"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A Pause for the Aged Parent..

A temporary post, not about pictures pencils or leaves, just about life.

It is such a long time since I have been able to get onto the blog. The main reason is due to an almost non existent internet connection here at my father’s house in rural Lincolnshire. Another reason is not having much to put on it. For the last six weeks, life, as I know and love it, has been on hold. I am in the UK, travelling around some, waiting for a new USA visa, but mostly entertaining my Dad who is 92.

As I am writing we have just returned from Sunday Lunch at the popular oak-beamed and horse-brassed local pub. Here I have watched my diminutive and ever shrinking Dad going a full 4 rounds with a massive”Minted Barnsley Chop” (complete with veg) which I presume was from a lamb but, from the size of it, a lamb unrivalled in either fact or fable. Luckily this is a favourite lunch spot of his, where the possible irritations are minor but the 5 minute wait to be served has been duly noted and commented on.
We have been silent diners because nothing can come between my father and his food. Not tempest, earthquake, fire nor flood could have diverted his attention from the task of stripping the flesh slowly and doggedly from the monstrous chop. With the utmost precision of a surgeon he has cut and trimmed, attending to every morsel, carefully addressing every sprout, and every carrot, hardly raising his eyes from the plate until it is shining clean. It is a simple, enjoyable and practical task that my father can accomplish with ease.

I say “entertaining” my father because he is relatively fit, extremely healthy, and does not really require “looking after”. He is also very keen to be at the centre of things, or rather, he likes to be the centre of things.

And there is a lot to be done at 92. Unfortunately most of it has to be done very slowly, so one small and (to me) insignificant task will take the whole day to accomplish. He is man of strict routine whose day begins at 7.30 but who, film star like, is not ready to meet his public until 10.30. Appointments scheduled before 11 are regarded as “early”, greeted with alarm and discouraged.

So these beautiful late summer days here have passed slowly by, with gardening, cooking, and shopping. There have been basic household repairs to see to, involving many many rolls of sellotape. The word “replacement” has never figured prominently in the vocabulary of a thrifty ex accountant from Yorkshire and I have a feeling that allowing a “new thing” into the house, which might outlive him, constitutes a threat… better to prop up and repair those old, worn and friendly companions.

There have been days out to beauty spots, for lunch or just for a drive. Visits to old favourite dog walks, to county lanes where we picked cowslips and blackberries as a family, all to jog his failing memory and give mine a shot of that pure amnesiac nostalgia which remembers all days as sunny.

There have been jaunts to various medical institutions where my father rewards any help and advice with (a) great suspicion, (b) some contempt and (c) the occasional blank refusal to cooperate. Perhaps at his age he does have more answers than they do, but his recent grudging acceptance to be subjected to a flu jab is one of my great personal triumphs this trip.

Meals are the high spot of the day to Dad.. but not to me. They have now become his one true obsession. They need to be planned well in advance, noted in the diary, delivered with regularity, savoured and lingered over. He is truly miserable if the “food situation” is not crystal clear and in writing the day before, and who can really blame him? My casual attitude to food is both incomprehensible and upsetting to him .. so I fall into line when I can.
When I am not here he has a round of accommodating local lunch venues which see him eat hearty meals, served (mostly) with a smile and his habitual beer. I accompany him when I feel I can handle the torpid little dining rooms, where beige is the colour of choice and cheap small prints are hung too high on largely empty walls. Dust filled upper shelves have forlorn trinkets and our meal is accompanied by the clacking false teeth of the other diners and the irritating relentless jangling of a local radio station. Mercifully Dad can hear none of these things. What is stultifying and agonisingly depressing to me, is comfort and security to Dad, so who am I to criticize?.

But the evenings are sheer purgatory. While the volume of the TV shatters my eardrums and rattles the fillings in my teeth, my brain is numbed by the choice of viewing. Hopping incessantly from one channel to another, the chances are that he will alight on some terrible reality show and fall asleep, the remote clenched in a vice like grip, finger pressed hard on the volume button… and why, oh why, when we sit down to tea does the screen always seem to fill with copulating animals? So night after night I go upstairs to Mum’s old room and lie on the bed for hour after sleepless hour, staring in silence at the wall or at my uncooperative computer screen while the TV crashes away below.

I lie on the bed and wrestle with all my conflicting feelings about my father. The guilt about being the absent child, the compassion for an elderly man who is beginning to fail, the complete exhaustion of having to shout every single word so that conversation is impossible, the irritation of having to repeat everything over and over and over again and the awful impending decisions about “the Future”. I ponder on our respective selfish needs…mine to be free and left alone and his to be looked after, they are deeply incompatible. I care about him enormously, caring for him is another matter. I have cried a lot this trip, for the whole complex unanswerable unresolvable conflicts, for Dad and for me.

The subject of my coming to live in the house to look after him has been broached again. This plan has even occasionally and reluctantly included my partner Chris. It is a mere politeness and usually delivered as a muttered afterthought, as what Dad really wants is someone to look after him, exclusively. Another man in the house would be intolerable. I try to tell him in the gentlest way, that it can never happen. These conversations are sheer agony to me… within a day he has forgotten they even existed.

How I wish I could portray myself as the angelic dutiful daughter rushing to give up her life to look after the aging parent, but I can’t. We do not choose our parents and I should honestly say my father and I have very little in common. We are alien species to each other. Since my early adolescence he and I have had an uneasy truce. He has little interest in my work, neither understands nor asks what makes me tick, cannot comprehend my restless nature and despairs of my lack of a “proper” job.
But I am his champion and seethe with hatred at the dull eyed multi pierced check-out girl who can’t take the trouble to notice his hearing aids and will not meet his eye as he struggles to hear and understand her, who taps her fingers and looks away as he fumbles with his change. I want to smack the local shop keeper who refers to him as “a little old man.” How very patronising and how very far from the truth. My father is a very proud and intelligent man, a past successful business man and, that deeply old fashioned thing, “a good citizen”.

He is, of course, a man of his age in all ways, his complexities shaped both by his years and his generation. A northern reserve prevents outpourings of emotion and he can be embarassingly blunt, thoughtlessly racist and definitely chauvinistic. Empathy was never his strong point. But he has humour and an oddly poetic streak. He knows his memory is failing badly and, while on a recent car trip with me, retracing some old long forgotten lanes and byways, he likened the unfolding road to his memory, lost and unrecognised until it starts to uncurl before him, like an ancient scroll whose contents you have forgotten. He talks of shimmering days and singers voices that are like liquid silver.

But now his age is robbing him of much concentrated thought. Abstract concepts and complicated story lines elude him, and only snippets of things can hold his attention. A man who would tackle Malory’s “Mort d’Arthur” now has a book of quotations by his bed. Conversations with him can be philosophical and old memories sharp and funny, but his deafness prevents witty quick repartee and in a group of more than two he is lost and isolated. In 6 weeks my generally quiet voice could now hold its own in a northern fishmarket.
We find common ground in talking about “the Past” and avoid at all costs talking about “the Future” which may seem, at 92, to be a subject not full of promise but in my current homeless, rootless, uncertain state I am not sure who regards it with more trepidation, Dad or me.

In two weeks time I will be preparing to leave for the USA again, carrying my absent-child guilt with me. I am desperately longing to get my life back, and desperately guilty for that longing. Yet I know Dad is very well cared for. Fiercely determined to stay in his own home he is visited twice a week by the gorgeous, blonde and joyful Anita who comes to help with the household chores and casts a professional carer’s eye over him. He is mindful to be almost as smart for his daily lunch outings as for a board meeting and they bring human contact and structure to his day. My sister lives just 15 miles away and despite her hectic and busy life is a cheerful, tireless and dependable bringer of Sunday Lunch.

These last few weeks will stay with me, but the difficult conversations and arguments, the lovely day sitting by the lake and the trips down memory lane will mostly be forgotten by Dad, who within a couple of weeks will probably ask my sister “ Have I seen Val recently?”
He will be fine, until he is not...much the same as all of us.

9 comments:

a.a.shock said...

Your post struck many bittersweet chords in me about the waning days of my dad, who from the sound of it was a sort of Yank version of yours. A very vivid and feeling account -- my heart goes out to you. Remember to breathe!

Brian Morley said...

Dear Val, bless your heart...I know what you feel, at least my families version of it. This is in comment to your latest post...I saw no reply bar there? Go home to your life- live, enjoy your life and your family-all that you do. You are a dutiful daughter, and respectful. But you need to get back to respecting you own life, especially if he's being well cared for. His life is speeding by, like a comet for him...you know how much faster every year is for you and I, think of the speed for him! Live your life for the joy of it's existence, and your personal contributions to it...your readers get joy and pleasure from what you give us.It's your time to BE...,sounds like your dad is just fine.Now, get back to work and share it with us, because WE matter too! Best to you!

Elephant's Eye said...

Have been missing you. Now I understand way. Thank you for sharing that. My husband is Swiss, so we moved back and forth frequently, between my parents in Cape Town and his in Switzerland. Hard decisions ...

Richard said...

Val
This is beautifully written, and speaks of your own experience very intensely, but also what a lot of others have to face, looking after aged parents at the end of their lives - or giving up their care to others (my own experience, with my 88 year old mother.) There should be no guilt, but of course there is; but there is also great celebration of your love for your dad, in this post.
Thanks.

Gabrielle said...

Val, I can't believe I'm the first to comment on this lovely and loving but honest piece about your dad. I have had challenging relationships with both of my parents as well, so I can totally understand your conflict within yourself. You are a talented writer as well as artist! I hope the last few weeks of your visit are good ones for you.

Sree said...

:)

sharp green pencil said...

Thank you so much all for you very supportive and understanding comments.. and for all the emails too from my very faithful readers! I am amazed you are all still there! I know these dilemmas are shared by many and to a much greater degree.
Out of all of this has come a resolve to be the sweetest, most accommodating, gracious and grateful old lady in the world. But as one already suffering from premature irascibility and intolerance, the chances are slim! :) A chubby pink and laughing pig is flying past the window ...

J.G. said...

Thank you for your beautiful post, written with the daughter's heart of wary but bottomless love and the artist's eye for telling detail.

I lost my parents years ago, each quite suddenly, from different ailments. I was spared (for the most part) the decline you write of, but I missed the benefits of adult awareness. I can say from experience how lucky you are in many ways, to have him with you into your own maturity. It doesn't feel like a blessing, sometimes, but trust me, it is.

sharp green pencil said...

Thanks very much JG..adult awareness is double edged. I have had the luxury of spending some time with Dad,mostly re-living the old days..time I now wished I had had with Mum. The other side has been a true awarness of our differences.. which has made for some very "livley" discussions :)