WHEN my mum took the call to say she needed brain surgery she was doing what she always does when things get rocky - having her hair done.
We had only had 24 hours to process the news that she had a brain tumour and no time at all to grapple with the tidal wave of emotions that came with it.
As they wheeled her down to the operating theatre two days later, I caught a glimpse of my own washed-out reflection in the hospital door and was floored by a fear that things would not be the same when she woke up: I was 30, with two babies under two, and when I next saw my mum, I would be both her daughter and her carer.
There is no good time at all for someone you love to be taken ill but this was going to be a slog. At home, my four-month-old son was too little for nursery to take him and his 18-month-old brother was, thankfully, too young to understand why Thursdays at grandma's house were on pause. I had just accepted a new job and there I was, in the middle of those I love most - my husband, my babies, my 60-year-old mum - thrown, a decade too early, into 'the sandwich generation': that squeezed space more typically occupied by people in their 40s or 50s who are caught between caring for their children and ageing parents.
Mum had been experiencing headaches for some time. The GP had put them down to stress but they grew so bad that some days she would almost black out from laughing. The worst came two months before her diagnosis when she travelled with us to a friend's wedding in Ibiza. On the last night of the holiday she took our toddler back to the hotel early. When I woke them for our flight home the following day she hadn't slept. She had a crippling headache and pain relief didn't touch the sides.
I took her for her MRI scan on a bank holiday Monday, the baby in tow and my toddler at home with my husband. The scan took a long time, quite obviously too long, and we were walked over to A&E, my little boy asleep on my shoulder and mum gripping on to my other hand. She was oblivious to what was coming.
I should say that the blow was delivered by the dishiest real-life doctor I have ever laid eyes upon. We couldn't stop laughing and thought of my late grandma who would have flirted with him well into her eighties. Mum had a brain tumour; a really big one. The surgeon was waiting at the doors to the ward when we returned 24 hours later for surgery, both of us sporting blow dries, mum with her trademark slick of coral lipstick and aura of perfume. Her hairdo wasn't going to last a minute of the operation but if we were going to face this thing, we were going to do it her way - looking glam.
Pre-op selfie: Mum and me
A myriad of medical briefings and leaflets flowed our way the next day. I sat with mum in the hospital garden where we had coffee and did the newspaper crossword as I comforted her, fed the baby and felt intense guilt that my other little boy was doing back-to-back sessions at nursery.
Mum did that thing I imagine we would all do when our mortality is brought into question and treated everything as though it were her last, telling me how she would like her funeral to be and who to distribute her handbags to.
My fear, though, was never that mum would die. My fear, selfishly, as I waited out the eight hours of her surgery, was that she would wake up a different, less capable, person to the vivacious, outgoing woman who had been my safety net for 30 years: the woman who had been my strength when I was a timid little girl, who giggled - or argued - with me over the phone every day when I moved away to university and who had come into her own as a hands-on, adoring grandma to my little boys. I was not ready to lose that.
Mum stayed in hospital for a month, a time which my brother and I call 'tour' ('what goes on tour' and all that). I toiled over whether to take the children on the daily visits with me but there were times when I simply had no choice but to bundle them along. I'm not sure how I kept this one-woman working mother/daughter/wife/care-giver show on the road. My hair was coming out in clumps and what was left was turning grey. I lost a stone in weight and my children enjoyed childcare from any and every friend who could help me. I missed bath times (guilt) and bed times (more guilt) and would fit the boys' naps around ward rounds as we held meetings about mum's care in side-rooms to accommodate the pram. In fact, my youngest spent so much of his early months touring hospital wards, it's a wonder he wasn't weaned on the smell of NHS disinfectant.
The long-term change in mum was, predominantly, an emotional one and, when she came home, the juggling act grew harder still. She moved into a flat around the corner, was traumatised and severely depressed and underwent a six week course of daily radiotherapy. I was committed to starting the new job, part-time, and days off were filled with caring for her and the children in tandem. Her confidence had drained from her and we still had weekly medical appointments to fit in to our already busy family routine. I would cook for her when I made the boys' tea and take her home late at night to limit the time she spent alone (guilt, again). My husband has the patience of a saint but having your mother-in-law become part of your household tests even the most tolerant of men. Mostly though, it was just achingly sad to watch the change in her.
Sociologists typically look at the sandwich generation as an ageing phenomenon but, for me, the experience hit me too young. It is only recently that life has started to re-find its equilibrium. Mum's recovery has been slow and taken huge bravery on her part. She has returned to work, on a perfume counter, but it takes its toll and her eyes don't sparkle as brightly as they did when I was young. I know there are too often times when she feels lonely while I enjoy time with my young family; the guilt can be unbearable and I have to force it to the back of my mind.
Nothing prepared me for the relationship of dependence that flung itself upon me on that bank holiday Monday in A&E. In many ways, our roles have reversed. For a long time I felt I had 'lost' the mum I knew but, in her more vulnerable yet no less glam way, she is by my side again now, gripping my hand, while I remain sandwiched between her, my husband and my little boys who do not know any different because she is still with us: a blessing for which I am not only grateful but will happily(ish) go grey for.
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