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.


Being 90

We celebrated my mum’s 90th birthday yesterday. It was a pleasant, low-key occasion, but not without its contradictions and unsettling undercurrents. The first of these was our collective decision on where to hold the event. We went to the local pub where my mum quite often goes for a lunch-time meal. We’d have liked to do something a bit more special, to mark out the achievement of hanging on for 90 years in a more distinctive way. But we knew that my mum really finds difference – the very thing that is needed to mark something as being out of the ordinary – very difficult these days. She would have spent the entire evening wondering where she was, and why. Excitement would have been overtaken by anxiety. So we stuck with the familiar.

I have two brothers, and very rarely do all three of us meet up at the same time. In fact, I’m not sure that the last time wasn’t my mum’s 80th. On that occasion we’d gone to a rather more salubrious hotel a good few miles out of town, with a wider guest list. It seemed somewhat poignant that this more significant milestone should have to be more mundanely recognised. We also decided that it would be good to celebrate mum’s birthday on the actual day, if for no other reason than to prevent further confusion. But this meant that a weekday evening would exclude my wife and son for whom a 400-mile round trip for a 2-hour meal was hardly a practical proposition. Not the worst thing in the world, but to me it felt like a compromise, and seeing my brothers with their children made me feel as if my branch of the family had failed to make sufficient effort. Irrational, I know, but that’s feelings for you!

And then there were the dynamics of the meal itself. My mum’s hearing is not what it once was. It would have been better perhaps if she’d been more centrally seated, but then the frequent toilet visits would have been more awkward and more embarrassingly highlighted. So we felt it better to ensure convenience of access to the convenience. But of course, knowing that she could easily make a toilet visit removed mum’s anxiety which is what stimulates her hyperactive bladder in the first place, and I don’t think she went during the meal at all. Best laid plans. But being at the end of the table accentuated the disadvantage of her hearing. One step forward, two back. Inevitably, when people meet up who don’t often get the chance, there’s loads of making up for lost time to be done. I felt torn between not wanting mum to be a kind of outsider at her own party and the almost irresistible attraction of the kind of dry, rapid-fire, ironic humour that is the staple diet of our brotherly conversations, and which mum simply can’t keep up with. Every now and again mum would say, “I really don’t know what you’re all talking about!” and we’d guiltily stop mid-flow.

I’d hate you all to get the impression that the whole event was a stressful and unsuccessful attempt to balance the unbalanceable. It was a lovely evening, and mum enjoyed herself royally. She made her usual dry observations about how much alcohol was being consumed whilst demanding to know why her glass was empty. There was one delicious moment when, somehow or another, hair-dyeing entered the conversation. Mum told us sagely that she never needs to because her hair is so dark a brown that it’s almost black.

“Mum, your hair’s been as white as the driven snow for a quarter of a century!”

“Oh, I’d hadn’t noticed!”

And so the evening shot past, with banter and jollity and gratitude for a mother and grandmother whose commitment to us all has been steadfast, and non-judgemental, and more than we deserved. And yet. And yet at the very heart of everything is an aching sense of loneliness and loss. Loss of her husband without whom she’s struggled on for 16 years so far. Loss of her sister with whom she was as close as she was argumentative. Loss of memory and perhaps purpose too. I don’t know. But I do know that getting to 90 has been bitter-sweet.