Death is less bitter punishment than death’s delay….


At  some moment in the early hours today, my mum slipped off the sofa. She was still there when the carer came in the morning. Finding your client dead must be a daunting aspect of a job that’s already under-paid, under-appreciated, and largely ignored by wider society – unless some shock-horror example of callousness brings it into the sudden glare of publicity, only to fade back as quickly as it emerged when the fierce competition of a European referendum, a celebrity unmasked, or a helicopter crash swamps the headlines once again. And so my heart goes out to that carer, someone who has done her best to make mum’s last couple of years easier.

I’ve charted my mum’s struggle with dementia in a number of posts here. Mostly it’s been a constant, but measured, decline. But suddenly, a couple of weeks before Christmas, mum began to deteriorate sharply. It was, in my brother’s words, as if “the will to keep on seem[ed] to have evaporated.” I’d arranged some time ago to take mum out to dinner on Christmas day, and I wondered long and hard if that was still a good idea. But we went anyway and, as you can see from the photo, I think she enjoyed herself within the limits of her confusion and chronic fatigue.

It turned out to be something of a swan song. By the time we got home she was exhausted, and the rest of the day was very difficult. By the time she went, eventually, to bed she was distraught, anxious, and more confused and desperate than I’d ever seen her before. Ovid was clearly right. Death’s delay is every bit as cruel as death itself.

This isn’t the time to think about how hopelessly inadequate our society’s care for the elderly is. It’s a theme I’ll return to, but not now. For the moment I’m sufficiently employed in trying to make some sense of my pot-pourri of conflicting emotions. Sadness, of course. But also a kind of mixture of guilt and sorrow that mum should die alone, to be found slumped on the floor by a stranger. Anger too, pointless anger, at the dementia that hollowed out my mum’s spirit and left her a tiny fraction of the woman she’d been. Gratitude for that last Christmas together, with all its bitter-sweet contradictions.

And further back, admiration for her fortitude in the almost 20 years that she kept going after my dad’s death. No liberated feminist my mum; her life was in her own lights a duty of support to my dad’s vocation, and losing him deprived her, too, of much her sense of purpose.

But this isn’t about me, and my confused emotions. It’s about her life. The love and support she’s always given me and my brothers, even if we didn’t always deserve it. How she used to let me scrape the uncooked cake mixture from the bowl, or eat the rind off the bacon like a blackbird (me, not her) with a worm. Winter tea-time of fried egg and baked beans. The delicious agony of opening the doors of a glittery advent calendar, waiting for Christmas to arrive. The invaluable lesson thus absorbed that travelling is usually better than arriving. How she so expertly trod the tightrope between allowing me absolute freedom to live my life as I wanted, whilst never making it seem like she just wasn’t interested. Her unselfishness. Her hopeless inability to give directions to a driver, particularly in her home-town Middlesbrough where, if mum was to be believed, every road seemed to lead to every destination.

So much to remember. So much to be grateful for. And everything there may be to regret – my fault, not hers.

Thanks mum. I love you very much.


Goodbye, bitter-sweet month of June

Apart from the crassly obvious fact that the various branches of my family have evidently seen October as a particularly conducive month for shagging, it’s hard to know what to read into the fact that for me June is littered with significant birthdays. At the beginning of the month, my mum was 91. At the end of it, my son was 20. And in the middle my dad would have been 96. He isn’t, of course, as death has intervened. I should also note that this October shagging malarkey has jumped a generation, since my own parents clearly preferred a get-it-over-with-earlier-in-the-year approach to procreation given that my and my brothers’ birthdays occur long before the first cuckoo has troubled the readers of the Daily Telegraph.

But all this birthday-ing in June always leaves me scattered to the four winds emotionally speaking. Of course, birthdays are generally a matter for celebration, and for raised spirits. But they are also times for nostalgia, perhaps even sadness. Sadness that my mum potters along in a haze of confusion that I am powerless to dispel. Sadness too that my relationship with my son is more complex and more distant than I would wish. Sadness, of course, that my dad’s birthdays are now virtual rather than real.

My brother – the one who writes these and who engaged me in Alzheimer’s discourse – retrieved a recording of my dad singing an aria from Haydn’s Stabat Mater and I listened to it on my dad’s birthday last month. To be honest, between dad’s lack of preparation and the limitations of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, with non-directional microphone, Haydn was probably twirling in his own grave. Not so much a rendition as a massacre, which is why I’ve spared you the 1967 home version and linked to a proper performance. But although my dad was no professional singer he had a sweet-toned tenor voice, and the key thing in that home recording is that it is his voice. It took me back, and set me thinking.

My dad died in 1994 after a three-week spell in hospital suffering from congestive heart failure. As ways to die go, I suspect this isn’t the worst; a relatively gentle downhill slope, mercifully alert and not doped to the eyeballs with morphine as might be the case with a death from cancer. As a family we’re about as demonstrative as so many blocks of wood, with all emotional transactions laced with so much irony and camouflaging humour that they are almost undetectable. Thus it surprised me in a way that I was so anxious to be with my dad when he finally died. I was on my way back to London from my last visit when I had the overwhelming desire to return to the hospital, and had my partner drop me off in Newark so that I could get the train north again.

I slept in the ward, and awoke early to go back to my dad’s bedside. He was weak, but alert. For the first time in 30 years I took his hand in mine. He turned to look me straight in the eye. A quizzical look, surprised at the sudden touch, and an equally sudden realisation that this could only mean that the game was up. The words “Love you , dad” came unbidden to my stumbling lips, but they never emerged. They were swept aside by the calls of “Nurse!”, driven by my urgent need to know if, for the first time in my life, I was holding a dead man’s hand.

So my dad never heard me tell him that I loved him. And I don’t think he ever told me explicitly that he loved me. History may sadly be going to repeat itself. But at least there’s this, this blogging business, this public stage for private exchanges. Perhaps, when I too go to my grave not having said the things I should have said, and possibly not having heard the things I want so badly to hear, my son will read this stuff and know what his 20-year old self maybe doesn’t know. That I love him more than he can ever imagine, and so much more than I’ve ever been able to express. And who knows I might, even now, pluck up the courage to tell him to his face. I hope so.

Birthday blues

As the weather gods bless Manchester with a cloudless blue sky, and the winter sun streams through my office window, it’s hard to give much credence to seasonal affective disorder. But January and February are not my best months. Not, in fact, that my particular SADness has got anything to do with the weather: it’s more that January means mostly that Christmas is over, and the next one is unimaginably far off; whilst February brings my birthday around once more.

The post-Christmas January mood rebound tells you more about just how much I love Christmas than it does about how bad January makes me feel, and so both you and I can safely discount its true significance for my normal joie-de-vivre. February is different. My birthday really does depress me. Strangely, this has always been the case, long before the march of the years left me no longer able to suppress the realisation that I’d long since passed the half-way point, and that the time left before death is now much shorter than the time I’ve already squandered. I think the earlier disappointment of birthdays was more to do with presents than anything else. My parents really tried hard to make Christmas special for us, and February came round a bit too soon for the coffers to have been replenished. So whilst I still look back on opening Christmas presents as a moment of almost orgasmic excitement, my recollection of birthday presents was always as of an event that underwhelmed. Should that make me sound both mercenary and ungrateful, I might perhaps add that part of the wonder of our family Christmases was their shared nature. I was as excited by the presents my brothers received as I was by my own. Birthdays, however, were a solitary affair. And a solitary disappointment is always the harder to bear; and even as a child I knew that expressing that disappointment was ungrateful, and the cheery pretence that my mum’s hand-knitted jumper was just what I’d been hoping for was necessary, but also wearing.

But none of this has much to do with birthdays now. Perhaps these early memories have simply contaminated my birthday soul, and some kind of regression therapy is called for so that I can re-programme myself to enjoy birthdays in the future. I doubt it. The birthday blues are now grounded not in juvenile ingratitude, but in adult apprehension of mortality. If I could live forever, I would. I’ve no understanding of those who say that eternal life would surely be lonely as friends and family die. I’d make new friends. And in my version of eternal life I can assure you that there is no hint of erectile dysfunction, so if old family died out, I’d be perfectly happy to instigate some new ones. Of course, in my fantasy of living for ever there would not only be a perfectly working penis, but everything else would be tickety-boo as well. No arthritis, no Alzheimer’s, no physical degradation whatever.

Alas, fantasy is what all that is, to be sure. In reality, the years tick by. I realise that my mental acceptance of mortality is not matched by emotional or psychic acceptance. I still plan as if the horizon of death were not there. I allow years to slip by without any proper sense of what proportion of my allotted time left they are likely to represent. I’m still a consummate procrastinator. I’m always happy to do anything, but not now.

And so I realise with an ever greater sense of desperation that if I haven’t achieved by now the things I want to achieve, then there’s really very little chance that I ever will. I know I’m a hopeless under-achiever. In an odd way this blog is perhaps the biggest reminder of that baleful truth. So many people have said, after visiting me here, how well I write. I know I write well. In my unbridled lack of modesty I sometimes allow myself to think I write better than many who make a handsome living out of writing. I’d love to do that too. But I won’t. I know it. Each birthday rams the message home. You’re getting older, it seems to say, and you’ve got bugger-all to show for it. I know. But thank you, birthday blues, for the reminder. Now, please fuck off until next year. I’d be eternally grateful.