Dear Readers, as you might remember, my Dad is in a nursing home in Dorchester. He has vascular dementia, and so when I go to see him it’s impossible to guess in advance how he’s going to be. Last time, he decided he really wanted to come home with me on the train, and I had to trick him to make sure that he didn’t follow me to the station. But this time, he was waiting for me when the lift doors opened.
‘I saw you coming up the road, so I thought I’d bring your Dad over to the lift’, said the carer. ‘And then I thought, maybe you weren’t coming straight here!’
But I was, and there was Dad. He looks so suave these days, and actually much smarter than he was when during his last few years at home, when his beard and hair ran rather out of control.
I delivered the coffee and custard tart that I always bring, and Dad brought me up to speed.
‘We had some music across the road’, he said, ‘it went on for 24 hours!’
I’d noticed the marquees on the way in.
‘Was it good? ‘ I asked.
‘Marvellous’, said Dad. ‘There were seventy thousand people there’.
And I have to smile at this point. Had the carers taken a minibus full of folk to Glastonbury? But actually, Dad was always an exaggerator. His tales of his travels abroad – the anaconda that he saw in Venezuela that were 50 feet long, the steaks that were the size of a dining room table – used to keep my brother and I amused for hours when we were callow teenagers. But now, I love him for his desire to still tell an impressive story, to keep his audience enthralled. And unlike some people, who tell these tall tales in order to trick people, I’m convinced that Dad has always believed what he’s saying. I wish that he had realised that he was quite remarkable enough, this man who left school with no qualifications at 14 but who was soon travelling the world making gin for United Distillers, speaking Spanish and mixing with all manner of people. People ‘like us’ didn’t do those things, but Dad did.
At Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary ‘Do’, I was talking to one of my cousins, who was a little boy when Dad started travelling abroad.
‘I always thought of him as being a bit like James Bond’, he said, ‘Jetting off with his suitcase to places I’d never heard of. I was always so proud to have such an exciting uncle’.
I don’t think Dad ever understood the impression that he made, not just on my cousin, but on all of us. For me, he made foreign travel seem possible, something desirable and something achievable. He was always so curious, and touchingly innocent. Once, at a hotel in Venezuela, a woman with a small child approached him. Dad chatted away to her, but was surprised when the waiter he had befriended called him over for a phone call. When Dad got up, the waiter gently told him that the woman was a prostitute. I remember how Dad kept shaking his head when he told us the story.
‘But she had a little boy with her’, he kept saying. ‘I thought she just wanted someone to talk to’.
When I went back to the nursing home on the following day, Dad was a bit more agitated.
‘All the presents are gone!’ he said.
He’d given me a list of things to buy – a clock, some chocolate, polo mints, a razor, a hair brush. Things do go for a walk in home sometimes: usually Dad just puts things down and forgets them, whereupon some of the other residents pick them up. One lady has an eye for any neglected cups of coffee, which she swoops upon with the skill of a Dickensian urchin.
I showed Dad the many things I’d bought, and he was distracted for a minute, but still worried about the ‘presents’. I had noticed that his room was a bit bare. Then, he stood up to go to the toilet, and grabbed one of the red-framed walkers that was ‘parked’ nearby.
‘Don’t fall over!’ said M. She is one of the residents, and is constantly worried about other people tripping or needing something.
‘I’ll look after him, M’, I said, as I steadied Dad for the short trot to the toilet.
‘My husband died’, she said. ‘Good man. Worked hard’.
‘I’m sorry’, I said, as I always do. M and I usually have a chat about her husband while I’m in. But then she tells me something that I hadn’t heard.
‘We were in the Salvation Army’, she says. ‘In Bridport. We all sang. My brother played the trumpet’.
And then M gives the sweetest smile in the world, and for a second she reminds me of my Mum.
And then Dad is back, and he’s delighted.
‘I found the presents!’ he says.
And there, under the seat of the walker, are all Dad’s treasures: a couple of photos, a hair brush, a clock, my postcard from Obergurgl.
So I ask him if he wants me to put them back in his room, and he does. At least he’ll have multiple iterations of the things he needs, which should last him till I visit again.
I pop back in the morning for one last visit before I head home. Dad had a bad night – one of the new residents had wandered into his room in the middle of the night (ironic since this is what Dad was doing for months). He was semi-clothed and groggy when I came in, and didn’t even look at me. One of the carers was ‘sorting him out’, and so I sat and drank my coffee while I waited for Dad to come back. When he appeared, he looked much more spruce, but didn’t seem to recognise me – he walked straight past, to the consternation of the staff nurse.
‘Tom, there’s your daughter there!’ she said, steering him back towards me.
He stops, and looks at me as if he knows that I’m someone he knows, but can’t remember who. And then he brightens.
‘You’re beautiful!’ he says.
‘So are you, Dad’, I say.
And I know that this is one of those moments that I’ll remember when things get tough. It feels like a gift, just as Mum telling me she loved me before she died was a gift. I am trying to get past my fear of what is happening to Dad, so that I can appreciate and respond to the person who is still here. My fear makes me rush around to sort things out, when it would be better if I just sat and listened and became calm, so that that calmness could permeate Dad too. Sitting can be the hardest thing of all, and yet I believe that it often does the most good. Presence and attention can be the best gifts of all.