When ALANA KIRK’s mother was paralysed and brain damaged with a stroke it was her mum’s NETWORK OF FRIENDS that helped the Belfast-born writer balance MOTHERHOOD and PARENT-CARE …
Six years ago, I gave birth to my third baby. My mum had been with me at the hospital, and as we gazed at my new daughter, we believed all was well with the world. However, little did we know our world would be turned upside down just four days later. My mum was helping to look after my other two daughters while I recovered in hospital from the C-section and she rang me at tea-time on the Saturday just before she put my girls to bed. As she said goodbye she told me loved me, as she had done most days of my life. It would be the last time she ever said my name. After reading my daughters a story her brain, without warning, just bled away the life she, and all of us, had known. She was rendered immediately and permanently paralysed and brain damaged.
Although she continued to live for the next five and half years, her life effectively ended. My dad, brother and I were thrown into deep grief and her friends lost a friendship that had warmed their lives for nearly half a century. We cared for mum, and I began my “sandwich years”, caught between the responsibilities of caring for her and three young children. For the first year I spoon-fed both my mum and my baby, changing their nappies and only gauging their feelings through their eyes.
Eventually, balancing the responsibilities became an everyday reality. You live and grieve and do the dishes and feed your children and whole minutes go by, and hours, and then days when you are so busy dealing with the reality of life, the blade of grief stays blunt. Regardless of how you feel, you have to be a mother and a daughter, flicking from grief to dishes, from grief to cuddles, from grief to emails, from grief to laughing with your friends, until grief has woven into the fabric of your life like a thread, stitching all the parts of you together. But thankfully, also stitched into the fabric of my life was the support of my friends.
I had learned many lessons from my mum over the years, but the importance of building unshakeable friendships was one of the most important.
When I was young, I would look forward to Tuesday nights when “The Girls” met. The Girls consisted of my Mum and her closest friends who had found each other as they started out in married life, weaving in and out of each other’s houses and knitting their lives together. These “Girls” became Mum’s family, and as a result, mine. I called each Auntie and was loved by each. The Girls continued to meet every other Tuesday night for over 40 years, and during that epic epoch of sisterhood, they laughed and loved and lamented through every conceivable experience together – marriages, divorces, affairs, children growing, children dying, children getting married, children getting divorced, grandchildren, health scares, financial ruin. It was a soap opera without the credits.
When it was Mum’s turn to host, I would wait up until they all arrived in a flurry of perfume and blue eye-shadow, and would sit on the stairs and listen to howls of laughter echo through the lounge door. Sometimes it went quiet, and perhaps those were the times when hushed words of comfort were being handed out with the biscuits. The Girls, by this time in their 70’s, continued to meet right up until my Mum’s stoke.
Ringing to tell them the news was devastating. I don’t think I understood the depth of their friendship, or the responsibility they would take upon themselves to help us care for Mum. They were a constant presence in our lives as we cared for her, and in a funny way they still met as The Girls, coming to sit with Mum every other Monday night to allow my Dad to go out with “The Boys” (average age, 83.) They would do her hair and paint her nails, bringing her presents and love. She had no memories to go along with their faces, but her face lit up when she saw them and although she couldn’t remember their names, she remembered that she loved them. When everything else is gone, love remains.
They made me an honorary member of The Girls, treating my girls like grandchildren, showering their love on them on behalf of my Mum. I could no longer have her, so my Mum’s friends stepped up to help fill the gap she left.
I had often envied that tight unit of friendship. Having moved around the world, I couldn’t imagine such a unit for myself. But then I realised I had gathered mine up from many aspects of my life, an army of women who battle alongside me, celebrating my victories and sharing my loss. I don’t have The Girls that meet every Tuesday night. But I have My Women – amazing friends who get me through the day, and make me laugh into the night. A weird and wonderful group of strong and sassy women. And it was to these friends I turned. I had witnessed the power of friendship as the mainstay of my Mum’s life, and they have become the mainstay of mine. My friends shone a torch when there was no other light, and helped me map-read when the lines of life blurred. As the pull of responsibility drained me of colour, they threw paint splashes on my washed-out canvas. Work provided a space for me to find a creative outlet. Friendship provided a place for me to find an outlet for me. A place where I was not a mother or a wife or a daughter or a writer. A place where I was just me, and loved and appreciated for that.
From the moment my sandwich years began, my friends held the hand that missed my Mum’s so much. Having amazing women in my life – Mum’s friends and my own – meant I would be mothered still. I would not have survived the sandwich years without them.
Via The Girls, I was able to see Mum not just as a wife and mother but as a person who was loved because of who she was, not what she was. I want my daughters to see that they are loved by the family they are born into and the one that they will form, but that they will also be loved by the family they create for themselves, with friends. And if they see me as a person, not just a mother, they will know that despite all the labels they may have in life, they will always be themselves fist.
Just as my Mum’s friends became my family, so my close friends are my children’s family. They will be there for them when my girls can’t (or won’t) speak to me. They will mother them alongside me, because they are the sisters I would have chosen and the family I have created.
My sandwich years were the toughest of my life, learning to care for the person who had cared for me the most, and trying not to get stretched so thin by everyone’s needs that I disappeared. Mum died in my arms a year ago, and as I gave the eulogy at her funeral I looked out at the crowd, and felt the wave of love from her friends and my friends, joined together for Mum and for me. It is only with such support that we can survive life’s difficult times.
Alana Kirk is author of The Sandwich Years, published by Hachette Ireland, €8.99.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue out Thursday April 6.
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