred to my that my health was at any kind of risk. I still have difficulty believing I actually had cancer. When they called me back after the scan, I sat in a tasteful waiting room, all blonde wood and Vogue magazines, unreal. I think the habits of my childhood kicked in, and I imagined my way out of it. This wasn’t a narrative I could control. I lived through it with my husband and my girls and some close friends, but I didn’t see the point in talking about it much. There were certainly no words that could make it compatible with the social self I had made over the years, the self that overlapped so significantly with my professional identity.
I have never felt the confessional urge. I like to talk about myself as much as the next woman, but in an age when privacy has become a data setting, the instinct to keep certain parts of my self to my self and for my nearest and dearest is a contrary form of freedom. Where I came from and when I came from it the parametres of normal were constrictive as any jungle snake and twice as stealthy. We were different and it was a world where difference was suspect and vulnerable. My mother, my grandmother, my aunts were all great talkers, but they policed the borders of their talk. My aunt once said you could tell my mother that you killed someone and know she wouldn’t tell a soul, this despite the fact that my mother never stopped talking and she could, we all knew, talk to anyone. There was great strength in that family omertà that kept what was said in the family safe, even when what was said was said in despair or rage. The easy, chattering, humourous stream of social words dug a moat of charm between private and public, family and community. My grandmother once advised me on the best way to deal with unexpected clerical visits, an occupational hazard of difference at the time. ‘Keep him in the front room, give him the china cup and tell him none of your business.’ It was good advice and I have adapted it to the many forms of unreasonable authority I have encountered since. I have also retained a keen sense of the perversity of what your whole community can consider normal. It was very helpful when I went into academia. When I got cancer I moved into the front room for a while, not physically, but I put my fear and my fury away in the back rooms of my mind and made jokes about the euphemisms and the banalities and the niceness of the people who made me well. I painted over my distress with the ‘positive attitude’ that the cancer nurse warned me against, ‘it wears people out – some days you’ll feel shit and that’s ok.’ I couldn’t keep it up at home, not all the time. The girls made me endless herbal teas and held my hand and found me books and programmes that I liked. My penchant for Poirot repeats frightened them, they associated it with Mum’s nursing home so much. When the steroids made me too hyper or the chemo made me retch, I wasn’t up to much else. When the good weather came, I sat in the garden and listened to Debussy and Satie, read crime classics and began to write.
When I was first diagnosed, I immediately retreated from social media, from social most things really. I sensed that my laptop could be my window on the world or an inquisitive little intruder that needed to be distracted. I think that was why I invented Charlotte Alleyn, an alter ego who rambled around the internet, setting up twitter accounts, commenting on novels, even getting involved in the Kindle craze at the time and self-publishing a short story. Charlotte was 10 years younger than me and, according to her Amazon blurb, ‘lives in London with her husband, young son and a terrier called Moriarty.’ I never got to name the dogs in my real life, the children always had strong views on the matter, so I got particular pleasure from the imaginary terrier. Charlotte worked in the archives of the British Library which I have always loved and where I had planned to do research in the summer of 2014, before my cancer diagnosis intervened. It was very satisfying on days when I scarcely had the energy to walk the length of my own garden to engage in online conversations with strangers about the pleasures of walking to work through Bloomsbury or setting out on the Thames ferry for Kew Gardens on a sunny Sunday – if you can call Twitter exchanges conversations. When I had the last of my hair shaved off and my wig was too itchy to wear, I enjoyed imagining different hair colours for Charlotte. Chestnut brown? Titian red? I settled on a deep auburn. I never knew I cared that much about hair. When I started to find clumps of my own on my pillow it was manageable, then it started to come away in my hands. I went to the specialist hairdresser the hospital recommended and asked for the full Sinead O’Connor. If my hair was going, it would go on my terms. I looked in the mirror afterwards, nodded at the hairdresser’s reflection, and said, ‘I can live with that.’ ‘You have a great attitude,’ she said, everyone always said that, and I said, ‘Well, my hair is the least of it really’ and she made me tea while I looked at wigs. The wigs are too warm and you worry they will blow off when you go out in Irish weather. Sitting baldly in the garden, sending Charlotte on her travels, auburn hair glinting in the sun, was much more comfortable. I hadn’t enjoyed hair so much since I used to go to Peter Marks in Mary Street for the discount on colour, Monday to Wednesday before 4 o’clock for most of 1982, and walk out with it standing up in copper coloured spikes.
I went to an exhibition once where the Canadian artist Lynne Heller created comic books and installations using an avatar called Nar Duell. Nar was created from debris in the ruins of Second Life, a digital environment that was once feared as a rival to real social relations, whatever those are. Nar wasn’t that bright – she had a habit of misquoting Derrida — but she asked big questions, interrupting the philosophical threads of her creator’s thesis in feminist theory. Looking back, I think the memory of that inspired me to create an avatar who had the freedom to take risks and make mistakes that I would not. Amongst other things, she had the freedom to write without needing to write well or seriously. I didn’t have the energy to write professionally, still less personally, but I needed to put words on the page (well the screen really, even I struggle to read my writing). I really admire those people who write wise and wonderful and stylistically perfect books about their illnesses, but I was just too exhausted to try. Self-revelation takes a lot of energy. Even Charlotte, for all her freedom, wrote in the form much beloved of those who don’t like to give away too much of themselves, the detective story. Her only published story was a kind of Sherlock Holmes homage. She had devoured the complete works of Conan Doyle in her first winter in England, when her parents had moved the family there from Arizona, so it was basically fan fiction. It would take a few years of psychoanalysis to work out why she came from Arizona, which I have never visited and probably never will. Or why she had an American backstory. A Mystery in Baker Street was briefly top of the Amazon bestseller lists for British detective fiction – but only when the story was free. No one was going to pay her for fan fiction, no matter how on trend.
She was a couple of chapters into her first novel when she disappeared in a puff of sanity. I was on an examination couch in the hospital and overcome with vertigo. I remember collapsing back on it as I tried to sit up, swearing, and a doctor telling me my body was just overwhelmed and they were going to stop treatment for a bit. I was dizzy for weeks, hurled around in the vortex of unrelatable illness. Out of chemo, halfway through radiotherapy, for some reason reality suddenly pierced my carapace of denial and fantasy. My daughter was angry for years about the way I told her I had cancer, making her think it was all just a precaution, not really cancer itself, treating her as if she were a little child, which even as a little child, was a strategy she resented. But it didn’t feel remotely real to me, so how could I convey the reality to anyone else? It was so obviously not right for my story of myself.
The family were of course bemused by Charlotte. I was very proud when her story seemed to be doing well and I thought it would reassure them that I could still do something. I think my husband understood it kept me sane or nearly sane to write something when I didn’t really trust myself to write. I never told him about the hair, though he did try to change the name of the dog. My daughters thought it was alarming and strange, but then everything is strange when your mother is suddenly revealed to have an invisible enemy, gnawing away inside her breast. They were not impressed that she had an only son. I told them I was going to give her twin girls in a few months. I would have too. Even your fantasy life is a negotiation once you tell someone about it. I gave her a baby son because I had daughters and it was important she wasn’t me.
The idea of confession promoted to me as a child always seemed to me a Faustian pact, though I would not have had access to the metaphor when I tried to imagine sins to confess as a bewildered seven year old. There was a relationship between all the careful pruning of what you said and defending what was said about you that defined Ireland in the 1970s and the need to gush out all your worst secrets to precisely the figure from whom so much had to be hidden. For one short moment, all those guilt ridden, careful parishioners could say anything, and the guilt inducing priest had to take on the burden of the secret. They were freed, he was bound. Our modern therapeutic version of confession has discharged the destruction and renewal of control that was such a key part of the older ritual. Psychotherapy’s formal construct of privacy is rational and conditional – ‘this is completely confidential unless you are a danger to yourself and other’. It is nice and sane and much safer than the crazy ritual form of privacy regardless of consequence which characterised its non-clinical predecessor. Possibly one of the reasons Catholicism never really took with me is that I had another freedom available to me. I was pretty sure in my teens that the life I lived in my head was more real than anything around me. I thought I would walk out of Kilkenny and into a really good novel, one with literary style, grand adventures, a high philosophical concept and the kind of sex life to which reading Germaine Greer at 16 had made me feel entitled. It wasn’t a bad set of expectations for life, looking back.
So there I go, following the habits of a lifetime, veering away from the personal to culture, history, politics. I said I didn’t succumb easily to the confessional mode, but a therapist once told me I tend to conduct introspection as abstract theory. She tried to break the habit. She was a very nice woman and I have always valued abstraction and suspected niceness, so the therapy didn’t last long. I have never approved of the idea of writing as therapy either, though the process of writing this has certainly provided me with cause for self reflection. What did Charlotte represent? Another life I didn’t live? She moved abroad and made her life as an emigrant. She wrote unselfconsciously for pleasure. I gave her the gift of cultural naivety. And all those masses of auburn hair, swinging gently as she strode through the Bloomsbury parks. When my hair came back it was a shock of white, wild and wavy. I thought for a while I would keep it that way, but when I caught a fleeting glance in the mirror I saw my mother and my grandmother peeping back. I did think of auburn, but when I finally went to the hairdresser to colour myself back in I asked for chestnut brown.