Molly, my youngest, went off to university this week and this set me thinking about the cycle of life. I’ve had the odd brief message, just enough to know that Fresher’s Week is going well and that she’s making friends and getting used to living in London. This has nudged my twenty-eight years of parenting into a new phase—being there for them, but not all the time. People often talk of empty nest syndrome but right now even though she’s gone, the nest isn’t empty and that’s because my father-in-law Frank lives with us.
Molly is eighteen, I’m fifty-seven and Frank is ninety-six. That means that I’m positioned right in the middle – thirty-nine years older than one, and thirty-nine years younger than the other. In looking at these two members of my family I get a sense of what has passed and a taste of what the future might hold.
We brought Frank to live with us fourteen months ago and hoped to spend some happy times with him. We managed that quite well up until the Spring—pushing his wheelchair across the Common to the pub, lunch in the sunny haven of my little garden, meeting up with friends, and having him there for family meals and celebrations. But he is very old and frail. Over the past year he has had three episodes of pneumonia, umpteen urine infections, several falls, two brain bleeds, seizures, his voice is reduced to a croak, and there is ever increasing deafness, loss of vision and confusion.
It’s been hard for him to give up control. We’ve tried for as long as possible to keep him doing things independently but he now needs help with almost everything. He gets very frustrated at these losses. “Don’t worry, we’ll look after you,” I’ve said at times, thinking it was reassuring. “Why can’t I do it myself?” he’s replied. And he’s then repeated that question over and over again. “Because you are old,” we say, but it doesn’t seem to help.
I’ve realised through being with him that’s it’s crucial to know where we are in time—the season, the day of the week and most vital of all, the time of day. I can only imagine that without this knowledge it would be like floating in space with no anchor. Frank has a talking watch and presses the button throughout the day and night. But it doesn’t always give him what he needs. “What time is it?” he’ll ask, his face full of barely suppressed fear. “My watch says it’s one. There are two one-o’clocks in the day aren’t there – after lunch and at night. Which is it?” There’s little we can do to reassure him. We tell him and two minutes later he has forgotten.
So much of his body and his mind have suffered erosion. But his hair remains—thick and white. A carer said on washing and dressing him for the first time, “I’m really sorry but I’ve made him look a bit punky.” “Don’t worry,” we said, “It always looks like that.” I enjoy imagining his mother back in the 1920s—a woman I will never meet being exasperated with her small son’s hair as she gets him ready for school. I’m bonding through the ages with her; mother to mother.
We’ve met many good people in this year of living with Frank. The NHS and Social Services have been wonderful. Various carers come to get him washed and dressed and this week one of them offered to sit with him on her day off so that we could have some time together. “I don’t want any payment,” she said. “Just a cup of tea and a biscuit.” We happened to know that she is working fifteen days in succession. We couldn’t let her use her day off like this but the offer was undoubtedly genuine. Our friend Sheila regularly makes us meals and is sitting with Frank this weekend as we move furniture and boxes into our new home. And there was the elderly care consultant who came to see us in June and said gently what we had been denying to ourselves. He has progressive dementia. And in these past few weeks it has progressed very fast. He is lost in a world of agitated pacing and unintelligible rambling.
When he first came to us we considered finding someone to come and chat to him about the war. This was the formative period of his life and the one that he referred back to when other memories had gone. Then we realised that anyone who was able to chat about the war would themselves be in their nineties. As a child I knew plenty of people who remembered the First World War, let alone the second one. Now they are all gone. Life passes quickly. I don’t want to waste a moment.