A Penguin Comes to Tea

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A Gift As Yet Unopened

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Tracy helped her mother into the car and wrapped a blanket around her legs, placing the worn brown purse where her mother could see it.
“Where are we going?” asked the old lady, looking out the window.
“We’re going to visit Bob and his family.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Who’s Bob?”
“Bob is my brother,” Tracy said.
She could have added ‘and your son, whom you raised and looked after for twenty-three years; who was the favourite, blue-eyed boy,’ but she did not. She was beyond that stage now.
At first, Tracy and Bob had teased their mother about her memory. The car keys were always going missing and she could never find her glasses, but nor can most people over 50. But then it began to get worse. One day, her mother walked to the post box without shoes on and could not remember why she had gone out in the first place. Another day, Tracy came to visit to find her mother making tea; half the packet lay strewn all over the floor and the kettle was nearly boiled dry, but it was the sight of her mother counting out sugar lumps into the sink that made her realise that something was not right.
“Alzheimer’s disease,” they said. Nothing to be done.
“I’m not putting Mum into one of those homes,” Tracy said, “I’ll look after her myself.”
“Are you sure?” said Bob, “it would be so much easier, and if we sell her house she could afford to be looked after in a home. They know how to deal with this stuff.”
But Tracy was adamant. So her mother moved in with Tracy and her husband Matthew and their daughter.
“Grandma can read to us every day!” said Elizabeth.
But Grandma soon tired of reading, and forgot who Elizabeth was, so the little girl withdrew into her world of play.
“Grandma’s getting old, dear,” said Tracy, “and old people like to sleep a lot. They forget things because they have so many memories to look after. They have memories of when they were little children, just like you, running around with their friends, having tea parties, and all the things little girls did back in those days. Grandma has memories of getting married and having her own children and of course she has memories of you.”
But those memories were fading, disappearing from the old lady’s head until soon she was just a shell, a total stranger. It was hard for Tracy, having to show her mother how to button the same sweater over and over. Having to check her room to make sure she did not leave forgotten food lying around for the cats and the spiders to find. Having to start every morning with, “hello, I’m Tracy; I’m going to bring you breakfast.”
“I don’t know why you don’t just move her out,” said Bob, after lunch that afternoon, when their mother had fallen asleep on the porch, “she’d never know the difference; she doesn’t even recognise us anyway.”
But Tracy just shook her head.
“I can’t do that, not to Mum. She looked after us when we were sick, when we were grouchy and ungrateful. She came to nearly all my dance recitals and all of your soccer games. She went back to work so that we could have extra money for vacations after Dad died. She was there for me when Elizabeth was born. No, Bob, we owe her so much, I have to do this for her.”
“But she doesn’t even know what’s going on – you’re throwing your life away and she’ll never notice. Get on with the future, Tracy.”
A single tear rolled down Tracy’s cheek as she looked over at her mother’s shrunken form huddled under the blankets. Beyond, in the garden, Elizabeth and her cousins chased each other round the maple tree, whooping like savages. She sighed. Bob was right; she was putting all her energy into her mother, who was totally unresponsive, at the expense of her own family. What was it somebody had told her once?
“The debts we owe our parents we repay to our children.”
But in her case it was different. Her mother had become a child again. It did not matter that her mother would never know the love that Tracy was showing to her; the important thing was in the giving.

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