AUGUST 30, 2013

I arrive at the home for another visit. Mabel isn’t in the corridor so she must be in the lounge. Which she is. She neither recognises nor acknowledges me, but that doesn’t reduce the warmth of my greeting to her.

After a minute I notice that another resident is showing signs of agitation. She is trembling all over and is bitterly denouncing those around her, albeit in a mumble. This is Wilma who has been in the home for years but is seen in communal areas only at Xmas and the like. Having said that, I have noticed her in the lounge several times lately and she never looks happy.

With Mum safely on board, with her hand safely held by Ian in the back seat of the car, I mention Wilma. Dad knows whom I mean. He’s vaguely known her all their lives. According to Dad, Wilma was always plump, pink and shy. She worked in an office but had no social life and never married. It does not surprise him that in old age she’s the way she is.

“At least she’s alive. Most of her contemporaries are dead,” I point out.

“We’re still alive too, aren’t we Mabel?” says Dad. I look at Mum via the driving mirror. She somehow manages to look both bright and blank at the same time.

I stop the car at the side of a wood. Branches of grand old trees are being stirred by late summer breeze.


I pour Mabel’s tea and leave it to cool on the dashboard while Ian and I drink ours. I’m more patient when it comes to helping Mum if I do it this way around.

“How long have you been up here?” asks Dad.


I think I know what he’s asking, so I reply: “I left London in 2003, after Mum’s second stroke. Ten years ago.”

“I remember. Since Mabel’s first stroke I’d been making all the meals. Then you arrived and took over the evening meal duty. That was a relief.”

“I can’t remember whether I had taken over lunchtime cooking as well by 2008 when Mum went into the care home. Can you?”

Dad doesn’t answer. Instead he asks: “Do you wish you were back in London?”

“Tucked away by myself like Wilma? No, of course not.”

I don’t want to be in London on my own. And I don’t want to be in the front seat of the car on my own either. So I squeeze into the back seat beside Mum and offer her tea and cake. Mabel riding in the back of the car is working for the companionship that it brings Ian. But he’s not managed the feeding and drinking side of things, which is where I come in.

I feed Mabel the cake, which she eats at a pace that she dictates. We then move onto the tea. For a week, Mum coughed every time I tried to give her something to drink. Now I thicken the tea with a heaped teaspoon of starch and she can swallow the liquid without coughing. Which I’m pleased to see she’s doing today.

As for Ian, well he’s holding her hand and singing:

“If you go down in the woods today,
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down in the woods today,
You'd better go in disguise.
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today's the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”

Is this patronizing? No, it’s just a bit of fun. If, deep down, Mabel isn’t enjoying having her son and husband on either side of her, feeding her and singing to her, I’d be surprised. I joined in with the above chorus. But it’s down to Dad to carry on the song:

“Every Teddy Bear who's been good
Is sure of a treat today.
There's lots of marvellous things to eat,
And wonderful games to play.
Beneath the trees where nobody sees,
They'll hide and seek as long as they please,
That's the way the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”


Once we get going again, we wend our way along country lanes until we come to a little cemetery in the middle of nowhere.

“Hello there, Willie,” says Dad, as he always does. Willie is someone who Mabel and Ian played bowls with. I can see his gravestone from where I’ve parked. Willie, who Mum and Dad played bowls with, died in 2007.


“When was your bowling era again, Dad?”

“Mabel and I took up bowls a couple of years after retiring, in about 1992. And we kept it up until Mabel’s first stroke ten years later.”

“You played on the outdoor bowling green in Blair in the summer months?”

“Every second evening.”

“And in the winter you played on the indoor green in Perth?”

“Once a week. Willie organised the Perth trips, making sure we had eight players. I might have taken over from him when he had to give it up for health reasons, but there was too much phoning involved.”

Effectively, when Ian retired to the town that he and Mum grew up in, they had ten bowling years and then ten Duncan years. It can be broken down further, of course. The last ten years divide equally between pre-care home and care home. And each year that we’ve been visiting Mum at the home has been different from the last, as Mabel has gradually lost the power of drinking by herself, eating without help, talking and walking.

Mabel’s life, Ian’s life, Wilma’s life, my life. All the same in the end.

Changing or changeless, but lasting until it stops, like Willie’s did in 2007.

That’s the way the Teddy Bears have their picnic.