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  • Dougie

"gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm"*

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

Today -- after six years of being apart -- I sat with my mother, Betty, for a few hours. My life and work in Australia kept me far away from home. COVID-19 extended the period of separation by at least two years. But that is true for all of us, of course. Lives interrupted.

It had been my wish that Spike and I could have travelled back to Scotland last year to join Betty in celebration of her 90th birthday. Just as we'd done ten years before, at 80. We missed ninety-one as well. But border closures, no vaccines, quarantine restrictions and all the rest ...

There is not one of us that does not have such stories we could tell. Our lives disrupted.

But here we are at last.

Our time together, though, is not as any of us expected. Betty fell at home three months before Christmas 2021. There then ensued a few months in acute and rehabilitation wards in two Ayrshire hospitals.

It was during that short period it became clear to (almost) everyone that 'ageing in place' ... community care ... social care for the elderly (whatever the professional jargon is of the industry I've been part of for 35 years) was no longer safe; no longer a realisable person-centred, user-controlled option for my mother.

When a room became available in a nearby well-rated, high quality residential aged care facility (or nursing home as most folk call them) the move was made. Betty needed the best support possible that a caring, decent, contemporary social welfare system could provide.

The Health system needed the hospital rehab bed in a National Health Service specialist unit that could do no more to enhance my mother's wellbeing. My brother Joe and sister-in-law Steph helped my mother to begin to make a change that is -- in any life -- challenging.

So, as soon as the (former) Government of Australia lifted border restrictions and removed quarantine rules we booked our flights. And here we are today with Betty.

We are all happy to be together at last.

All the same, I cannot tell a lie. This is uncharted territory for us. But every part of every life is always about breaking new ground, in one way or another, for every one of us.

If we're lucky (which not everyone can say they are) love binds us together, helps us, holds us in its arms and reminds us with the gentlest touch, the slightest whisper, the merest, fondest look or inclined head that this new ground -- these encounters and connections -- are just as much a part of life and love as all the other moments have been; as all the others yet to come shall be.

Betty is frail but not unwell. That's a plus.

However, my mum has many difficulties retaining information and her short term memory is all but gone. More and more my mother lives in each new moment (for that moment only) and, to some degree, back in a past which is -- more slowly -- fading too. We must do, therefore, whatever we must do to be with Betty in her ever-present now and -- where or when and if we can -- tread gently with her through whatever from her past remains. There are photos, objects, belongings we can use. They help us all.

This we do. As well as we can.

I go through an album of photos taken of and from her life. Spike tells tales of our journey over (here -- the re-enactment of Ellen Terry's pose for John Singer Sargent's pre-Raphaelite re-imagining of Lady Macbeth).

We smile and laugh. Betty is in her element. My mother is happy. And all is good.

(* from 'Frost at Midnight' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798. This she wanted for her boys and believed / believes her God would grant it.)

Dear babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,

Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,

Fill up the interspersed vacancies

And momentary pauses of the thought!

My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart

With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore

And in far other scenes! For I was reared

In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,

And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze

By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags

Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,

Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores

And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language, which thy God

Utters, who from eternity doth teach

Himself in all, and all things in himself.

Great universal Teacher! he shall mould

Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

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