It’s five months since Mother got sucked into a demented game of ping pong between us, hospital and her nursing home. Four falls, four visits. Still fighting.
In that time, she’s fractured her hip, caught Covid and won the Cheeriest Personality of the Year at the local gerontology department’s Christmas awards after charming them during her three week Yuletide internment there.
‘She has us in stitches all the time,’ said the consultant.
‘How appropriate for a hospital,’ I say.
‘What?’ replies the consultant.
‘Don’t worry. Bad joke.’
By New Year, she had charmed her way into the role of Head of Fun and Games for Older Folk. She was about to make a bid for Head of Hilarity for the entire CCG when the doctors decided it was time for her to return to her nursing home and pass her bed and entertainment duties to someone else.
In October, her first fall took her to Charing Cross where the CT scans exposed blood clots and a brain shrinking almost as fast as Britain’s eastern seaboard. The hospital’s consultant diagnosed dementia and a fractured hip.
‘The hip will heal in six to eight weeks, the dementia will not.’
Close to a century old, her bones still want to stick together, but her mind wants to go its own way.
‘She will need care 24/7 from now.’
We reach an inevitable crossroads
This sentence was the crossroads we knew would come one day. A moment when a mismatch arrived between our desire to care and our capability to deliver it; her wish not to be a burden and her hope to avoid a care home. The intergenerational tension between obligations to the future and the past made incarnate.
Apart from the first hour I spent with her when I met her from the hospital at the nursing home, no one whom Mother knows or loves has been in the same room as her for nearly half a year. Covid knows how to put the distance into social.
Did we starve her of cake?
Though there are moments when she is sad, mostly she’s happy. Her nursing home are ‘wonderful’, and she can’t say enough good things about her carers.
‘I’m eating like a pig,’ she says gleefully. ‘We have cake and biscuits all the time.’
Hearing this makes me guilty. Should we have bought her more cakes when she was living with us?
We’ve tried to compensate for not being able to visit her by writing regular postcards and letters about our locked down lives. Even though our lives are uninspiring and uneventful she likes to know what the family are up to. Our drudgery is her drama.
‘But nothing’s happened to me since I wrote three days ago,’ says my son, as I wave at him a blank postcard with a sprig of budding daffodils on it.
‘Make something up,’ I say.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say.
‘It’s the thought that counts,’ says my wife, trying to mitigate my willingness to sacrifice truth so speedily on the altar of convenience.
Moonpig, mother and me
Writing to her is less onerous than it would have been years ago thanks to technology. My wife has discovered an app which turns pictures on her phone into postcards. You don’t need to buy a stamp, print the card or even post it. The whole process is automated by the app. It’s so simple feels like cheating as if we are not making a ‘proper effort’. But if Keats had had access to Moonpig, the greatest letters in the English language would never have been written.
Video calls help ease the isolation. But British broadband is as threadbare as an old rope bridge and sometimes can’t bear the weight of her words or mine and, carelessly, tosses whole sentences into a chasm of silence. Somewhere in the cracks of the internet there is a graveyard of disabled phrases cut adrift forever from sense and sensibility.
What did you say?
The other communication problem is Mother’s hearing. Her hearing aids have gone walkabout (not that she’d use them if they were found) and she needs to lean her left good ear towards the iPad to be sure of understanding what’s being said. Nothing kills a conversation quicker than being asked repeatedly ‘What did you say?’.
I shouldn’t complain. Seeing her helps and it’s better than no video call at all. As my father used to say when faced with a situation that was OK but not perfect – ‘it’s better than a kick in the slats.’
I smile. I haven’t thought of him for a long, long while. It must be triggered by the video call I am about to have with Mother. I wonder if she still thinks of him? I never ask.
My wife pops a cup of tea onto the desk beside my laptop.
‘Good luck with the battle of the broadband.’
The nursing home calls. The sound is on but the video is not. Out of the darkness comes the sound of Mother talking to the carer who is holding the iPad for her. It is too heavy for her to hold steadily.
‘I have good news,’ the carer says to me.
‘We’ve got the go-ahead for visits to the home.’
‘Wednesday. I’ve got a slot for you in our safety pod. You’re her designated visitor, I assume?’
More latex than an S&M party
Three days till I see her face to face for the first time since October. Well, not quite face to face. After we’ve gone through the health and safety procedure, it’s clear I’ll be behind a plastic screen and wearing a mask, gloves and various pieces of PPE.
‘I don’t think I’ll have been that close to so much latex since I was invited to a fetishist’s party in the 1980s,’ I joke.
‘Too much information,’ he replies.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Overexcited.’
‘Here’s mum,’ he says.
‘Oh dear,’ says Mother, peering at me. ‘You don’t look in very good shape. Have you been partying a lot?’
I think I hear the carer laugh.
This blog originally appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.