“I shall become older than you can possibly imagine!”
Had you designed a virus to finish off my father, Covid would have been it. And yet, while others fall, he – frail, breathless and immobile long before it was trending, goes on. His 90th birthday –an occurrence no gambler would have sanctioned – including the man himself – will be the first time we have let people back into the house since lockdown.
People that is who are not paid to come. Carers, district nurses, three ambulances (one necessary – two for imagined problems) have made ours the busiest address in the street for months. People as in family, loved ones. People as in me.
When it all went off I was busy in a borough with high infection rate and stayed put. I joke about my parents demise but I don’t want to be the provider, especially by accident. If there’s blame let it be for something deliberately done. So my sister, closer to our folks in March and in the same, less-infected city, has manned the frontlines whilst in theory also shielding herself. Fun times.
In the absence of contrary or clear guidance I came back for a week last month and realised as soon as I walked through the door that lockdown, for all its worries, had for me been a three-month holiday from our parents. Thank God they are alive, now here we are again. It always did feel like the house was outside history.
Lockdown, safeguarding, whatever it’s called makes little odds to Dad, who can’t move anyway. Mum is frustrated, but has no idea what’s going on. You may as well try and distance yourself from a loving child or an irate terrier. “Is the thing still making people ill?” So they say, mother. Now get away from me.
As his 90th looms I note my father’s mixture of amazement and disinterest with interest of my own. While the rest of the family frets over what is right, safe and desirable, our subject soldiers on.
Not for the first time I wonder if we want things to be well, for them to be well, in ways that they themselves do not anymore. As with Mum – and other elderly folk I hear about – they would rather do their thing than face legislation in their last days. And this I think is not just brain addling and old age, this is an existential statement. They are on terms with death that we – the comparatively young – do not experience directly.
Oddly – or perhaps not, I sense a connection to the protest movement in America here. If you are, as some in the US seem to be, at risk of execution just for doing normal things, then why wouldn’t you march and gather? Those close to death by age or fate or circumstance, ought not be subject to the judgements of others looking on from safety and saying ‘if that were me… ’ because we are us and they are them, at least for the time being.
Yet in this house I am the state, here I have duty of care. But I am increasingly of a mind that the first duty of care is to pay attention. So I will take Mum where she wants to go, for sanity more than survival. It is harder to pay attention to Dad since he has less to say.
When the 90th comes grandchildren pass through in groups in staggered patterns, none too close and over days. This is not that bad since physical intimacy is not the old man’s thing. Emotional distance, social distance, again we are ahead of the curve here.
Again, I think, this is for us and not for them (and so what? for we are real people too). Two weeks later he calls me into his bedroom as I am on the way to mine, complains about toothache but then tells me the story of his life, more or less, in thirty minutes.
“Ninety!” He says, frowning. Baffled as anyone. Adding, after much reflection and discussion of the unknowable nature of existence—
“I’m a lucky man.”
I am too, I think, momentarily. Many are the days when I have not heard this or felt myself close him or that he was even a player in this thing of ours as we have come to understand it. I am not sure he will remember the conversation, but here I am, writing, so perhaps I will. “We’re not so different, you and I,” as the villains say in the movies. “Join me!” they say after that sometimes.
Not just yet. Things to do.