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My Mother

My Mother has been living with forgetfulness for many years, exacerbated by an emergency triple bypass, four hip replacements, two knee replacements, a shoulder replacement and several others, all as a result of arthritis. For many years we have in a way refused to buy into her telling us that she is not normal, that something is wrong with her. She often felt that we did not understand how bad this is for her, or that we had no sympathy for her forgetfulness. Somehow, as a family, my Dad, my Sister and I did not see that part of my Mother’s “subjective cognitive impairment”. And we never allowed it to define who she is.

My Mom left school to become a nurse at the age of 16. On her first day of training, she was supposed to get a lift with a friend – as fate would have it, his car broke down and she had to walk to the hospital which was about four or five kilometres from their home outside Knysna. I often heard the story of how this event set her on a course of never being late in her life and also never relying on anyone else to get things done. The Matron of the hospital was waiting for her on the steps of the hospital, tearing strips off her as only a Matron could.

My mother was the District Nurse in Heidelberg where I grew up and spent her days driving a mobile clinic to the most rural parts to visit farmworkers who had no means of getting to town. We had no public transport. Most people working on farms were reliant on the farmers who would bring them to town, all piled up on the back of an open pick-up truck, on the last Friday at the end of the month. Many farm workers would buy alcohol and get drunk. I used to love going into town. It was however very sad to see very small children trying to get their hopelessly drunk parents back on the trucks, often leaving behind the bags of flour and sugar and other groceries in their inebriated state.

I often used to accompany my mother on her daily trips out to the farms in the big mobile clinic, stacked with all sorts of medication, a bed to do physical examinations, a desk to write at and a basin with running water. It was my job to open all the farm gates along the way. It was a wonderful experience. On certain farms we would be invited in by the farmer’s wife, served tea and eats in the most beautiful China cups in the formal lounge. We would hear all the stories about the goings on between the farm workers – who got stabbed, who fell pregnant without a husband, who was thrown off the farm, who got beaten up by the farmer because of insolence.

By the time we had finished our tea, the farm workers would have lined up outside the clinic, each with their clinic card (a record of their visits) in hand, babies on hips and toddlers in tow. Mostly women, every now and then a man would need stitches or a bandage from being in a fight. Whilst I was not allowed inside while my mother was seeing the patients, it was my job to ll little plastic containers with tablets, ointment or syrups. I remember hearing my mother getting very angry with some of the patients for neglecting a child, missing her monthly injection or worst of all, being pregnant.

As the only midwife in the area, my mother would be called out at all hours of the day or night to deliver babies. Sometimes she would be away for an entire weekend, waiting for a baby to be born. Interesting that many babies delivered by my mother were named after myself and my sister. My Mother was a hero in our town.

On visiting some of the homes when someone was too ill to come to the clinic, I distinctly remember seeing older people sitting outside the little shacks, smiling toothless smiles at “Sister Ann”, a term of endearment that everyone in and around calls my mother to this day.

I remember stories of horrible accidents where my Mother was the first at the scene with the ambulance, saving people from wrecked cars, and driving them to Cape Town hospitals. Often people died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Where I learned most from my Mother in her last job as Matron of the local Old Age Home. Caring for vulnerable people was instinctive to my Mother. Her Nurses training was just a formality to open the door to a career of caring. The lessons I learned from watching my Mother care for older people were what shaped my life. One of the first things that she insisted on was that the employees all get name badges and that the Elders would learn to address them by their name. (In the old Apartheid days this was often not the case…) She turned the institution into a home, adding a sunroom with funds that were raised, encouraging Elders to use this room to peel vegetables, “kerf” beans and socialise.

When the kitchen manager went on holiday, it was my Mom’s turn to move into the kitchen and for a whole month act as the Kitchen Manager. I would often hear the singing of Halleluja songs as the employees would sing whilst preparing special treats for the Residents under the supervision of my Mom, who loved cooking with the staff.

As most nurses do, my Mother instinctively knew when someone was terminally ill. It was an unspoken rule that no one will die alone in the home. I remember my Mom taking her knitting and sitting next to the bed of every dying Elder, waiting patiently with them for their last breath. She would not allow the undertakers to prepare the bodies – she would personally honour the person with this rite of passage, preparing the body, dressing them in a set of clothes that were specially kept for their death, and then call the undertakers to fetch the body.

Today, my Mom might not remember many of these stories. However, to us and to everyone around her she embodies these stories. Her being in the world now is about the present. It is our role as her children and her family and friends to carry her story, to honour her. All her life she has been paying it forward, never hesitating for a second to do good, to help out, to take action, to console.

This is what I see now when I look at my Mom. I cannot for the life of me see a medical diagnosis, I see a person who has made this world a better place. Whilst she might have forgotten this, it is our collective memory and embodied connectedness that makes and keeps her a whole person.

Today is Mother’s Day and International Nurses’ Day. I stand in awe of my Mother, Sister Ann, for having given life to so many. It is my privilege to keep her memories and share them in my life’s work.

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