Helen and David

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She had always promised him that she would never put him in a Home, however bad things got, whatever happened.  But that is what happened.

She had always told him that she would be the only one to look after him. But she wasn’t, not after what she did. Or rather, what she didn’t do.

She had always assured him that, just as for the last fifty five years, it would be just the two of them, seeing it through together, right to the end. But it turned out that lots more people than that had to get involved. After David’s Fall. Or ‘The Incident’, as others referred to it.

She had married late; well into her thirties, quite definitely on the shelf and completely despaired of by her mother. She didn’t really understand why no one had wanted to marry her before then – the girls she had grown up with seemed to have no problem getting married off from the age of 17 – but she’d barely ever spoken to a man. A couple of times, when out with Margaret or Beryl or Ann, someone had offered to buy her a drink or twirl her round the dance floor, but she had always frozen and rebuffed their advances immediately, completely unsure of how to respond to the jokey comments they inevitably made. She always felt that she hadn’t been pretty enough for them to give her a second try and that was just fine by her.

 

David had been different from the start. He was shy, like her. He was older too – and he had never had a girlfriend either. He respected her reticence, admired her awkwardness, and approached her gently and gradually. He didn’t confuse her with jokes like other men; he seemed to ask her straightforward questions that she knew how to answer.

 

They married after a year’s courtship of evening walks and classical music concerts. Children had never come along for them – she said it was just never meant to be. She did get pregnant a few times, but her body wasn’t able to hold onto the babies for long. Helen knew that people pitied her for her childlessness but actually, she didn’t really mind that much. She would have loved them, she knew, but she liked her life with David as it was and didn’t want to share him with anyone else.   She was sad for him though, as she knew that he secretly yearned to be a father, though they never even really discussed the miscarriages between themselves. People didn’t in those days.

It wasn’t until David was into his mid-eighties that she noticed something wasn’t quite right with him. It had started almost imperceptibly with the little things, those same little things that she felt were happening to her. They joked about getting old together, about forgetting what they came into the room for, about forgetting names, about forgetting their own heads if they weren’t careful!

 

But then, gradually, it started to get more worrying. He got lost coming back from the corner shop and, when he finally made it home after two hours, he didn’t have the milk or the paper he had set out for and no memory of what had happened.   He was a man of few words to start with, but she couldn’t fail to notice that he was increasingly unable to find the right word at the right time.   He fed their beloved cat six, seven, eight times a day, unable to remember he had already fed her. The opposite was true for himself: he started to refuse meals lovingly prepared by Helen, convinced that he had already eaten and that she was trying to confuse him. He started to look worryingly thin and he gripped onto their antimacassar backed armchairs and dust free sideboard as he shuffled his way around their immaculate living room. She had to start following him up the stairs, one hand on his back to guide him up and steady him if he stumbled; the other hand gripping the bannisters as she heaved herself up, as arthritis was making climbing stairs increasingly difficult and hazardous for her too.

 

Helen admitted to herself, in quiet reflective moments, in the dread of the wee small hours, that perhaps there was something wrong with her too. She was never quite sure of the day any more. She found the television difficult to follow and had taken to shutting it off in a temper when she did not understand the twists and turns of a drama.   She wrote herself endless prompts and notes – even how to make meat pie, after that awful time when she stood, frozen, in her kitchen unable to start cooking the meal she had made weekly, automatically, for fifty years.

 

She spoke to her sister on the telephone every Sunday, but they had not seen each other for years as they lived in different cities and neither of them drove. She had been friendly with the couple next door, but since the new young family had moved in, there was no one to see or talk to and no one to notice what was happening to Helen and David.

 

For the first time, there were cross words between them. She did think about whether David should see the doctor, but she didn’t know how to bring that up with him.   David had always made all the decisions for both of them and she didn’t know how to start changing that now. They didn’t want other people knowing their business and what could the doctor do for him anyway? You only went to the doctor if you were ill, and they were both just getting older and they would get through it together. She kept telling him that – that she would look out for him and he would look out for her, as though they were facing a common enemy together, against which they could emerge victorious. Helen and David against the world.

 

David’s Fall happened sometime in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter. He had been getting up to go to the bathroom through the night for many years. On this night, however, he must have lost his balance in the dark coming out of the bathroom and he crashed down onto the small upstairs landing. (Afterwards, she privately decided that it was a raised lip of carpet between the landing and the bathroom lino that was to blame. She had been asking David to fix it for the past two years).

 

The noise of David’s head colliding with the edge of the wooden bannisters woke Helen. Her first confused thought was that they had an intruder and she felt over to David’s side of the bed to prompt him to go and investigate. On realising he wasn’t there, Helen made herself get up. It wasn’t easy – it was cold and dark and the pain in her hips and knees prevented her moving anywhere quickly.

 

David was out cold on the landing, blood trickling steadily from the wound on his forehead. Helen tried to deal with that first, rinsing a flannel under the cold tap and pressing it to his head until the bleeding came under control. He was a silly billy, she told him. He was a nuisance, she snapped as she struggled to bend down to him. He’d better get up sharpish, she said, as he was going to get pretty cold lying there if he didn’t get himself up. Not to mention the mess he was making of the carpet.

 

Helen carried on trying to help David. She decided that the best thing to do was to get him back into bed, so he could sleep it off. So she took hold of his ankles and tried to heave him into the bedroom. Despite his recent weight loss, she only managed to turn him and drag him a few inches, so that his feet and legs were now pointing into the bedroom and his head was aligned with the top of the stairs. Every time she got a hold of his ankles and tried to pull, a searing pain shot through her left hip and she couldn’t carry on.

 

Helen decided that the best thing she could do for David at that point was to put a blanket on him. She stepped over him in the doorway and went to the spare room, pulling the camberwick bedspread off the bed and draping it carefully over him. Then she took the pillow from his side of their bed and placed it under his head. Then she sat down on their bed to catch her breath and plan her next move, eventually dropping back off to sleep again.

 

In the morning, David was still lying motionless between the landing and the bedroom and, though she could tell he was breathing, she still couldn’t wake him. Helen was frightened and couldn’t quite remember what had happened, what she had done, how long it had been since he had fallen. She realised that she needed some help as her ability to lift David was no better in the daylight than it had been in the middle of the night and the gash to his head now looked more alarming. She made her way downstairs, found David’s black leather telephone directory for their GP’s number and made the first of many attempts to get through. She listened patiently to a recording telling her that surgery hours were 8.30am to 5.30pm and that she should call back between those hours for an appointment.

 

Helen waited for 8.30am to start dialling, then eventually got through to the GP receptionist sometime after 9am to request a home visit for her husband. On being told that the GP she had asked for had retired some months previously and that there were no appointments with his replacement for the next week, she finally broke down and cried to the receptionist that she could not manage to move her husband and asked how she was supposed to manage for a week if he wouldn’t get up off the floor.

 

After that, things moved pretty quickly and all the other people started getting involved. First the paramedics, then the hospital doctors, then the nurses and the social workers. And the questions started. Why had she not called an ambulance for her husband when he fell in the night? Why did she not call an ambulance in the morning when she could not get through to the GP? Why had they not sought help from their GP earlier? Did they not know that there was help out there, from social workers, from dementia support groups, from Admiral Nurses? Because she didn’t want to cause a fuss she replied, because he had just fallen over and you don’t need to bother a doctor for that, because they were looking after each other.  She had made him warm, she pointed out – she had given him blankets. And no, she did not know there was ‘support available’.

 

David spent some weeks in hospital, recovering (physically) and being assessed and that’s when the terrifying meetings started happening for Helen. When nurses looked sympathetically at her when she visited the ward, when a social worker announced to her that they had assessed David as ‘lacking capacity’ to decide where he should live when he was discharged from hospital. Helen had never considered any other option than him coming home to live with her again, until she was told that ‘professionals’ did not think it was in his best interests to come back to live with her. Helen was filled with fury at a room full of people, none of whom had been born when she had married David, all of them younger than the babies she had lost, and not one of whom knew how they had lived their lives, presuming to know better than she did what was in his best interests. So she tried to tell them of their privacy, how they just liked their own company, how David’s worst nightmare would be to live in a nursing home with others. And they smiled sadly at her, heads on one side, assuring her that her views had been taken ‘into consideration’ as part of the best interests process, but how they had decided that David simply could not come home.

 

Helen still did not understand why and told them anxiously how she still cooked him his favourite meat pie, how she tried to help him up the stairs by walking behind him, how she was looking after him. And they told her (sadly) that, because of The Incident, David could not come home as they did not think she was fit to look after him. Mortified, she told them stiffly that she would accept help in her home if they did not think she was fit to look after him alone, to ensure there was no repeat of David’s Fall. And they told her (sadly) that, as David required 24 hour care, and the couple did not have the very considerable resources to pay for it in their own home, the local authority would only fund a standard bed in a nursing home appropriate to meet his needs and keep him safe. She asked if she could go with him, but they told her (sadly) that, unfortunately, her assessed needs did not qualify her for funded residential care. David would have to go to a nursing home and Helen would have to go back home alone, with three fifteen minute calls a day from a local agency.

 

So that is what happened in the end for Helen and David.

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Not being there

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The text from the under 12s cricket coach arrived as I was going to bed. ‘Sorry for short notice.. would [no.2 son] like a game tomorrow in the indoor league?’ I was going away early the next morning, so I handed the aptly named Mother in the Middle the task of liaison between son and coach. This was duly done and no.2 son lined up (for a second time) as a last minute selection for an indoor cricket match with boys up to three years his senior.

I spent the following day in London and was arriving by train in Oxford at about the time the match started 150 miles north. I wondered if no.2 son would be batting or bowling first. I knew he would be displaying his jaw-jutting determined face and keeping his thoughts to himself. Throughout the evening my mind wandered to that sports hall near home.

It was nearly nine o’clock when the call came in:

“Daddy?”

“Yes, it’s me. How are you? How was it?”

“Good”

“Did you have a good time?”

“Yes. We won. I took four wickets in an over.”

“What was that?”

“We won.”

“You took how many wickets?”

Sport is important to my kids. Their sport is important to me – I write a blog about it – and I watch a great deal of it. But I cannot be there for every performance.

The 1&onlyD’s exploits are the least spectated. Fifty weeks each year she is practising for a single competition. Some weeks, during her four hours of training she will achieve a new manoeuvre. Backwards walkover on the beam, upstart on the bars, aerial on the floor – the likelihood is that the breakthrough moment won’t be witnessed by Mother in the Middle or me.

I am on the touchline for the majority of no.1 son’s Sunday morning club football matches, enjoying his poise and ability as an attacking midfielder. The higher quality football that he plays, that has helped develop his nimble footwork, comes at school, where he plays alongside lads from the local professional clubs’ academies. I have only ever seen one of those matches in its entirety and just the latter stages of his school team’s four cup finals in two years.

At no.1 son’s age, when I played sports for my school (mostly cricket, but a little football) there was usually only one parent watching. My Dad managed to manipulate his work diary so he had meetings in the locality that finished in time for a trip to the match. Or he was prepared to give up a weekend morning to watch my hesitant performances.

I’m not sure exactly what I thought about my Dad’s attendance. He was well-liked by my friends, so I wasn’t embarrassed. It was completely in keeping with his interest in my school career – I remember reading him my history essays. It was, I could tell from the absence of any other parents, unusual. A recent comment made by my Mum put it in context. My Grandfather had never been to see my Dad play any sport when he was at school. My Dad learned the value of being there from his own father’s absence.

The matches I miss and the stories about them that my children tell me, strengthen my commitment to be there when circumstances allow. I hope my children understand that and my Dad knows what a fine habit he has passed on to me.

On the night no.2 son took four wickets in an over, I had the satisfaction of being with three friends with whom I have played cricket for over 25 years. There could be no better audience to level a complaint about what their company had kept me from.

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The Eccles Cake

Eccles CakesWhen I first met her, Lilian visited her husband Bert twice a week.   It was an hour each way on the bus – an hour and a half if she was unlucky with the traffic or if there was a match on.  She told me she used to go every day when he first went into the Home three years ago, then every other day for a while, but she couldn’t keep it up.

You can go every day, she said, when they still know who you are, when they pin their whole day around your visit and you see their face at the window, watching for you coming.    A year ago, Bert’s face would still light up when he saw her, she told me, even after five children together, sixty odd years of marriage and several years of gradually advancing dementia.  Even when she started to realise that she could no longer manage to look after him in their own house and had to speak to the social workers about a care home, he still knew who she was, whilst his grip on everything else was slipping away.  When he climbed out through the bedroom window of their housing association bungalow, gave her the slip when he was supposed to be having a nap and was found three hours later wandering around the local shops with no idea of where he was or who he was, he still remembered that there was a Lilian.  When he had some trial days at a day centre to give Lilian some respite and he cried in anguish, not understanding why he was there, he still called out for Lilian.  Her face, her name, was the last thing to go.

Now, when she went to the Home on her twice weekly visits, Bert seemed to have no idea who she was.  I took her there myself to visit him a few times, over the course of a year or two.  I saw how he stared uncomprehendingly at Lilian from his milky blue eyes, showing no flicker of recognition as he passed his gaze from my face to hers and back again.  I saw how he shoved her away, snarling ‘no’ at her with primal aggression, when she proprietorially smoothed his hair from his eyes or brushed crumbs from his jumper, loving gestures welcomed for over half a century, but now seemingly unendurable to him.  I saw how he pushed his octogenarian wife to one side and tried to fondle the young nurses instead – and her sad smile as she pulled him away, telling him not to be a numpty and embarrass the poor things.

I also saw something else on our visits, something extraordinary.  I witnessed their twice weekly Eccles cake ritual.  They had always been a favourite teatime treat of his, she told me, right from when they married when she was seventeen and he was twenty two.  He didn’t eat well in the Home and was now a painfully thin shadow of the plump, jolly man he used to be.  The food wasn’t great but, more importantly, dementia had robbed him of his appetite, of any sensation of hunger or satiety or pleasure in food.  Apparently apart from Eccles cakes, that is.

So every time she did her shopping, Lilian put some Eccles cakes in her basket.  And just before she set off for the bus stop to visit Bert, she would put two in the microwave and heat them to the very brink of explosion (‘so they go burning just like them McDonald’s apple thingymebobs‘).  Then, placed one on top of the other and sealed in a small circular plastic pot (bought especially for the purpose), they would go into her bag and, if needs be, double up as a hand warmer on her long bus journey.

On arriving at the Home, she would go straight to Bert’s room.  He had a small single room: a bed, with side rails and a sensor pad next to it on the floor befitting his high falls risk; a wardrobe; a small chest of drawers (full of incontinence products); and one hard-backed chair.  First, she would remove the silver framed ten year old photograph of the two of them (him looking plumper, her looking thinner) with their children and grandchildren from his chest of drawers, drag the chest to the centre of the room and take from her bag a small white lace table cloth, draping it ceremoniously over the top.  Next, she would borrow a second chair from an adjacent room and place it at the makeshift table.  Then she would search out her husband – who was invariably to be found either sleeping in an armchair in the day room or shuffling relentlessly up and down, up and down the carpeted hallways.  Finally, the still-warm cakes would be removed from their utilitarian pot and one placed on a delicate china plate (hidden in his wardrobe between visits) in front of him.

They would then dine a deux together in silence.  He ate every last scrap of his Eccles cake, methodically and with immense concentration.  They each had a cup of tea in front of them – hers in one of the serviceable, visitors’ mugs; his in a spouted plastic beaker, like a giant toddler.   When he had finished his cake, he would look at Lilian, smile beatifically and then get up and recommence his compulsive march along the corridors, resisting any attempts for further interactions with her.  She would disassemble the tearoom she had created, washing the plate and storing it in the top of his wardrobe, putting the cloth back in her bag to be taken home and washed for next time.

A few months after my last visit with Lilian, Bert died.  It got to the point where he couldn’t swallow properly any more, she told me, so she had to stop taking the Eccles cakes.   She still went to visit him on the bus, increasing the frequency of her trips again as his health declined further and further.  When he was finally bed-bound and no longer had the strength to resist it, she liked to sit and hold his hand whilst he slept.  There were no more smiles and no more words, but a comfort in the peace and closeness.

Lilian still does her own shopping, but she no longer puts Eccles cakes in her basket.  She always preferred an eclair, she says, and besides, she couldn’t eat one without Bert.

I learned a lot from Lilian. I learned that ordinary people with seemingly ordinary lives can be extraordinary and immensely humbling.  And that heroines need not be nubile, young, kick-boxing action figures, but can be white-haired, stoical pensioners sitting patiently with a shopping bag on a bus in a grey northern city.

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Mother’s Day

Before I had children, I paid scant attention to Mother’s Day.  I loftily dismissed it as commercial claptrap and as just a way for the card companies and florists to drum up some business.  I always sent a card to my mother, but more because I thought she would feel left out if I did not than because I felt it was a meaningful thing to do.

After I had children, I changed my view somewhat, realising that there was something very lovely about being acknowledged and celebrated as somebody’s mother and I made a point of sending a (slightly less ironic) card and of ringing my mother on the day.   I even managed to laugh along when, on the first Mother’s Day after my first child was born, my husband presented me with a card and gift from our baby son.  It was unlike him to buy into Mother’s Day – he did not even send his own mother a card – so I was surprised and delighted.  Slightly less delighted, though, when I opened the present to find a bottle of washing up liquid, as an ironic recreation of his first Mother’s Day gift to his own mother in the early 1970s, a story which I had previously scoffed at.

This year, I am facing another first – my first Mother’s Day without a mother.  It is the latest in a year of first withouts, hot on the heels of the first Christmas and first birthday.   I have never been more conscious of banners in supermarkets exhorting me to treat my mum or emails from companies suggesting thoughtful purchases that my mother would love.  Even a week before the day, my Facebook page is filling up with news of treats planned for others’ mothers.

Technology, it seems, will also not accept my mother is dead.  I get email reminders that it’s been a while since I played Words with Friends with her – why not start a game?  I forget that I stored my parents’ home telephone number under my mother’s name in my iphone and that I haven’t changed it, meaning that a rare telephone call to my mobile from my father several months after her death suddenly lights up the screen with my  mother’s photograph and gives me a swift, heart stopping belief that she is actually somehow calling me from beyond the grave.

I have been asking myself, if she was still here, what would I want to say to her?  She wasn’t the sentimental sort, so it wouldn’t be anything soppy.  I’ve decided it would be a mixture of the big things and the little things.
Eight things I would choose to say to her to mark the eight months she has been gone:

1. You know the way you used to love getting places in just the very nick of time, not a minute too early?  Well, you were nearly late for your own funeral, it would have really entertained you.  As we sat in the funeral car following the hearse containing your coffin, heaped high with your favourite yellow roses, we all started to panic slightly that the driver’s stately, appropriate progress through the Scottish countryside was not going to get us to the crematorium on time.  Urgent messages started to be exchanged between the sisters in the funeral car and the sister waiting at the crematorium.  But we swept up to the entrance exactly on time, not a minute, not even a second, early.  I think you would have found it immensely satisfying.
2. my first son, your fourth grandchild, now speaks with a deep voice and has a little moustache.  He was already taller than you; now he’s nearly taller than me too.
3. Strictly was a bit rubbish this year, after all.  Ditto the second series of Broadchurch.
4. we are all getting on with each other and all of us are making a lot of effort.  We are looking after Dad and he is coping.  He has been to visit all of us and he even came out to watch the children at the swimming pool.
5. I wear the ring you left me every day.  It makes me think of that rainy day of ring shopping in County Longford, after which we sat in the pub watching Andy Murray lose at Wimbledon and of how you were so appalled at his teary reaction.  You felt it was not how a Scottish man should behave in public.
6. My daughter passed all her grammar school exams and remembered your cautionary tale about not turning over two pages at once, as you did in the 1950s,  before she went in.
7. I’m sorry that I did not realise how much you held everything together in the family until it was too late.  I wish I could tell you what a great job you did with that.  Your influence is still strong and manifests itself in the little things.  Everyone in this house knows what ‘Grandma towels’ are.
8. Thank you for the tablet and Scotch pancake recipes.  They still go down really well.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Foul, foul

IMG_0798The picture shows no.2 son’s right leg. He has showered after a game of under 9 football. Five bruises and scrapes are splattered across the top of his shin and knee.

His team lost 3-0 in a tight match to a slightly better side. The opposition played some fluent football and switched decisively from defence to attack when they won the ball in their own half. Another feature of their play was fouling.

When one of no.2 son’s teammates dribbled around or accelerated away from an opponent, they received a kick to their shins or a tap on the ankle. No.2 son’s game features strong and tricky running with the ball. He regularly gets tripped by defenders deceived by his speed of foot. We bought him new shinpads with ankle attachments for added protection as a Christmas present.

At this weekend’s match, the trips weren’t from defenders trying to take the ball from him. They came from players he had already taken the ball past, whose aim was to stop him. The bruises shown on the photo came from something else: knee-high challenges as no.2 son ran at their defence.

Driving home after a match, it’s fairly common for the boys to complain that the other side were ‘foulers’. I might nod, or point out that his side plays physically, too. And the point of this piece is not to brand this other team as thugs (they come from a club with a good reputation and I find it very unlikely that this approach was inculcated by the coaches).

But today I agreed when no.2 son said the other team were ‘foulers’. And I think the referee would have done so too. He whistled for almost every foul, giving a string of free kicks, as players were helped up and limped away from the challenges.

Despite the referee’s diligence, the fouls kept coming. The question I pose is what could be done to stem the flow, not just punctuate it.

Understandably, referees are not expected to punish a junior footballer for a foul, in the way an adult would be: first offence – name taken and shown the yellow card; second time – dismissal. The bureaucracy of name taking and cards isn’t appropriate for a game children play for exercise, development and fun. But the fun needs to be there for both teams.

Readers who spend time around junior sport, here are some questions about how persistent foul play by children should be handled.

Referees
How would you expect this situation to be handled? A quiet word to the boys doing the kicking of opponents’ ankles? A conversation in one of the breaks of play with the coach? A request that a particular player is given a ‘time out’? An after-match report to club or league officials?

Coaches
What do you do if you see one of your players repeatedly fouling the opposition? Do you bring the youngster off and have a quiet word? Do you address the issue with the whole team after the game or at the next training session? Do you raise it with the parents as a conduct issue?

If your players are on the receiving end, would you communicate your concern to the other coach during the match? Would you leave it until after the game and approach the other coach, or refer it to club or league officials?

Parents
It’s not our place to intervene during a match, but what would you expect of the referee and of your coach?

Junior footballers
Would you want something done during the game or afterwards? Do you accept it as part of the game or does it make you less likely to want to play?

Please share your answers and opinions.

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Time, time, time, see what’s become of me

1554_HourglassSandTimer-3Minute_1A   I turn 45 this month. It’s time to accept that I am no longer a vague ‘early forties’, but definitely in the mid forties zone.   In middle age.  It is, after all, halfway to 90. Suddenly, people turning 40 seem really young and people turning 50, an age which used to feel positively geriatric, feel in the same general ball-park as me.

I have every hope and expectation of making it to 90 and of making the most of the second half of my life.  I also have the mid-lifer’s increasing awareness of the fragility of life, of the random bad luck that can befall some and not others, of the health crises that can descend without warning. I have in the last year seen not only the unfairness of my mother barely limping past 70 before reaching her allotted time, but also encountered very many older, impoverished and disabled people through my work, living lives of quiet desperation and heroism. Some, the victims of shocking misfortune – being born with spina bifida AND being knocked down by a car; doggedly continuing to care for a husband who, through dementia, has become incontinent, abusive and oblivious to the identify of his wife of 60 years; being a severely disabled older person, a double amputee AND being financially abused by the very relatives who are purporting to look after you; being a mid-nineties mother still caring for a mid-seventies learning disabled child.

I have an increasing awareness of wanting to make the most of whatever I have left, to make it all count, but also of how quickly the days, weeks and years are slipping by and how powerless I am to stop time’s march. How can it be that five years have already passed since I reached forty? How can nearly a quarter of a century have gone by since I left university? I have never forgotten a conversation I had with a very drunk man who appeared to be in late middle age, in a pub in Queens Square in London in 1994, who gripped my arm as he earnestly exhorted me to make the most of my time as ‘life passes you by, it just passes you by’.   At the time, my friend and I giggled at the attentions of the old soak and made a swift, clattering exit in our high heels and skirt suits.   Now, I understand him. I still don’t feel as old as he looked, but I understand him and I would love to step back in time and tell him so and apologise for dismissing him. Likewise, my indomitable, tiny grandmother, who finally accepted, at the age of 91, that perhaps it was no longer wise for her to climb a stepladder to change a lightbulb. I will never forget her wry smile as she told me that the trouble was, she still felt seventeen inside and could not accept that her body did not agree with her mind.

Suddenly, it is also not just me who has leapt forward in time, but my children too. They are no longer babies, but fully formed, sentient beings beginning to forge their own paths through life. My oldest child has a newly acquired, deepened voice and breadth of shoulder, catching me unawares as I see him out of the corner of my eye as a man in waiting. It is shocking to see him suddenly at eye level and to know that soon he will be looking down on me.   My youngest child, so long a baby, has lengthened and straightened – chubby cheeks turning (almost) sleek and chiselled, chubby thighs turning coltish and awkward.

With the passage of time has also come a change to the way my day to day time is ordered. When the children were younger, there was a long period of time when my life felt ruled by the clock. The painfully early starts, the breakfast by seven/lunch by twelve/tea by five/bath by six thirty/bed by seven thirty treadmill of keeping them fed, watered, clean and safe. The rainy days with a toddler, when the day could stretch ahead emptily, with all planned activities and reserves of energy exhausted by 9am, the day already three or four hours old by that stage. The painful early starts still happen with my ‘baby’, but it’s so much easier when they have learned to read and you have bought them electronic devices and can send them away again for an hour, safe in the knowledge that they are not going to hurl themselves down the stairs or pull the kettle on their heads.

The bed time routine still happens, but has now become elastic and never ending. The process may start at a similar time as in my treadmill years, but will then last several hours, through bathing, reading, homework, trumpet practice, sit ups (the teenager), more reading, hair styling (the daughter usually but not exclusively), and will not limp to a conclusion until the protesting teenager is dragged away from the television and ordered to bed sometime around 10pm, followed a short time later by his mother.   I can now potter about, as the children do their thing around the house. I still need to be there, am never off duty, but am also not always required as an active participant and I am not always quite sure what to do with myself. My time is not my own, as I am an on-call negotiator and arbitrator, required to respond to the cries of ‘it’s so unfair’ or ‘it’s my go’ or ‘he’s just so annoying!’, never sure when or for how long my services will be needed, but there are portions of time where I realise I am being left alone.

I find myself feeling nostalgic for the baby days, when I was their everything during their waking hours and then for those times when I had tucked them up, safe and warm with a bellyful of milk, and my evening was my own (choosing to forget that there was very often screaming and/or puking, and that I was so wracked with tiredness that I just sat and stared into middle distance, rather than using my time meaningfully listening to radio plays or reading fine literature).

What I would dearly love to do is have a day swap. Give me, say, a day in 2006, the lost year, when I had three children under five and from which I am left with just a fog of inchoate memories. Let me hold them, play with them, stroke their beautiful soft faces (because they would let me do it then).  Let them fall asleep on me and let me regulate my breathing and centre myself to their soft ins and outs. Let me hold their pudgy paws and take them for a walk, read them sweet, simple tales and sing their favourite songs. I’ve got more energy now, I would do it really well! And I miss them as babies now that I can recognise that their babyhoods have definitely gone. Let me also talk to myself nine years ago, tell the 2006 me that it’s ok, they will be ok and I will cope (apart from that one awful day when I nearly dipped the baby’s feet in boiling water when wearing him in a forward facing sling whilst cooking pasta, jiggling him up and down to try to stop him screaming whilst having a wailing toddler daughter wrapped around my leg and with a furious four year old son kicking next to me on the floor. Apart from that day).

And I would give a 2015 day to the struggling 2006 woman and show her that they are growing up beautifully, that they are bright and bonny and make me laugh every single day and that we are all growing older and wiser together.

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Injured (playing with the kids)

226“So, how did you injure your shoulder?” the physio asked, eyeing my back, perhaps looking for clues.

“Playing tennis last August. I don’t play often.”

The bright light of that summer morning in St Andrew’s reappeared. No.1 son and I hitting balls back and forth. I was careful to direct the ball back to him, to keep the rally going. But soon, he was dinking little drop shots that, however hard I dashed and far I stretched, I just couldn’t reach. I was goaded, you see. My response was to up the tempo with some booming serves. That put an end to the cheeky drop shots and, three months on, had me seeking the attention of a physio.

“Just tennis? You did nothing else to it?” The physio began digging her thumb in amongst the tendons and joints of my upper back.

“Eh, yeah. No. Oww.”

“It won’t hurt for long,” she reassured me, with talon poised for another incision.

Rising to the challenge of a contest with a child is a common fault of adult men – and one that keeps the physiotherapy profession busy. I like to think we are infected by the carefree spirit of the child, and forget the limitation of our bodies. Less generously, we’re showing off. Dave, the ‘funny falling down man,’ as my kids know him, was guilty of this.

Dave visits us from the States while on business. He comes equipped and attired for meetings and strategizing: pure wool suit, Italian shoes and man bag.

On a wet day five years ago, he joined us on a trip out to burn off the kids’ surplus energy. While I kicked balls and played chase with the kids, Dave watched, apologising for the unsuitability of his clothing. Eventually, I declared there was time for just one more race. As we lined up, Dave appeared amongst the racers. On the G of ‘Go’ he hurtled forward. Closing in on the finishing line, he tried to ease up, but his leather soled shoes found no traction on the wet ground. He skidded, tripped and flipped head over heels, landing four or five meters past the finishing line on his shoulder. The kids howled with laughter. Dave struggled to his feet, clasping his shoulder.

At home, we sponged the mud and grass stains from Dave’s suit and dosed him up on pain-killers. Over night his shoulder seized up and I had to help dress him before he left for work. He struggled through his week of meetings. It took a course of intensive physiotherapy in the States for mobility to be restored. Even now, he claims there is a lump on his shoulder – a reminder of the dangers of competing with kids.

My physio had asked me: “Just tennis? You did nothing else to it?”

“Eh, yeah. No. Oww.”

And another image of that week in St Andrews flashed into my mind. Not the tennis court on a bright morning, but a patch of grass by the East Sands. The 1&onlyD and I waiting for Mother in the Middle. The 1&onlyD performing handstands and then turning cartwheels. I was asked to award marks for precision and flourish.

“Nine… Nine… Ten!”

“Go on, Daddy. Your go.”

“Five… Six… Six. Now try a round-off [cartwheel with a two-footed landing].”

“Four.. five”

“Owww”

Just the tennis, then. Not showing-off or being over-competitive – that would be dangerous for a man of my age.

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2 March 2015 – edited and revised.

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