September 2 , 2011

I’ve been away for a week. Which means that Mabel has lost out on four visits. Well, no it doesn’t mean that, because my brother has been filling in for me. Though it was a bit disturbing to find out, when I phoned home on day two of my absence, that the first time John and Dad had called round on Mum, she wouldn’t go out with them.

OK, there she is, sitting on a comfy chair in the lounge, exactly one week older. When I crouch down in front of her and take her hand, she says: ‘Who are you?’

I smile widely.

‘Are you from Rattray?’

‘I’m Duncan.’

‘You’ve changed.’

‘You’re just the same.’

In the car, I ask her how she got on with my brother. But she won’t acknowledge that John’s been around. She doesn’t make a big thing about it, she just doesn’t respond to his name. From the back seat, Dad tries to jog Mum’s memory, mentioning what they did together. But to no avail.

We need to start again. I remind Mum that I’ve been away. She asks me what I’ve been doing and I tell her that I was at a conference about Evelyn Waugh. ‘That would have been interesting,’ she says, politely, though I expect she would have responded similarly if I said I’d been to Mars. When I get too close to another vehicle, Mum makes a sucking sound of warning just before I put my foot on the brake. Her instinctive reactions are good, even if so much of her faculties are dulled by dementia.

At one of our regular spots, we stop for refreshments. After we’ve been sipping tea and eating cake for a while, I start telling Dad about the Waugh conference which was held at a private boarding school: ‘Kate and I were giving a talk in the bar one evening, which I thought was going all right until we started to get heckled by a delegate who’d had too much to drink over dinner. I felt we handled the situation all right, perhaps because we’d been talking to this guy earlier in the day and had struck up a good rapport with him. Besides, his interventions weren’t unfriendly. But they were repetitive, they did disrupt our flow, and …’

‘Oh come on let’s go,’ says Mabel.

‘You haven’t finished your tea, Mum. And I’m just telling Dad about my holiday.’

I go on with the story: ‘After our talk, the heckler went on drinking recklessly. I mean at one point I saw him downing a half-pint of wine. And at the end of the evening, when Kate and I arrived back at the dormitory, we found him unconscious in the entrance porch. It was clear that, in his inebriated state, he’d been unable to remember the entry code for the building. With great difficulty we woke him up, and I managed to get him onto his feet, but only by getting down on my hands and knees and showing him what he must do in order to stand up. How ironic to be helping this guy, he who’d almost sabotaged our evening. Not that he was grateful, of course. The whole time he just wanted to be left alone to sleep.’

‘Stop it you two... Going on and on....’

‘OK, Mum, we will be going soon, I promise. But can I just finish telling Dad this story?’


‘Can I just finish telling Dad this story?’


‘We finally got him inside the dorm, which was a five-storey building. But he had forgotten his room number and it was obvious he wouldn’t be remembering it again until he’d sobered up. So we helped him into the lounge, transferred a few cushions from seats to floor, and, after discussing whether or not we should call an ambulance, left him lying on his side, covered with a rug.’

‘What was his official contribution to the conference?’ asks Dad, intrigued by the picture I’ve painted. And as I drive off, with Mum content to look at the ever-changing view out of the windscreen, I try and satisfy Dad’s curiosity…

When we get Mum back to the care home - helping her out of the car, dealing with the entry system, making her comfortable in the lounge – the whole transaction with the delegate comes back to me in a new light. Basically, he gave himself brain damage that night, albeit temporarily. He voluntarily reduced himself to the state that Mabel has no choice but to endure day-in, day-out. I just hope he can find a solution to his problems other than making a beeline for oblivion.

Later, another perspective comes to mind. It might sound a bit self-congratulatory, but let me put it like this:
You can take the carer out of the care home, but you can’t take the care home out of the carer.

What I mean by that is, dealing with Mum over the last few years has perhaps made it easier for me to help other people. This links to a line from our talk at the conference, a quote from
Brideshead Revisited: ‘That to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom. ‘

Thank you, Evelyn. Thank you, Mabel.