Mother’s Day in No Man’s Land

My mother is ill. At least, I think she’s ill. She won’t let the doctor in to see her, you see. The police she waves away. The social worker she steadfastly ignores. She lives alone, far away from here. The gardener is allowed access, presumably because if her garden fence rots anymore her neighbours will lobby to have her removed. The home help visits every Tuesday. Sometimes she sends them out with a shopping list. Sometimes they take long, worryingly extravagant trips together to boutiques. I get snippets of the shape of my mother’s life from the lady who runs the home help, I badger social services weekly, and the doctor and I chat, frustratedly, once a month.

Me, my mother will not see. This is part of the illness, the illness that has caused my mother to push away everyone she knows. I think. She has not met my son. My one-year-old son. She has not met him or, to date, acknowledged his existence. We communicate primarily by email as she has a hearing problem. I got an email on my birthday with three Xs on it, but I didn’t hear from her for a month before I went into hospital to give birth.

“Don’t write about your mother,” my husband tells me. “It’s too hard, she’s ill, it’s not fair on her. What if everything changes and she’s in your life again?”

I don’t know. It’s not fair on her. It’s not fair on me. I need to write this. There’s a chance my mother and I may never speak again. When do I write about it? When do I talk about it?

My mother has always had troubles punctuated with long, healthy spells of good mothering. She was vibrant, loving, independent, quick to temper, a little narcissistic and a pioneer in the art of side-eye. She taught me to be unfailingly polite but never pliant, to not cook for a man and to always stick up for myself. By 18 months I was already sounding out polysyllables, and reading by the age of three. At five E. E. Cummings was my favourite poet, “do as you would be done by” was inscribed on my heart, and I knew what to do with a dock leaf. She taught me to love words, and to use them to shake out the giant folded blanket of emotions inside me, whether or not anyone read them. This is the sort of woman my mother was.

“Your grandmother was a whore,” she tells me, conversationally and over tea. “She was a whore all over town. Everyone knew about it.”

This was three years ago. I had never heard my mother use the word “whore” before, and the only way she’d disparaged her own late mother in the past was to call her “a bit spoiled and melodramatic”. During my next trip home my mother, again — in the middle of a benign conversation — made more shocking proclamations about my late father. Soon every time I visited I was hearing peculiar and upsetting details of her life that I’d never heard before. Tentatively I asked how much of this was perhaps in her imagination. I got the side-eye. She was mentally organising people she knew into camps of “enemies”. Best friends were suddenly non-grata. Favourite cousins were cast out.

Then it was me, when I fell pregnant in 2014. She was the first person I told other than my husband, in a quietly excited email. I didn’t hear from her for a fortnight, and then I received a long tirade, full of invented crimes I’d committed, and a fairly final dismissal.

I try to make peace with the fact that my mother, as I know her, is gone now. But there is a woman in her place, a mad woman maybe, who doesn’t love me and and doesn’t want me. “This piece isn’t really a good fit for Mother’s Day,” editors have told me, about my idea to write someone about how Mother’s Day feels when you’re in this situation. “I could make it positive,” I have added. But I can’t, really. Mother’s Day advertising rankles. “Me and my mother” profiles get me right in the heart.

I go through phases of patiently trying to get in touch with her, accepting her new self, and just working to get my foot in the door so that, living alone and unwell, she’s not totally cut off. I send her framed photos of us, updates about our life, but when she doesn’t respond the sad red rage descends and I declare myself motherless. I have to get away from it all. Fuck her, I think. Then I feel bad and send another loving missive off into the void of no reply. Does it go straight in the bin? Does she open it? File it in a big folder marked “ENEMIES”?

I don’t know. I may never know. I sent her a Mother’s Day card from my son, and one from me, yesterday. I’m not expecting to hear anything back. I wasn’t going to write this, but it was sort of bursting inside of me, and I needed to.

And my mother — the mother I remember — would have taken one look at my bruised insides and told me to write it all; write it out; and send it out into the world.