"Now What Do I Do?"
June 24, 2011

We’re having our flask of tea at a new spot today. We were driving along a familiar route and as we passed a secluded road-end I suddenly swung the wheel and took the turning. A hundred yards up the track, which may end at a farm but first opens up to give a fine view of fields and trees, I pulled off the road and here we’ll stay for a bit.

“Cuppa, Mum?”

“Yes, please.”

For the first time for a while, I’ve brought a photo album with us in the car. Not the iPad on which I’ve got about forty images from various times in Mum’s life, but the beautiful album that Mabel made in the Sixties, each photo mounted on parchment-like paper. I open the book (since Mum is showing no interest in doing so) at a page at random, and rest it on her lap.

In 1965 we had a family holiday in Donegal, to our collective joy, but though Dad and I tell Mum this in different ways, our perspectives elicit no response. She seems to prefer to touch the surfaces – the glossy photos, the crinkly paper separating each page of photographs – with her free hand. Dad comments that Mabel is paying more attention to the photos than he can remember. But I can see that she’s gazing at the separating sheet of opaque paper for much of the time. And when Mum says “Look at those!” she’s not looking at the album at all, but out of the windscreen at a row of broom that is bright with yellow flowers. Not that this is bad. It’s good to live in the present, with the hot sweet tea and the view out of the window. But time gives everything an extra dimension, and it’s a shame Mum has failing access to that.

I turn a few pages, occasionally making an observation, or asking a simple question, but I get no reaction from Mum. When we get to a page which the Mabel of yesteryear has headed ‘AUGUST 1967’ in a blue biro, we’re looking at a page of four photos all of which the 41-year-old Mabel has given captions to. ‘TWO LITTLE NYMPHS AT CARNOUSTIE’ refers to my brother and me sitting on a seaweed-covered rock. ‘NOT LOOKING OUT TO SEA’ is a threesome of Dad and ‘the boys’. ‘LOVELY GRUB!’ shows John and me eating candy floss on either side of Mabel, while she, in sunglasses, smiles for her husband’s camera.

“Candy floss has gone out of fashion,” comments Dad.

‘That must have been the only time in my life I ate the stuff,” I add.

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Mum says nothing.

The fourth pic on the page shows Mabel addressing a golf-ball with a driver. Feigning incomprehension, I ask the Mabel of 2011 what it is a picture of. “I don’t know,” says Mum. Alas, Mum is not joking, as she was when she wrote ‘NOW WHAT DO I DO?’ underneath the photograph. I see in my mind’s eye Mum’s efficient back swing, then the wooden club sweeps down towards the ground and neatly strikes the ball into the air and for some distance along the fairway. Time and time again for thirty, forty years. Not any more though. Not only is hitting a golf-ball beyond the Mabel of today, I suspect imagining a golf ball in flight is beyond her.

Back in town we drop Dad off at the family house and I take Mum back to the care home. But it’s raining heavily when we get there, so, instead of getting ourselves wet, we sit in the car listening to the rain drubbing against the roof of the vehicle and mottling the windscreen. Very peaceful it is sitting here, and Mabel seems to find it so too, judging by her hand’s response to mine. What more could anyone want than to be warm and sheltered from the storm? When the rain abates, today’s senior carer appears at a window and asks me – by facial expression and pointing - if I want the side door of the home opened. Might as well get on with the afternoon, I decide, and so I nod back. The carer emerges to help Mabel from the car, though it’s something I can manage well enough on my own.

“You again!” says Mabel, breaking into a lively smile of recognition when she sees the carer. A smile that just isn’t there for herself back in the candyfloss-kissed days of her prime.

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