A Journey in June

IMG_2815 It is impossible at the start of my familiar journey north by train not to think of the same journey, attempted last July. Now, I have a ticket and a seat for a journey I have planned for several weeks. Then, I rushed to the station, panicking after the telephone call from my father, barely able to breathe deeply enough to state my destination at the ticket office. He had called me just as I arrived into work, saying hesitatingly that, perhaps, I ought to come back sooner than Friday after all. It was Wednesday morning and I had been home since Monday afternoon. Now, it is a suddenly beautiful, sun filled late afternoon in an unseasonably cold and rain filled June. I sit in an air conditioned carriage with other urban workers, bunking off early on a Friday afternoon to make the most of the weekend. Then, I stood on a train from Manchester to Blackpool, the quickest way north being to get as far as Preston and change onto a train to Scotland there.  I wedged myself into a bulging, sweating carriage of mothers and grandmas and school-holiday-children with buckets and spades, picnic bags and even two dogs, heading for a day at the seaside. Then and now, the trains leave the City quickly, the landscape outside the window quickly turning lush and green. This June, I have a book and an iphone and a coffee. Last July, I have nothing to do but stand and stare out of the window, willing the train to go faster. I wanted to be able to pace up and down, but had to content myself with constantly shifting position, wringing my hands, turning around on my small portion of allotted space near the door, as a panting dog’s tail periodically thwacked onto my foot. Now, the train powers through the improbable leafiness of Wigan North Western and surges forward towards Preston. Then, somewhere just past Wigan station, the train started to slow. It stopped entirely for a couple of minutes, then made occasional spasmodic progress for the next ten. I checked my phone for the time continually, conscious of a connection I needed to make in Preston. The thirty allotted minutes for the transfer were ticking inexorably away as the children got restless, a ball was thrown and the mothers remonstrated with a pair of overheated, sullen pre-teen boys. I told myself I could still make it. I visualised the dash through the station I would be obliged to make – probably up the Victorian steps, across the bridge and down to the other side. It was doable. And then, last July, after nearly half an hour of stop-start jerks taking us no more than a couple of hundred metres, the platform in sight from my window, the train came to a complete standstill, just outside Preston station. A politely apologetic intercom announcement referred to being ‘held’ because of an ‘incident’ in the station. The minute for my connection ticked past, as I frantically googled the next train out of Preston to Scotland. As my phone struggled to make the internet connection, a ring cut through and my father’s name and grinning picture flashed up. She was gone, he told me. It was, finally, peaceful, he told me. Your sisters didn’t make it either, he told me. He had thought she would have a little bit longer, but he had been wrong. I turned off my phone with difficulty, hands shaking and sweating, chin wobbling, as the day trippers continue to snack and bicker and moan about the waste of a sunny day. I started to cry, properly, noisily; I rang my husband and said out loud for the first time that she was dead. No one said a word; the children stared, the adults averted their eyes. A few minutes later, the train lurched forward and disgorged us into the heaving, chaotic station. I walked around in circles, not sure what to do. A young woman approached me, saying ‘I was on the train, are you ok?’. ‘My mother just died and I don’t know what to do’ I say. ‘I know’ she said as she stroked my hand, flagged down a station guard and asked about trains to Scotland for me. It turned out that my train had not yet left after all. I ran up the stairs, across the bridge, down to the other platform. I jumped on the train, in wild-eyed hurry and flung myself into the one available seat I could see. A man opposite asked me where the fire was, there’s no hurry, he’d just been told there were no trains travelling north for the next few hours at least. A man was up a tower threatening to jump and no trains were going through. I got off the train again and tried to speak to the guard. He said there was little hope of getting to Scotland today. He said he would advise anyone with non-urgent travel to try to rearrange – can my journey wait? I said I suppose it could now. I walked back up the stairs, back over the bridge and down onto the first train back to Manchester. Then, I finished the journey, blinking into summer-bright sunshine at Piccadilly station, aware that my vision was starting to go and a migraine would shortly follow. Through the haze, I saw the top half only of my husband’s face as he took my hand and led me to our car. Now, I continue my journey north, sailing through Preston and beyond, arriving many hours later at the small, achingly familiar station in the middle of fields, the village of my childhood summers to my left, the town of my mother’s last years to my right. I have been travelling to this station all my life but I know that this is the last time I will make this particular journey, for my father is moving. I get off the train and see him coming towards me through the last glimmers of a long, Scottish June evening. He is little bit greyer, a little bit smaller, than last year. He takes my bag and leads me to his car for my last weekend stay at their house.

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Shoot-out

IMG_0910No.1 son’s team capped off a season in which they won every league match with a cup run. The final was played on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – cherry blossom swirling across the pitch to give a brief wintery feel. The venue was a local non-league club ground, several steps up from the public park environs the teams normally play in, with their undulating fields, haphazard grass-cutting and careless dog owners.

The match fulfilled one of the cup final archetypes that all football fans will recognise. The stronger team (‘our’ one) dominated possession, created chance after chance, but couldn’t score against dogged, determined opponents with a hero-in-the-making in goal. Mid-way through the second half, the archetype shifted. In a rare break out of their own half, the other side’s lone striker ran past ‘our’ central defenders and struck the ball firmly past the keeper.

The match reverted to type, with no.1 son’s team piling on pressure and with ten minutes left, equalised from a corner kick. More chances were saved or missed before full-time. The game re-started with 20 minutes of extra time. Despite the rolling substitutions, the size of the pitch had tired both teams so that a sustained attack was beyond them. Penalty shoot-out.

“This will end in tears,” was the conclusion my touchline pal and I reached as the players gathered in the centre circle for the penalty prelims.

No.1 son’s team were to maintain their perfect season, winning the shoot-out 5-4. The image at the top of the post shows him driving his penalty into the top left hand corner of the goal.

The other side’s second penalty taker steered his shot wide, lifted his hands to his head and walked slowly back to the centre circle without showing his face. There he sat, staring at the grass, amongst his teammates, who were presumably offering their support. His miss, as he must have feared, as all of the boys dreaded for themselves, was the difference.

I question the value of a penalty shoot-out in a junior match, where the result has no further consequences. Earlier rounds in a knockout tournament do need a winner for the competition to progress; I’ll return to that subject shortly.

Having joint cup winners is to me an entirely legitimate result for the teams that cannot be separated over full and extra time. The trophy can be shared; the individual statuettes would just need ‘finalist’ inscribed on them all, instead of one-half; both teams can celebrate. I see nothing to be gained from spoiling one or two young lads’ days, as almost always happens in a shoot-out.

I imagine proponents of a definitive result arguing that youngsters should not be sheltered from the harsh truth of life and its repeated sifting into winners and losers. I think kids know that well enough. Everything they do is imbued with competition: school, gaming, appearance, getting noticed by girls. Why not, in these rare instances when the score remains tied, show magnanimity and recognition that the contest, not the result, is all important?

“They don’t take it that seriously,” may be another rebuttal of my idea. Many, I agree, probably don’t, and can stride on after a penalty shoot-out miss, walk tall in the playground on the following Monday and savour the opportunity for another chance to take a penalty. Others, though, do not. The coaches, I observed, selecting their five penalty takers, are not overwhelmed with volunteers. It’s a stress that many boys (indeed, professional footballers) prefer to avoid.

Several weeks after the final, I took my younger son to play a cricket match. There were puddles on the pitch and storm clouds overhead. The game would normally have been called off before bedtime the night before, but this was a cup-tie and a definitive result was needed. The method used, a bowl-off, is cricket’s equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Bowlers deliver a single ball at an undefended set of stumps. Whichever team hits the stumps most often wins the tie-breaker.

The situation was tense, the boys were anxious during the match. One team was delighted and the other disappointed at the end. There was a key difference to the penalty shoot-out that made it less likely that a single player would feel the burden of responsibility for defeat. Instead of each team fielding five players (as in a penalty shoot-out), all eleven in each cricket team had to bowl. The greater number of competitors and efforts means that the margin between teams is a lot less likely to be a single point. The individual is a smaller part of the team score and gains protection. With all players participating, it is more of a team event.

This should be the model for penalty shoot-outs in junior football. Involve the whole team. Do less to isolate individuals. Try not to spoil one young lad’s day.

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An Inspiring Mother

hands2If you were to catch a glimpse of Anne walking down the street, you would not think her extraordinary in any way. Perhaps you wouldn’t even notice her in the first place – most people don’t notice old women. If you did pause to look for a moment, you would see a white haired, stooped, smartly dressed eighty three year old who still moves quite briskly for her age. If you looked a little longer, you may pick up in her unflinching, challenging gaze a hint of the steeliness and determination that sustains her.

Anne’s son is nearly fifty now. He does not live with her, but she sees him three times a week. One day she visits him, one day he is brought to see her and one day they are supported to go on an outing together. If they have enough staff on the rota to provide him with the two-to-one cover that is required to keep everyone safe, that is, so quite often it gets cancelled.

She told me that she knew from when he was a toddler that something wasn’t right. To start with, people told her the tantrums were a phase that he would grow out of and that all children behaved this way. She so wanted to believe that her beautiful, bewildered boy would stop the biting, the head-butting, the rocking, but as time went on and he didn’t grow out of anything, she grew more and more worried. As the months and years ground on, it was clear to everyone that he wasn’t developing as he should; that he was not ‘normal’. The few words he learned were simply not adequate for him to articulate the frustrations he felt with the world and so the lashings out continued. He clung to Anne as to an anchor in a stormy sea but, sometimes, she got in the way and the older he got, the more it hurt.

Friends drifted away. He was too difficult to be around and people – even the kind hearted, sympathetic ones – didn’t want their children to be around him. Eventually, when their boy was five, Anne’s husband left too and neither of them have seen or heard from him since.

The doctors tried to help her, but they couldn’t find an answer. He was definitely autistic, they told her, but that couldn’t explain everything. There was no other specific diagnosis, but talk of ‘developmental delay’. They talked about finding him a place in a children’s home, about how this would be the best place for ‘a boy like him’. So she went to look at the one they wanted to send him to and decided that no-one was going to lock her son up and throw away the key.

Who will love him when I’m not here?

So she fought the doctors who thought they knew best and kept him at home with her. She fought the social workers and she found a special school that would take him. She fought the local authority and she got the budget for transporting him to school and home again and for some respite time for her, so she could keep going. She fought the system and – eventually – she got the disability benefits to which they were both entitled.

Who will fight for him when I’m not here?

When he got to be adult sized, Anne realised she could no longer cope by herself. She couldn’t keep him safe and she couldn’t keep herself safe. She couldn’t believe that he wanted to hurt her, when she knew he loved and needed her so very much, but she did keep getting hurt. The amount of physical restraint required to control him became impossible when there was only her there to do it and he was bigger and stronger than she was. The complexities of dealing with a boy whose hormones, cruelly, developed normally whilst the rest of him did not, were too great for her to manage alone. So he went to live in a house with ‘boys like him’, with staff there day and night. And then, in due course, to another house, with different men.

Now, at almost fifty, he has been living in the same house for nearly two decades. Other men have come and gone, carers’ faces have changed regularly but there has been stability and security for him and always his mother at the centre of it all. Anne has continued to fight for him every step of the way, has been at every assessment and has protested against every repeated attempt to cut his care package. She has taught herself about the law and about his rights and she has been tenacious at securing those for him.

And now, as she progresses into old age, Anne is preoccupied with trying to make sure everything is as secure as it can be for her child before she dies. She has made sure that her son is not just locked away, that he has the opportunity to have physiotherapy in a hydropool, that his physical health needs are not neglected just because he cannot articulate what those needs are, that he is taken out into the community with an appropriate level of support.

Who will make sure he gets what he deserves when I am gone?

She has made friends with each and every one of the underpaid, endlessly replaceable carers assigned to be his key worker, to show them she appreciates what they do in the hope that they will be more inclined to look kindly on her son.

How will he cope in a world when he is difficult to like and there is no one left who loves him?

She is dismayed at the news of the austerity measures and the public sector cuts and what this will mean for her boy. She has refused to accept austerity-inspired attempts by harried social workers to ‘still meet his assessed needs, but in a cheaper way’ and has harnessed the support of charities and solicitors to prevent her son being moved, aged 49, to a care home with people decades older than him.

Who will protect him when I’m not here?

Anne once told me that she wished people who said they never wanted their children to grow up had some understanding of what having a child denied the opportunity to grow up was like for a mother. Meeting her, witnessing the strength of her love for her son and the extent of the fight she has made, has been humbling and moving.

She is an inspiration as a woman, an (unsung) disability campaigner, carer and mother.

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Fourteen

14-1Fourteen flings his arm easily around my shoulders and tries to push down on me to elevate his own height, keen to prove that he is taller than his small mother. He’s not, quite, but it will only be a matter of months. If I turn my head just a small amount whilst his arm is around my shoulder, I am startled to see his face, right there, where once I had to bend over him in his cot or his highchair to press my cheek to his.

His face is still as beautiful as the baby face I adored, but is now morphing into a man-face.   There is heft and length to the jaw, a new untamed bushiness to the eyebrows and a definite dark shadow on the upper lip that will soon need attention.

The hand that playfully claps me on the back, accusing me of only being taller because I am wearing heels, is bigger than mine. The feet that he tries to raise imperceptibly to give him the height edge on me as we stand back to back have gone through several growth spurts in the past year, pausing for too-brief months at a point where we could share shoes. Suddenly there are almost-man sized extremities on a still slender, still short, boy’s frame, presaging the growth to come.

His voice has deepened and is deepening still, his laugh catching in his throat, unable to settle on the right register. He can kick a football with such force and strength that his younger brother sprains his wrist trying to stop it powering into the net.

Fourteen has bursts of physical energy, playing football and going to a gym. He seems to need to spend the rest of his time in recovery, lounging on the sofa for hours watching episode after episode of The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother sighing ‘I’m so tired…’ periodically. The boy who for years and years woke up (and woke me up) at 5.50am every….single….day now needs rousing on school mornings and lies in at weekends. He has become the slug-like teenager that people told me he would, but I never believed possible.

His appetite has grown to facilitate the changes. I see him standing by the fridge-freezer, opening the top half hopefully to seek (vegetarian) fuel within and realise with a shock that, standing at full height, he used to fit under the door, clinging to my legs as I cooked. I wonder how I have missed noticing his boyhood passing so quickly.

Fourteen has the twenty first century teenager’s reliance on technology down to a fine art. He likes nothing better than playing FIFA on his Xbox whilst simultaneously flicking through Instagram on his phone, 5 Live on his radio all the while providing a droning background commentary of a real football match somewhere out in the real world. I have the twenty first century parent’s anxiety about my teenager’s dependence on technology down to a fine art. We have awkward conversations where I feign an ‘easy chat’ about the risks of modern life and he feigns insouciance about the embarrassment I am subjecting him to.

But I realise that technology has given Fourteen and me a way of meaningful communication – albeit sporadically and on his terms. We text, quite regularly.   ‘Time for bed’ I try, from my bedroom upstairs to Fourteen watching TV downstairs (I have tried ‘time 4 bed’ but I can’t pull off the ‘4’ with any sense of credibility). He begs for a few minutes longer, on one occasion to finish watching a documentary about gay people in Russia, which has obviously become unexpectedly fascinating when faced with the alternative of going to bed. Texting gives me the possibility of regular inconsequential communication with him and an insight into my witty, entertaining son’s life. When engaged in a quick fire exchange, he tells me things via text that I do not think he would get round to disclosing face to face.

Fourteen can be an engaging, witty, charming companion. Whilst still prone to sudden bursts of anger – particularly directed at his younger siblings and particularly triggered by car journeys – he has calmed down a lot over the past year. He has a lively, enquiring mind and an interest in history and current affairs. He is interested in and can talk knowledgeably about the election to be held the day before his birthday. He is a safe pair of hands with whom to entrust conversation with visiting adults – he generally likes their company and they generally like his.

Fourteen still has a preference for trying to establish a definitive answer to any question and is particularly keen on pitching ideas or concepts against each other. He becomes engaged by a school history project to decide who was the greater villain out of Stalin and Hitler. I recall similar exercises in my own schooling and my tendency to find it unbearable to plump for one side or the other, preferring instead the ‘on the one hand….on the other hand’ type of argument. Fourteen, however, delights in being able to argue the case for the one over the other. I am met with bemusement if I try to point out to him subtleties of argument, unreliability of evidence or uncertainties of conviction.

His insistence on being given ‘the’ right answer is wide ranging in scope. Fourteen is soaking up his cultural heritage, exploring his place in twenty first century Britain and deciding what the ‘right’ thing for him to think is on any number of issues. Amongst other things, I have been asked over the past year to pronounce on the definitive ‘best band of 90s Britpop’, who should have won the Blur v Oasis chart battle, the ‘funniest sitcom of the 80s’, the ‘best play that Shakespeare wrote’, whether Lennon or McCartney should go down in history as the greater man, whether ‘people’ think Beethoven or Mozart was better, who the best James Bond has been and (after YouTube research) why people ever laughed at The Two Ronnies. He rolls his eyes when I refuse to be drawn on a ‘winner’ and talk to him of opinion, perception or historical context and try to tell him that the world should not be reduced to an endless series of competitions or black and white pronouncements. For the time being at least, it falls on deaf ears – he is a competitive boy, at a competitive school, being endlessly prepped for a competitive future and trying to negotiate his road to success.

Fourteen’s vulnerabilities are better hidden than when he was younger, but lie ready to be scratched just beneath the surface at all times. He has begun to relish time alone in the house without an adult (something previously unthinkable), but can be panicked suddenly by noises, smells or things glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. An innocuous household noise prompts a panicked telephone call to me, with Fourteen convinced that the living room ceiling is about to fall down. Swirling leaves in the garden become unexplained visions at the window.

A fear of flying is becoming more entrenched: the rational boy who loves and repeats statistics, facts and figures refuses to be convinced that flying is less dangerous than car travel, despite all evidence. Instead, he refuses to move beyond his assertion that most people survive car crashes, whereas no-one survives a plane crash and tortures himself with his anxiety about an upcoming holiday. He is so certain, so definite, so unwilling to be consoled.

We are in an awkward inter-regnum between requiring babysitters (generally in the humiliating form of girls not much older than him) when we go out, or letting him be the unstable, vulnerable king in charge of his younger brother and sister for the evening.  His huge capacity for empathy, his charm, his self control are not yet quite reliable enough to withstand the provocation of two younger siblings. But it won’t be long.

He is interesting, sometimes infuriating, lovely, charming, obstinate, empathetic – my beautiful boy at Fourteen.

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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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