Tuesday, February 23, 2010

House of Cards

My poor old mother has lost the ability to sleep. A lingering chest infection over the Christmas period, the remorselessly grim weather and grief at losing her only sibling have combined to rob her of this most basic faculty. My Mum is not generally a moaner, being (as I have noted before) from a generation far more stoical and emotionally buttoned-up than the present one. She is blessed(?) with a vivid inner mental life which, when all is going well, is an asset but without an outlet has a tendency to toxic introversion, lying awake in the dark and dwelling on matters, or over-analysing conversations.
All the things that usually cheer her up, getting out and about, walking the dogs and gardening have been severely curtailed by the permanently icy ground, of which she is understandably wary. She has been on a very restricted round of activities, now rendered almost intolerable in their predictability, all with my Dad in tow. Although they generally get on well enough, being in such close quarters 24/7 has caused a great deal of friction, particularly as he insists on an almost military approach to life and won't countenance any sort of deviation. This entails breakfast, lunch and tea on time, but he would never consider lifting a finger to help.

To be quite honest, it is partly my mother's fault for putting up with this ridiculous situation for so long. The old-school bargain 'I'll be the breadwinner, you take care of the home' is fine up to a point, and that point is retirement. Then all roles should be reconsidered.
I think that they were probably happiest just before my father retired: Dad was immersed in a career he loved and Mum, who had learned to drive late in life, came into a small inheritance which allowed her (without having to ask permission) to buy a small car of her own. She happily pottered about, guiding at a local NT property, shopping on her own and visiting friends, or even me, when she felt like doing so. When my father retired she lost this autonomy in a matter of weeks, and her car became their 'standby' car which she drove less and less until she ceased driving at all.
I really couldn't believe the way that she relinquished this small measure of independence apparently without struggle -it was so hard won, she had passed her driving test at the seventh attempt - but when I quietly took her to one side and queried the wisdom of giving up her freedom, she said she'd basically done it for a quiet life. 'Your father' she said 'can be difficult and very petty' but wouldn't discuss the matter further.
Poor Mum. She painted herself into a very miserable corner, and there now seems very little prospect of escape.

I have absolutely no doubt that she is, unsurprisingly, grieving and depressed. Fortunately, she seems also to recognise this may be the case and has made an appointment with her GP. I hope that she will get a sympathetic hearing and some pharmaceutical help at least in the short term. But in this lies another problem: for many years both my parents airily implied that people with depressive tendencies are lacking some sort of moral fibre or 'intestinal fortitude'. My father, cornering me for 'a quiet word' intimates that he considers my mother's current problem as 'all in her head' and that she has brought it on herself by morbid thinking. Which, even if partially true, doesn't make it any the less real or distressing for her.

Once again I am brought back to face the problem of the contracting life and expectations of old-age.
By and large, my parents have been an extremely good example of keeping going, although they have recently started to manifest signs of slowing down and being less adventurous. The last thing they need at this stage is to perceive one or the other as 'ill' in any way, as I believe that this will bring all their plans grinding to a halt and, like Mum's abandonment of driving, that will be it. Timid old age, fearful of harm.
One the other hand, being 'ill' might actually be a way for my mother to abrogate her role of housekeeper and second fiddle. Perhaps she subconsciously realises this, but I don't think so - she prides herself on her ability to 'keep house'. However, she manages to simultaneously resent the burden of expectation that it puts upon her and dismiss as 'lazy' people who -actually - don't allow themselves to be used in such a manner.
Peoples' happiness seems to be very much like a precarious house of cards - as long as everything is in place all is well: but one puff of the wind of adversity and the whole edifice comes tumbling down around their ears. Its stability rests largely on good luck and an endless amount of minor recalibration.
Roll on the good weather!

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