Handle with Care

Handle with Care is a textile piece about my experience of caring for my terminally ill mother in 1979, the summer I turned 16.   I had never thought of myself as a ‘carer’ until earlier this year when I was involved as an Arts & Health Practitioner in a community arts project in Devon called The Craft of Caring.   The main project was engaging with carers in a series of workshops to make a piece of community artwork.

There was a call for art submissions from people about their experience of being a carer.  After hemming and hawing for a few weeks, I decided to make this piece.  Although I have done a lot of work on this loss over the years, I have carried vivid visual memories around with me for the past 40 years.  This piece of artwork gave me the opportunity to process my experience in a different way than I have done so in therapy.

Artist’s Statement:

“This self-portrait uses photographic and stitched images,
layers of memory and text to capture the artist’s experience
of being an adolescent carer;   an experience of a world unravelling
contrasted with the strength of will to hold herself together.”

Handle with Care, 2019

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The day she left for good

Some days I wear heavy like a scratchy wool blanket, folded in half and draped across my shoulders.

35 years ago today, my Mom died from cancer at age 55. It never gets any easier, only different.

Some years it’s the anguish of being left so soon; other years, the anger that she was so young and why does everyone else get to have a mother for such a long time; all of the milestones of graduation, marriage, achievements that I never got to share; the absolute wrongness of me having to deal with bedpans and hospital visits when I was a young teenager; questions about who she was and who I am left unanswered; the not getting to see her grow into the fullness of her life; nor for her to see who I have become . . . . .

This year it’s about the lost time together. Last night I dreamt that she and I were on a quiz team in a pew at the back of a church. We didn’t win. When we left the church, we each made our way through a concourse of restaurants and shops. We met again at the exit. To try to explain why I haven’t spent time with her for so long, I shyly said ‘I thought you’d died’ and decided to ask if she’d like to watch Napoleon Dynamite with me.

I awoke hopeful that this dream I’ve had any number of times, that I’d made a mistake and she is still here, was true this time. But it wasn’t.

So I spent the day, warm and slow and quiet, reflecting on the empty places and the full spaces that make up my relationship with my mom.

35 years

Mother’s Day Musings

Sometimes it can be hard to move beyond, or to do better than our Mother.  Maybe more so, maybe less so, if our Mom isn’t around any longer.

My last Mother’s Day with my Mom was in 1979.  I was 15.  She was 55.  I can’t remember anything special about that day.  She died from cancer on January 20th, 1980.

My Mom, Nell, found her breast lump around 1974-5.  She sought medical attention in late 1978.  The lump matasticized a few months later and she died in less than a year.  I have some ideas about why she waited so long.  At one point, maybe when it was too late to make a difference, she asked me what she should do.   I said something like, ‘Whatever you think is best”.  I was 15.

Sometime during my mid-twenties, I vowed that if I ever found anything unusual in my breasts, I would seek medical attention immediately. I had a benign lump removed in 2007.  The doctor said it would be OK to leave it, but based on my family history, he recommended removing it, just so it won’t be a distraction if anything else came up.   Which I had done.

A few weeks ago I found a small lump in one of my breasts.  I went to the doctor the following week.  (I live in England, which has the National Health Service, so all of this is free BTW).  She said, “This is not a problem, but I’ll fast-track you for an appointment at the Breast Unit in Exeter to put your mind at ease”.  My health centre called me at home an hour later with an appointment.

I went two Fridays ago and the specialist who examined me said it feels completely benign and normal, but again, he’ll fast-track me an appointment for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy (if needed).  Again, this was based on the fact that I was worried.  I felt very emotional when I went on that day, I think because I’m around the age that my Mom was when she found her lump.  I don’t think the emotion was completely due to being afraid I might die, like my Mom.  I think it also had to do with my Mom not choosing to go and get her breast lump checked out when it was an early stage.

Last week, at my third and final appointment, the doctor said the lump that I felt, and there are a few other lumps hanging about which he showed me on the sonogram screen are harmless cysts that will probably disappear when I’m 75.

So, that was a great ending.  I chose Life when I went to the doctor straightaway.  And I choose life.   My life feels really good right now.  Steve and I are coming up to our 2nd wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks.  We set the goals together of losing some of our Epicurean-Gourmet lifestyle excess weight and of re-decorating our flat.  We’ve nearly reached them and feels great!  I’m thinking about what other goals I’d like to set.

I’m starting to explore ways that I can use my counselling skills in paid work.  Maybe as a Creativity Coach or as a Creative Arts Therapist, in person and even via Skype with artistic people.

Good things are happening with getting my artwork out there.  Enter the Forest of Dreams is going to be shown in Birmingham this summer and I’ll be in Devon Open Studios in September.  My new website is going to be amazing and I’m planning to open an ETSY shop (but I promise to keep it low key!).

My Mom wasn’t having a happy life when she was my age and I don’t know how that influenced her choices about her health care.  I wish that she could have had a happier life.  I don’t know if she ever found what she was looking for, but I hope that for her.  I like to think that perhaps the fact that I’ve learnt from some of her mistakes and have made many micro-choices along the way in the direction of Positivity, has a good impact on her now.  When we do healing work on the crap that was passed down through our ancestral line, it heals our ancestors as well as us.

Sometimes it can feel difficult to go farther or live a better life than one’s Mother, but it’s a good thing to do.

my Mom Nell and her Mother Maggie, circa 1950

I really loved her.

I used to love making her a card for her birthday and for Mother’s Day.  I’d either buy or make her a present too.  Here’s the card I made for her in 1975.