Dear Readers, on this very day last year Mum and Dad had their 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, and what a great day it was! This year, however, the celebrations were rather more subdued.
Mum has been in hospital for six weeks now. Well, more accurately, she’s been in ‘hospitals’ – the County Hospital twice, Wareham Community Hospital once and now she’s in Blandford Community Hospital. When I saw her after my week in Monterey I was shocked at how much weight she’d lost. She had her elegant cheekbones back, but at a cost – the doctors have been treating Mum for a blockage/pseudo-blockage/infection (take your pick), but the outcome has been that Mum has not been able to eat solid food for all this time. The fact that someone dropped and broke her bottom dentures didn’t help. She looks about a hundred and ten years old, as people do when they don’t have their teeth in, but her sense of humour and feistiness are in fine fettle.
For example, since she has been in hospital she has been asked SIX TIMES if she wants a Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is known as a ‘DNR’ and is attached to your medical records. It means that if you die, no one will attempt to try to revive you. Mum replied that she would like to be revived, thank you very much.
‘There’s nothing wrong with me except for this blockage thing’, she said, ‘and I want you to resuscitate me if you can. I’m not done yet’.
But every time she changed ward or hospital, she was asked again, sometimes several times. The last time she was absolutely furious.
‘Are you expecting me to pop off at any moment then?’ she asked the consultant, who was surround by a penumbra of junior doctors with clipboards.
‘Oh no’, he said, as the others chorused the same response.
‘Then why do you keep bleeding asking me?’ she said. ‘I know that this might not be your choice, but it is mine’.
And so they slunk away.
Mum has been a fighter all her life, from her birth as a 2 lb 12 oz premature baby in 1935 through heart attacks and depression and COPD and arthritis and all the pains that flesh is heir to and more, and she ain’t about to cave in now. She wants to be home, with Dad.
Which brings us back to the anniversary.
You might remember me telling you that Dad seems to be much more confused lately than he has been in the past. Someone from the Memory Assessment Clinic came out on Tuesday, replicated the tests that his doctor had done, and found that he had got worse (well, I could have told them that). But he has long periods of lucidity, when he does know who people are and what is going on, and at hospital visiting time he gave Mum her Anniversary card. His writing is terrible (I come by my scrawl honestly), and it isn’t helped by the peripheral neuropathy in his hands, and his stroke. But he had written
‘To my only wife and girlfriend, I love you forever’,
and he struggled out of his wheelchair to give her a series of kisses while the carer and I made ourselves scarce.
When we got home, I walked around Dad and Mum’s garden while the wind blew and the rain came in horizontally, and pondered what to do. Mum is currently unable to walk, and until she can make it from bed to the toilet to her chair, she won’t be able to come home – the bungalow is just not set up for a wheelchair. Meantime Dad is particularly confused at night, when he is likely to wake up, discover that Mum isn’t there and ring everyone he can think of, even if it’s 3 a.m. And so my brother and I are trying to manage the situation, to keep everyone safe while retaining their right to make their own decisions, to head off disasters at the pass and to deal with totally unexpected disasters as they crop up.
But the big lesson of this whole experience has been to try to learn when to push and when to accept, when to plan and organise and when to go with the flow. The flowers in the garden bend with the wind, and so must I.
At 6.30 a.m. earlier this week I was rudely awoken by a magnificent grizzled patriarch in his underpants, all ready for his shower. The trouble was that the carer wasn’t coming until 8 a.m. and Dad won’t let anyone else help.
‘I’ll just sit here’, he said, plonking himself down in front of an open window.
‘Dad you’ll freeze there!’ say I from my bed. ‘Why don’t you go and sit next door and I’ll make you a cup of tea’.
‘I’m alright here’, he says, as the wind tousles his hair. And then the lure of tea works its magic.
‘I think I’ll go and sit next door’, he says.
So I spring up, shut the window, whack up the heating and make him tea.
‘I’ll just put this blanket here in case you get cold’, I say.
‘I won’t get cold!’ he says. But I notice that he’s wrapped up in it twenty minutes later. The trick is to say nothing.
And eventually the 90 minutes passes, and the carer comes in, and dad is spruced up for another day. He has chosen navy trousers and a navy, yellow and red-striped teeshirt, and he looks very handsome, if I say so myself. I am trying not to concentrate on the fact that he’s dropped ten inches off his waist size in the past eight months in spite of eating voraciously. I have a call logged with the GP to talk about that, but at the moment, as Dad reclines the chair to get comfortable for another episode of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, all is well.
Sometimes there are moments of grace, of stillness, of ordinariness when I can stop and actually feel what’s going on. There are moments of horror, but also moments of the most tender care, the most profound love. I feel held in the embrace of everyone who has anything to do with Mum and Dad, from close family and carers through to neighbours and friends and the wider community. So many people stop me on the village street to ask me how Mum and Dad are doing. So many people are helping. There are so many small kindnesses that don’t feel so small to the person on the receiving end.
Someone said to me that looking after the elderly was a bit like looking after toddlers.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Except that one day a toddler can’t do something, and then the next day they can. With my parents, one day they can do something, and the next day they can’t’.
But with that stripping away we get closer and closer to what’s real, what it’s all about. At the heart of it all, at the end of it all, there’s a man in a wheelchair kissing his wife of 61 years, just like he did when he was a young blade and she was a shy girl of 22. At the heart of it all, there’s love.