April 29, 2011

Another Saturday, another lunchtime with Mum. There she sits alone at a table with her bowed back to us. When I come into her field of vision she smiles brightly. And again when Dad appears at her other side.

We’re early so as I sit down I take out a book that the postman delivered just before we left the house.
A Cypress Grove by William Drummond of Hawthornden. I put it in front of Mum and ask her if she would read out the book’s title for me. She stares at the cover and announces: “Yes, yes, yes”, a remarkably upbeat assessment of the little treatise on death.

The soup arrives: “cream of tomato,” our friendly cook tells us with pride. Dad and I get stuck in while Mabel contemplates the full bowl of liquid. “It’s hot, Mabel,” warns Ian. But Mum is no mug, after removing the excess soup from her spoon with a delicate movement of the spoon away from her and against the inside of the bowl, she lifts her cocked hand and blows on the spoon three or four times before letting some of the broth gently trickle into her mouth. Surreptitiously, I continue to watch Mum eating her soup. Twice in succession she sips from an obviously empty spoon. Once she lets the spoon trace a full circle around the inside of the bowl at just above liquid level. It’s difficult to know which of the movements are dementia-induced and which essentially childlike pattern making. There’s a bit of both going on, I think.

By the time Ian and I have finished our main course, Mum has just started hers. I can’t help noticing that she is the slowest eater in the dining room. When everyone else is rounding things off with a cup of tea, Mum still has a full plate of chicken, mashed potato, sweet corn, broccoli and herb-laden gravy. I’ve noticed before that the first thing she goes for is the broccoli, and it’s true today. When I take the opportunity of cutting in two a hunk of chicken on her plate, Mum frowns and says accusingly: “What did you do that for?” The plateful of colours, textures and tastes is her territory, and I should allow her to interact with it in her own way and in her own time.

One of the carers seems at a loose end, so I ask her about Mum’s eating habits. The carer confirms that Mabel eats very slowly. However, she is allowed to take her time and most days she eats all, or almost all, of her meal. How about the care home staff – why do I never see them eating? The carer tells me that they have two half-hour breaks, one at eleven and one at four, on which occasions they retire to the staff room. She ate breakfast cereal during the first break and will have a sandwich in the afternoon. The breaks are little more than fuel stops, I surmise. These workers earn their meagre wages. Carol is leaning on the back of Mum’s chair as she talks openly to me, taking the weight off her feet. I’m glad she seems relaxed. And I’d notice if Mum minded being talked about in the third person. But she appears oblivious to our conversation. She eats most of her meals alone and would seem to have got used to finding her own muse as she eats.

After lunch I transfer Mabel to her wheelchair and push her along to her room where Ian is already sleeping in the armchair by the window. So I park Mum beside Dad and make myself comfortable, lying with my book open on top of the single bed. There’s a particular quote I’m looking for in the Seventeenth Century text, and soon I find it:
‘Death is the sad estranger of acquaintance, the eternal divorcer of marriage, the ravisher of children from their parents, the stealer of parents from their children, the interrer of fame, the sole cause of forgetfulness, by which the living talk of those gone away as of so many shadows, or fabulous Paladins.’

I look up from the book and see that both my parents are now asleep, Dad with his head leaning back slightly and Mum bowing her head towards her chest. The light streams in through the window, landing on top of the flesh of their hands, which lie limply in their laps. On my hands too. Oh yes, on my mortal hands too.

I notice a photo on display in the room. It features Mabel and Ian on the day of a wedding. Family photos, often featuring my brother and me as well, used to surround us in the Sixties and Seventies, but also in this new century. The images of the four of us, most of them taken by Mabel via a timer, always seemed such clichés, though that’s not what I think of them now. Now I think the images are just so poignant. The photographs in their frames and albums will remain important to me, and I think to my brother, until the last of us falls into a sleep from which he doesn’t wake, say, if we're lucky, in thirty or thirty-five years time.

On that day all the images of various combinations of the four of us will stop meaning anything to anybody. That’s sad, but the main thing isn’t that. The main thing as far as I’m concerned is the fabulous fact that the images will have existed at all and for a while will have meant something to somebody.

"Yes, yes, yes," as Mum would say.