The bathroom is whoosily hot. As I poach myself back into the Land of the Living after an excessive Saturday bacchanal, I wonder where my toes have gone and if they will ever come back. I watch my body turn the colour of a hot cure smoked salmon and doze.
I slip under the water. I can hear my mobile phone humming and humming and humming. I ignore it. I’m not ready for the world yet. It’s too early to talk. Even a desperate Prime Minister desperately searching for somebody desperate enough to join the Cabinet wouldn’t call this early and a Sunday morning, too.
When I come up for air, the bath water smells odd. It could be the Radox salts, but the odour is more like Vermouth. Herby. As if yesterday’s alcohol has infused the bathwater after fermenting overnight in my stomach. I reach for the phone, curious to see who’s called at this hour.
The missed call is from my Mother’s nursing home. There are two reasons the nursing home call. The first is to say you’ve won this month’s Friends & Family Tombola. But I haven’t entered the Tombola for a long time. And something tells me good news is polite and would wait till brunch.
The arches, loops and whorls of my thumb are so flushed and swollen from poaching so long in my vermouth bath that the phone doesn’t recognise my thumb print and won’t open. Again and again, I press my thumb down but the bloody, bloody, bloody phone won’t unlock. I feel like a mountaineer watching the first few stones of a landslide rolling away from beneath his feet.
I dry my right hand, thumb open the I-Phone and start to ring the nursing home but stop half way through. I am naked. It feels disrespectful to make the call without clothes. On a Sunday, especially. I pick up yesterday’s clothes from the floor beside my bed and ring. I’ve lost a minute getting dressed, which will make no difference to the new reality waiting to introduce itself at the other end of the phone.
‘Putting you through to the duty nurse,’ says reception.
‘Thank you,’ I say, in a sunny voice. You sound like you’ve won the Lotto, I say to myself. Pull yourself together.
‘It’s bad news,’ says the nurse and begins a litany of facts: who, when, what, where and how.
The nurse is professional. But her facts are meaningless and mute. All I can hear is the sound of a planet crashing out of the universe and a familiar voice somewhere whispering ‘no more’.
I knock on my son’s bedroom door. He’s the only family member home.
‘How?’ he asks, waking up.
‘They told me, but I can’t remember.’
‘Oh. Do you want a cuddle?’
It’s an infinitely perfect thing to say at this infinitely imperfect moment.
If I hug him now, I will dissolve like a bath salt and I have things I must do.
In the Uber on the way to the nursing home, I remember when my daughter came into the world, courtesy of a late-night emergency caesarean, I was stranded in a hotel in Copenhagen. When my mother left the world, I was in a bath with a hangover. I guess we don’t always get to choose our comings and goings, nor who’s with us they happen.
‘Pull over. Here’s fine,’ I say to the Uber driver.
At the nursing home, three of Mother’s carers come up to me as I enter the dementia wing of the home.
‘She was a lovely Lady,’ says one.
‘So polite,’ says another.
‘‘Merci Beaucoup’ was what she used to say to us. All the time. Even if we were just giving her a cup of tea.’
‘A cup of tea was the way to her heart,’ I say. Shamefully, I realise I do not even know the names of the carers.
Mother used to say: ‘I don’t know why they do this. They do things others don’t want to. For a pittance. I wouldn’t do this if I were them.’ Politeness was her strategy for keeping people on side. She understood she was dependent on others even though she never called them carers. Calling them by their professional name would have been an admission of defeat and even at the end she hoped she might one day leave and take care of herself again.
She would have torn me off a strip or two if she had seen how badly dressed I was when I arrived: a crimpled shirt and shorts, scuffed shoes, unshaven. Clothes maketh the men, she used to say. She was a professional model and brought up in a home of hand me downs. Both experiences had an impact.
She would have hated herself if she could see what she looked like now. Lying under a bedsheet on the floor in her old nightgown, head back, hair unbrushed, eyes closed. In her open mouth a gold tooth visible. Her last words long gone. I wonder if they were ‘Merci beaucoup.’
‘Why is she on the floor?’ I ask.
‘The bed was too soft to do CPR on,’ says the nurse.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Can we move her?’
‘Not until the Police come.’
I sit with her body. They’ve closed the curtains so none of the other residents can see in through her window. I’m not sure they’d notice. I saw a man carried out of a packed residents lounge on a stretcher in the middle of lunch. None of the residents batted an eyelid.
‘This bed is very low,’ says my bother, who has just driven up from south London.
‘And too soft for CPR,’ I say.
‘Ah,’ he says.
A few minutes pass.
‘Did she die in her sleep?’ he asks.
‘They found her at 6.30 when they came in to dress her for breakfast. She wasn’t conscious so they did the CPR thing.’
‘I think she woke up and thought ‘enough is enough’ and closed her eyes and let herself go,’ he says and gets up to look at the photos on her table. I lie back on her bed and look at the pictures hanging on the walls.
On the back of each of the pictures, Mother has written the names of one of her grandchildren. It’s an addendum to her will. Other than these paintings and a few photo albums there is nothing left, except her wedding ring.
‘Do you want to take her ring home?’ asks the nurse.
Taking her ring off as she lies there dead on the floor is repelling. We shake our heads silently.
‘No worries. The Police will be here in about five minutes. It’s a formality though, so you don’t need to stay,’ says the nurse.
My brother and I shrug our shoulders at each other. We pick up the paintings and the photo albums and leave.
At the entrance to the home, the receptionist hands me a list of names and phone numbers: funeral directors, the coroner, the local Registrar’s office and the GP who will issue the death certificate.
Mother is sitting at a table by herself. Her fingers rest on the edge of a cup and saucer half full of spilt tea. Her eyes are open, and her head is tilted backwards, perhaps thirty degrees. I can’t tell if she is gazing up a slight incline towards Heaven or is asleep.
Whichever it is, she seems calm. Until that is, she sees my son and I waving at her through the glass panel, which runs around the dining area. Then, like a dimmer switch yanked to the max with a sudden twist of the wrist, she starts whining like a wounded animal in a trap.
‘Take me home,’ she cries. ‘Take me home.’
My heart slinks away. It can’t cope with the painful truth that the one thing she really craves is the one thing I can’t give her – hope that one day she might leave this place.
Two of the carers walk towards her.
‘Don’t let them near me. They want to hurt me,’ she cries and points at them.
The carers look at me. They’re thinking: does he think that’s true? That we’re going to hurt her. Or does he realise it’s the dementia talking? As it happens, I don’t think they’re cruel. But that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that she has created a stand-off. They’ve stopped doing what they were going to do, and she is upset, fearful.
I hate asserting myself in the care home
‘Let me deal with this,’ I say, reluctantly asserting myself.
I put my hand under her left elbow and help her up.
‘Shall we go to your room, mum?’
‘No. I just want to die,’ she replies.
In her room she wipes away her tears and pulls her dressing gown around her bony shoulders.
‘So cold in here,’ she says.
I close the window on the summer sun.
‘Unwrap the chocolate,’ I say to my son.
‘Would you like some chocolate, Granny?’ he says, handing her three squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.
‘Thank you, darling.’
Chocolate is the opiate of old age and I am Mother’s Pusher. I never come without a bag the choicest chocolate bars to calm her nerves or distract her. Nothing bitter or fancy. I can’t remember how many times a Cadbury’s chocolate bar has turned the tide on a depressing conversation and saved me for screaming.
Her wheelchair is folded
She points at her wheelchair, which is folded up in a corner.
‘That’s where he keeps his bike when he comes and spends the night. We had a fight so when he comes now, I move out.’
‘Who keeps his bike there?’ asks my son.
‘I don’t know,’ she shrugs her shoulders. ‘The man who collects the pips, I don’t know?’
I point at my son and say loudly.
‘He’s going back to university tomorrow. He’s here to say goodbye.’
‘I keep his postcards in the cupboard,’ she says.
He sends her postcards to remind her that although she is out of sight she is not out of mind.
‘I’ve got exams when I go back,’ says my son, gamely trying to involve her in a new line of chat.
‘Do you have any friends?’ she asks earnestly.
Anxieties are like old relics
Sometimes Mother’s dementia driven conversations reveal an anxiety or an attitude towards someone (or something) which she has never shared before. Talking to her is like finding a new relic on a well dug archaeological site. In vino veritas, drunks reveal truth unwittingly. The same is true of dementia.
‘I have lots of friends,’ he replies a little too sternly.
‘But what’s the matter with your voice?’ she asks.
‘My voice? Nothing.’
‘It’s got nuts in it,’ she says decidedly.
‘His voice has got nuts in it?’ I ask, confused.
She points at her bar of Cadburys Fruit & Nut chocolate.
Somewhere down the corridor, a door is open, and a resident is calling ‘help’, ‘help’, ‘help’.
Dementia has no translator
‘They’ve been stealing things from me. This blouse, for example. One night, we had an auction to see who should win the blouse and they had to toss for it and the one who tossed the coin right was the girl who got the blouse. And I had to give it to her. I had to give a speech, too, and say how terribly sad I was that only one of them could have it. But she deserved it. She’s done a lot of work for me, washing and manicuring and everything like that. But it set up a terrible anger on the opposite side, with the girl who does all of those intricate things like giving you your medicine at certain times. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told by the scruffy little man who puts everything in his pocket.’
‘Oh,’ I say.
Sometimes conversation is impossible. Dementia has no translator.