Following Her Footsteps

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My red shoes (the replacement ones) are no match for mum’s black canvas tackies with their neatly tied laces. The rhythm of her rubber soles racing down the corridor wakes me. I follow to help but am not quick enough off the starting block and when I do eventually run up alongside she refuses to pass the baton. It’s then I realise this is not a team relay but an individual marathon.

Her goal for today (and every day) is an afternoon sit down with the crossword or knitting – but only after she has completed each one of the cleaning and household tasks. 

She’s constantly in training though she cannot see the finishing line and has no idea when THE final race will be.

My mum is small and frail. The draft from someone passing her in the corridor would be enough to blow her over. And yet she staggers outside with a weighty laundry basket and thuds it down on the concrete beneath the washing line. My hands reach out to assist but her eyes signal: “I’ve got this”.

Each item of clothing is retrieved from the basket and, as she balances on tiptoes, pegged on the line with shaky hands. (Bend and Stretch) Repeat. There’s perfection in the hanging order of shirts, trousers and underwear – even down to the colour choice of pegs. I detect the slightest curve of an apologetic smile that says: “I have my system”. And in that moment I know she is missing the accounting job she retired from only two years ago at the age of 82 years, one where the figures were arranged meticulously on her spread sheets.

My clothes line looks like a creative installation and she does not want modern art on her washing line.

A gust of wind yanks at the bed sheet she is grappling to thrust like a javelin over a line. Momentarily she’s in a tangle and needs my steadying hand … but only for a second before fiercely reclaiming independence and struggling on ALONE. She belongs to the exclusive veterans club (I have not done the miles to qualify). And anyway, Mum is not afraid to let me know she disapproves of my hanging technique – my clothes line looks like a creative installation and she does not want modern art on her washing line.

I tear up at the same time the bed sheet buffets back in my face and wipes my eyes dry.

Then it falls and separates us – a soft barrier reminding me there will always be distance between us. I’m relieved it hides my expression for a few seconds as I regain composure. How do I love and support her today, knowing there can be no dependency fostered because I’ll be gone in a few weeks anyway?

Smile retrieved, I pop my head around the sheet and cheerily continue to look for creative ways to enjoy these precious moments together – on her terms.

(My time in South Africa with my elderly parents was punctuated with an entire range of emotions that made it poignant, painful and precious. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage this part of my big overseas trip but writing little anecdotes along the way helped me process and appreciate the feelings of what ended up being a amazing 5 weeks with them. This is an excerpt from my diary.)

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