January 1, 2014

We haven’t been able to take Mabel out in the car for over a week. In fact, since a day of sickness and diarrhoea, she hasn’t been out of bed, which is rare for Mum.

I’ve been to see her most days. Only for a short time as she’s barely been awake and hasn’t seemed to register that she’s got company. Invariably, she’s lying on her back, though I know she gets turned regularly at night. I put her hearing aids in (if they aren’t in already) and I try and talk to her. A bit of rapid eye movement is all that comes back. I’ve been holding her hands but she’s not been squeezing mine.

Each day, her hair has been brushed and her face has had colour. Indeed, it has seemed to be glowing with health, possibly because a carer has been applying moisturizer. Anyway, she’s been looking well, though obviously she’s far from that.


Yesterday, I spoke to the senior on the phone. She told me that Mabel had had a second bout of sickness and diarrhea. NHS 24 had been contacted and the doctor who turned up diagnosed gastroenteritis. Mabel is to be kept in isolation from the other residents and efforts are to be made to keep up her fluid intake.

Shortly after the call I went along to see Mum, who seemed just the same. I spoke to the senior again on the way out. She told me that Mabel was not eating much, which is causing some concern, however, she is taking in nutrition-rich fluids.

Today, I’ve made an arrangement to come along at lunchtime to see what’s actually happening when she’s being fed. On the way in, I spot a carer in the laundry room. Maureen is catching up on some paperwork. That is, she’s sitting on a seat without a back, considering two documents, one resting on a shelf unit, the other on an ironing board. She realises the set up is incongruous, but says it’s the only place she can find where she can hear herself think today. She admits that the stretching is not doing her back any good. As she eases her spine, she updates me with Mabel’s position. Mum accepted 100ml of an Ensure drink from her this morning and a third of a bowl of porridge.

Having received this useful update, I carry on along the corridor and enter Mum’s room. As in previous days, she is on her back. Her hair is brushed and her face glows. However, it’s odd seeing her without her dentures. The collapsing of Mum’s jaw ages her by ten years, though I try and put such a superficial observation to the back of my mind.

Cilla comes in carrying Mabel’s lunch. She tells me that Mum has had soup already. She asks if I want to feed Mabel but I tell her I just want to watch. It’s a few months since I fed Mum anything but cake and tea, so I need to see what’s involved. First, Cilla offers Mabel some of a pink fluid, which she accepts. I’m a bit surprised that Cilla then starts to feed Mabel without first putting in her teeth. I suppose the meal is thoroughly mashed up already and just needs swallowing, not breaking down. However, Mabel ignores the food, which piles up in her mouth and needs to be wiped away from her chin. I just have to mention the teeth and the carer goes into the toilet to get them from the sink. However, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to put them in now that Mabel’s mouth contains the mashed food.

Cilla keeps deferring to me, asking what I want her to do, whereas really I want to observe what should be her tried and trusted methods. Still, we get by without losing patience with each other. Though our joint efforts can’t avail on Mabel to eat anything. The main problem, we agree, is that Mabel is basically asleep and won’t be woken! In my opinion, what Mum really needs is rest while she battles with an infection. When Cilla goes, I do have a go at feeding Mabel on my own. But Mum doesn’t care how delicious I say the mashed beef and parsnips and potato is, she’s absolutely out of it.

I come back the next day. Not to try and feed Mum, but to talk to her. I sit on the bed with her diary for 1971 and I talk, even though her eyes are shut. I describe to her how in 1971, aged 45, with her boys aged 13 and 11, Mabel felt she had to do more with her time. So she took up golf and picked up a part-time job in market research.

I read out a few of the diary entries relating to Mabel’s foray into the job market 15 years after she’d given up working in her brother-in-law’s shop in order to start a family. And as I do so, I’m stroking her knees, which are partly drawn up towards her body. No response to my words, even though it must have been an exciting time in her life. The job involved getting members of the public to agree to be surveyed, with the surveys taking place over the phone or through Mabel visiting their homes. This is how it all ended:

“Are you listening, Mum? November 9, 1971. That’s about six months after you began the job. You write: ‘
Well, I went to start the pickle survey but nobody seemed interested so I chucked it up and came home.’ "

Mabel is making rapid eye movements, so she may, at some level, be listening.

“Then we have your entry for the next day, Mum. November 10, 1971:
‘Sent back the survey to Mrs White and resigned. I think they are far too long and take up too much of the housewives time.’

I put down the
Collins Business Woman’s Diary and go over to the tray that has been brought along for Mabel and me. I pour two cups and start to drink mine.

“I think you were quite right to give up that job, Mum. Only this morning I was cold-called about a market research survey. I explained that my time was valuable and that I couldn’t even spare two minutes to do a survey. But I was perfectly polite to the woman. Just as I can see from your diary that the people you called on were polite to you. It’s a social contract, isn’t it? We treat others as we would expect to be treated if we were in their position…”

I burble on. It does me good. It may do Mabel good too, either directly, or through the staff realising that someone cares for her other than those that are being paid to do so.