Dear Readers, a lot of therapy animals visit Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester, but there are none more unlikely than this pair of alpacas. The last time they visited I missed them, but on Monday my timing was perfect. I was sitting with Dad, who was munching on a custard tart and enjoying a ‘frothy coffee’ (one shot decaff latte – the last thing we want is for Dad to be any more hyperactive than he currently is) when a pair of alpacas were brought in by their handler. They had just been shorn and looked adorably naked. Plus they have the tiniest little feet considering how big they are.
Dad was instructed to stroke the handsome creature on the neck, and he did his best although it’s difficult to follow instructions when you aren’t as in control of your body as you once were, and your memory is shot. But the alpacas were very forgiving, and their handler was adept at reading their body language and moving them on if they were getting nervous or uncomfortable. I am sure that they are strong enough to vote with their (tiny) feet if anything happened that they didn’t like.
Dad has always loved animals (our house was full of pets when we were children) and although he isn’t quite sure who I am (though his face always lights up when he sees me) he remembered seeing the alpacas on a previous visit. He could not take his eyes off them. These moments are so precious and I was so glad that I was there to witness his pleasure.
I asked the handler about whether they were keeping the alpacas for wool, but apparently not: they have a herd of 34 animals at the moment, and when they are sold they either go as pets, or, occasionally, as guard animals for herds of sheep. Alpacas have a deep and abiding antipathy to all canids, and will kick dogs or foxes who trespass on their territory. Don’t let that innocent face fool you – alpacas can nip, kick and occasionally spit, although it is unusual for this to be aimed at humans. Certainly, these two were perfectly behaved (and regularly rewarded with nibbles), even after one lady resident asked if they were some kind of hunting dog.
I often wonder what goes on in Dad’s mind these days. When I visited on Monday he was very calm and happy, but at the weekend he apparently phoned the police to tell them that two people had been murdered and were buried under the patio. The police had to come out to make sure that this hadn’t actually happened, although it was always unlikely as there is no patio. So, when Dad told me with great glee that the home had been ‘crawling with coppers’ he gave me no indication that they were only there because he’d called them. It certainly livens things up for everyone.
At first, I wondered if it was something that Dad was watching on television that was triggering his fantasies, but now I think that he is trying to make sense of what is going on. Mum is gone, and so she must have been kidnapped or murdered, because nothing else would keep her away from him. For a while, he thought that Mum was jealous because other women were helping him to shower and dress, and so she wasn’t answering the phone when he called. And yet he sat beside me at the funeral, and at a recent memorial service at the home, and at the time he knew that she was dead. It’s as if his brain now has many rooms with no interconnecting corridors, and he can hold several paradoxical thoughts simultaneously, without the slightest sense of contradiction.
On Tuesday I popped in to see him before I headed home (we’re off to Austria this weekend so it was a flying visit) and when he spotted me he threw his arms open.
‘I’ve been waiting for you!’ he said, as we embraced. He is so thin these days. He eats everything and enjoys his food, but he is losing weight. He is too frail for any invasive tests and so we are just taking it day by day, checking that he is eating and drinking and as happy as he can be under the circumstances. We sit down and I make a cup of tea and he has another custard tart and a coffee.
And then I get up to go.
‘I’ll walk down to the station with you and we can get on the train and go and see Mum’, he said. ‘But don’t walk too fast because I’m not as quick as I used to be’.
The station is a quarter of a mile away and mostly uphill, just to mention the most unimportant reason why he couldn’t leave the home to travel to London to see his wife (or his mother, it’s never quite clear).
‘Oh Dad’, I said, ‘You don’t really want to do that do you? It’s pouring with rain for one thing’.
‘But Mum’s in the hospital and she’ll want to see me’, he said.
And now it gets tricky because if I tell him that Mum’s dead, and then get my suitcases and go, he’ll be even more upset and confused than he is now. Furthermore, it’s not as if this terrible news will ‘stick’.
‘I’ll tell Mum where you are Dad, ‘ I say, ‘And she loves you and she knows you love her’.
He gets up to come with me. If I let him see the code to the lift, which enables him to leave the home, that will be something that he probably will remember.
I catch the eye of one of the carers.
‘Do you want to come with me and have a cup of tea, Tom?’ she asks.
‘No thank you, I just had one’, he says, following me down the corridor.
I give him a firm hug and a kiss and tell him that I’ll see him soon. He stands, swaying and a little unfocused, watching as I get into the lift and head downstairs. As the doors shut, I hear the carer ushering Dad back into the living room. His world has shrunk, largely, to his room and to the communal areas on the second floor. If he feels trapped it’s because he is: for his own safety, for sure, but he chafes against the restriction. He was always such an intrepid man, and I suspect that in his head he still is, solving crimes and stumbling upon nefarious goings on.
I am reading a wonderful book about homing pigeons (which I will discuss further when I’ve finished it), but one thing that has stayed with me is that, if you want your pigeons to improve their times, you need to make sure that they only see their partners when they get back from a race. For them, ‘home’ is not just a physical place, but their loved ones. For Dad, Mum was ‘home’ for 62 years. He may well be looking for her for the rest of his life.
It’s not until I’m on the train that I start to cry.