A Lifelong Love Story
Duncan McLaren's mother, suffering from dementia, is moved out of the family home and into a care home. But Mabel leaves behind her diaries going back to 1941, and from these - together with his father's memories - Duncan puts together the story of his parents' life together. In so doing, he discovers a touching love story. Whenever possible in 2009, the son takes his mother and father for drives around the places they used to haunt in their youth. It's their shared time in the car that brings their story to a head. Is the love that Ian still feels for Mabel effectively reciprocated? Is a Renault Modus the true care home of second childhood? And will high-maintenance Mabel's twilight period linger on forever?
The manuscript is currently with Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency.
NB. Saga have been restructuring their site. The general archive can be accessed by the above logo.But for the most recent blogs go to www.saga.co.uk and hover over the CARE tab. Visiting Mabel is usually the first of the items in the Care Articles column.
'I look forward to reading these blogs and really enjoy them. They make me smile and sometimes cry but they are so funny and as my mum died many years ago I enjoy sharing Duncan's visits to his mum. I also worked for years in a home for the elderly so can appreciate all the frustrations with alzheimer's as well. Well done Duncan, you are a very good son and friend to Mabel.'
'As usual your memories are very thought provoking and seem to stay with me all day. Sad but inspiring in one.'
'I find this blog so moving. Duncan really captures the essence of having an elderly parent who is no longer able to cope by themselves. His comment that grieving begins long before someone dies is so true.'
BLOG ONE - VISITING MABEL (May 20, 2010)
The first of Duncan McLaren’s touching and tender online diaries about visiting his mother in her care home.
Monday, shortly before 8pm. I’m a 52-year-old man driving the mile or so to his mother’s care home on the edge of our Perthshire town. I don’t usually visit Mum in the evening, but I’ve been away for the weekend, and though I know that my Glasgow-based brother has taken her out for a run in the car on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I’ve decided to turn up tonight. Visiting is a two-way process, and having not seen Mum since last Friday, I’m missing her.
Mum has been in the care home since October, 2008, a full eighteen months. Did I think she’d last this long? I did not. She’d had two bad falls in the month prior to the move, precipitating the change of environment. The opinion of one of Mabel’s day carers was that she would go downhill fast once she entered an institution. Instead, Mum’s condition has stabilised. She is no worse off, in terms of dementia or immobility, than the day she was driven over from the family home to the care home. I like to think that’s in part because regular visits from family members keep her feeling wanted.
There are eight elderly people sitting in the main lounge of the care home and, as it happens, my glance has to take in each of them before it settles on the slight figure asleep on one side of a sofa. ‘Hi, Mum,’ I say, slipping into the empty half of the sofa. She opens her eyes and smiles. ‘Hiya,’ she says, vaguely. I take her hand in mine and give her time to come to. Coronation Street is on the flat screen telly. A program that Mum used to watch avidly, until she began to lose interest in it after the first of her two strokes. That happened seven years ago, when she was 78. The onset of dementia and the loss of mobility were then progressive, accompanied by headaches and mini-strokes. For whatever reason these have stopped in the last eighteen months. As I say, Mabel seems to be perched on a plateau. Here’s hoping nothing disturbs her precious equilibrium.
I’m distracted by the agitation of Molly, one of Mabel’s fellow residents. Molly is annoyed that wheelchair-bound Rona has not returned a coffee table to its stack, something that frail Rona could not possibly manage. Rona is being called ‘lazy’ and ‘good for nothing’ by demented Molly. Also, Rona is being warned to take the smirk off her face. There is no carer around so I step forward, speak reassuringly to both residents and put the table away. I then help Mabel up from the sofa, as she has expressed a desire to go to the toilet. As she zimmers towards the door, I hear Molly having another go at Rona of the non-existent smirk: ‘Ah, you! - You’re always getting somebody else to do your dirty work for you!’ Molly has a vindictive streak (as well as a sunny side), but I’ve never seen her physically assault a fellow resident and don’t expect to.
On the way to the loo, I meet a carer who is just finishing her shift. Normally I would ask her to toilet Mabel, but I don’t want to delay the tired worker’s exit for the several minutes that this process would involve. ‘Who’s on night duty?’ I ask, and am given the three names that will be responsible for the 30-odd residents for the next twelve hours and who should be arriving any minute. But I don’t hesitate to enter the toilet with Mabel myself. In the period when Mum was still living at the family home but needed to be helped every time she needed to go to the loo (or anywhere else), I got used to the job. That - and post-stroke Mabel’s incessant need for company - quickly became wearing for me and demoralising for my father who couldn’t manage the physical demands of the situation. Now, it seems to me, we have the balance about right. We can cope with what’s being asked of us, and Mum does not feel bereft.
When we’re finished in the toilet, we sit side-by-side in front of the computer. I’d never seen this facility used before, but last week at my request a carer set up a Hotmail address for Mabel and we’ve since emailed some photographs taken in the home to her nieces in Canada. So everyone is feeling pleased about that. Today I’ve opened the file of images called ‘Mabel’ and am looking through it for something that might be appropriate to head this column. ‘That’s a good one of me,’ chirps Mum. ‘There’s me again. Another good one… Don’t they ever take photos of anyone else?’
Edith, who has been a resident here for six months, walks past wearing a dressing gown and clutching her handbag. ‘What time should I get up in the morning?’ she asks me. I tell her that people in the house get up at different times, and ask her when she usually gets up. She frowns. Then she lights up and asks what time breakfast is served. Perhaps she’s thinking that if she can winkle this information out of me then she can work backwards to her own getting up time.
‘Mum, what time do you have breakfast?’ I ask. Now this is disingenuous of me, because a working knowledge of time is not Mabel’s strong suit. Usually I say I’ll be seeing her at two o’clock in the afternoon. But when I turn up sharp at two, she’ll tell me she’s been waiting for me since noon.
‘Nine o’clock,’ says Mabel, with an air of certainty that doesn’t convince me, but says much for the durability of her self-confidence.
‘Oh well in that case I can have a jolly long lie-in!’ says Edith, swinging her handbag as she goes happily on her way.
I didn’t know if I – never mind Mabel - would settle down in this place. But I have come to feel that there’s something to build on here. We’re giving it a go, anyway.
BLOG TWO - VISITING MABEL (June 4, 2010)
The second of Duncan McLaren’s touching and tender online diaries about visiting his mother in her care home
It’s Dad’s 84th birthday and we’re having a meal out to celebrate. The table is booked for 1pm but I’ve arranged to pick up Mum at12.15pm - just before lunch is served at the care home - so that she doesn’t have to sit on her own while the other residents eat. As usual her eyes light up when she sees me from her seat in the corridor, and I’m fairly sure mine respond in kind. It is one of the best moments in any day, that mutual recognition of mother and son, carer and cared for. Shame it can’t last. In her excitement, Mum is already trying to stand up out of her wheelchair as I’m jabbing in the security code to the front door. But I’m at her side long before there is any possibility of her falling.
The staff have made a reasonable job of dressing her for the temperature outside. It’s one of the things they’re good at. As for me, I’m used to manhandling the wheelchair and its disorientated occupant out of the awkward entrance.
“Are you sure this is our car?” asks Mabel, frowning at the Renault that she sees every second day.
‘Yes, that’s the one. Up you get now.’ Mabel stands up out of her chair, and with my support raises her right leg and plants her foot on the floor of the vehicle. She does this so shakily that it almost comes as a surprise that she actually manages to slide her backside into the front seat. But I’m pretty sure her car-accessing movements are no feebler than they were eighteen months ago when she first moved into the care home. Vascular dementia proceeds by stages. If Mabel avoids the mini-strokes that plagued her for a year or two then her dementia may not get any worse. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
At the restaurant we’ve been allocated a large round table in the middle of the room. It’s splendid but I ask if we can be moved to a smaller rectangular table where I can sit alongside Mum and help out with her eating and communicating. Being in public with Mabel does not embarrass me. But I do sometimes take precautions to try and ensure that this remains the case.
My partner, Kate, arrives separately. She gives Ian his birthday card, has a teasing exchange with Mabel - who gives as good as she gets - then asks me why Mabel is sitting there in her coat. Mabel is sitting there in her coat because it’s a tricky operation for one person to remove the sleeve from first one arm, then the second sleeve from the other arm, then to release the whole coat from between Mabel and the wheelchair. But of course that is me being lazy: mentally and physically lazy. With Kate’s help, I have Mum sitting there with her napkin over her best blue cardigan looking as comfortable as any of the other ladies that are lunching.
Soon Mum gets stuck into the seafood salad that I’ve ordered for her. She’s had this before and liked it. The prawns, smoked salmon, herring and mackerel fillet are pure protein and surely a healthy change from the fish fingers that are the nearest that the care home gets to serving up fruits de mer. If fish is brain food, perhaps it’s anti-dementia fodder as well. I watch as Mum repeatedly fails in her effort to fork a prawn. ‘It won’t stick,’ she says, staring intensely at the conjunction of prongy fork and saucy prawn. ‘It won’t stick!’ she keeps saying. Suddenly, Dad, Kate and I are all laughing. What are we laughing at? - The obvious relish with which Mabel is attacking her food. Once she masters the art of prawn spearing, I gaze on her with the same pleasure I imagine a parent does on seeing his or her child eating well. After more prawn guzzling, I turn Mum’s plate so that it’s bite-size pieces of salmon that grab her attention. And so our meal progresses, the River Tay keeping us company as it serenely rolls past the window…
With a trouble-free trip to the disabled toilet under our belts, as well as our lunches, Mum and I sit contentedly in the front seats of the car. With measured use of a stick, Dad walks towards us, having paid for the whole – his and our - birthday feast. Dad has had a tough six months due to ill health. For the first year of Mum being in the home, he managed to visit her every second day, so that Mabel got a visit from her husband or her son every single day. But for the last six months Dad hasn’t managed to visit separately and instead has tagged along with me. In a state of some distress, Dad said the other day that he felt he was losing Mabel. To which I didn’t know what to reply. Dad calmed down and said that he felt Mum’s bond with me was stronger than her bond with him nowadays, and that that was for the best.
So we watch as Ian approaches the car.
‘He doesn’t move so badly. Considering his age,’ says Mabel.
‘No, he doesn’t, you’re right.’
Mum doesn’t move so badly either. All things considered.
BLOG THREE - VISITING MABEL (June 18, 2010)
THE CHIROPODY LESSON
I turn up at the care home on a bright afternoon. The senior carer on duty is looking concerned.
‘Are you taking Mabel out?’ she asks.
‘As arranged, yes.’
‘It’s just that the chiropodist is here and I don’t think Mabel has been done yet.’
Well, for sure Mum has to see the chiropodist. Her toenails are as hard as antlers and they need to be trimmed regularly by someone who knows what they’re doing. However, I also want her to get out for some fresh air and sunshine – her daily dose of vitamin D. I soon establish with the carer - who is always helpful, but never promises what she can’t deliver - that I need to talk to the chiropodist in person.
Upstairs, podiatry paraphernalia dominates the dining room. A resident is in the middle of being seen to. However, the young chiropodist is on her mobile, so I give her some space. I eventually realise it’s a private call that’s going on - and on - but I make myself sit there patiently. That is, I try not to visualise Mabel sitting downstairs in the corridor wondering where on earth I’ve got to.
Finally, the woman hangs up. I tell her about Mabel’s position. The chiropodist is not helpful. She can’t give me any idea how long it will be before she’ll be ready to see her.
‘How about if I’m back here with Mabel at four pm?’
‘I’ll be going as soon as I finish the others.’
‘Well, do you want to suggest an earlier time?’
The chiropodist looks nonplussed by the conversation. Am I really so far out of line here?
Finally, I say: ‘OK, I promise I will be back by four. So let’s just hope that works out.’
In fact, I will be very disappointed if Mabel doesn’t get her toenails cut today. But I don’t get the impression that this individual cares much about any potential disappointment of mine. Or of Mabel’s.
Mum and I head north and we park at the top of the pass that goes between two mountains. One day in April 1952, when Mum was 27, still single, and very much enjoying her ski-ing, a thick fog descended over the Grampians and Mabel ended up being lost overnight. The incident was reported in the Scottish press, and Mum kept the clippings, so last year I was able to retrace her footsteps over that dramatic day and night. Except I found that for a not-especially-fit 51-year-old to walk for hours on end carrying across his shoulders a set of heavy wooden skis was out of the question.
Sitting side by side in the car now, I ask Mabel why she kept hold of her skis all through that long night in ‘52. She looks at the mountain, then at me, then back at the mountain, and finally says: ‘They were expensive.’
But she doesn’t seem happy with that answer. After a few moments she clarifies her statement. ‘It was my first season of ski-ing and those skis were my most treasured possession.’
‘When it got dark that night, wouldn’t it have made sense to dump them, in order to conserve your energy for walking until daybreak?’
‘I was not going to abandon my skis. Not for anything.’
The depth of her feeling reminds me of something she wrote in her diary at the end of the ‘55 ski-season: ‘Just another Saturday. How I wish I still had ski-ing to look forward to on Sundays.’ Though she didn’t know it when she wrote that diary entry, she had just one year of ski-ing left to enjoy. Marriage and family then brought to a halt her time in the mountains, her ‘days of super sunshine’, her ski-time.
When we get back to the corridors of the care home, it strikes me that nowadays - though Mum is aided by a walking-frame made of light tubular aluminium, not weighed down by heavy wooden skis - she shows the same determination that she showed that long, dark night in April ’52 when she was in her prime.
At the end of the afternoon I call in on the care home manager. I tell her that I’m not complaining, just offloading my frustration with the attitude of one NHS service deliverer. The manager points out that the woman had been on the premises since 10am and that her job had been made more difficult today by a broken lift. However, it turns out that the manager herself has an ongoing problem with the chiropody service. They won’t visit residents in their rooms, which the manager thinks would be ideal for such an essentially private, one-to-one service, because they say that is too time-consuming. Instead, the upstairs dining room is requisitioned and the staff have to present the residents in a queue with their feet clean, which is reasonable, and their stockings off, which is questionable.
I tell the manager that the worst moment for me this afternoon was seeing the chiropodist’s face fall when she clocked Mabel and I in the car park as she was exiting the building at 3.45. In my opinion, she should have been pleased that Mabel was to get her toenails cut after all. Not devastated that her own escape from work was going to have to be put on hold for a few minutes.
‘I agree. Whatever one does for a living, it helps if it’s done with enthusiasm and with some insight into how one’s actions affect the welfare of others.’
I tell the manager that Mabel used to get her toenails clipped at the local cottage hospital. In the aftermath of one appointment, my mother proudly told me that the chiropodist had told her that she’d got beautiful feet. And of course Mabel has got beautiful feet. They are beautiful on the grounds that they have carried her through eight and a half decades of life.
‘That’s nice. And you know, as far as I’m concerned everyone in here has got beautiful feet, for that very same reason.’
So there we go. My visit ends with me being thankful for the care my mother receives on a daily basis, not upset about today’s pantomime. The last thing I do before exiting the building is remind Mabel - to her face, which I like to think is glowing with today’s intake of vitamin D and reminiscence - that she has got wonderful feet.********************************************************************
BLOG FOUR - VISITING MABEL (July 4, 2010)
EMERGENCY AT BACKWATER DAM
The fourth of Duncan McLaren’s poignant online diaries about visiting his mother, Mabel, who lives in a care home.
I’ve taken Mabel and Ian out for a Saturday picnic. This has long been established as a highlight of our week. Mum is in the front passenger seat of the car, marvelling at the size of trees and the number of sheep passing in front of her eyes, and Dad is sitting behind her. I’ve just made a remark about the landscape to which Dad has made no reply. This is unusual, so I ask him if he’s feeling all right. He whispers that he feels terrible. It’s only a mile to today’s picnic spot by the side of a reservoir, so while questioning him about what might be wrong, I drive on.
When I park, I turn around to discover that Dad’s eyes are shut and he’s dribbling. I spring out of my seat and get into the back of the vehicle. He won’t respond to my voice or touch. I’ve seen Mabel like this, and in her case it was a stroke that caused the blackout. So I need to call for an ambulance. Luckily, I’ve got my mobile. No signal. I sprint towards the only other vehicle in sight. They can’t get a signal on their phone either. The couple volunteers to drive to the nearest landline and call an ambulance. As I run back to the red car, inside which sit my once-strong parents, a wave of panic engulfs me.
But when I get to the car I’m calm enough to check that Ian is still breathing. Mabel has no idea what’s going on in the seat behind her. All she wants to know is where the cold draft is coming from. Both the back doors and the boot are open so that as much fresh air as possible is available to Ian, but all I tell her is that Dad isn’t well and so she must put up with a little discomfort for a while. She’s still wearing her seatbelt, which is for the best, I decide. I need to be able not to worry about Mabel and concentrate on Ian. ‘Dad?’ I say, stroking his face. The thought flashes through my mind that if this is the end for him, at least it’s sudden, which is what he would have wanted. But hot on the heels of that thought is the one that I do not want my 84-year-old father to die. Or, if he must die, then let it not be for a few years yet. None of my movements or words is to any practical purpose, but to my intense relief he begins to murmur. A minute later and he’s telling me that I need to take care of Mabel, who is noisily losing patience with a situation she doesn’t understand. ‘What’s going on?’ she shouts. I give her one of the sausage sandwiches from Dad’s picnic basket in a bid to normalise the situation. ‘Mabel’s is the one with HP Sauce on it,’ says Ian, without opening his eyes. Too late, it’s a mustard one I’ve given her, and because I haven’t taken the time to oversee the hand to mouth business, the sausage is already in her lap and she is chewing on an empty roll.
Slowly, Ian recovers his capacity to speak. He asks to be put in a lying position. It seems like the time that Mabel had a mini stroke, in that she went from lying unconscious to feeling herself again in half an hour. So I’m beginning to be hopeful. I sit beside Mum and gently interject as she tries to throw lumps of unwanted bread through the windscreen. I’m even more hopeful when the couple return for long enough to say that an ambulance is on its way. When the emergency vehicle eventually comes into sight, how uncanny it looks, like Postman Pat’s van, trundling along the long empty stretch of road that crosses a rolling hill. Is this life-and-death situation really happening? Nothing out of the ordinary is happening as far as Mabel is concerned. She’s sitting alongside her son, sipping tea that has been sweetened by his hand. As per picnic usual.
The paramedics tell me that Ian hasn’t had a stroke. He has fainted as a result of low blood pressure, which may have something to do with the irregular heartbeat that is currently under investigation by the cardiac unit at Ninewells Hospital. With this established, the paramedics relax enough to say they recognise Mabel and me but not Ian. Ah yes, it was this pair who turned up the day that Mum collapsed in the front room of the family house two years ago. A connection, then: I thought Mum had died in front of my eyes that day. Just as I thought Dad was a gonner today.
Ian is driven to the hospital leaving me to return Mabel to the care home. As I’m motoring along I’m hit by another surge of emotion, but I don’t think Mabel is aware of my distress. However, I know that at some level she has taken on board what happened at Backwater Dam, because she suddenly says that she doesn’t want to go on long car journeys any more. I agree with her that today has not been a success, but I suggest that in a week’s time, hopefully, we’ll all be ready for another family outing.
When I next see her, Mabel asks if ‘Grandad’ (my parents have no grandchildren) is going to be all right. She adds that it’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to say nice words to him before he was taken away. I’m able to reassure her that Ian is being well looked after at the hospital, and that by the time she next sees our five-star picnic maker he’ll have a pacemaker fitted in order to help him to butter the rolls and fill up the flask.
BLOG FIVE - VISITING MABEL (July 18, 2010)
I’m sitting with Mabel in her room. Outside the window, an acer tree and a bush aflame with orange flowers dominate the scene.
‘I’ll be seeing you in orange blossom time,’ sings Mabel.
I’m about to suggest that the line of the song mentions apple blossom, when Mum points out a bird walking on the grass, a bird that simply isn’t there. I must respect her point of view for the sake of her self esteem, so instead of contradicting her I remark how beautiful the view from her room is, to which platitude she smiles warmly.
This is the second time I’ve been in Mum’s room today. Earlier, while she waited in the lounge to be taken on a coach trip, a senior carer and I decided to come here to complete Mabel’s six-month review. This mostly entailed me reading through and signing off facets of a Care Plan that I’ve come to be familiar with. But the carer and I did have an in depth conversation about continence. Mum’s fine during the day, but because she is effectively confined to bed between 9pm and 8am, she is usually wet by the morning, despite the incontinence pad she wears while sleeping. Sometimes the sheets are changed in the night but mostly it is the day-staff who get up Mabel and dry her off. It’s an aspect of her regime that I’m not happy with and the situation is under review. Apparently a continence nurse is due to visit the care home soon and she’ll be considering Mabel’s case.
‘I wonder how much that kilt cost,’ asks Mabel, out of the blue.
Mum is looking at the framed portrait that was taken in 1941, one of the many photographs that enliven the walls of her room. It’s a black-and-white photograph that was hand-coloured by Wilson Laing, who ran a photography business in the town from the late Twenties to the Fifties. I can understand why he spent so much time introducing red, blue and green to the kilt Mabel is wearing, but I don’t know why he felt he had to put colour into the sixteen-year old’s cheeks.
‘I wonder if it cost more than the photograph,’ is my considered reply.
‘Mother will have put the receipts somewhere,’ says Mum.
I know where this is going. And indeed I don’t have long to wait for the inevitable: ‘Where is mother?’
I do as always when Mabel asks me this. I take her hand in mine, and tell her that her mother died in the same year that I was born, more than half a century ago. Mabel marvels at this news, then pulls herself together and asks why she wasn’t told.
‘Of course you were told, Mum. It’s just that you’ve forgotten. But it’s OK. Your mother’s gone but I’m here instead. That’s what happens in life and it’s not so bad is it?’
Mabel blinks, and then nods, and we settle down to what I take to be a philosophical silence. After a while she tells me she had a terrible dream last night.
‘There were six men and they asked me to go home with them. I said OK but that there was to be no nonsense.’
‘And was there any?’
‘Yes, but I made sure they didn’t get anywhere.’
I think about this for a few seconds then ask. ‘When you woke up were you wet?’
‘Soaking. I could feel the water with my hand.’
I wonder if Mum’s incontinence is contributing to bad dreams, or vice versa. I must make sure that I have a word with the continence nurse before she visits. After all it’s unlikely that the busy professional will have time to ask Mabel about her dreams. ‘Any flood symbols, Mrs McLaren? Any battles at sea?’ No, only I’m likely to hear about such watery horrors.
Meanwhile things have moved on in Mabel’s stroke-affected mind. She asks me to tell her about the girl friends I had before her. From this I gather that she thinks I’m my father. So I remind her of my name, Duncan, and make sure she’s looking at me while I say it. However, a minute later she does it again. That is, she claims that she’s told me about her boyfriends and so it’s only fair that I tell her about the girls I knew before meeting her. Perhaps she’s dwelling on this because recently I pressed Mum to tell me what she could remember about a man called Tommy who features heavily in her diary for 1948, when she was 23. Anyway, today I tell her the truth as I understand it:
‘Ian didn’t really have any proper girlfriends before he met you. You put everyone else in the shade.’
This perspective delights Mabel. She sings: ‘I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more.’
More silence. Then Mabel, in her dementia, asks: ‘Do you think we should have any more children?’
This is surely a throwback to a conversation that Mabel and Ian had in the mid-Sixties. Indeed, I remember my brother and I being asked by Mum if we wanted a little sister, and I recall my eight-year-old self not feeling competent to answer the question. I feel I should be able to rise to the occasion this time around.
‘I think things are fine as they are.’
‘Yes, so do I.’
This afternoon there was a six-month review of Mabel, completed in her absence and with an emphasis on continence. But this evening, Mum’s been leading a review of the last eighty-five years of her life, with emphasis on birth, marriage and death, and with due respect to the mysterious and cyclical nature of it all.
BLOG SIX - VISITING MABEL (August 1, 2010)
“Look who’s here to see you!”
Mum doesn’t get many visitors these days, apart from Dad, Kate and I. But she’s got some today. Five of the White family have arrived from the town where the McLaren family lived opposite them on Townhill Road for seven years in the Sixties. Mabel’s Tupperware and Crimpelene years, I’d characterise them.
I warned the home that there would be a party of nine of us, including Mabel, and they have risen to the challenge. That is, we’ve been booked into the upstairs lounge and promised a tea trolley loaded with pancakes.
I did warn the Whites too. I warned them that Mabel might not have a clue who they were, even though every time Mabel looked out of the front window for so long she could see the Whites, or at least their semi-detached house. And so it proves, judging by her vague reaction to each of the faces that approach her in turn. But she is pleased to see them anyway, because it gives her an audience for today’s obsession, which happens to be teeth. Mabel tells us of the day that she got all her teeth removed.
‘“Ping, ping, ping” they went, as they were taken out by McPherson and thrown into a tin,’ says Mabel, with every appearance of joy.
I ask Mum what the dentist did with the teeth. ‘Sold them, I expect,’ she says, which gets a laugh.
Being familiar with her diaries back to 1941, I’m able to tell everyone that Mabel got all her teeth removed in two sessions when she was sweet sixteen.
Cue Mum: ‘“Ping, ping, ping”, they went, as McPherson threw them over his shoulder into a bucket.’
Eventually, Kate who has got some heavy-duty dental work coming up, begs Mabel to change the subject. So Mum tries her best.
‘When my husband was alive…’ she begins.
Dad can’t be sure where she’s going with this, but he stops her there in any case. ‘I may not be in the best of health, Mabel, but I like to think I’m still in the land of the living,’ he says, provoking a smile of recognition from Mum.
By this time, Jean White, Mabel’s close friend from Townhill Road days, has come up to Mabel’s side and is holding her hand. Our former neighbour’s face is shining with a goodwill that Mabel is able to detect just as surely as I can. Jean doesn’t get very far with her chosen topic of conversation but then settles down on the edge of the table to listen to Mabel burbling away about McPherson, a man whose name I hadn’t even heard mentioned by Mum until he came into his own today.
‘Well, I’d better not keep you,’ Mabel says, after not getting much response for a while. It’s a kind of nervous verbal tick this. And I’ve learned that all I need do to deal with it is say something that distracts her attention from any fleeting sensation of self-consciousness.
‘We’ll stay a bit longer if you don’t mind, Mum. I’m just going to see if Andrew wants another scone. He looks hungry like the wolf to me. Perhaps you would like another one as well?’
‘No, I’m watching my figure,’ says Mabel, her hand sliding out towards the plateful of buttered pancakes.
Two of the younger generation of Whites are twins. Mabel’s diary for 1967 records the happy day they were born. Today they are in their early forties, but still seem innocent. I’m glad they’ve made the effort to come here. By that, I mean not just because they’ve had to travel a hundred miles, but because they’ve had to cross the threshold of a care home. I intend to make it easier for them to do so again in the future, whether it’s this care home or another. Accordingly, I ask if they want to come with me to Mabel’s room where we can arrange the bunch of flowers they’ve brought. To get to the room we have to negotiate another resident’s wheelchair, which is blocking the corridor. Rona seems to have got most of a fruit salad stuck between her back and the back of her wheelchair, so we spend a couple of minutes sorting that out with her permission and gratitude.
Inside Mabel’s room, a picture of my brother and me wearing the ties of Townhill Primary makes the twins feel at home. They take in the interior, awash with family photographs, colourful paintings and sunshine. There is nothing to be afraid of here. It’s where Mabel lives these days. Once I feel the room has communicated this to its oh-so-welcome visitors, we go back upstairs.
By the time the whole visit comes to an end, Mabel has orientated herself a little. In between saying goodbye to her friends, she spontaneously comes up with the name of the town we used to live in. ‘Memories…’, she tells us, wistfully. ‘It’s good to talk about old times,’ she adds.
Well, as far as I know we haven’t talked about old times. But with the aid of her photo album I’ll give that a go when I see her on Friday.
Not alone yet, Mum. You’re not alone again with old McPherson yet.
BLOG SEVEN - VISITING MABEL (August 15, 2010)
THE UNBREAKABLE UMBILICAL CORD
I arrive at Stormont Lodge sharp at 9am. I’m taking Mum to Perth Royal Infirmary where she is to undergo a minor procedure. So I’m expecting there to be an overnight bag and a letter from the manager of the home which explains that Mabel cannot move anywhere without supervision. The last thing we want is Mabel falling down onto the cold, hard floor of the hospital.
Mum is dressed, her bag is packed, the letter is there, but she doesn’t have a clue what’s happening. What is happening? When I Googled ‘prolapsed womb’ I learned that it mainly affects women who have had children. So this is all my fault, one could say. Ironic that Mabel gave birth to me (and my brother) at home, but in the end she is still going to have to put in an appearance at a Maternity and Gynaecologial Department.
As we drive along, I remember more immediately why this expedition has to happen. For some years Mabel has had a pessary keeping her womb in place. Every few months the device needs replacing, and increasingly this has become a problem. First, the long trip into the main Dundee hospital became too much for Mabel. We got over this when it was discovered that a consultant ran a clinic in our small town’s cottage hospital once a week. However, at Mabel’s last appointment he found it wasn’t possible to remove the pessary without causing pain. I was there, on the other side of the curtain, and I heard Mum’s loud ‘Oh, here, stop that!’. I was disappointed to hear the consultant immediately abandon his efforts. Surely he appreciated how much more traumatic a trip to the hospital, a general anaesthetic, and the boredom of lying in alien surroundings for the best part of two days would be for his elderly and demented patient? But I soon realised the doctor was not interested in justifying his clinical decisions to patients’ representatives. So that was that. And so here we are, the two of us, having the time of our lives. ‘Oh, here, stop this!’ I want to shout. But I know nobody is listening except she who would be hurt to know of my exasperation.
Mum wants to know if she’ll be cut up inside. I reassure her that she won’t be. In fact, we have a fairly sensible exchange, at the end of which I feel she more or less knows what’s in store. Nothing much will happen today. Tomorrow she will be put to sleep and the doctor will do what he couldn’t do at the cottage hospital. If all goes to plan, Mabel will be back at the care home tomorrow afternoon. In response to my squeeze, she squeezes the fingers of my hand. While my other hand remains firmly on the steering wheel.
We check into the ward with the help of a nurse. After half an hour or so, a second nurse introduces herself and together we fill in a form. Date of birth, allergies, and so on. I could answer these questions on Mum’s behalf in my sleep. Mabel couldn’t answer them at all, except for her name. Address? Mum grimaces and remains silent. I intervene. ‘Next of kin?’ The question doesn’t come close to computing in Mum’s head. ‘It’s Ian, isn’t it?’ I prompt. ‘Ian?’ says Mabel. I turn to the nurse and give her my father’s details as well as my own.
After a charming anaesthetist pays us a visit, the second nurse takes Mabel’s blood pressure. The figure is a little high, but not high for Mabel. On two of her emergency admissions to hospital her reading’s been up past 200. Today she continues to treat what’s happening as a low-key event. Which bodes well.
There is no-one else in the ward. On her return, I ask the first nurse if the other three beds will fill up as the day goes on, but she says not. ‘We’ve put Mabel in this quiet ward because we know she has special needs.’ What’s more, they’ve put her in the bed nearest the toilet to minimize the distance she has to zimmer. The nurse asks me if I can hang around for another hour or so, as there is a consent form that the registrar will have to go through with us. So I sit on a chair and chat to Mum about the birth of my brother and me. Both deliveries were difficult as we were such big babies, apparently. Whereas Mum’s sister, Alice, was the lucky one, in that she had two ‘slips of girls’ to deliver.
The registrar arrives and apologises for keeping us waiting. The young doctor needs to establish if Mabel is fit to give her consent to the hospital procedure, so she needs to ask her a couple of questions, starting with: ‘Mabel, what did you have for breakfast this morning?’
Mabel looks at me. ‘What did I have for breakfast this morning?’ she asks.
Two can play at that game. ‘Well, what did you have for breakfast?’
So that’s that: question one, over and out.
‘Mabel, how many grandchildren do you have?’
Again Mabel looks at me. ‘Two?’
‘Well you have two children,’ I say. ‘But that’s not how many grandchildren you have. Is it?’
Perhaps Mabel does better than I give her credit for in this general knowledge quiz. Because in the end it is she who is asked to sign the consent form, not me.
Shortly after this I get to leave the hospital. Before I know it, I’m back there again, collecting my post-op parent, who seems none the worse for having had her ring pessary removed and a state-of-the-art cube pessary inserted in its place. Apparently, the cube version is so user-friendly that from now on the device will be removed, cleaned and replaced on a weekly basis by a district nurse.
What do these last two days prove? That my elderly mother has a large team of well-meaning, well-educated people available to help her? I think so. But I think they also emphasise that I need to keep playing my part, by staying reconciled to being Mum’s mediator.
How does one stay motivated in such circumstances? I don’t know the whole answer to that. But I suspect it’s not as easy to cut the umbilical cord as they make out in medical textbooks. Indeed, I have a vision of a man in a white coat holding metal-handled scissors trying to come between Mabel and I in 1957. ‘Oh, here, stop that!’ cries the voice I recognize above all others.
BLOG EIGHT - VISITING MABEL (August 29, 2010)
I’ve come to the home this evening with a view to explaining something to Mum. Not sure if I’ll succeed in this, but I want to give it a go. So once we’re sitting down in her room with a cup of tea and a biscuit, I kick off.
‘You know how I have a power of attorney over your affairs, Mum?’
Mabel looks blank.
‘When you came in here in October 2008, you had about £50,000 of capital in the form of various investments. But each month I’ve had to make out a cheque to the care home for about £2,000. Well, your capital has gone down and it now stands at just above £20,000 as far as the local authority is concerned.’
As I’ve been talking I’ve been writing the figures down in large characters on a sheet of paper, in case this might help Mum take in what I’m saying. She was always good at mental arithmetic and the last time I threw darts at a dartboard she was able to help add up my score.
‘No need to look so worried,’ I say, reassuringly. ‘This is good news. Because now the local authority is taking over the payment of your monthly bill.’
Mum bites on her biscuit and sips from her tea. As yet, she’s saying nothing.
The financial assessment took place at our family home recently in Mum’s absence. The first thing I learned from the young woman who conducted it, was that Mabel, who didn’t work much after she got married and so receives only a small state pension, is entitled to Pension Credit. And although this can be backdated for three months, it means that Mum has missed out on several thousand pounds. But the good news is that some of Mabel’s investments are life assurance bonds. The council employee confirmed for me that these are disregarded when calculating a care home resident’s capital. And so I discovered that Mum would be left with a few thousand pounds more than the official minimum.
“Good old Miss Wilson!’ says Mabel, suddenly.
‘Good old Miss Wilson?’ I repeat, wondering if Mum has taken a stab at naming the financial assessment officer.
‘Every morning, every evening, every night, Mother went up the road to see to her.’
It dawns on me that Miss Wilson was an old lady that was looked after by Mabel’s own mother.
‘Miss Wilson would have died years before if Mother hadn’t seen to her.’
If I remember rightly, when this Miss Wilson died, she left Fernbank, the house that my mother and her family had long occupied as tenants, to Mabel’s mother.
Mum continues: ‘Miss Wilson’s aunt must have had some kind of hole in her head to keep all that money.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, it’s just an expression,’ says Mum.
Come to think of it, ‘I needed that like I needed a hole in the head,’ is an expression that Mum used to employ. So I guess that what Mabel may be trying to say is that Miss Wilson’s ‘aunt’ needed Miss Wilson to leave a valuable asset like Fernbank to Mabel’s mother like she needed a hole in the head.
I judge from what Mum goes on to say that in the end Miss Wilson’s relative accepted that Mabel’s mother deserved the legacy. But I really am guessing. Mabel doesn’t express herself clearly nowadays and often finds it difficult to elaborate a statement, or even repeat a question or an answer.
At this point there is a noise at the door and another resident enters.
‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’ says Mabel, clearly enough. ‘Scat!’ She adds with the same ferocity that she used to show any cat that transgressed onto her property.
‘It’s OK Mum, she’s just lost her way. Besides, what would your mother think if she saw you shouting at a harmless old lady?’
I get up and help Hettie, who is a bit bemused by the reception she’s received, to turn around and retrace her footsteps along the corridor.
It’s only when I’m back sitting in the room and find myself thinking again about Mum’s ‘Good old Miss Wilson,’ exclamation that I realise its further significance. In Mum’s dementia, she’s managed to contrast today’s system of caring for the elderly with the way it was done a couple of generations ago. Talking to Mum about her own situation has brought to her mind an elderly person who needed looking after when Mabel was in her formative years. Back then, your family looked after you, if you were lucky. But if you didn’t have family you were finished, such was the inadequacy of social services, unless, like Miss Wilson, you had a Good Samaritan for a neighbour. Nowadays, the state provides a much more reliable safety net. Though I’m sure many people still fall through it.
‘Is Mother still alive?’ asks Mum, as she so often does.
As usual, I tell Mum that her own mother died in the year I was born, more than half a century ago.
‘Why did no-one tell me?’
‘Of course you were told, Mum. It’s just that you’ve forgotten.’
As we’re speaking, I get out the oldest of Mabel’s photo albums. She likes to look at the picture that shows her mother in her pomp, surrounded by five of her seven children, including Mabel, the youngest child, in the foreground.
‘What happened to Mother?’
‘She had several strokes, but I don’t know the details. When you got married you wrote in your 1956 diary that your mother was comfortable but that she didn’t realise what was happening as you nipped off to the registry office.’
Mum ponders in silence this turning point in her life.
‘The next year, when you were pregnant with me, your mother was well looked after at home during her final illness by your sisters.’
Mabel comes to life at this: ‘Not by Edith. She would have been hopeless.’
I nod: ‘Your mother, who looked after people all her adult life, was well looked after at the end of her days by Meg, May and Jean.’
‘Where is Jean?’ asks Mum of her gentlest sister.
Oh, dear. Fancy me coming here this evening and thinking I could get away with talking about money.
BLOG NINE - VISITING MABEL (September 13, 2010)
THE STRAWBERRY TEA
Something happened this summer, a little thing that I hardly noticed at the time but which I keep returning to.
It was the summer’s day when the care home serves tea in a marquee on the front lawn to residents, their relatives and anyone else who chooses to brave the social event of the season.
As well as a local pipe band and strawberry tarts, there was a sports challenge this year, which Mabel was roped into. So suddenly there we were: Mabel in her wheelchair representing the downstairs rooms at the care home, and me standing supportively behind her.
“OK, Mabel, are you ready?” asked a carer. All Mum was required to do was roll a plastic ball along a plastic mat a few feet in the direction of a set of coloured skittles, the idea being to knock them down. Her first effort was so feeble that I think she would have been given another go even if the rules didn’t allow for such.
“Take your time, Mabel,” said the carer.
“Just relax, Mum,” said I.
Unfortunately, the second throw was just as lamentable as the first, and I felt my spirits sink. But before I could say anything to lighten Mum’s load, the something special happened. Unusually for her, Mabel was wearing a cap. It's a baseball cap that must have been a gift from my brother or me, because it says 'Warhol' on it, and I don't think that Mabel was ever aware of who Andy Warhol was. Anyway, Mum put her hand up to the brim and gave it a little tug while at the same time bowing her head for a second. It was the sort of gesture that a professional golfer such as Gary Player used to employ when they’d successfully holed a long putt and were acknowledging the applause of the crowd. Only on this occasion Mum was making the gesture into an embarrassed silence, and the applause only started when Mabel touched her cap. Yes, people were smiling and clapping. They were aware that Mabel, in spite of her dementia, was making a joke of her lack of sporting prowess, that, indeed, she was transcending it.
Mabel was a keen games player when she was young. And I know from reading her diary that she won a badminton tournament in 1955, when she’d not long turned thirty. She beat someone called Ray in the final, and when a week later she collected‘the first cup I’ve ever won’, she wrote that ‘I filled it with gin and orange. Hubba hubba.’ The original diary entry was made in pencil but at some stage she’s gone over the last two words in ink.
Today I’m driving in the car with both my parents. Mum is sitting beside me and Dad is in the back, as per usual.
“We’ve been this way before,” I suggest.
“That’s right, that’s right, that’s dynamite,” Mum replies, surprising me with what might be the only Glam Rock reference in her repertoire.
I tell them about the diary entries for spring of 1955 and I ask Mum who Ray was.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Rae Neish, Mabel,” says Ian. He adds for my benefit: “Spelt R.A.E after the loch. All of a Blairgowrie solicitor’s children were named after local beauty spots. But it didn’t stop Rae marrying a pig farmer called Neish out at Carsie.”
There is no touching my father when it comes to local knowledge.
“Rae was a very good player. I couldn’t beat her,” says Mabel.
“Sorry to disagree, Mum,” I say. “But I have written evidence from your own hand that in April 1955, just two weeks after the badminton club held a dance which was attended by no less than eighty couples, you beat Rae Neish in the final of the Strathmore badminton ladies singles competition.”
“I just remember her being light on her feet.”
“She was a hefty lass,” Dad suggests.
“Quick,” says Mum.
“But no match for you on the day,” I conclude.
I ask Dad if he helped Mum drink the gin-and-orange from her trophy. He says not, but I’m not sure I believe him either! Because just a few days after the ‘hubba, hubba’ entry, Mabel writes: ‘Ian and I went to Lintrathen in the afternoon, had a picnic and played gramophone records’.
It’s no coincidence that Loch Lintrathen is where I’ve brought us today. We are now parked alongside the expanse of shining water. But we’re not drinking gin and orange. It’s better than that. We’re sharing a flask of home-made tea that Dad’s provided.
Neither of my parents can remember the1955 picnic as such, though Ian suggests that Mabel and he would have sat together on a travelling rug if it was warm. He tells me that his sister had a wind-up gramophone player at the time, and on fine afternoons they used to borrow it and a few of the Victorian records from Joan’s collection.
I ask Dad if he can remember any of the actual songs that they played on the wind-up. After a few seconds, his voice pipes up from the back seat:
“I stand in a land of roses, but I dream of a land of snow,
Where you and I were happy in the years of long ago.”
Often when Dad sings, Mabel joins in. But on this occasion she doesn’t appear to be listening. Rather she’s trying to get rid of the last of her tea through what she doesn’t realise is a closed window. I gently intercept Mum’s movement at the same time as I continue to listen to my father’s voice:
“Nightingales in the branches, stars in the magic skies,
But I only hear you singing, I only see your eyes.”
It’s tough on Dad when, as now, Mum doesn’t make the connection between the past and the present. Though his love for her has long been unconditional, he is afraid that he is losing Mabel.
As for me, I look on the bright side. My afternoon comes together as we’re driving back towards the care home, with the image of Mum tipping her cap down through the years to Rae Neish. The woman who Mabel played badminton with – not really against - when they were both in the prime of their lives.
BLOG TEN - VISITING MABEL (September 27, 2010)
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Mum and I have been out and about in the car. Back at the care home, I apply the brakes to the wheelchair so that she doesn’t disappear down the drive while I’m dealing with the building’s entrance. I push open the front door, and, as I’m anchoring it wide open, a piece of cloth lands on the tiled floor in front of my eyes, startling me. Then a second one, as turquoise as the first. It’s Mabel’s gloves, which have been chucked from where she sits imperiously a couple of yards away.
“Oh, so you’ve finished with these for the day,” I say.
Mabel smiles, but says nothing, leaving me to interpret her actions. I suppose it’s what you do when you get home. You put your accessories in the porch where they’ll be handy for the next time you venture forth.
OK, what next? Mabel needs to go to the loo, and there is a carer on hand to take care of that. At a loose end, I wander a few steps along the corridor.
‘DO YOU LIKE IT HERE?’
The last time Reggie and I spoke, he told me that he used to live in a castle in Couper Angus. It wasn’t his own castle, he told me, grinning from ear to ear, he had to pay someone ‘ONE AND SIX-PENCE’ to live there. Now, at the care home, he either pays a fortune, if he’s self-funding, or nothing, if the local authority picks up the tab. I have no way of knowing which it is.
“Yes, I do like it here.”
Reggie looks at me as if I’ve said something ridiculous. Finally, he responds with: ‘I SUPPOSE WE HAVE TO LIKE IT.’
I can hear Mum’s voice from the loo. “Wait!” she shouts. “Wait!” I don’t think she’s talking to me. But if she is, she needn’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.
Along the corridor comes Rona, who pushes herself from point A to point B in a tank of a wheelchair. The other day I came across her sobbing near the front door. ‘What’s wrong, Rona?’ I asked. ‘I want to go home’, she replied, ‘but I can’t open the door.’ As if all that was separating Rona from the notion she has of home was the front door of the care home. Yes, if she could only get through that front door, timetorn Rona would find herself in her own home, with her own choice of carpets and curtains, her own husband and children.
At last Mabel is out of the loo. I accompany her as she zimmers towards the lounge It takes… well, it takes ages. The Roman Empire could have fallen and the British Empire risen in the time that it takes us to get into the room where a dozen of the residents have now congregated in the lounge, in anticipation of their five o’clock meal.
Once I’ve got Mabel sitting on a sofa, Daphne leans towards me and asks if I will help Rona, who is trying to use Daphne’s seat as a means of providing leverage to propel her own. Of course, I will do what I can to help both of them.
“Where do you want to go, Rona?” I ask, standing behind her.
“Home,” comes the inevitable response.
“This is your home now,” I say, trying to sound upbeat.
“No, it’s not,” says Rona. “Take me to the door, please.”
“I can’t let you out of the front door. Is there anywhere else you’d like to be taken?”
“Yes. Anywhere else!”
Rona is a very unhappy person because she’s in exile from home, traditionally seen as that place of refuge, warmth and love. There is still ten minutes before the meal will be served, so I wheel her to her own room. Rona’s room is two doors along the corridor from Mabel’s, though neither is aware of the conjunction, since neither has any spatial awareness these days. And we pause there for a minute, the door ajar, as Rona points out with a trembling finger, her single bed.
“Ian!” I hear Mum shout from the lounge. The plaintive call for my father brings to mind Mum’s single bed behind the fire door to my right. Indeed, even at this time of day, the building is awash with the unspoken desire for sleeping arrangements to be as in younger, happier days. How did Samuel Beckett put it? ‘Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days.’
As I rejoin Mum in the lounge, I’m thinking that, in contrast to Rona, she only rarely asks to go home. Although Mabel also associates home with her husband and her children, the difference is that Dad and I spend time with her here.
“Too many visitors,” Mum tells me, looking at the tables round which her fellow residents are now sitting.
‘That’s OK, Mum,” I reply, ignoring her point. “You’ll be eating soon.”
Mabel may accept this place as home, but she regularly complains about the number of ‘visitors’ who are staying. Yes, she would be much happier if the other residents would disappear. This would leave the building to herself and her loved ones. That is, to me, my father, my brother, Mabel’s sister (who has been dead for four years) and Mabel’s mother (who has been dead for fifty years). Ah, the nuclear family – what a grip it has on the human mind.
I help Mum to the table she’s shared with the same three elderly women for months now. Alas, Mabel does not recognise them. She has nothing to say to her neighbours these days, and may never have again.
“See you Wednesday, Mum.”
“The day after tomorrow,” I say, feeling guilty about Mum’s empty Tuesday.
“Two o’clock,” I say, though I know that the information won’t lodge in her mind.
“Don’t forget,” she warns me.
“I won’t forget,” I say. And I kiss her on the cheek, timing my departure with the arrival of soup. As I exit, another line from Beckett’s Lessness hits me: ‘Never but in vanished dream the passing hour long short.’
BLOG 11 - VISITING MABEL (October 10, 2010)
It’s four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I’m just getting back to the care home having spent the afternoon with Mum and Dad. Four solid hours of family life as we know it nowadays. I’m ready for a break.
Pushing Mum’s wheelchair into the lounge, I notice there is no carer around. Eight residents in various states of stupification, but no staff. Well, that’s all right, I can do the next thing myself. I tell Mum I’ll be back in one minute. “Okey, dokey,” she says.
In fact, it probably takes me five minutes to walk to her room, find a vase and display the small bunch of flowers that I’ve brought from Dad’s garden. When I get back to the lounge there is still no carer in sight. Geoffrey, who is sitting beside Mabel, complains to me that he’s been there since three o’clock and that this is the third time that he’s had to listen to the CD of traditional Scottish tunes that’s playing. He smiles and tells me that if you sit there long enough, all the tunes begin to merge into one. I see: ‘MacPherson’s Lament’, the never ending melancholic mix.
Time for a change. I pick up the remote control and flick through the channels. I ask if anyone has any preferences but get no response. Rugby league it is then. That might seem a perverse choice, but it makes for a colourful scene on the telly and the sense of purpose of the players is palpable. Perhaps a bit of it will rub off on this team.
I notice that Jane has moved from her seat. She is blind and walks with her back so badly bent that her head is close to her knees. She mutters something about going to the toilet. I can’t help her with that, I can’t even show her the way as she shrinks from unknown voices, so for the moment I just watch as she grips the giant flat screen TV and uses that to facilitate her progress. Muscular young men thump into each other right beside her, but they don’t impede Jane’s tentative drift from one side of the telly to the other. As she continues to feel her way across the room she encounters a particularly frail fellow resident. Jane stops to stroke the back of the other’s bent neck. In silence. The comatose one seems to find this comforting, judging by the rhythmic sound she makes.
When Jane gets on the move again, Mabel observes that her trousers are ‘huggering’.
“Is that a local expression?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” says Mum. I glance at Geoffrey but he shrugs his shoulders. I can see that he doesn’t want to contradict Mabel, but nor does he know what she’s talking about.
“I’ve heard of hugger-mugger but not huggering,” I say. Hmm: not sure if that sentence will have been used within these four walls before. So I try again more simply: “What does huggering mean, Mum?”
“It means that her trousers are… sort of…” and Mum makes a waving motion with her right hand.
“Her trousers are falling down?” I ask. Are they? Jane’s trousers are bearing up well, it seems to me. She is now cutting diagonally across the room. As she approaches the sofa, one of the elderly women sitting on it says to Jane: “Don’t touch the lady.” This stops Jane’s hand just before it makes contact with the leg of the speaker’s constant companion. But, in her confusion, Jane turns right and is now heading back towards her original seat. Before getting there she stumbles across another resident, a woman who is semi-permanently asleep. Jane strokes her ankle. Gently. It’s a piece of human contact that does both of them good, I’m sure. But what Jane really needs right now is to be helped to the toilet, so I get up to go in search of a carer.
On the way out of the room I bump into one. Unfortunately, she’s off-duty. Shona has taken two of the residents to a teashop close to Dunkeld, she tells me. I can see that the party have been enlivened by the change of scene, but I continue my search for assistance, reasoning that I can hardly ask Shona to muck in on her day off.
In the office, the senior is sitting at her desk, poring over a test paper. It’s not her own, she assures me, but that of another staff member. English is not the first language of the worker in question and the senior is puzzling over how to deal with the complications this causes. I express my concern that the lounge is not being adequately staffed. It’s 4.25pm, and I can say for sure that no carer has been in there for fifteen minutes (though I suspect no-one has been in there for a full twenty-five minutes). “That’s strange,” says the senior. She tells me that Lisa should be patrolling downstairs. In fact, the senior reckons that it’s just a minute or two since she asked Lisa if Mabel was back yet. I put it to the senior that in concentrating on the test paper, time may have passed a lot more quickly than she realises. “Where is Lisa?” she asks. I shrug. Perhaps Lisa is lying down in a darkened room. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. This afternoon when I got back to the family house with Mum and Dad, post-picnic, I left them in front of the telly and went upstairs to lie on a bed. I was knackered, though it didn’t seem like I’d been doing much. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lisa feels knackered right now, several hours into her eight-hour shift. The fact is there should be more staff on duty all day: the lounge is a series of accidents waiting to happen. That the place is understaffed is not the fault of local management. It’s the fault of the group who owns and operates the care home for setting staff levels too low. Perhaps minimum legal requirements are being met, but I don’t think that’s enough to ensure either dignity or safety.
As I leave the office, I can’t help thinking that there is a lot of goodwill in this place. Witness one member of staff treating residents on her day off. Witness another going through a test paper on a colleague’s behalf. Witness Jane stroking the skin of her fellow residents, and now, at last, being gently escorted to the toilet by Lisa.
As I say goodbye to Mum, I realise what huggering means. It’s hugging when there’s some kind of glitch in between the hugger and the ones that need the hugging.
BLOG 12 - VISITING MABEL (October 24, 2010)
Usually it’s when Dad joins Mum and me in the car that we decide where we’re going for our afternoon drive. But today I’ve had somewhere new in mind since I woke up this morning. So off we go.
Soon we’re on a private road with no passing places, only to find there is a tractor coming towards us. Luckily the driver decides to stop and reverse back up the hill. When we catch up with the other vehicle there’s just enough space for our little car to squeeze past.
“Do you know him?” asks Mabel.
“No, my wave was just acknowledging that he’s done us a favour.”
The next hazard is a closed gate. I think my coming and going, and the car’s stopping and starting, puzzles Mabel. In any event, she says something about another tractor blocking our way.
‘This is the open hillside now, Mum. I don’t think we’ll come across any more tractors. Or gates.’
The road is a smooth one, maintained by the council because it leads to a loch that provides the town’s water supply. Dad comments on the isolated location of the cottage that we pass. Then he sees Loch Benachalie shining in the distance and he gets over the reservations that I know he’s had about our coming up here. It’s an archetypical landscape of mountain and loch under a sky that’s suddenly blue. We could be anywhere in the Highlands; yet we’re just five miles from Mum’s care home.
Time for tea. As Dad hands me the flask to dole out, I tell Mabel she’s got a nice biscuit coming up.
‘A midget?’ she asks.
‘No, Mum. You’re having a treacle and coconut biscuit with your tea.’
As the three of us munch and sip, Dad tells us he has been here once before, with Mabel’s brother-in-law. They spent a day fishing on the loch. At one point an osprey appeared from the trees to one side of the loch and dive-bombed a heron. The story reminds me that several times this summer we called in at the visitor centre at Loch of the Lowes. There we watched Lady, the female osprey who’s been returning to the same nest-site for twenty-five years. Mabel would get bored after a few minutes of nature watch, so we never stayed long. But at home I kept track of the bird via the website that was showing a video stream from a treetop camera 24/7. Lady is a very old osprey, and when she’d lain on the nest without moving for a couple of days it was assumed she was dying. But to everyone’s surprise, Lady rallied, and in due course two chicks were fledged. Lady will have completed her migration back to Africa now, and will be perched within striking distance of a lake full of tropical fish. Or so I like to think. Mum hasn’t spent a single day lying in bed this summer. Well, she had the two nights in the gynaecological wing of Perth hospital, but she wasn’t ill as such. Another resilient old bird, some might say.
When we’re done with the tea, I drive on, because the road continues along the flank of the hillside. Eventually a farmhouse comes into view.
“I wonder what May and Meg are doing in the house,” says Mum, mentioning two of her sisters.
“Do you mean Fernbank?”
Meg has been dead for thirty years, May for forty, but I don’t feel the need to tell Mabel this. Instead I ask: “What do you think they’re doing?”
“I can’t imagine Meg ever having had much time to read. What kind of thing did May read?”
“Cheap romantic stuff,” says Dad from the back of the car.
Mabel seems to have nothing to add about her family’s reading habits. The three of us sit in the parked car in silence. When I suspect Dad has dozed off, I lean towards Mum and ask her to whisper into my ear the meaning of life.
“The meaning of life is…” she begins.
Her warm breath in my ear takes me back to when I was a child. I remember the frisson of fear I’d get when Mum would blow the words of a certain nursery rhyme into my ear: “There was an old, old man, who lived in an old, old house."
“The meaning of life is… death,” my mother tells me, in the here and now. But this bleak outlook doesn’t disturb me, because Mum has laughed in a good-natured way as she’s spoken.
“I used to have such happy days,” she adds, sighing.
Before I can respond to this, she further adds: “Oh, I still have happy days.”
Does she? Has this been another happy day for Mabel? For me? For Ian? I’m still wondering this as I do all the ponderous gate business in reverse.
We don’t meet an oncoming tractor on the way home. Nor are we dive-bombed by an osprey that’s been unable to embark on its African journey. Oh, happy day!
BLOG 13 - VISITING MABEL (November 7, 2010)
TWO WEDDINGS AND A BRICK
I’ve brought something special to show Mum, who I’m wheeling along to her room so that we can have some time to ourselves. When we get there, I gently place today’s exhibit onto her legs. “Oh my God!” she shouts, “take it off.”
I hold the special thing aloft. “Do you know what this is?”
“Yes you do. Read what it says on the side.”
“Charles…” says Mum, squinting.
I take a step back so that the autumn sunlight streaming in the window falls on the side of the object that Mum is considering. “Try again,” I urge.
“Charles & Diana... July wedding.”
Actually it says, ‘Charles & Diana’, on one line, and ‘29th July, 1981’, on the line below, but she’s got the gist of it. In fact, Mum’s one step ahead with the wedding identification. I ask: “Do you remember its arrival at our house? When you told me the story at the time, you made me laugh, so I want to remind you of it today.”
Mum looks at me, expectantly.
“The postman delivered it. According to you, he was in a bit of a sweat as he removed the parcel from his bag. Apparently, he said “I don’t know what this is but it weighs a ton and feels like a brick.” And you told him that he was spot-on, it was a brick.”
I’m laughing. As when Mum first told me the story of the first class delivery of the heavyweight Royal Wedding souvenir. And Mum’s laughing. How could she not be laughing when faced with her son’s obvious amusement?
Mabel requests a toilet break. By the end of it she is sitting in her comfy seat from where she spots the brick lying on the floor under the window. She comments: “We have a brick like that at the house.”
“This is that brick!” I say, glad that, at certain times, she can still differentiate between the care home and The Beeches.
“I wonder how much it cost.”
“I don’t know, Mum.”
“It would say in my diary.”
“Ah well, that’s where you’re wrong. I scoured your 1981 diary for any mention of either the brick’s purchase or its delivery, but drew a blank. However, of the big day itself you wrote boldly: ‘THE WEDDING’, which you double-underlined. You then added that the T.V. coverage of the event was superb and that you and Dad had a meal with champagne and steak.”
Leaving Mum to mull this over, I get up out of my seat and take a particular photo off the wall. It shows Mum and Dad on their wedding day in the winter of 1956. ‘THE DAY’, double-underlined, is how Mabel’s marriage is commemorated in her diary. The entry goes on to reveal that everything went to plan and that Mabel and Ian spent the night in a hotel in Stirling called The Golden Lion. The entry finishes by saying: ‘It was cold outside but a heatwave inside!!’
In the wedding photo, Mabel points out ‘my’ moustache and makes the usual comment about it - that it didn’t suit me. Then, still looking at the photo, she asks me where the brick is. I point out, as much to myself as to Mabel, that the photo preceded the brick by 25 years. That’s to say, Mum was 31 when she got married to Ian; whereas she was 56 when Charles & Diana bricks and ‘Don’t Do It, Di’ badges were in vogue.
I’ve put the brick on the end of Mum’s bed now. Sounding slightly worried, she says something about it being taken away. I tell her that the brick will be quite safe where it is for a few minutes. Then I realise she is making plans for it to be ‘returned’ to Fernbank, the house Mabel lived in until the day of her marriage. She tells me she doesn’t care if sister Edith notices the return of the brick, ‘because she’s got plenty of rubbish already’. However, she is concerned about what two of her other sisters will think. Mabel suggests I put the brick in a brown paper bag, so that Meg and May do not notice the souvenir’s return to the house. It is decades since our family had any claim on Fernbank, but I think it’s best if I simply agree to Mum’s plan. So that’s what I do.
At the end of my visit, I help Mum back into her wheelchair and push her back to the main lounge so she won’t be left on her own. As I’m about to kiss her goodbye, she asks me what is in the cotton bag that I’ve placed on the floor. There is only one answer to this: “The brick, Mum.”
Mabel turns away from me, and, making eye contact with her nearest neighbour, says: “He seems to think more of that brick that anything else.”
Her fellow resident nods vacantly and replies, “Yes, dear.” But Mabel’s remark was really meant for me, and her message gets through loud and clear. During today’s visit I’ve been more concerned about my own amusement than I have about providing company for Mum.
But surely such a verdict is a bit harsh. Hasn’t she had at least one good laugh and a free trip down memory lane – taking in her own wedding and ending up in the house she was raised in? I’m not suggesting I should arrange to have ‘Duncan & Mabel’ etched onto the blank face of the brick. I’m just saying that, in my opinion, today, the brick has been worth its weight in gold.