October 26, 2012

As ever when I’ve been away for a few days, I worry about Mum’s well-being. So when I get back to town I call round even though it’s eight o’clock at night. I’m told she’s in bed, so I walk to her room and quietly enter.

There is quite a lot of light in the room. Mum’s asleep but as she’ll be in bed for the next 12 hours or so I decide not to just slip away without disturbing her. I sit on her bed and speak softly. Mum’s face looks different, hollow-seeming. Why? Because she no longer wears her dentures at night, I suppose.


After a minute or two she opens her eyes and stares at me. I go on speaking until I realise that she isn’t wearing either of her hearing aids (she used to sleep wearing an aid in her left ear) and so won’t have heard a word I’ve said. I use signs in order to communicate that I’ll be calling in again tomorrow. Basically, I point at my watch and make a circling movement with my finger. She hasn’t got her glasses on. I doubt if Mabel knows who I am never mind what I’m trying to say. Oh, well, how did Jacques put it in As You Like It?

‘Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’

We’re not quite there yet. I hope Mabel can turn my night visit into a benevolent dream. I think she might manage that.

I come back again in the morning at quarter to eleven, tea-time. She’s sitting in her chair in the lounge, wide-awake.

“Where have you been?” she says.

“Away for a few days. London.”

“Ho-ho,” says Mum, eyes glinting. But her attention soon fades. That’s it for now as far as actual words from her goes.

There’s a cup of tea on the table in front of Mabel. Knowing that she doesn’t use her hands to help herself eat or drink any more, I raise the cup to her lips, as a carer would have had to do if I hadn’t come along. Mabel’s mouth movement indicates she is keen to drink, keener than she usually is in the car in the afternoon. The tea soon disappears.

I’m out of the home by eleven, having made really good contact with Mabel and a member of staff and another resident. So why is that the first time I’ve called on Mum before noon in the last four years? I don’t know. One gets into a rhythm of neglect.

Well, hardly neglect, because here I am at the home again at 2.30pm. This time Dad is with me in the car. As usual I go to the kitchen and ask for cake to take out with us. Not quite as usual, as I’m only after one piece of cake today, not three, and have brought along a small plastic container to ensure I outflank the cook’s generous nature. Diabetic Ian has been trying to kick his cake habit for a few weeks now. But more than that, when I was in London, a long-term friend of mine told me that I had put on weight. Well, no, he didn’t actually say as much. He just looked pointedly at my stomach and said, “What’s that?” Nice one, Mark!

I drive us to one of our regular spots, by a river, with a view of a church and horses. As I’m holding what remains of the cake, while Mabel chews, I realise that I’m used to eating a cake of my own at this juncture. Sitting here, holding someone else’s cake – a particularly moist sponge full of shredded carrot - is tantalising. Giving up these calories is not going to be as easy as I thought.

A perspective comes to me. If I wasn’t seeing Mum every second afternoon, I’d be striding the hills (as I used to do) rather than sitting in this car eating cake. A carer does make sacrifices. Some are obvious, such as the loss of time to oneself; others more subtle, like piling on the pounds.

“What’s the cake like, Mum?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says.

Dad and I laugh. I say, “You’re the only one that’s getting to eat it, Mum. If you don’t know then none of us know.”

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I may not be able to taste the cake but there is a world of sensory experience still available to me.

Ian distracts me by singing. Indeed, I become aware that he has a lovely rhythm going:

“Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clement’s.”

“Pancakes and fritters
Say the bells of St Peter’s.”

“Bull’s eyes and targets
Say the bells of St Margaret’s.”

“Two bells and an apple
Say the bells of Whitechapel.”

Whitechapel is one of several great art galleries I visited while in London. Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Jerwood Space and the Saatchi Gallery are some of the others. Oh yes, the art world remains my oyster.

“What does the cake taste like, Mum?” I ask again, seriously this time, before I transfer the last succulent piece from my fingers to her mouth.

“I don’t know,” she replies, definitively.
Sans taste.