I dreamt I saw my mother last night. The last time I saw her I was twenty one years old, and for the last twenty years of her life, we were estranged. I own no photographs of her, and in my waking hours it’s difficult for me to remember how she looked, but I see her very clearly in recurring dreams which dissolve within moments of waking.
Our relationship was mixed; while I adored and worshipped her, she rarely returned any sign of affection and to this day I’m even unsure she loved me at all. We did not have what anyone could remotely consider to be a normal mother-daughter relationship, there was a forty nine year age gap between us, adoption and cultural issues, but the real interloper was arthritis.
I have no memory of any time that she was not in agony and neither did I understand anything about this awful disease. I only knew that she was often in immense pain which stemmed from the swelling in her knees, ankles, and hands. I was always an early riser and every morning I would enter my mother’s bedroom to say good morning. A “good” morning was very rare. Usually she would have taken a cocktail of drugs while still in bed, turned on the electric blanket and waited for the pain to become bearable before getting up. Quite often here first words to me were, ” I’m very bad today”. She was definitely not a hypochondriac; I have no doubt she felt terrible from just the look on her face.. A short woman, she was very overweight, her face was bloated, and her knees, ankles and hands were always swollen. Under her upper arms she had a large flap of skin which hung weblike anytime she lifted her arms.
She depended greatly on Prednisone and I think she dosed several times a day. I did noticed over the years that the prescriptions got progressively bigger until she was bringing home bottles that contained five hundred pills. Only recently did I discover that Prednisone had some bad side effects for long-term users such as weight gain through increased appetite, as well as leaving them moon shaped face. Only now do I understand the terrible toll that arthritis and Prednisone took on her body and most probably her moods.
Over the years, she did everything she could to relive the pain. This included traditional and non-traditional medicine, diets and prayer. Today, many years later, I realise how desperate she must have been to get some relief, and mobility.
Apart from her visits to the doctors and her pharmaceuticals, she also tried acupuncture. Initially, she was very hopeful that this could provide some sort of cure. I remember accompanying her on a visit to her acupuncturist on one occasion and seeing a chart of the human body with needles stuck in just about every conceivable place and wondering how this could possibly help. However, after a while these visits ceased so I can only conclude that acupuncture didn’t work.
She found a book recommending honey and apple cider vinegar, and she gamely drank a large tumbler every evening. I liked the honey, but I didn’t care for the strong smell of vinegar. She also gave up on eating tomatoes because they were acidic; this was a real sacrifice because she really did love tomatoes in her salad and also in toasted cheese sandwiches.
A staunch Catholic, she went to church every single morning of the week. She obviously got something out of it, because she never missed a single day which annoyed me for some unknown reason. In her belief, she often said that her pain was sent by god to try her faith. I often wondered whether she went to Mass because she was so desperate for a miracle cure. To me, god never listened and it might have been because her knees were so bad that she could never kneel during the service. A friend of hers bought her a bottle of “holy” water from Lourdes which are said to have miraculous working properties. For as long as it lasted, she took a sip from the bottle every day and would dip her finger in the water to cross herself. She passed her Catholic faith on to me, but the thought crossed my mind that the bottle could contain water from anywhere – it certainly didn’t work for her.
The arthritis in her knees and ankles seriously hampered her mobility, but her hands were so bad that she frequently dropped and broke things, and lifting anything even slightly heavy or opening a jar of anything was completely beyond her. We didn’t have an automatic car with drive assistance, and any trip in the car made her hands ache. Over a period of time, she had her knees drained as well as operations on her knees which might have been replacements. Each operation involved a considerable stay in hospital, and a very painful rehabilitation which I remember so well.
I never saw her cry, and while she complained about the arthritis, I think that was her total right. Where was I in all this? I was an insensitive teenager who simply didn’t understand why my mother was always ill and couldn’t do things other mothers could. The house and garden were unkempt to the point of filthy, but I didn’t help.
Today I’m 52. After a lifetime of running, by knees and back are not in the best shape. I get up every morning with a stiff and achy back and sitting in my office chair for any long period of time is unbearable. My aches cannot even compare to my mother’s, but I have some small understanding of how life must have been for her. Once, she told me how she wanted to die, and today I can sympathise. In heaven, she was sure there would be no arthritis and her body would be pain free and whole.
I have many regrets and guilt that I didn’t do more than I surely could have. I wish I had known her when she was a young, beautiful and energetic woman that her younger photographs suggest. I suspect I’ll always have these painful dreams, but I don’t wish they would cease. She’s been dead for over ten year, but it is only in my dreams that I can tell her the things I was not able to say to her in life. So for now we continue to share in these dreams; my mother, her arthritis and me.