When 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.