February 3, 2012

I’m in a waiting room at Ninewells, the gigantic Dundee hospital. I don’t know about Dad, but I’m feeling at a low ebb. We got here twenty minutes early but I could see from the lack of spaces in the disabled zone that parking the car was going to take me about half an hour after letting Ian out at the door. So, instead of Ian being pushed here in a wheelchair by me, as was the plan, he had to walk the corridors with the aid of his stick alone while I went in search of that most elusive of prospects, a parking slot.

Ian has been seen by a nurse in the eye department, but we’re waiting (and waiting) for the consultant. The frustrating thing is, this is just a routine appointment to check the health of his eyes. In the last fortnight I’ve taken Ian to appointments with his GP, the practice nurse and a physiotherapist. And I’ve sat in on meetings at home when the stroke nurse came round for an update on his wellbeing and when a diabetes nurse did the same. It’s all been good stuff; I see the point of it; ten out of ten for the NHS. But the thing I find demoralising is when we have to wait around. Well, I don’t mind Dad waiting around, after all it’s him that’s being serviced. But I feel – selfishly, no doubt – that I’ve got books to write.

This will end up having been a three-and-a-half hour round trip. We could do with a cup of tea but it’s too far to the canteen. I suspect that if I did go off to fetch teas, then as soon as I was out of sight - walking along the corridor that prides itself on having no end - Ian would be called, and he’d have to make his own way to the consultant’s room and do without the benefit of a second ear, mine.

Yesterday, Ian and I picked up Mabel from the care home and enjoyed a flask of tea while we were parked beside a little old church. We could do with that flask and that church now. These days I have to help Mum drink her tea to begin with, otherwise she’d never lift the cup to her lips. And if she did raise the vessel she would spill the liquid over her coat. So it is my hand that presents the cup to her mouth and tilts it to the exact degree and length of time required. But when the tea is half drunk, I encourage her to hold the cup and to take control of the operation. At this stage, I still have to oversee things, encouraging her when she hasn’t drunk for some time and correcting the angle of her cup when it’s close to spilling in her lap.

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I can truly relax once Mum’s cup is two-thirds empty. And Mabel seems to relax then too. She gazes into space and her right thumb presses rhythmically up and down the plastic of the side of the cup. Sometimes she sits there flicking the nail up and down over the cup’s rim, and when she does I’m happy to sit there listening to the clicking sound. I feel she’s at ease with herself then.

I’m not altogether on friendly relations with Mum’s right hand though. She’s got the habit of clasping the handbrake while I’m driving, though she’s never yet pulled it up. More often, she’ll grip the end of the gear stick and then she does try and move it. Perhaps that happens when she feels I’ve been neglecting her. That is, when I’ve been driving along without letting the fingers of my left hand come in contact with the fingers of her right. There is no doubt Mum likes this coming together of our fingers. As do I. Often I’m reluctant to unclasp our hands when I need to make a gear change. Indeed, on a couple of occasions, I’ve taken my right hand off the wheel and, moving it to my left side, changed gear with it. So for a few seconds one hand is in Mum’s, the other is on the gear stick, leaving none free to take charge of the wheel. The day may come when I’ll be having a conversation with a policeman that will go something like this:

“What explains your veering about on the public highway, sir?”

“I was holding hands with my mother, officer.”

“You were holding hands with your Mummy, were you son?”

“Guilty as charged.”

What else can I think about to distract me from the heavy atmosphere of this airless waiting room? Oh yes, that curious exchange between Mum and me at the end of yesterday’s visit. I’d just got her back into the lounge of the home and was about to get her outdoor clothes off, though I hadn’t yet started on that procedure, when she suddenly gave out a high-pitched scream.

“What is it?” I said, surprised.

“You’re a bad lad,” said Mabel, seriously.

Smiling but puzzled, I challenged her on this assessment: “What do you mean ‘I’m a bad lad’?”

Mabel doesn’t like being asked to justify her remarks as maintaining her train of thought is no longer a strong suit. Nevertheless she gave it her best shot:

“Always making such a fuss.”

I looked into her face from close up, letting her see my amusement. Which got the response it deserved, a big smile back.

So here I am, in a waiting room in the bowels of Ninewells hospital, smiling at the recollection of Mum’s most clearly articulated words of the last week. Dad is sitting beside me, patient as ever. I nudge him to get his attention:

“Do you know what your trouble is?” I ask, solemnly.

He shakes his head.

“Always making such a fuss.”

Dad knows what I’m referring to, and replies: “I’m a bad lad.”

“Don’t forget to tell that to the doctors and nurses, when they call you. How can the NHS be expected to help you if you refuse to give them the big picture?”

Ian smiles ruefully.