“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.
After what seems like months in which the Old Man’s attention has been mostly directed inwards, toward the floor or in anticipation of the next and perhaps endless sleep, he suddenly asks for the TV remote control. Or to be precise, a lesson in how to use it.
The thing was glued to his palm once, to have lost all sense of how it works is troubling but being interested in using it is encouraging. Less so perhaps for Mum who has enjoyed the relative calm and televisual autonomy his apparent decline had enabled. Suddenly he’s back and curious and keen again. Let’s not get in the way of that, even if does mean watching High Noon first thing in the morning every day for the rest of our lives.
An inspection of the remote reveals the buttons are worn blank and down to nubs from his relentless pressing (Mum favours the traditional channels and so has no use for the more elaborate control). Dad is not only back, but he wants the full digital dominion.
I try and use it, but it won’t even work for me except by applying the kind of pressure from your thumb that could shatter a walnut. I order a new one. Try and step him through it. This button means pause—
“I have no memory.” He announces, matter-of-factly. OK. “Could you write it down?”
There is less than zero benefit in running some cognitive Blade Runner test on him. What I do instead is count calmly through my frustration. I am, or was, momentarily pleased with myself for getting a new remote, “stunning high definition back at your fingertips.” Now this achievement, like so many others, has vanished into the swamp of fresh (and ancient) problems. Also, I am supposed to be going out.
I bought a printer (with their money: twenty seven quid, and I’m hedging that we won’t be around long enough for the mark up on the ink to kick in and wipe out any savings) especially for these moments when lack of neural power is invoked as a means to do or grasp less. Notes are better than verbal statements here. I print out an image of the remote and draw lines connecting each button to its function. Whilst I am at it I also cancel a diabetic eye appointment he has decided he doesn’t want to go to. Blindness now being preferable to getting out of the house, it seems. You end up not questioning this stuff. No point dying of frustration before the end of their ride. We’ve come too far together for that.
I hand him the paper and tell him the appointment is cancelled. He squints at the printout and the remote control. “I can’t see anything,” he says. Maybe you should go to that eye appointment, is what I want to say, but instead we step though the remote, and the paper.
“Isn’t there some appointment we have to cancel?” Interrupts Mum. I go to the kitchen briefly. When I come back Dad has got the TV working. Or at least a paused image of Hugh Edwards.
“Why is he on?” says Mum, annoyed. “It isn’t time for the news.”
Indeed. Dad is paused in a recording. We work through it. “We’ve seen this!” Says Mum. Yeah, well it is a recording. She sneers at the screen. She never did like the idea of seeing something twice. We were the last people in the world to own a video recorder. “This is an exact replica of yesterday!” She announces. Tell me about it.
“I understand!” says Dad, stabbing all the wrong buttons, putting aside the instructions. Grease and crumbs already on the paper.
“Where are your glasses?” I ask, this seeming central to the problem, seeing the remote itself is now pristine. “Upstairs,” he says. “I don’t know.” He hasn’t been upstairs in over a year. That’s about all I can take. I have had my coat on for long enough in anticipation of leaving that in the heat of the lounge I am almost on the point of fainting. Hugh Edwards shimmers in the corner like a mirage. Time to leave.
It’s raining. I am moving through town, drinking in fresh air and freedom when Dad phones. “What button do I press?” I can’t see you and it’s raining; I explain. “Oh,” he says, something in his tone suggesting that neither ought really to be an obstacle to him seeing what he wants on television. I say we’ll sort it out when I get home.
I get the control thing. With so much gone by the wayside the tiniest dominion must be madly tempting. The urge to manage something meaningful dashed against the reality of one’s impotence. The world outside indifferent, you in your chair, a network of cells you don’t even manage any more and few die-hard, hand-picked loyalists in the cave to do your biscuit bidding. The Bin Laden of bugger all.
I get back in and the TV is working fine. He’s cracked it. “Can we cancel that eye appointment?” He asks for the millionth time. As ever though the appointment I must cancel is with my own reaction. To run the world inside us, not the household, or the country. That is real control, I’m told.
See you in Control!:
Some of you have been kind enough to get in touch and ask if we were OK in light of the recent lack of posts. I am happy, and amazed, to report that yes, everyone is alive and well (or the nonagenarian version of well) at present.
The real reason I haven’t been posting so much is because in any spare time I have been working full tilt on a book! You can read more about this life and sanity saving turn of events here.
So in 2121 there will be much more to see, if a little less up here between now and then. Thank you all for your support and your enthusiasm which is what persuaded me to take this next step, as well as everyone at Picador for getting involved.
If there’s a single emotion I would remove from the cocktail of this experience, it would be anger. My anger. I don’t mean acting-out, shouted, expressed, raise voice, smashed-thing, anger – though all that happens. I mean the pilot light of resentment aroused to blow torch flame by the simplest of things. I don’t care how much is justified, I want to be calm for everyone’s sake. We’ll be OK, and then some triviality spreads like forest fire and we must then stew in the aftermath of another failed opportunity to use the love we, surely, know is all around us just as fundamentally as the dust, the tissues and the biscuit crumbs.
Post-yelling, I feel I am a sinner set to the work of saints. Carers come and keep their cool on eight pounds an hour. I pay a pound a minute, some weeks, to talk to a therapist about how I can carry on.
“Don’t get angry…” Dad will say as a prelude to something he knows is contrary to the collective good, this prefix, in itself, being an act of such subtle passive aggression that it is enough to make you… well, you get the picture.
Given my underlying problem might take years to defuse, I have developed what I think of as useful practice by monitoring how long it takes to takes me to get angry on any particular day. Repetition is my guide. A fundamental and fulfilling force in some arenas (music, art, asexual reproduction etc) repeating things in conversation can drive me nuts, and so it is to this I apply myself to better myself.
Mum’s deafness has always been a rule-of-three* thing. By its third time of repetition any statement will have been abandoned or understood or said so loudly there is nowhere left to take it short of reaching for a bullhorn, skywriting, or daubing a message in blood on the walls.
Less standard and so more incendiary are the repeated requests, “have we, can you, did we..?” etc. There is no benefit whatsoever in turning to the elderly querant and saying, however calmly, “you’ve told me/asked me that.” The higher path is to just keep answering the question as calmly and as often as you can. Any reaction on my part, other than calm, I have come to see as vanity. A bad habit.
My Dad, asking again if I have checked the tire pressure on a car he will never again drive, is a mythic test, sent from the Gods, to probe the shallows of my humanity. If I can, say, finish the washing up, and field several old questions and repeated anecdotes while maintaining a beatific exterior, or even a frown, then things, are, I figure, going well.
Though not yet suffering any specific or diagnosed neural decline, my parents brains nonetheless present sometimes as jukeboxes with fewer records available each day.
For a time, my dad had two favourites, sentimental songs he would return to. One would concern a picture above the mantelpiece, a rural scene of the Yorkshire moors, purchased on a driving holiday in the mid 80’s. I was spoiled by foreign travel and alive with hormones at the time. Driving through Yorkshire for a week wasn’t my idea of fun .
“You know that picture?” He would start. Yup, I know the picture. And then he would either praise the picture, or the holiday, or the living room, itself a cluttered pantheon of days gone by. And then all this would happen again. So what? Indeed, so what. But there are days and moments when you can’t play along. The sulking teen in the back of the car, in some measure, remains within us. “YES, I KNOW THE F*CKING PICTURE!” Sorry, please forgive me. Press restart.
There is a similar story concerning a place mat depicting a Lancashire hotel where we would gather with extended family years ago. The house has many photos of this scene, thick with folk, fashions and cigarettes all long gone. He used to hold the place mat up, after dinner and say “You won’t remember this place…” But I did, and now it seemed important to him to remind me. Again, this would happen a lot. For a time, I used to ask, “You know, we went through this last week?” He seemed admonished, but it is a tough thing to reckon, what to accept and what to fight for. You don’t want them to slide easily to the place where they don’t know what’s what anymore. That, in part might be what I was defending.
I stopped when I realised he could no longer remember the name of the hotel. Then he stopped asking. Then he stopped eating at the table, or looking at anything much, even the walls. So, once again, a “problem” from the past feels like the glory days, compared to now.
So why the anger, or at least this expression of it? I think it dawned on me the other day. Imagine your mind is a museum, you are the expert, curator and owner, and then these people wander in, tourists in a sense, it seems. And they start getting everything wrong, asserting this is that, or that is this. But it turns out that they built the place, or at least laid the foundation stone. And if they can forget these former fundamentals, then you will too, and then its values and its contents will be gone.
I think there’s some of that going on, when I snap. But if we must forget and be forgotten (all of which seems certain) then can we not forgive each other and ourselves as we go? All very well raging at the dying of the light and all the rest of it, but rage is no help whatsoever in this long, long run. Perhaps that’s what it’s so upset about. Here is to progress, not perfection. I’ll let you know how we get on.
Nomenclature: noun The devising and choosing of names for things, the body or system of names for things, especially in a specialist field.
I find myself puzzled by the choices companies make when naming products for the elderly and infirm. I get that marketing this stuff must be hard, no one wants it, after all. These are the things of need. But in a market economy one must make up one’s mind. Nevertheless, given the implied circumstances of your end user, many of these selections seem odd to me.
First noticed it with toilet frames. Behold, “The Harrier”
I mean, come on. The moment when you must accept that you can’t get up off the toilet without assistance is quite a thing. Do we, when facing this, feel enabled by associations with wild, predatory birds? I’ll let you know when it happens. When I bought my dad’s though it did make me laugh, so if that’s what the folks at NRS healthcare are up to here, reverse psychology, fair play indeed. It is a thing though, once you start looking for it. Exhibit 2, “Buckingham. ”
Same thing, right? I recognise there are throne associations here and the two principal dwellers of the above abode may well be in grateful receipt of these products (although I note no royal warrants on the websites), and the state pays for both, but still…
I appreciate that users of mobility scooters have reclaimed the narrative and take pride in ironic bumper stickers and the like, but these are indoor things. “The toilet’s on the left, mate. Mind out for the The Buckingham.” “Cheers.”
I’m not singling out NRS healthcare either. It’s rife. Exhibit 3– “Drive”
This seems the cruellest of all. They may as well call it sex, or immortality.
Like the bodies of its tenants, the homestead has had enough. This is especially true of the drains, which sometimes pack up altogether and flood back into the house through the toilet, the consequences of which are exactly as you would imagine. Despite being a fastidious neurotic in some regards, “recent events” mean that my prior reservations about dealing with sewage are vanished. You might even say I was into it. Not the thing itself, you understand. I just like that the fear has gone. We might stink but within it one can feel righteous, even redeemed.
The dilemma of what’s worth fixing when you’re hoping things can’t carry on goes from the small – one might, for instance, screw in a lightbulb and wonder whether it will die sooner than anyone it illuminates—to the large. Clearly an overflowing drain is a big-ticket item in the black Friday sale of everything must go (wrong), but do you really want to dig up the patio? Or call the man who can? No. Not today. So, piecemeal drain repairs are now my thing. If I don’t prise up the cover, drop down and get dirty with the garden hose every 12 weeks or so, the drain will buckle. I have a reminder on my phone about this. Even still, sometimes I miss my slot and then, it happens.
When there is blockage I hold an enquiry into what/who the source is. I have access to hard evidence (the impacted knot of excrement, wipes and paper that one must chisel free blindly from the drain like some cursed sculptor). And yet, when I launch the inquisition as to whose reckless self-purification is behind all this, I am reminded of another shocking truth of our household—everyone lies. The three of us are over two hundred years old, and yet we fib about going to the toilet. And more besides.
The web of mostly benign deception was first clear to me when my parents elaborate counter-intelligence operation about which of them eats shortbread came crashing down in the supermarket last summer. Diabetes isn’t even in the Premiership of the Old Man’s ailments, but it’s there, and along with certain other comorbidities isn’t helped by the substitution of “proper” food for biscuits. Plus, if I clean up your sh*t, I should get a say in what you eat, perhaps.
The persistent presence of shortbread despite me never buying it meant of course that someone was. Each blamed the other for the purchase and accused the other of eating it. Then one day I was at the shop with mum and she stuck some in the trolley. I asked who it was for, pointed out that dad was in hospital and she just shrugged and tottered off towards the eggs. I knew then the calamitous truth. They were both eating it. And they were both lying. Chinatown.
So it goes with the drains. “Not me.” “I would never” “The carers throw stuff down there.” The many mad battles that might make up the day are yours to pick, and sometimes my internal CPS lets us all off the hook by assessing that there is nothing to be gained from prosecution and we can let the whole thing drop.
But the drains are the drains. It’s £300 to get it done if I’m not there. And then there is the “shame” (Mother’s words, not mine) of the Dynorod van outside. As though the neighbours were scoffing and judging the inferred behaviour and implied moral dysfunction that might cause a family to, you know, block a drain. Instead of just being amazed that anyone here is still alive and eating solid food. Though I do not share her foibles I know they are felt deeply enough that she cannot be the problem. So, I know whose behind is behind it. But I am so relieved when the culprit makes it to the toilet, let alone on their own, that this is in fact a small price to pay.
Plus, I get to feel hands-on useful, I can picture myself as a blue-collar pragmatist as oppose to an intellectual narcissist. And when one does a thing entirely, one is just the doing of the thing. Freedom. The myth of Sisyphus*. The often-blocked drain. Same deal.
Mum looks on as I hose off my boots. “You had a lot of badges in the scouts,” she muses. Two, actually. Reading and lighting fires. Both matters I still hold dear. “Is there a badge for this?” Aye, mother. I believe so.
I am upstairs on the phone to a solicitor, attempting to reckon and repair the wreckage of my former life. The billable minutes are clicking toward billable hours when the sounds of parental discord rise from below, like the house band striking up a familiar number in some place you can’t believe you still visit. A life you thought you’d left long ago. But no…
The telephones at my folks, like all else here, are far from modern. A botched network of cordless handsets that seldom make it back to the correct cradle, each with a background hiss that makes everything sound like AM radio. Improving this is somewhere on my list of things to do. The solicitor’s voice, which I (in some version of denial) struggle to make sense of on a good day, is relegated even further into my mind as I listen instead, just as I did as a child, to what my parents are squabbling about. In this case , trousers.
Mum’s relationship to ironing could be the subject of a separate essay, but the essence of today’s dispute concerns Dad (who I have never seen iron) asserting that some trousers she has ironed for him (in which he will go nowhere, see no one but her or me, and do nothing but sit down) should have a crease in them. Mum says this cannot be, “you cannot have a crease in cotton trousers.” My father’s answer, which comes at a special volume, several notches higher than the one necessary to get my mum to hear you at all, peels through the house– “I CREATE ONE!”
Given his size and wellness an utterance of this dimension is an achievement. The dying body is, one presumes, preserving these powers for some desperate and definitive address or plea. That it should arise instead from such apparent trivia is but the everyday pathos of domestic life. Something and nothing at the same time.
The creation of which he yells concerns his trouser press, an artefact (now inaccessible upstairs) which speaks to both its owner’s precision, care and vanity as much as to what I assume (given his military experience) must be unwillingness rather than inability to wield an iron.
The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that a further examination of the role of ironing in life here is necessary. Mum can barely lift the iron, the board is taller than she is now and yet, unless physically restrained she will haul these implements into position and iron something. Singing as she does so, sometimes. Whether you see this as a reflex of servitude or a state of studied and deserved grace will reflect perhaps some political position (I am of the latter party), but again, more on this to follow. I only hope that you can bear the tension.
As all this drifts through my mind, my solicitor takes pity and offers to end the call, I concur. I think on my father’s sartorial and presentational concerns, on quite how long it will take he and I sometimes to get him “ready” for not much at all. When we do go out, the stakes rise, the raiment laid out and double-checked the night before. A trip to the doctors, a funeral, a pub with good food, each rendered like a state occasion. I have come to find this a helpful way to think about it. I serve the last royals of a failing state. Ceremonies are all we have left before the people (in this case death, but also taxes) seize the palace. Here we go. Paris is burning.**
In the morning rituals the angle of the sun reveals plumes of perished flesh erupting from his shins as I pull up his trousers. He is crumbling, monumental. We are told that dust is dead skin, but it’s not until I see this that the constant transaction between who we are, what we’re made of and where we are going becomes quite so clear. On one level there is revulsion, on another beauty. If the light is right you can see the particles falling and rising in the air and catch the sublime in it. All my life I have been told I think too much but at times like this it seems to save me. I wonder if he sometimes sees the same, I believe so. Occasionally I think the only difference between us is that I have found a way to get these things out, to express them, even if it is to strangers. I wish we talked more. Instead I pull the unsaid about me like a blanket. I have no idea how I would look without it now, or how to put it down.
*Not quite true. Once, you were the taken-care-of.
** I would commend anyone interested in dressing to the seminal documentary of the same name:
The previous post put me in mind of the last time the old man went upstairs, so I thought I might relay how that, and he, went down.
Not long after a hospital stay, the council carers seemed to have a handle on things so I went out for the evening to a friend’s. I hadn’t been there long when mum rang and told me to come home, “He’s fallen over.”
Experience has removed the questions “why?” and “how?” from my instinctive vocabulary since: a) the quantum, parallel universe of the elderly mind to that of the younger observer can result in a powerful disconnect that does no one any good — failure to communicate, if you will — also, b) these things take time. Sometimes one must simply, act, accept, move on. This is the Tao of the tail-enders, the octogenarian ‘om’. So home I go.
What confronts me indoors resembles a kind of tableau – you may be familiar with the work of the artist Jeff Wall or the Clevelys end of Blackpool illuminations, you may not — either way, that kind of thing. A graphic set piece, dense with symbols and players.
Dad is sprawled on the landing, comfortable he says, but somewhat crazed-looking. The man from next door, a gallant figure who, with his wife, provide a neighborly safety net I would not want to work without, is scrubbing blood off the stair carpet.
Tonight’s carer, a stranger to us, as is often the way, is shuffling about near my dad on the phone to her supervisors. “I can’t pick him up and I can’t go upstairs behind him and he just… fell.” she says, somewhat coldly. But I know she is right. If you have to lift a person, you must come in twos.
Mum meanwhile is on the phone to 111, the non-urgent emergency service. She’s pretty deaf, so I take the phone off her. Dad will bleed in a stiff breeze, so I know things likely aren’t quite as bad as they look.
We are on hold. I notice that the bloody stair is the same one our long-dead cat would claw at years ago. My dad had to take her to the vets to be put down and spoke then of his sense of foreseeing his own end approaching as he did so. Now here we are, ish. Same staircase, different demise.
Me and the neighbour get dad to his feet and into his bedroom for what turns out to be the last time. The neighbor goes home, cold-but-correct carer goes on to their next call until it’s just me and the old man and the voice on the phone.
The operator asks questions which I relay to my father. He answers with a series of untruths he think will keep him out of hospital. Sometimes I think he’s lost the plot, but when it comes to it he knows and can still master the game.
Now, you can intercede in this stuff and have an ambulance come (which can be hours sometimes, if they’re not on a blue light) or you can relay the self-effacing fibs that belie the severity of the situation, and spin the wheel at home. I choose the latter. He deserves a break, he seems OK, ish. And I don’t want to wait around anymore than he does. Besides if things get worse, sometimes worse is what you wish for. So we reassure the earthly powers we need no intervention tonight and consign ourselves to forces unknown.
In the morning he feels better, but it will be the last time he comes upstairs, sleeps in his bedroom or takes a shower at home. As I shepherd him down the wooden hill with the morning carer I step over the bloody cat step and wonder when my time will come. It’s a heriditary thing morbidity, in every conceivable sense.
I am trying to remember when it became normal here for someone to be naked. It wasn’t like there was a meeting. One day, and this must have been back when dad could get upstairs, nudity became unremarkable. It happened on the landing.
The landing has long been the main intersection of domestic life. Like all crossroads it has known busy periods — when we were kids — and quieter moments. My return, itself sparked by a distant collision of sorts, has bought fresh traffic to this neglected junction.
For a time my needs ran contrary to my father’s*, who, like a slow-moving vehicle executing some precise manoeuvre would spend hours in the bathroom while we, the lesser traffic, could merely fume and queue. Now his needs outweigh his worries about his hairstyle**, and it is from this dynamic that the unbridled nudity (as oppose to the everyday nudity) began.
Getting to the bathroom ahead of him had become a daily mission, and in what seemed to me an attempt to thwart this he would emerge naked sometimes from his bedroom, just as I was closing on my objective (the bathroom), shuffle in before me and close the door. And that would be that. Any plans for ablution on hold, sometimes for over an hour.
The nudity acted as a kind of rebuttal. A technique. You don’t really want to argue with a naked person. I once confronted*** a burglar who could probably have killed me, when I was naked, and they fled, so I am thinking this is true.
Anyway, those were the good old days (and one of the instructive aspects of living with folk in physical decline is that you wake up to what a movable feast our idea of what a pleasent memory can be — today’s anger becomes tomorrow’s sepia dream). One morning he pulled me up on the landing and started talking about something while naked, this was new. Alzheimer attenae ever-twitching I was moved to ask, “You do realise you’re naked?” He just looked at me like I was an idiot, convincingly so. And from then on, naked was the new normal.
We’ve come along way since then, although now upstairs is off limits, we move hardly at all, but a lot of this is naked. I mean I like it****, it’s progressive. Besides, the stuff inside my father forces itself out so often that I now take a certain pride in keeping his nude and blotchy mosaic of flesh in good condition, like polishing an old car. It doesn’t matter if you don’t move it, so long as it shines.
* Mum is usually up first, this has always been the way. I am a loiterer, like my old man, hence the congestion.
** One of the many small sadnesses that accompany old age… seeing someone meticulous about their apperance gradually resign their values, and then give up altogether. Keeping them tidy then becomes a kind of tribute act. And there’s nothing wrong with those.
When I get in there are sounds of confusion from the living room. The house is like an app, you can swipe left when you come through the front door, and get yourself together in the kitchen, or turn right and face the facts. I make a right…
What strikes me first is that Dad is at the far side of the lounge from where he sits. I’m not sure I’ve seen him down this end of the room since the late ’90’s. What’s also noticeable is that he is on his hands and knees, apparently bowing to the television. He repeats a phrase, faintly. “I don’t know… I don’t know…” One hears a lot about patriarchy these days, but I am mostly sweeping out the ashes of such.
For a fraction of a moment I think maybe the oft discussed and heavily guarded marbles of the old man’s mind have finally departed. It is such an odd sight that I wonder also if he is somehow possessed, even if I don’t, ordinarily, believe is such things. Most days it would take something supernatural just to get him out of his chair.
Mum looks despairing. And then she says in the special hiss she believes renders her inaudible to whoever she’s discussing, “He’s on the phone to the TV people.” Suddenly, everything is clear. He is bent double trying to fix the satellite receiver and has a phone to his ear.
I take the phone from him and help him to his feet. The person on the line is trying to sell him an expanded TV package. I explain that he is no longer listening, that I am his son.
“Put Daddy back on the phone,” says the person in the call centre. I freeze at this. My Dad was and never has been known as “Daddy,” and we are not about to start now.
As I ferry dad back to his seat, I ascertain, in short order, what has gone down (and it is in these kinds of mindless crises that I really come into my own). With mum’s deafness it is essential that the TV has subtitles or it has to be on at a volume that could destroy a passing bird. As it is, it is often so loud they should be in hi-viz jackets. Anyway, the subtitles went off and the old man has had to call the service provider to turn them back on. Somehow this has a) not been accomplished and b) evolved into an attempt to make him pay even more for watching television.
I press the buttons that reinstate the subtitles. I have done this before, I will do it again. It’s part of the elderly care territory. You become their short-term memory. A portable hard drive. Meanwhile: “Where is Daddy?” Please don’t say, ‘Daddy’, I ask. “Daddy wants the expanded package” insists the call centre caller.
“I’m an idiot,” says Dad, ruefully. I promise him he’s not. He seems unconvinced. “Turn this up!” yells mum, even though the subtitles are back on. It’s an advert. “Where is Daddy!?” He’s really going for it now, this desperate, distant salesman. “Daddy doesn’t want to talk to you anymore,” I say. And Daddy nods. I live in part for these small moments of consensus. And as the television yells and rumbles, spelling out dialogue that’s already old, I hang up the phone.