Where There Once Was Love
Second Place in the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories
Fiction by Aisling Lee
1 December, 2022
The first time I disappointed my father was when I was born a girl. The regard in which he holds me has only shrivelled and crumpled in the forty-one years since; every move I have made has been the wrong one, but I gave up hoping for his approval before I even hit my teens.
If I was going to insist on being female, he maintained, the least I could do was adhere to gender-appropriate behaviour, including – of course – obedience, submissiveness, and dependence under he and Mum until, when the time came, a husband could take over.
I should have been practicing piano or ballet during my school years instead of frequently being declared woman of the match on the soccer team. I should have taken home economics and music for the Leaving Cert instead of physics and chemistry. And I certainly, certainly should have invited a young man to my debs instead of Emma Conway, after coming out as bisexual just weeks earlier.
I could afford not to care what Dad thought because I always had Mum. Dad and I were the opposing devil and angel perched on Mum’s shoulders but, somehow, she saw two angels. Taking Dad’s attitude towards me as a rough-with-the-smooth type of flaw, she loved us both. Similarly, I managed to overlook her only discernible shortcoming – her resignation to Dad’s aloofness – and loved her like a best friend.
As soon as I indicate and begin to veer my little Micra towards my parents’ gateway, I feel like I’m being watched. My worn-out hoodie and unwashed hair begin to feel conspicuous, like Dad’s disapproving eye is upon them before I have even stepped out of the car.
Dad’s rotten luck of having a daughter was never even redeemed by her being a beauty. With his pinched mouth and Mum’s hooked nose both exaggerated in me, I have also been cursed with gaping frog-like eyes with no lashes to speak of, and unseemly size-eight feet. I know my father looks on me with contempt.
He opens the door and, with a demure ‘hi’, I lean in stiffly for half a hug (just an arm around the shoulder) and a non-kiss (cheek to cheek with the appropriate smushy sound).
‘Well,’ he replies, stepping back promptly and then closing the door.
‘How is she today?’
‘Aw, sh … same as usual, spose.’
Nodding slowly, I lower my eyes and purse my lips. ‘I’ll head on up then.’
‘Mm,’ Dad grunts, returning my civilised nod. ‘Tea?’
‘No thanks, no, I’m fine.’
He responds with a single syllable which resembles earl but I believe is intended to be alright. I turn and make my way upstairs.
Only in the last six months since Mum’s deterioration has escalated have I begun to feel like a visitor in my own home. When she was here – mentally here – to receive me, she did so both as if I had never moved out, and as if I had been away for years. She offered me tea with the kettle already boiling and two mugs on the counter, and often assumed that I’d be staying for dinner – but she was also consistently thrilled as if surprised to see me, and gushing with enthusiastic questions about my day, my week, my life. I felt like a grown-up child returning home, and now I feel like a guest minding my manners and being careful not to overstay my welcome.
As I mount the final step to the landing, I consider the fact that I haven’t been able to fully accept that feeling like a visitor is going to last forever. There is no when Mum’s better. There is no when I feel welcome here again. The future, regrettably, doesn’t hold any of that, but by some glitchy default setting based on experience, my mind believes that it does. So I have to repeatedly activate reason, and remind myself of the truth: Mum will be dead soon. And when she is… what? Will I pay the occasional guilt-driven visit to Dad? Or will I never set foot in this house again?
The door to the spare room – now Mum’s room – is always left ajar so that Dad will hear her if she calls for help. I ease it open all the way, and find Mum not in bed as I expected but sitting up in the bedside chair, the room’s new permanent feature for Dad’s benefit and mine.
She meets my gaze with suspicion like a stray cat newly discovered by the person whose garden they’re invading.
‘What are you doing home so early? How did you get home?’
‘I’ve just come to visit you, Mum.’ When Mum’s propped up in bed, I normally sit in the chair, but today I eye up the side of the bed, towards the footboard, and perch there. ‘How are you?’
‘Never you mind how I am! Haven’t you got homework to do?’
A relatively good day: she thinks we’re about thirty years in the past but at least she seems to know who I am.
‘No, no. My homework is long finished, so I have time for a chat. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Long finished? But you just got here.’ Mum examines me closely, her feathery grey eyebrows furrowed in concentration, and I fear she’s about to notice I’m not her school-age daughter, and accuse me of being an impostor.
‘Mum, listen.’ I stretch an arm towards her, momentarily unsteadying myself on the bed, and rest my hand atop hers. I’m glad when she doesn’t pull away. ‘We can talk about my homework later. I think there might be more important things.’
‘Like, have you had your lunch yet?’
Recently, Dad has been having some difficulty getting her to eat.
‘Yes, I… No. Lunch?! It’s far too early! What do you mean by talking of lunch?’
‘It’s half two, Mum. Surely Dad made you something to eat? Maybe about an hour ago?’
She’s so thin that it looks like a fall off her bed or a trip on the bathroom tiles could literally break her into pieces.
‘Dad? Don’t be getting smart on me, Sylvia, you know he’s dead these ten years.’
‘No, Mum, my dad. Your husband, Arthur. I’m Jane.’
I try to avoid correcting her when there’s no great need and when the truth could cause her pain. There’s no point in telling her now, for instance, that her father died thirty years ago, not ten.
‘Yes, yes, I’m not stupid, you know,’ she snaps, pulling her hand from under mine.
‘Of course you’re not. I never said that and I never would.’
Mum just grunts and looks at the floor while some clouds move away from the sun outside, brightening the room.
I can understand how dementia diminishes memory and cognitive abilities – they are scientifically explainable constructs with a neurological basis. But it’s deeply distressing trying to process its effect on Mum’s personality, an attribute which seems like it should be governed by emotion and thus untouchable by deterioration of the brain. How can the overwhelming love she has borne for me all my life be explained away by the functionality of a physical organ?
When she knows who I am, I’m sure a measure of that love remains, but instead of expressing it, she grumbles and moans and snaps, the absolute opposite of the warm, cheerful and affectionate woman she always was.
‘I’ll make us some tea, shall I?’
As I stand without waiting for her answer, she warns: ‘Mind yourself with that kettle, won’t you? Don’t get scalded.’
‘Right, Mum. I won’t.’
Hearing my footsteps, I expect, Dad has appeared in the hallway by the time I’ve reached the bottom of the stairs.
‘No, I was just going to make tea, see if she might have a biscuit with it. Did she take lunch?’
‘Aye, she did today, yeah.’
‘Oh! Well, that’s good. Still, no harm in a little sugar boost if I can convince her, right? Can I make you anything?’
Dad shakes his head gruffly, like a displeased mastiff. ‘No, no, no.’
The brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease have been studied extensively, removed post mortem and examined. I’ve seen pictures of such brains, pasted on scientific papers next to the images of healthy ones, and been sickened and terrified by the difference. If normal is a textured plum – plump and pink – a brain affected by Alzheimer’s is a shrivelled prune with exaggerated gaps and grooves. Makes me wonder, if it were possible for the patient to live long enough, would the brain eventually disappear completely?
With vision blurred by muted tears, I carry a tray with tea and biscuits back to Mum.
Easing aside her clock radio and a book of short stories from which Dad reads to her, I set the tray on her bedside table.
‘Now, here we go,’ I say gently, lifting one mug from the tray and handing it to Mum. ‘Milk and two sugars.’
‘What’s this, my medicine?’ she asks, frowning without lifting a hand to take the mug.
‘No, it’s just tea. I made it nice and sweet for you, and there are biscuits there too. Bourbon creams.’
‘Mm?’ Mum says, suspiciously, in that way old people do when they have heard you perfectly but nonetheless don’t know what to do with your words.
She still hasn’t taken the tea so I place it back on the tray.
‘Will you try a biscuit then?’ I ask, pathetically, picking up the saucer I littered with six of the little brown rectangles that had always been our favourite.
‘No, no, no, sure I’m only after breakfast.’
‘Alright.’ Sighing, I leave the saucer down again and take two biscuits for myself. ‘More for me, then.’
Biscuits in one hand, I pick up my mug of black tea in the other, and reposition myself on the edge of the bed.
Mum watches me sipping and chewing, a look of uncertain displeasure on her withered features.
‘If you change your mind, just say so and I’ll pass you your tea. Alright?’
‘It’s savage, it is – snacking so early in the day, and on chocolate biscuits no less!’
‘Life’s too short to say no to chocolate. Remember? We always used to say that.’
For a fleeting moment, I detect a glimmer of lucidity in her hooded blue eyes; for two seconds – perhaps three – she loses that look of vacant puzzlement which has come to almost define her in the last few months.
She says: ‘Oh, it’s short alright.’
I retreat to the bathroom before I leave, but I don’t lower my trousers or even sit down. Back against the wall, I just cry. The lid is down on the toilet seat and I am tempted to sit, but I resist because to remain standing is inwardly indicative of transience. Don’t get comfortable, Jane. You’re not staying. Pull yourself together and just go.
A loved one’s dementia, I have found, is like a protracted bereavement. I’ve lost the mother who supported and cherished me already. She’s gone. Of the mother I have left, I lose a little more every day.
‘I’m off now,’ I say to Dad, poking my head through the living room doorway.
He slowly tears his nose out from the pages of The Independent. ‘OK. See you… well, whenever.’
‘Yeah. Maybe tomorrow.’
‘Oh, right.’ He tries to be easy about it but I can see him bristling – an extra fold in the skin above his eyebrows, a subtle tightening of the shoulders. ‘Till tomorrow, then.’
‘Right. See you.’
Seeing myself out, I scurry to my car and promptly start the engine. Until I am off the property, I feel scrutinised and unwanted by my father, and all the way home I fight the urge, arising from sheer frustration, to press hard on the horn.
It was easier not to miss his affections when Mum was around to think the world of me.
My name is Aisling Lee, I’m 25 years old, and I hail from County Longford, Ireland. The daughter and sister of three medics, I am a creative among scientists, and my current station is a secretarial position in our family-run GP practice. It has been busy but fulfilling during the challenges of the pandemic, though to all intents and purposes it is, as they say, “just a job”. Writing is where my passion lies, and outside of working hours, my top priority is furthering my portfolio. In 2019, I graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in English Literature and Psychology, and in 2021 I completed NUI Galway’s M.A. in Writing, my proudest achievement to date. Although I have dabbled in poetry, short stories and short pieces of creative nonfiction are my primary areas of interest.
Artwork by Kita Das