Chocolate: the opiate of old age

Chocolate Tiles by Valerie Durak, Whitney Clark is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

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.

‘No. This.’

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.

*

‘You can make wonderful soup with rotten vegetables if you have an imagination,’ she says. ‘When you were a child, I often made you soup out of rotten old vegetables and water.’

‘I don’t remember,’ I say. ‘I do remember eating snails, though.’

‘It was good soup,’ she says.

‘I guess. After all, I’m still alive,’ I say.

‘That was very ‘Green’ of you Granny,’ says my son impressed she was such an early convert to the food waste movement.

‘Sometimes it came out green, sometimes it came out red, depended if I poured in a tin of tomatoes or not,’ she replies .

‘Speaking of which it’s time for us to go shopping for dinner,’ I say. ‘I’ll come see you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t bother,’ she says and starts waving. ‘Nothing will have changed.’

Sweatbreads? What an offally nice idea

Sweatbreads? That’ll be offally nice.

Sunday. I walk into the kitchen hoping for a quiet breakfast brew and an update from the papers on Boris Johnson’s latest falsehoods, fabrications and fibs, only to discover that overnight Netflix have converted my kitchen into the film set for a new version of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’.

The place is swarming with young people whom I don’t recognise. Sitting, standing, lounging and generally at ease. Almost as if they own the place. This is the payback for years of overperforming as a welcome-all-comers parent. We’ve been so bloody successful at it the kids and their entourages now take all our parental virtue signalling literally.

‘The Chateau Margaux? Sure, it’s the perfect wine for drinking games. Why not take the whole case? If there’s any left tomorrow, it will go well with your Rice Krispies at breakfast.’

They don’t teach irony anymore.

Dad had a different view of parenting

My father took a different approach to our friends. He refused to speak to anyone he didn’t know over breakfast. In fact, he wasn’t even that keen on speaking to his family, preferring to eat his grapefruit in silence and solitude.

After eight at night, he would answer the front door in a half knee length kimono, which barely covered his crown jewels, clutching a golf club. It was his way of saying: enter at your peril. And, if you are bold enough to come in, remember the game here is played by my rules and rule number one is keep your eyes above my waistline.

Back to the present

All over the kitchen the lights are on despite the bright sun. The  Sonos is super sonically woofing. The smell of burnt bacon pervades the room like a crime and the extractor fan is sucking up the acrid smoke like a guilty mosquito trying to cover up the evidence.

There are giggles, grunts and groans, everywhere. Broken eggshells, everywhere. Plates with bacon rind stuck in tomato ketchup, everywhere. Energy, everywhere.

‘Mi casa es su farmyard,’ I mutter to myself, suddenly feeling like a Bolshevik and Old Boomer fused  into one Youth hating body. I didn’t spend 40 years selling my soul to global capitalism to have Sunday’s turned into this.

Several groomed youths are gathered at the table. They’re all busy shaking my breakfast cereals into their milk filled bowls, like misers eagerly emptying out someone else’s piggy bank.

‘Are there any Coco Pops left?’ I ask, pointing at a young man with a goatee beard, pouring my Coco Pops into his bowl.

‘Don’t think so?’ he says, as he rattles the box next to his ear. ‘No, none left.’

‘They’re my favourite breakfast cereal,’ I say.

‘Sorry, do you want to share mine?’ he says, as he lowers the tip of his goatee into the bowl of milk and hoists a spoonful of coco pops and chocolate milk towards his waxed and bearded mouth.

‘Not today, thanks,’ I say.

Where can I retire to?

I look around for space to gather my wits. Of course, I don’t mind the children having friends to stay, even though I am feeling pretty cut up about the missing out on the Coco Pops. It’s their liveliness I can’t stand.

All I wanted was 30 quiet minutes to rekindle the fire under my soggy Sunday Boomer metabolism. All I wanted was a little time to myself to unpack the dishwasher, a task which fills me with Puritanical pleasure, a sort of Sunday morning rosary, before which nothing else can happen.

Yeah, before the Dishwasher is cleared, thou shalt not sip from your  espresso cup. Nor shall the front page of the Sunday paper be opened until the cutlery drawer is refilled with clean spoons.

As a child, I was taught that you had to earn your rewards, that British Prime Ministers told the truth and that puddings follow a main course like daylight follows the dawn. These old truths no longer apply. The kids have eaten breakfast, but the dishwasher is unloaded, its red light blinking at me saying: ‘Look upon your parenting and despair.’

Do humans evolve?

Is this how they will always live? Like Mongols, forever moving carelessly from one house to the next leaving behind them empty boxes of Rice Krispies, half eaten sausages and unwashed Smoothie blenders?

Suddenly, the juicer, the coffee grinder, the Sonos and the kettle are turned on at the same time. It’s a cacophony of symphonic dimensions. My brain shrivels under the assault of noise like a slug sprinkled with salt.

‘What is that?’ I ask.

‘Jazz funk,’ says the young man standing next to the stove, obviously referring to the loud noise coming from the Sonos.

‘No, you fool, that,’ I say, pointing at four uncooked egg yolks wrapped in cling film which are lying on the kitchen next to a boiling pan of water. They look like the castrated orange testicles of two farm animals.

‘Poached eggs,’ he says.

‘Why not use the poacher?’

‘Because he ran away when he saw us coming,’ he says.

‘That’s a pretty poor joke,’ I say, secretly admiring it. It takes chutzpah to tell jokes that bad in someone else’s house.

‘Sorry,’ he replies and drops the cling filmed eggs into a pan of swirling water.

Poached eggs a go go

‘I’ve been thinking about food,’ I say.

‘So, what’s new,’ says my wife, who has come down to the kitchen to join me and the remaining remnants from the overnight posse.

‘I think we should plan our food better. Spend less on meat. Buy cheaper cuts. Head to toe eating. That sort of thing.’

‘Have you signed up for one of those budgeting lessons with that Tory idiot?’ asks one of the remnants.

‘Not exactly.’

‘Lee Anderson MP?’ says my daughter.

‘Yes. I did listen to that idiot. But that’s not what I mean.’

‘Is this ‘thinking’ of yours a specific proposal? Or is it one of your usual ‘ideas’ as in: ‘I’ve been meandering around the Google verse like a village idiot collecting disconnected ideas about environmental policy, food production and our family food budget which I’d now like to disgorge on you like a dumper truck unloading sand at a cement factory?’

‘The former,’ I say.

‘Let’s hear it then,’ she says.

‘This week I shall mainly be eating offal.’

Someone at the far end of the table chokes on their coffee.

‘Is that a line from an old comedy show,’ asks one of the remnants.

The Fast Show is alive and well

‘Yes, the Fast Show,’ I say rather proud that my children have friends who have such strong comic references.

‘Offal?’ says my wife.

‘Like kidneys?’ says my daughter.

‘Or liver?’ asks my son.

‘Or my personal favourite sweetbreads,’ I say.

‘Sweetbreads? Aren’t those essentially testicles,’ says one of the remnants.

‘No. Sweetbreads are the thymus. From the throat or the pancreas.’

‘I’m not keen on pancreas,’ says my daughter.

‘I’d rather go back to being a vegetarian,’ says my son.

‘Offal is cheaper than most meat, nutritious and delicious. It would be a sensible way for us to make a small contribution to reducing our carbon footprint and reducing food waste. Butchers can’t get rid of this stuff these days.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ says my son.

‘Are you sure they’re not testicles,’ asks my daughter again.

‘Certain,’ I say.

‘I’m out,’ says my wife, with a Deborah Meaden, Dragon’s Den look of contempt.

‘I don’t think you’re giving me a fair hearing. I feel like that Lee Anderson,’ I say.

‘You won’t get any sympathy that way,’ says my daughter.

‘It’s an offaly nice idea,’ says my son and the table titters.

I get up and start to unload the dishwasher.

‘Don’t patronise me,’ I say.

 

The Day of the Empty Nester

My wife and daughter are organising each other. Though it’s not yet seven in the morning, they’re excitedly swopping instructions like bees who’ve just discovered a meadow popping with pollen a short flight from the hive.

I don’t bother listening too closely to what they’re saying. There’s no point. I will get my orders soon enough and until then there’s no point in getting excited. Or even getting up.

I am a worker bee

You see, I am just a worker bee. And an indolent one at that. Deciding who should do what, when and how is beyond my pay grade. I just lie back and think of the honey.

If I were actually in charge of ‘Making Things Happen’, things wouldn’t. I don’t think I could rustle up the energy to be a drone bee.

I’m happy being a worker bee, plain and simple. I’ll get my orders and head off into the new day, willing to do what I’m asked to in a sort of bibbling, bobbling bumble bee sort of way.

As I lie half-awake listening to them chatting, I imagine my wife is a bumblebee, dressed in an RAF Squadron Leader, giving me instructions for the day.

‘Head 50m North North West, left at the old Oak tree and you’ll find the pollen. Fill your boots and return by 19.30,’ she says in a bee’s voice.

The bedroom door opens.

‘Aren’t you up yet?’ asks my wife.

‘Coming my Queen Bee,’ I reply and slide out of bed.

Why are they up so early?

The reason my wife and daughter are up early organising each other has nothing to do with the fact that:

  1. They both have jobs
  2. Their jobs require them to attend a workplace
  3. Their jobs begin before 08.30

No. The reason they’re doling out decisions at this unearthly early hour is because my daughter is moving out tonight and lots of tasks associated with that momentous project are incomplete and unassigned. Today is the Day of the Empty Nester.

Yup. She’s going tonight. Packed her bags, her boyfriend and an old orange Le Creuset pan into a series of boxes and bags, which have been piling up downstairs since last night.

I don’t blame her. I was keen to leave home myself when I was her age. It’s time to jump off the old family coat tails and set sail into the ocean of opportunity which awaits her.

This is the day of the Empty Nester

As I think about the day ahead, I realise I’ve seen this moment coming ever since she took her first uncertain steps towards me as a toddler twenty years ago. Only this time she walks on by. Growing up is going away.

The Day of the Empty Nester is also the Day of the Chauffeur. Before the door opens and my wife tells me what it is that I need to do today, I know she will ask me to take my daughter’s boxes and bags to her new flat in Maida Vale. It’s what I was born for and I welcome the inevitable role like Boris Johnson welcomes donor’s prepared to pay for his wallpaper.

‘Would you mind taking her bags to the flat,’ asks my wife.

‘Like Sherpa Tenzing Norgay helping Hilary climbing Everest?’

‘It wasn’t the first analogy that came to my mind. But if it helps you get through the day fine,’ she says.

‘Are you feeling sad?’

‘No, I’m pleased for her.’

‘But she’s going and this is the Day of the Empty Nesters.’

‘You make it sound like the Day of the Dead.’

‘Isn’t it?’

‘You fool. Your son is back on Monday and he he’s got another three years at university.’

Can we handle the time alone?

‘I’m worried about your Mother,’ I whisper to my daughter.

She’s back from work and we’re packing her escape.

‘Why?’

‘She doesn’t want to acknowledge what’s happening to us.’

‘Acknowledge, what?’

‘Having to spend more time together with me.’

‘It’s a scary thought,’ she nods.

‘This is your chance to become autonomous adults again.’

‘That’s what she’s worried about. That you and your brother have infantilised me.’

‘You’re worried she realises you’re not the person she married?’

‘God, no. She realised that years ago.’

‘Would you rather I stayed?’

‘Could we come to a sort of lease back arrangement whereby, I pay you a small fee for coming home every now and again to…’

‘Have dinner?’

I nod.

‘And you would mind staying in the family WhatsApp group?’

‘Jesus. You”ll be asking me to come on holiday with you next?’

‘Not every year,’ I say with a weak smile.

Gone girl

The black Toyota Prius reverses up onto the kerb. It stops approximately six inches short of denting our neighbours new electric Maserati and pulls away.

I can’t see through the Toyota’s tinted windows, so I am not sure if my daughter is waving goodbye from the backseat or turning to her boyfriend and saying: ‘Thank God, we’re finally free.’

The cat jumps up on the wall next to me and rubs itself against my thigh. The bloody thing is insatiable it’s after a second dinner.

My wife comes up next to me and strokes the cat.

‘How long do you think until we see her again?’ I ask.

‘Two days. Maybe three,’ says my wife.

‘So soon? How come, you be sure?’

‘She’s left all her laundry behind.’