Funeral Alarm
December 10, 2010

Mabel is dressed to go out when I walk into the care home.

“You’re late,” she snaps. Then she says something about a funeral we’re going to.

“What funeral is this, Mum?”

“My funeral.”

I laugh nervously which prompts a severe look from her.

“Mum, funerals don’t take place without dead bodies. And you’re very much alive.”

“We’ve got to get ready. Have you contacted the doctor?”

“What for?”

Mabel glares at me.

“Why would I contact the doctor, Mum?”

“About my funeral,” says Mabel, in a tone that gives the impression I’m being unbelievably dense.

I resist the urge to laugh again. I mustn’t appear to be mocking her.

“Let’s get going to my funeral then. Tell Duncan.”

“But I’m Duncan.”

“Well, tell him then!”

I don’t say anything. I suspect she thinks, as she often does, that I’m my father. That is, someone in between the 16-year-old that she first mentioned being attracted to in her diary and the octogenarian that still manages to visit her regularly. I let the identity issue lie and minutes later the funeral cortege is on the move.

To my surprise Mabel keeps it up in the car. Has her dementia moved up a notch? Perhaps there has been a mini-stroke that has gone unnoticed. She mentions the doctor again, clarifying that what we need from him is a death certificate. Then she adds: “And we’ll need a good joiner.”

“Do you mean for the coffin?” I ask facetiously.

“What else would I mean?”

“Well, if the funeral’s today, we should have got the coffin sorted out already.”

Mabel looks anxiously at her watch. “I hate it when everything gets left to the last minute.”

“What is the time?” I ask.

“Ten to.”

“Ten to what?”

“Ten to nothing,” she says with a decisiveness that reminds me of her younger self. “You know where to go?” she asks.

I’m a bit puzzled by the tenacity with which Mum is holding on to her fantasy. But as the car glides through the town she settles back in her seat in silence. I’m hoping that the familiar scene will normalise her thinking and that there has been no new mini-stroke. I have to remember that she hasn’t had a visitor since I was last there two days ago. Plenty time for a fixation to descend on her mind. Besides, several years ago Mum cajoled my farther into joining the local church so that, as I understand it, they could both look forward to a decent burial when they died. So today could be seen as the latest manifestation of a long-held fear.

When we arrive at The Beeches, I tell Dad that Mum is in a funny old mood. Dad has not been at all well this week, and he isn’t feeling up to going out with us today, so he gets in the front of the car with Mum for a few minutes.

“Nice to see you, dear,” says Dad. Mum reminds us both that we must be off without delay. She doesn’t listen as Dad explains why he hasn’t seen her for a few days. She’s now talking about ‘him’ and ‘his funeral’. OK, that’s a development. It’s not Mabel’s own funeral any more, it’s a man’s. But whose funeral is it? I make the mistake of asking her this question again. “Oh for God’s sake!” is Mabel’s irritated response.

I can see Dad is finding this hard to handle. He needs to have all his resources at his disposal in order to cope with Mum in this mood. Instead, he’s got his own physical weakness to contend with as well as his wife’s dementia.

After a couple more rebuffs, Ian tells Mabel he’s got to go. The excuse he uses is a feeble one. “I’ve got to make my own dinner tonight.” Mabel turns on him. “As if you can’t get someone else to make your dinner at a time like this.”

Dad looks more miserable than I can ever remember seeing him. I try and handle the situation from the back seat. I put my arms around Mum and I try to distract her with loving touch. Meanwhile, Dad comments on Mum’s hands. Even when he holds her hand in his, the fingers are constantly writhing. Dad tells her to relax. But Mum rounds on him again. Ian says something pretty feeble in return. In his weakness he’s adopting a sort of baby talk to try and get round her. This is in complete contrast to Mum’s hard-line attitude. I suggest that Dad goes back inside and that I’ll handle things.

Dad gets out of the car, painfully slowly, and wanders off disconsolately.

“You’ve forgotten your stick,” I say, gently.

My father stops. He waits for the stick to be handed to him. He doesn’t turn around. Doesn’t say goodbye to Mum. Just stands there abjectly with his hand held half-open. I remember a time, six months ago, when he approached the car, pointed the same stick at Mabel and, with a sparkling smile sang a couple of lines from a song familiar to them both:
‘How are things in Glocca Morra? Is that little brook still leaping there?’

I sit back in the driver seat. From here I can see Dad sat slumped on a chair just inside the back door, his eyes closed. What I must do is to get Mum and I away from the scene of this family debacle. So I start up the car.

We drive. I’m hoping that the autumn scenery will distract Mabel. But after a couple of minutes we’re bickering again.

“Whose funeral are you talking about Mum?”

“You well know.”

“I don’t know or I wouldn’t be asking.”

“How you can behave like this?”

This is beginning to remind me of Monty Python’s ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch. But is Mabel playing the part of the John Cleese customer, consistently claiming that his parrot is dead? Or is she the Michael Palin shopkeeper insisting - against all the evidence - that the bird is still alive? A bit of both, it seems. I try to lose myself in the driving from point A to point B business. After a while Mabel speaks: “It’s a pity I haven’t been able to do much work recently. But at least I have managed to get in touch with the doctor.”

“About what?”

“The funeral.”

This time I don’t say anything. The penny drops that Mum is right. She is going to a funeral. Just as she went to her mother’s and father’s funerals. Just as she went to her sisters’ and their husbands’. Perhaps it will be Ian’s funeral she goes to next. Perhaps it will be her own. Only time will tell. A little more time will tell. In the meantime, let us see if we can enjoy the remains of the day.

The following morning, I’m told that Mabel has a urine infection. A well known side-affect of this is paranoia and fantasy. Sure enough, when I next see Mum she is back to what I take to be normal.

So that’s that. Though I won’t forget the day of Mum’s ‘funeral’. I’ve no idea whether the false alarm will leave us all more prepared for real funerals to come. Though I like to think that’s what it does do. For a start, I now know that Mabel expects me to be wearing a white shirt and a black tie out of respect for the dead.

Funny things urine infections. They play havoc with the bladder and the mind but they do have a silver lining. Mabel’s eyes were blazing and her speech was lucid on the day of her funeral fixation. And that was encouraging to both see and hear.