WHEN A PARENT YOU’RE NOT CLOSE TO IS IN DECLINE.

Peter Wynn
4 min readMay 2, 2024

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Readers of my stories know that I’ve had a problematic relationship with my mother since I was really little. Okay, I wasn’t an affectionate kid, but if someone like Professor Tony Attwood had have been able to say, “No, you don’t have bad breath, your kid is autistic,” it might have been easier.

My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 19 years ago, and not the relapsing-remitting type, the primary progressive type, or at least that’s what the doctors say. Not all of her problems can be traced to her MS, though. Now, she is developing dementia and witnessing her decline is hard.

Okay, I have some fond memories, for example, when I was six, we were talking to the next-door neighbors, and my brother said that his teddy was three, and I said that mine was six, and my mother said, “No, Peter, your teddy’s 32.” “How could that be?” I wondered. She told me that my teddy was her teddy when she was little. And yes, I remember when I was 11, after her father had told me that he was disappointed in me (my brother was in Year Three, and he volunteered to go swimming with something for school, and my grandfather told me that I should take up a sport, even though I had no interest in or aptitude for sport) she stood up for me, but I also remember my mother being quite hard and the hardness outweighs the softness. For example, when I had a meltdown because my brother was harassing me, she said that if she was one of the bullies at school, she’d have a field day with me, and that she wouldn’t have been able to have me in her life without killing me. One memory I have that shows the difference between my parents when handling a bully was this. My father came on a school trip after the teacher asked us if we could have a parent who’d help supervise the kids. The bully wasn’t game enough to do anything much in front of my father, and the worst he did was tell me I had “an undecent bag,” a comment that revealed much about him. One morning, however, he had a hearing-impaired student up against the wall of a dormitory where we were staying (the plan had been to camp out, but wet weather made that impossible some nights) and was waving his finger in the terrified kid’s face. Dad saw him and waited, and when the kid turned around, he gave him what for. On the second last day, the bully was low on money, and we went for a walk and found a bakery in a country town, and people were going in and buying cakes and buns, and the bully asked my father if he could borrow some money. Dad agreed, and that afternoon, when were given our spending money for the day (five dollars), the bully repaid dad immediately. Mum, however, when she volunteered on the school canteen, would lend him money and he was having a laugh about it to others. Her intention was good, but the bully didn’t see this. I remember one day, when the bully’s mother was on the canteen, the bully, without any provocation, walked straight up to me and tried to knock my lunch out of my hands, in front of her, and all she did was gasp. Had he succeeded in doing so, unlike my mother, she wouldn’t have grabbed the bully’s arm and led him over to me to apologise and offer me something that she paid for. Granted, the bully was supposedly violent towards her.

I remember one Wednesday, when it had been raining, my mother took me to school, and by afternoon, it had fined up. I had a strategy, as I had a supportive teacher for my last subject, to leave after the bullies had gone (some would step on the heels of your shoes to try to trip you up) and my teacher understood. My mother, however, when she arrived to collect me, demanded to know where I’d been and asked why I, instead of walking on a concrete path that led to the cul-de-sac where she collected me, didn’t cut through some vacant land like others did! Well, that’s like asking why if everyone else is doing 65km/h in a 60km/h zone why I don’t, too!

I also have memories of coming home from school and wanting to tell mum how well I had done in a test or assignment, only to find her on the phone to someone who volunteered at the canteen (usually the woman who lived around the corner, who, surprisingly, after she was diagnosed with MS, and gave my father a lift home one day, didn’t want to come in and see my mother) or, if I said, “Mum, let me tell you about what happened today!” and she’d reply, “Just wait until I ring so-and-so,” and she’d be on the phone to so-and-so for 45 minutes talking about how their kid’s classmate’s cousin’s grandmother’s cat had kittens, or how their kid’s classmate’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s classmate’s brother has a loose tooth, and then she’d say, “Sorry, I’ve got to take your brother to tennis/football/cricket or whatever. Tell me when I get home.” And then she’d have forgotten about it. Or my brother would dominate conversation and I’d just go into my room and get on with something else.

Now that my mother is facing dementia, and as recently as last week, asked me where my father was, when he was in the room right in front of her, and she thought that he was her father, I am finding it difficult. Difficult to know what to say. Wanting to make peace with her. My mother has been a self-centred woman who, if you did something wrong by her, she’d demand an apology, yet if she did something wrong by you, she wouldn’t apologise! I am finding that I want to be at peace with her before we say that she is at peace, as in she’s passed on.

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Peter Wynn

Diagnosed with autism at 35. Explained a lifetime of difference.