Nothing quite brings back a lifetime of memories like clearing out the house where you grew up. My old family home witnessed laughter, rows, reconciliation and grief. It became a refuge – for me, during some of my most unsettled adult years, and for my mother as somewhere she clung on to when she slowly disappeared into dementia.
Now Mum has gone and, as I sort out the things she left behind, I think back to the ups and downs of our relationship. I hold on to it all: the good, the bad and the difficult but precious time we spent together as I cared for her in her final years.
I grew up in Oldham near Manchester in the 1970s, part of a Hindu family of six. Life was colourful and busy. All four of us children had lots of hobbies: I did drama, dance and swimming lessons, while my sisters were in a pop band. My father, Kulbhushan, worked for the NHS as a paediatrician and was the life and soul of every room.
My mother, Asha, was quieter, but determined to soak up as much knowledge of the world as possible. She was an avid newspaper reader and always had the Today programme on the radio. Mum also loved soap operas. Sometimes she would have two TVs on at the same time to make sure she didn’t miss anything. Coronation Street was her favourite; it was the first programme she ever watched and it taught her a lot about northern culture and humour.
My parents arrived in the UK from India in the 1960s. They loved exploring the country. The family would pile into the car at weekends and set off for nature reserves or historic buildings, listening to ABBA en route. Once a month, we’d watch the latest Bollywood movie, although the only place in Manchester that showed these films was a soft-porn cinema. Needless to say, visits always prompted a lot of giggling from us children as our parents hurried us from the ticket hall to the screen, hands over our eyes.
My childhood is full of fond memories like these, but it changed with the death of my father in 1985. He was only 49 and died in his sleep during a trip to India. It was as though life went from technicolour to monochrome. At the time, I was 18 and about to leave home to go to university. Dad’s death was a huge shock to us all and the grief bowled us over. It was like we’d been hollowed out.
Mum had lost the great love of her life and she became more insular. It changed the dynamic of my relationship with her: rather than bringing us closer, we dealt with the trauma in our own ways. It was an extraordinarily tough time.
It wasn’t until I became pregnant and single that mum and I were drawn back together. I’d already had one failed marriage when I discovered I was pregnant by my boyfriend at the time. By that point, our relationship was already broken and we split up soon after.
Because of my family’s religion and culture, there was shame around my circumstances. Extended family and even my siblings struggled to come to terms with it. But my mum, against all the beliefs ingrained in her, took me in. I now realise how that was an extraordinary act of love.
My newborn son, Akshay, and I lived with mum for a time until I found social housing. I don’t know what I’d have done without her. From showing me how to feed, bathe and soothe a baby, to giving me the confidence to be a mother, she taught me everything I know about parenting. As Akshay got older and I continued my career as a professional actor, she was there for him when I couldn’t be.
Akshay was three when I was cast in Victoria Wood’s sitcom Dinnerladies and Mum was the first person I called to share the news. "I think our life is about to change," I said, and it did. I was able to move out into my own place (still around the corner from mum). Then, in 2001, I got the role as Sunita in Coronation Street.
My mum could not have been prouder. Whenever I was in a magazine or newspaper, she would buy it, and I took her to all of the soap awards, Corrie events and dinners. Everything I received a plus-one to, mum was there. She was starstruck by the cast and even if she already had an autograph, she’d want it again! My colleagues were kind to her; the cast was like family and they accepted my mother as part of that.
When I was given the opportunity to name my character’s on-screen daughter, I called her Asha. It meant the world to my mum; it became her legacy. Later, even after much of her memory had been lost, there was always a moment of connection when Asha’s character appeared on TV. "Asha," she’d say, the light suddenly switched on behind her eyes. "That’s right, mum," I’d reply, "I named her after you." She’d nod and smile, before slipping into the distance again.
I first noticed her behaviour changing in 2015, but pushed it to the back of my mind. She was getting increasingly combative, and her driving became erratic. She’d forget and lose things easily. I blamed it on old age. No one wants to see what’s in front of them when it’s that scary.
But as more and more pieces of the witty and independent woman I knew went missing, I began to research her symptoms online. The search would always return the same results. It got to a point where it couldn’t be ignored any longer.
When mum was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2017, she didn’t want to accept it. None of us wanted to, but we had to. From that point, my life went on hold. It was all about looking after my mum, which was tiring and involved a huge amount of juggling. My siblings and I set up a Mum Care WhatsApp group, and Akshay helped out, too.
As num’s condition worsened, I moved back into my childhood home to be there for her. I’d get up early in the morning and, as I made a cup of tea in our kitchen, I often thought about how the roles had reversed: I was tired after a restless night worrying about mum, while she was sleeping in like a teenager.
Caring is a full-time job and the longer it went on, the harder I found it. While I looked after mum, I stopped looking after myself: I’d forget to brush my hair and teeth, piles of my post went unopened, emails went unanswered and bills went unpaid. I lost control of my own life and my mental health suffered.
However, although it was challenging and exhausting, I treasured the time we spent together. Tender moments of brushing her hair and moisturising her legs brought a closeness between us that we’d never had before. We watched a lot of TV together, often repeats of episodes we’d seen countless times before. I cooked food that she loved and I listened as she shared the same childhood stories again and again.
Everyone’s experience of dementia care is different, and I know I’m fortunate that mum always recognised me. She forgot everything else, from how to get dressed to how to feed herself, but remembered who I was up until the day she died.
In November last year, mum’s health had deteriorated and I knew it was the end; I just knew. The whole family were at her house and the atmosphere was heavy. As they talked solemnly downstairs, I got a vanilla Mini Milk ice lolly out of the freezer – which I knew she would like more than anything – and took it to her in her bedroom. She relished it as I fed her for the final time. Then I said goodbye. The next morning, she was gone.
It’s now coming up to a year since I lost her. I live alone and the pandemic made the grief even harder to cope with. Had she been around, I know she would have been quite witty and wry about it all. She always taught us to wash our hands whenever we came inside and not to get too close to other people, so I think she would have said, "I told you so".
I was very ill with Covid-19 in March and it made me yearn for my mum. Somehow, though, mum feels less lost to me now. When she had dementia, she was so far away, but since her passing, I’ve been able to reach her in a way that I couldn’t before. I can go to her in my mind’s eye and she’s the funny, glamorous, self-sufficient woman with whom I grew up.
As I look back on our relationship, I realise that, while it was complicated, we were always there in each other’s hour of need. What we’ll do with the family home once it’s finished being cleared, I don’t know. I didn’t realise quite how many boxes of newspaper clippings she kept about me until now, which is touching. There are still so many memories to revisit.
Remember Me?: Discovering My Mother As She Lost Her Memory (Cassell) by Shobna Gulati is out now.
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