April 15, 2011

I’ve no sooner given Mum a kiss of greeting in the lounge of the care home than she asks me where her other friend is. I hesitate before replying:

“Well, Dad has got a cold and hasn't been able to come out of the house with me today. But he’ll be up to see you just as soon as he can.”

Mabel doesn’t seem to understand, even when I simplify my reply. So I test her hearing aids and discover that one of the batteries is not working and needs to be changed. This is the third time in what can be no more than four or five visits that I’ve had to do this. Assuring Mabel that I’ll be back in a minute, I walk towards the office, meeting a carer on the way. When I explain to her the situation, she tells me she knows where the batteries are but doesn’t know how to fit them into hearing aids. Suppressing my surprise, I soon show her how simple that is (it’s getting the mould of the hearing aid into Mabel’s ear that can be slightly tricky). But I’m left feeling disturbed. It is important that Mabel’s hearing aids are kept functioning. When she doesn’t hear, her ability to respond to people - which is badly impaired by dementia anyway – drops off alarmingly. Of course, I want Mum to hang on to her communication skills for as long as possible. So I know I’m going to have to raise the issue with the care home manager when I next get a chance. She’s out today.

With Mum hearing clearly again, I transfer her to her wheelchair and push that towards her room. When we get there I pull three things from my bag and put them on her table. Exhibit one: a box of chocs that I picked up for half-price at Tesco. When we’re both done with the creamy taste in our mouths, I show her exhibit two, a newspaper clipping. It features an article written in
The Scotsman by my brother. I point out the picture of John, an expert on economic policy in Scotland, and tell her that the article is about government cuts. I don’t get much response. But then I didn’t get much response a few weeks ago when I told Mabel that my book on Evelyn Waugh had managed to find a publisher at long last. However, a couple of days later, as we drove along in the car, she turned towards me and said in a tone of what I took to be satisfaction: "Did you know that Duncan’s getting another book published?"

The third thing I’ve brought along is a birthday card for my father, who is 85 tomorrow. I’ve primed the card with the words: ‘TO IAN, WITH LOVE, ALWAYS, FROM…’ So all Mum has to do is to write her name in the space I’ve left for it. She takes the pen from me and has a go. She puts an extra capital ‘M’ after the ‘a’ and an extra ‘ell’ after the ‘el’ but that’s fine. It reminds me of a Beatles number from my childhood, ‘
Mabel – Ma belle’, as Paul sang mellifluously. I circle Mum’s effort and write: ‘I certify that this is the signature of my mother’. Because I want Dad to be smiling when he gets this card, not hurting. As I put the card in its envelope, I show Mum that it’s addressed to Ian and tell her: “Dad will get this birthday card first thing tomorrow morning. So that’s good. Well done you.”

Mum nods. She then says something I don’t quite catch about a radio.

‘That one right there,” she says, pointing at the table. I pick up the three things that are resting on the wooden surface, asking in turn if each is what she means. But she retreats from her confident assertion. Turning to the window in her room, she looks outside and says: ‘There’s a car behind the…”

“Behind the what?” I ask gently, though I know I shouldn't be questioning everything she says. Again Mabel says no more on the subject. There is no car there, so how can it be behind anything?

In order to break the ensuing silence, I lean towards her and say: “Who is it that talks the most nonsense, Mum? Me or Dad?"

I'm trying to touch base with her sense of humour, which I know she hasn’t lost. After I repeat my question, she says:

“I’m going to buy a new torch, a decent-sized one, which will come in handy in all sorts of ways.”

“Good idea. I’ll get you one.”

“No, I don’t want you spending your money on it.”

“It won’t cost much.”

“Oh well, you could get me a small one, I suppose. For emergencies.”

“I’ll get you that decent-sized torch, Mum, don’t give it another thought.”

I can even picture the torch in my mind’s eye. Covered in black rubber, like the one I recall Mum used to have in a cupboard in the family home, which she would make her way to every time there was a power cut in the 70s. Yes, our family home shone for decade after decade. And Mum is one of the two adults I have to thank for that.

In the evening, sitting at home, I go over that first exchange of the day. When Mum talked of her other friend. It strikes me that Dad and I - Mabel’s husband and son - have become her
friends, and that the use of the word is significant. What’s important now isn’t so much that Ian is the man she married and that I am their child. What’s important is that Ian and I are the two individuals who are on hand to give her unconditional love. Having said that, in days to come when Mum switches on her torch in the middle of the night, it may be my brother John or Mabel's dead sister Jean that she sees. Because friendship is one thing and loyalty is another. Mum has her friends and she has her loyalties.

As for Mabel only having two friends. That is simply not true. Many of the carers are good friends to Mabel, helping her through the long days, hard-worked and ill-paid as they are. And the manager of the care home, who I know takes the welfare of each of her residents seriously, has already responded constructively to the e-mail I sent her as soon as I got home.

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