Friday, May 25, 2012

Lost in France I: 1990-97 (A Life under 6 Popes continued)

We bought this house in 1989 and for three years my mother lived permanently in it, whilst I continued to teach in London, but spent all my school holidays here, Colin joining us when his work allowed. Then one Saturday morning in 1992 I was roused from my lie-in by what turned out to be an urgent phone call from our French next-door neighbour's daughter in Paris. She was ringing to let me know that during the previous week her mother had died suddenly from a heart attack. That was shock enough but as she spoke I realised that I had only spoken to my own mother a couple of days previously and she hadn't mentioned a thing. And now here was Yvette telling me that nobody had seen my mother since before the death. The house shutters remained closed and she was not answering the door. The local grocer had been leaving bread and milk on the front doorstep and she had taken that in, although nobody had seen her do that. Yvette as very kindly ringing to alert me to the fact that something was very wrong.

Fortunately Brent gave me compassionate leave and I was able to get down here by the following Tuesday.

My mother had no history if illness, physical nor mental. Up until the death of Madme Martin she had been mentally and physically active. She was very fond of her French neighbour. The death changed her for ever. I will not go into details but it became plain that she could no longer live alone and so I brought her back to England with me. She became very dependent on me and did not like my going out to choir practice and Sunday Mass. She would plead with me not to go. Then if I insisted she would cry. Within the space of one year she began to ring me at school with all sorts of stories why I must come home immediately., the final one being that the flat was on fire. I raced home from Willesden to find that it was all an invention. Clearly the situation could not continue. In summer 1993 I took early retirement and we moved permanently to France where we could look after her. We never really got to the bottom of what was the matter with her and it was not for the want of trying I can assure you. Every kind of physical test was done. Nothing showed up as wrong. Psychiatric tests proved equally inconclusive.  Her whole personality seemed to have changed.

I had for some years been developing a spirituality of gardening and in the relative peace and quiet of my new French life continued it and finally began to write about it. In 1994 my mother had a stroke which hospitalised her for 3 months.  She came home on the day we began our first Shakespeare Festival. We were told at the hospital that they could do no more for her. She seemed determined not to get fully better. In other words she had lost the will to live. Her decline took a further three years and finally  in May 1997 she had to go into the local cottage hospital. She could not swallow; I could not feed her at home. Two weeks before the end, she sank into a semi-coma, At the time we had some Irish Catholic friends living nearby. They knew a Polish priest who would come and at least bless her. (My mother was not a Catholic but in her final year had expressed an interest in being received. My former Parish priest in London had given me permission to provide the instruction in extremis. I had begun this but as the final months approached I had to accept that she was not capable of understanding.or of communicating on the kind of level involved.) I explained all this to the Polish priest. He asked us if there were any prayers we would like to say in English, reminding us that hearing is often the last faculty to shut down. And so we said the Our Father and the Hail Mary.  I am convinced she heard them..

I cannot write more about this period. The memories are still too raw.

A fortnight after the funeral I was back in London, searching for work and looking for a publisher for first of my gardening books  The French dream had turned out to be a bit of a nightmare but it had been the context in which the idea for a whole series was born.

Shortly afterwards it became apparent that the health of the Pope had begun its long decline

To be continued

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