Dear Readers, this week I was in Dorchester, spending some time with Dad and doing the practical things that follow on when someone dies – going to the bank, meeting with the solicitor. I felt sad as I headed to the nursing home: Dad was always a quintessential patriarch, in command of himself and head of the family, and it’s hard to see him become more vulnerable as his dementia gets worse. So, I walked into the lounge with some trepidation.
‘They made us walk uphill! For 83 miles! And we’re all old-aged pensioners’, Dad announced as I sat down next to him.
A group of the residents had been for a nature walk in the nearby woods, and Dad had thoroughly enjoyed it, for all the hard work involved. He’d also taken the opportunity to correct the unfortunate person who was leading the walk.
‘He said that the holly leaves are pricklier at the top than they are at the bottom of the bush, but that’s the Wrong Way Round’, said Dad. ‘It’s to stop the animals grazing so why would they be pricklier at the top!’.
Since it was largely Dad who piqued my interest in nature as a child, I was not the least bit surprised that he was right. He still wins in all the general knowledge quizzes too.
It’s strange how the brain works. Dad can remember the capital of Iran but not who he is, at least not consistently. He was moaning about my behaviour the previous night (when I had apparently been demanding tea and generally wandering about) even as I was sitting there, bemused. I have learned not to contradict or correct him, because that didn’t go down too well when he was compos mentis and there’s certainly no point in doing it now. Instead, I am learning to be curious about what’s going on for him, and where he is at this particular moment.
I am also aware that vascular dementia tends towards silence, towards the end of speech, and so I want to wring every drop of meaning out of my relationship with my Dad while I still can.
Dad was always such a raconteur – my brother and I used to find the way that his stories grew and grew hilarious when we were callow teenagers. He’d been to Venezuela when he was working as a gin distiller, sometimes staying for months at a time. While there, he’d eaten the best steaks he’d ever had. And the size!
‘They were the size of this table!’ he’d tell the assembled friends and family , while Mum got on with the carving of the much smaller piece of beef that she was trying to stretch out so that everyone got served. My brother and I would imitate him afterwards.
‘The steaks were the size of a football pitch!’
‘No, they were the size of Wales!’
We would weep with hysteria at our own cleverness. It was only later that we grew to realise that Dad’s exaggeration was the result of his never feeling quite good enough for the company that he kept, in spite of his extraordinary achievements. He left school at 14 to support his mum and sisters, but he ended up travelling the world, learning Spanish and, finally, running the heritage centre for Gordon’s Gin. For all that, he never felt that his true stories were interesting enough, and so they were embellished until they were unrecognisable.
Seen in this light, the 83 mile walk is typical Dad.
And outside, spring is pushing through. It seems almost an insult. How dare life be going on when I feel so frozen! Bloody crocuses, busting forth so hopefully! And look at those honeybees and bumbles, already bustling about and looking for nectar and pollen. Life goes on relentlessly, whether I want it to or not.
I take a walk to Borough Gardens, a tiny municipal park close to the nursing home, which has everything you might want, and a few other things besides. Like the fine clock tower in the first photo, and this lovely bandstand, surrounded by some ruthlessly pollarded trees.
But it’s the plants that get me, every time. I start off marching along and end up dawdling, my eye drawn to the buds and the patterns in the leaves, and the sheer abundance of life just waiting to burst out.
Robins sing their hearts out from every shrub
Even in this tiny park with its swings and fountain and tennis courts and greenhouses, there is a sense of the natural world leaping into action, taking the opportunity to wake and breed and flower, and I feel that same force entreating me to take action, to move, to awaken to possibility. Part of me wants to linger in stillness, and part of me is filled with an urge to make something new, to carry the baton forward. And so I stand, oscillating, between two poles, eager for rest and called to movement. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but also strangely exhilarating.
Outside the park, there is an avenue where the crows are already starting to repair their nests. At the foot of each great tree there is an explosion of crocuses. I find that I am most moved by the damaged ones, those that have been trampled by passing dogs or crushed by a child’s foot. I suppose that they remind me of me, bruised and imperfect, but still trying to flower.
When I go back to see Dad, he’s leafing through one of the big lever-arch files that contain medical records. One of the nurses must have left it on the table. I watch him for a while. He seems to be trying to do something, but I’m not sure what. I see the man who used to organise conferences and dinners for the pensioner’s association after he retired, the man who used to run a whole distillery in a language that wasn’t his own. He seems very calm, contemplative even. I sit beside him as he ‘works’ away, and finally closes the file. The nurse comes by and collects it.
‘Thank you for helping us, Tom’, she says.
Dad nods. ‘You’re welcome’, he says.
It is possible to honour and respect someone even when it’s not clear what they know, or understand. It’s possible to meet them where they are. I am being shown that holding on to what someone was is not helpful, for them or for us, and that being curious can be a useful tool in trying to rebuild a relationship with someone who is in a state of flux. Just as the natural world is always cycling, changing, adapting, so is Dad, and so will I.