December 24, 2010

Mum is not well enough to come out in the car today, and Dad is well enough to come out of the house with me. So, for the first time in ages, Ian and I are visiting Mabel in the care home together.

She is in the lounge looking a little better than she was earlier in the week. There is no chance of us settling to a relaxed chat in this environment, so as soon as she’s transferred into her wheelchair I push her out of the ten-strong circle of gloom. Dad follows at his own pace. A few yards down the corridor, Mabel drops her feet to stop our progress. “Not there!” she tells me. I assure her that we’re not going into the disabled toilet. Nor are we turning right towards her own room. Instead we’re going… and I ask Mum if she knows what the metal door to our left leads to.

“It’s not…It’s not really…”

‘That’s right. It’s not a room as such, it’s a lift. We’re taking it to the lounge on the first floor where Shona is going to bring us a pot of tea and some biscuits.”

Upstairs we soon settle down to our afternoon refreshment. At least Dad and I do. Mum fiddles with her cup and her plate. She then looks directly at me, says my name and tells me my hair is too long and needs cutting. I hear this comment with relief as it’s the first definite sign of recognition that I've had today.

Mabel keeps backing away from the table; I keep pulling her back. She persists longer than I do. Finally, from her vantage position of a few yards away she points under the table and draws our attention to the presence of a blue tit. I have a look, to be polite, but come to the conclusion that there’s nothing there.

“A blue tit, as plain as day,” insists Mum.

In order to avoid contradicting her, I offer the observation that I’m wearing new boots.

“So what?” asks my mother.

OK, let’s try another tack. I turn to Dad and ask him about the years we spent in Hemel Hempstead, which he answers with his usual warmth and insight.

‘Oh, I can’t stand this,” says Mabel. No, she can’t seem to settle, even though this is a tranquil spot and we are her primary loved ones, so in the end we up-sticks and transfer – with intermittent feet dragging by Mabel - to her room.

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But there the situation remains essentially the same. Mum is restless and unable to join in our conversation. Nor is she able to say anything coherent herself. However, there are surely ways round this. I fetch the photo album re Mum that is kept in the office. The album consists of old photos that I’ve put through the computer so that all the images are the size of an A4 sheet of paper. In other words Mabel can see the detail in them without having to strain.

I start with photos of her mother, which Mabel responds to positively. “Always wearing that hat, mother is!” Mum also pays attention to photos of her posing with two of her sisters. When I ask her to identify who’s who in one such picture, she does so with no hesitation, tapping the figures of Jean, Alice and Mabel as she says their names. But when I turn to a photograph of my brother and I when we were boys, Mum backs off. I mean she literally pushes her wheelchair back towards her bed.

“Please put that book away,” she says, fiercely.

Have I flicked through the years too quickly? Mum feels she has to explain her reaction. But what she comes out with is a clenched fist and the suggestion that she wants to fight. Moreover, she wants to fight us. She says that she wants to ‘plunge us down to the earth’. Then she half-laughs at her own words. Dad focuses on Mum’s fist. Either that or he picks up the word plunge wrongly, because he says. “Why do you want to punch us, Mabel?”

Mabel’s mute expression of pain somehow brings us closer together. We are now a unit, with Dad and I each holding her by the hand and looking towards her reassuringly. If Mum’s going down, we’re going down with her, voluntarily. Yes, on one level, that’s what we’re thinking. Or at least I am. And our unconditional support seems to get through to Mum because she does nothing to break up the tight little family huddle that we’ve formed.

Nevertheless, when the visit’s over, it can hardly be marked down as a success. In the car on the way home, Dad tells me he found it all very difficult. The trips the three of us have in the car are much easier, we agree, possibly because the movement of the car and the constantly changing scenery give Mabel the variation she so badly needs.

However, we must also bear in mind that Mabel is below par just now. Though this begs the question as to whether, if and when her health declines further, she will find the battle to survive more difficult, and us less relevant to it. Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, as Mum has said down the decades.

In the meantime, there’s still today to come to terms with. When I get home I phone the care home and tell the senior that our visit did not go well and that I’m left a little concerned about Mum’s state of mind. The carer tells me she is in the act of walking through to the lounge right now. She reports that Mabel is sitting on the sofa, watching the tables being prepared for the evening meal. “She seems quite content.” I draw in these words as a smoker sucks on a much-needed cigarette. For all the carer knows, Mabel may be watching the robins of Christmases long, long past cavorting under the tables. But if that vision is keeping Mum happy, then I’m happy too.