Slowly, Mother is folding tissue paper around a book which is lying on a small table between us, cover face down. She’s wrapping a present for my son’s birthday. She’s intensely lost in the task like a code breaker and hasn’t spoken to me for over ten minutes, which is five minutes longer than her previous lifetime personal best for ‘Not Saying Anything While Awake’.
Is she still alive?
Normally, I would have pulled the emergency cord hanging next to her bed if she had been speechless this long or, at least, put a mirror up to her mouth to check she was still breathing. Conversation is her life blood, its absence a bad sign like a poor pulse.
The last time she was speechless this long was when Chris Waddle smashed his penalty kick over the German goalpost in the 1990 World Cup semi-final and England sank into a peat bog of disappointed pride. That night, she got up from the sofa and wrote Waddle a consoling letter, reminding him that every young life has its setbacks and it is how you recover from them that really counts. In return, she received a signed photo of him with his signature strung out like a necklace below his mullet haircut. She never watched England played football again.
Faced with a silent room, Mother would always say something to kindle the conversation. Silence was a void she needed to fill. My brother and I used to joke that ‘At home, Silence never gets a word in edgeways.’ It was our parody of the strapline to the movie Alien: ‘In space, nobody can hear you scream.’
She can’t chat and wrap anymore
How things change.
The task of wrapping presents for her beloved grandson is eating up more of the processing power in her brain than it would have before. She can’t chat and wrap. Her fragile fingers no longer have the power or precision they once did in those long-gone days when all our birthday presents came with knotted bows and were wrapped in paper as neat and pressed as the doorman at the Ritz.
How long will this take?
Mother has folded half of the sheet of paper over the book. Her left palm is pressing on the book holding the paper down. The midnight blue veins on the back of her hand throb like a river running through a ravine. She picks up the other edge of the wrapping paper and with her righthand folds it over the book which bring her right hand and left hand together, the craggy knuckles of her index fingers adjacent, like two peaks in a mountain range. Both her hands rest on top of the book.
‘Quick. Sellotape,’ she says without lifting her head.
I am opposite her with uneven strips of sellotape hanging off my fingers like translucent biltong. I’ve been poised waiting for this moment for a while. But, right now, with both her hands pressed down on the book the only thing I can Sellotape are her hands. The book and the polka dot tissue paper are inaccessible below her palms.
‘You need to move your hands,’ I say.
‘But the wrapping paper will fold away,’ she replies.
‘Not if you’re quick,’ I say.
‘I don’t do quick anymore,’ she says, hands still pressing down on the book.
‘This is what they call a Catch 22 situation,’ I say.
‘You never were a very practical boy,’ says Mother with the faintest rock of her head.
I hear my wife and children giggling gently somewhere.
‘It’s your hands that are the problem,’ I say.
I’m becoming absurd
Mother looks at me. Her look says I’m as absurd as a Gordon Ramsey quiz show.
‘I can’t lean on this book forever, you know,’ she says.
‘It won’t kill you to hold on for a while,’ I say, playing for time. What would Bear Grylls do in this situation?
‘I wouldn’t bet on it,’ she says.
There’s only one way out of this cul-de-sac.
‘We need to start again,’ I say.
‘I can’t possibly do all that paper folding again,’ she replies.
‘How about you sign his birthday card and I finish the wrapping at home, later,’ I say.
‘Deal,’ she says.
She leans back and the tissue paper folds away from the book very slowly. If I had been quick, I could have sellotaped the paper down. Mother was right.
‘Tea?’ she asks.
I get up to go to the nursing station to order a cuppa and make a note to tell my children never to waste my time or theirs by asking me to wrap up my grandchildren’s birthday presents once I get to 70. After all, it’s the thought that counts, not the wrapping paper.
A version of this blog appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.