My younger son considered the view as I raised the scarf with which I cover the near-naked skin of my scalp. There are but a few wispy strands of fluff and the stubborn remnants of the Tintin-esque fringe with which to cover my baldness. I am not one of those fortunate females on whom it looks like a style choice. Knowing Alex fairly well after a lifetime of being ‘Mum’, I could see both the unspoken grief as he registered the lingering effects of chemotherapy and the twitch of amusement.
We went with the latter.
“You look like an orangutan…”
“I like orangutans,” he added, hopefully, as if that might appease my wounded maternal vanity.
“He’s right,” said his older brother the following day, critically assessing the image on the screen during a video call. The son with whom I shared a love of the Discworld books said, “You should say ‘Ook’ more often.”
According to the medics, the hair loss was inevitable, the loss of my voice is probably not down to laryngitis and the excess of hot, red flesh is not to be blamed on overindulgence in festive fare. They can probably all be blamed on the main vein to the heart being compressed. I believe they call it SVCS… which I assume means something along the lines of ‘squished vein causing swelling’ but in posher, Latin terminology.
The trouble is, I cannot disagree with my sons’ assessment… the mirror tells me that it is fair and as none of my menfolk seem inclined to offer any strategically dishonest compliments, I have to accept that the days when I could look in the mirror without cringing are long since gone and an ‘ook’ may be all I can manage.
It is yet another one of those instances of ‘letting go’ that you stumble across in circumstances like these. And it is surprising how the mind wants to work to deal with the idea. My first intimation of the whole ‘letting go’ thing was realising I would have to say goodbye to all those fictional characters, both read and written, that I have kept in my heart and mind for so long. Now, it takes very little to realise that it was not fictional people that were really bringing the tears to my eyes, but I was not ready to deal with anything more painful at that point. The brain is clever at such subterfuge.
The dog was no better… she still worries the life out of me, because how do I explain? Who will be there for her when I finally go? Knowing full well that she will be very well looked after and will understand what is going on far better than, say, my little granddaughters…
So, bit by bit, you start letting go of the illusions too. And it makes it very hard when others cling to them. I know the statistics… they are wide ranging averages and people do novel things with ‘expectations’ every day. That barely comes into the equation.
But letting go of the things and the roles by which you have defined yourself, that is an interesting and revealing process. That I may have to stop being a ‘carer’ at some point and become a ‘caree’… but that, regardless of what I am able to actually do, I will always be a mother… it shows you what really matters, and what is just a definition, a label applied by both self and society to pin down just a small part of who you are.
My self-image is being challenged daily. I can no longer walk or bathe my dog, for example. Changing the bedding used to take minutes and now takes most of the morning… even with breaks in between. Housework is a major undertaking and I doubt if I will ever be able to mow the lawn again. Even in this tiny flat I am gasping for breath as I dust. Learning to accept help and rely on others does not come easily. Learning that maybe the housework never mattered quite so much as I thought is even harder.
Then you get to wondering about who and what you really are. The body is just a collection of organic components, put together and lent to us by Nature. We use it for a while, like any other vehicle, then when it has outlived its usefulness, its component parts are broken down and returned to earth.
I believe that the ‘driving force’ of that vehicle is not part of it but of another order of being altogether. Look at how we can observe ourselves, often from several ‘steps’ back from everyday consciousness, watch the layers unravel and unpeel… and while I expect most of those layers to dissolve with the body, I am convinced that something survives, especially after having watched an accident unfold as a ‘ghost of myself’ many years ago.
Life, death and the bits in between… we know very little about what any of them actually are, except in physical terms, and yet we accept these amorphous definitions as readily as we do far more concrete concepts. But I wonder what each of us would come up with, were we to ask ourselves, in the unjudged silence of the innermost heart, “Who, or what am I really?”
Other than an orangutan, of course.