episode six: what am I doing here?

in which I finally break the news to my mother, who remains calm throughout, and face the scorn of drunken cavaliers alone…for now…

“What are you doing here?” says my mother.

She’s smiling, as if relishing my surprise. Her head is bowed as usual and her shoulders are almost in line with her ears so she’s looking up at me, one eyebrow raised as if to say, ‘gotcha’. I’m taken aback as always when she pulls this trick… 

Lucid, articulate, engaged, aware, funny, even cheeky, these are qualities you forget to remember as characteristic of this woman most of the time. Because most of the time, they’re just not apparent and because most of the time before she was ill, these qualities were quashed by my father.

These moments are precious and I always stumble and trip over myself to pack in whatever meaningful communication we can manage before something or someone, imaginary or real, distracts her from the present and from my presence. Especially today, because my sister has gone back to Canada and I’ve assured her that I will handle giving our mother the news of her husband’s passing.

We’ve already mentioned bringing her home several times but without being sure the news is understood, so I’m hoping to reinforce that message by explaining why we can do this now when it was impossible for the last three years. If I say that when we saw Dad in hospital, it was his last wish that she should come home and take care of the place as he had done in her absence, it might not be a true and accurate account of events but it could serve to sweeten the bitter pill I have to administer, killing two birds with one stone as it were.

“Mum, you remember I said we’d take you home soon?”

She smiles and is apparently listening. But she says nothing.

“Well, it’s almost time. The day is coming very soon. Is that okay?”

She doesn’t speak and there’s no change to her expression.

“Because that’s what Dad wanted. And I hope that’s what you want. Is it?”

Someone passing by catches her attention. Movement, particularly if it comes unexpectedly and takes human form, will often generate a quick response in her and she’ll follow whoever it is with an alert interest.

“Mum?”

I take her hand. She looks down to see what the touch is all about and her eyes trace a line up my arm to my shoulder, neck and face. She’s back.

“I was saying, we’re going to get you home soon, though I have to warn you it’ll be me taking care of you. What do you think of them apples?”

She starts to cough. I think maybe she was going to reply but as her vocal chords prepared to go to work a bit of phlegm lazing around in her throat shifted and caused a blockage. I’ll find out in the months to come that dysphagia, disruption to the swallowing process, will be one of my greatest enemies and though such a simple complaint, life threatening to my mother. She’s leaning far enough forward in the chair for me to rub her back in little circular motions that I can’t imagine do anything to ease her coughing, but serve to make me feel better. I tap a couple of times with the flat of my hand, the way you do when someone is choking, and reach for the colourless plastic cup with the winged handles sitting close by on a hospital bed table. I think it has squash in it, to judge by the colour of the liquid. It was here before I arrived. I give a futile look around for someone who might reassure me that the drink is fresh, or hers, or appropriate to the cough, but there’s no-one so I go ahead and put it to her lips anyway.

This is another lesson I’ll learn as time goes by, that almost every decision I’ll make with regard to her welfare involves risk and is often about choosing the lesser of two evils; allowing the cough to go unchecked or taking a chance on the squash. Come on, I say to myself as she raises her own hand to the cup and takes a surprisingly firm grim of one of my fingers, it’s orange squash for God’s sake. It’s not going to kill her.

It doesn’t. I put the cup down and take up my mum’s hand again in a gesture even I feel is rather patronizing and over the top. But I’m determined to get this out and if holding her hand helps us both get through it, so be it.

“Mum, I need to talk to you about Dad. You know he was in the hospital?”

“Where is he now?” she asks unexpectedly, and I’m confounded.

Come on, I say to myself. You’ve got her attention. Answer the question. Is he still in the hospital or not? Technically I suppose he is, in so far as his body is in the morgue and the morgue is in the hospital. Can I lie? Can I be economical with the truth? And if I say he’s in hospital, doesn’t that imply that he’s still alive? Or should I take a run at this and explain that Dad died days ago now, that I’ve been told the autopsy should be complete by the end of the week and I can begin to make the funeral arrangements if I so desire?

I find myself sidestepping the question altogether.

“Dad was ill, you remember? He was very ill. He couldn’t be at home alone without you, and so he went to the hospital. They looked after him there but before the end, he told me I should take you home, and that’s what I’m going to do. Dad died happy to know that you’d be safe.”

Someone walking by catches her attention and her eyes flit right. I’m waiting for a reaction that isn’t going to come. I can tell the news is either not news at all – they haven’t seen each other for two years or so as he gave up visiting her and then took to his bed – or that it’s news that simply doesn’t compute. Either way, the information has been put aside in favour of what’s going on around us. And I haven’t the heart to drive it home except in the weediest of words.

“Are you alright?” Nada.

“He was happy at the end,” I say. A lie.

“I was with him.” A detestable lie. “And Karen too.”

I am completely without honour, but it just doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I can say whatever I like. So I do.

“He loved you very much,” I say.

And suddenly, I wonder. Because that’s the only thing I’ve said to her today that I don’t know to be a lie.

 

I’m going to take one of my little pauses for reflection…and I’m going to say some things you may not agree with, you may even find reprehensible…but it’s all too easy for us to assume love is a state that abhors abuses such as imprisonment, torture and cruelty. But does it?

The idea that love is a state where one person has only the best interests of the other at heart and where what is given is given freely, with no expectation of reward or even recognition sounds like that oddly irritating, holier-than-thou Alanis Morissette number, ‘You Owe Me Nothing in Return’; the one that scans so badly it makes you wonder if words like NcourageMeant and ‘outright acceptAnce should really be in a song at all. The rather sick-making sentiment of the lyrics apparently engage a number of men – and more significantly, women – who sing along quite merrily and dream of a love like that for themselves where their partner is Ncouraged to sleep with whoever and has a right to be a royal pain in the ass the rest of the time.

No. Look. When two people come together for whatever reason – most happen to call it love so let’s assume that’s what it is – and one of those people is personality type A and the other personality type B, each with radically different needs and wants, what happens? One outgoing, the other shy and introverted, for example? Of course, a justification of any and all injustices lies in that argument and many cling to the theoretical notion of equality, especially in politically correct circles. All I’m saying is, that in my humble view, perfect equality is a rare exception. That what we call love is not a perfectly balanced set of shiny brass scales with two little heaps of gold dust in either saucer. More often, the trade-off is unequal because the need is unequal, the exchange of goods is for goods of a different nature. That we love because of our defects as much as our attributes.

In fact, there’s a well-established theory of love that relies on the notion that we fall for someone, not exactly because of the differences between ourselves and the object of our affections, but because that person has qualities we seek to augment in ourselves. Qualities that are absent, or underdeveloped, without that individual.

And let’s face it, whilst some of those qualities will be positive and laudable, others may not be so publicly acceptable. Closed doors are there for a reason. To go to the extreme, I guess you could argue that masochists and sadists might get along well together. The conspiracy between two consenting adults may lead those of us looking in from the outside to jump to conclusions and confidently judge such relationships as being unequal, unusual, unethical or undesirable when they are nothing of the sort. At least to those engaged in the partnership.

And exactly what criteria do we apply to make these judgements? Is there a gold standard for love? Are our own preferences and moral standards enough of a measure? And how do we separate out cultural and social norms related to a particular era or part of the world, or point in time, or economic imperative, or any number of other factors that may be entirely foreign to us, but perfectly acceptable to those in the dock of our summary judgements?

One wife or two? Cheating on your impotent husband to preserve a marriage for the sake of the children, or going without? Putting up with abuse for the sake of form, or fighting back? Watching your spouse grow mean and alcoholic because things haven’t turned out the way they should, or getting a divorce? Taking care of a life partner with an incurable and debilitating physical or mental condition, or getting the hell out?

Which is another way of saying, for all I know he did love her very much. Even with the imprisonment, the torture and the abuse. These things may not be mutually exclusive with a kind of love, though anathema to the rest of us. She certainly loved him, despite everything.

And that, for whatever reason, is plain fact.

 

There’s a lot to do.

My sister and I have done a lot whilst she’s been here, but there’s more. We’ve hired a solicitor, filled in forms, probate is underway and my father’s little red car—the Honda with the leather seats he’d lusted after for so long, but never really got to drive—is up and running. For three years or more, it’s sat in the garage. A couple of weeks before he died I put the battery on charge and, because my own car was still in France and because he was confused and couldn’t write his own name, I forged his signature to transfer the car into my name, bought the tax and arranged an MOT. It saved getting a hire car. I felt sure he wouldn’t have minded had he really known.

We’ve faced the finances too, and found a black hole where there should be money to spare. If it was there, it’s gone now. Most of it on care. My mother’s care home alone is owed £27,000. There might be some savings in a bond, but it’s hard to tell. The rest of the paperwork is a mess, but I can attack that over the days and weeks to come after I bring mother home.

When my wife and I were breaking up, she said to me, and I quote, ‘You have an inordinate need for personal freedom.’

Note the inordinate. The dictionary offers these synonyms by way of definition: improper, immoderate or excessive. At first sight, this seems like a value judgement that’s not really working in my favour, especially as it clearly implies that becoming a carer for my mother might not play to my strengths. Perhaps I lack the temperament to survive a domestic lock-down. Perhaps I’ll run for the hills. I’ve certainly done it before.

Odd then, that I’ve never lived alone. I say never…one time, straight after divorce, I went off to write a book. Yes, the same book I was still re-writing in France when I drove down with my daughter, the same book that ultimately bankrupted me and well, let’s not talk about all that now…

I’ve certainly never had the opportunity to make a home alone. I know, that’s a sad fact in a grown man, but there it is. Three long term relationships over forty years…a lifetime of coupledom, or dependency, whichever way you care to phrase it.

I started going out with my first girlfriend at the age of seventeen. We were at school together, and we were still together ten years later. My ex-wife, who incidentally I was also at school with—some kind of psychopathology methinks—was around for the next fifteen years, until circumstances overtook us. Then there were eight years with the girlfriend I mentioned, the one who came to visit me in France.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited by my new found independence. I get to choose things. You’ve no idea how new that is. No, I’m just saying I’m not used to being alone. In particular, I find the evenings long and well, tedious. My compensation, my lifeline, is the phone. I speak to one of my two daughters almost daily. I speak to Phil twice a week and I call my sister in Canada, or she calls me, once a week. I usually have a bottle of wine open before I speak to anyone, as this is now my social life. I know no-one in this part of the world. Those folk I do know, my ex-wife, a couple of old friends in the same town as her, are an hour and a half away from the bungalow where I’m dialing numbers to keep loneliness at bay.

I’m used to sharing the trials and tribulations of another day. I’m in awe of those who live alone, get colds and flu and minister to themselves, have good days and bad and no-one to notice the difference. Of course people who live alone can make phone calls, write emails and make social arrangements to mitigate isolation, and I’m learning to do just that in my new situation, but for me at least, it’s not the same. The audience is not captive and the contact doesn’t have the same immediacy. The stories I tell or hear on the phone, are deliberately pickled or preserved in some way for later consumption. I work best live and I like my stories fresh.

But I make the calls and take the calls anyway. Though after the contact, the sense of being alone is often more acute. Wine helps, but still there’s still a few hours where the choice is between going to my father’s bed to read or flicking on the television. Neither really calls to me and I sometimes find myself walking from room to room with no particular purpose.

In this uncomfortably comfortable bungalow, the only presence other than myself, is the ghost of my father. Around me, his more material legacy, the flotsam and jetsam of a long life; the cheap but cherished dark wood and green leather sofa and matching reclining armchairs; Constable reproductions, bucolic scenes of uncertain provenance with milk maids and Dutch windmills, cavaliers laughing heartily around open fires, pewter tankards of ale in hand. The whole place seems to be staring back at me with a ‘So, what you going to do?’

And I know this feeling of being, well, stuck, even incarcerated—just as my mother is incarcerated in the care home—is not likely to go away when we’re here together. She sleeps a lot and she talks very little. There are barriers between her inner world and mine and any kind of shared reality comes and goes. I will have to learn caring skills for sure, but I can sense already that the hours of caring are likely to be less onerous than the hours of waiting to care. A lot of time will go to waste being on watch but off duty, unless I do something.

The question is, what can I do? The answer is rather obvious, but it won’t occur to me until another long evening at the end of another long day…

I’m going fishing…