Tuesday 20 March 2012

The things we do for love

My grandfather was a renowned obstetrician, loved and adored by his wife and two daughters. He outlived my grandmother by 3 years and sold our farm when she died. In his time he never had to use a washing machine, go to the supermarket, cook, wash-up, change the sheets, or clean a bathroom. He did know how to poach an egg. After my grandmother’s death my mum and aunt cared for him. Each week night mum and I drove the 30 minutes to his flat, prepared his dinner and kept him company. Mum was working and I must have been at university. You knew grandpa was home from the blare of the television as you climbed the stairs to his front door. He had a hearing aid, but he didn’t think to use it watching telly. It was understood that he would never go into a nursing home.

Salt’s 98-year-old grandmother, Mabel, lives with Salt’s mother. Mabel also has a hearing aid and a walking frame with wheels, which Squid likes to use. She remembers names, what activities you had planned, knows the political landscape and displays deep empathy for her loved ones. She watches all sport, her cricket knowledge rivalled only by Wisden and Jim Maxwell.

Last week my car broke down and Squid and I needed to stay with Salt’s mum. In the morning Squid and I ate our breakfast together on the floor in the kitchen. Salt’s mum waited to hear the television in Mabel’s room which indicated that a cup of tea would be welcome. Salt’s mum boiled the kettle, brewed the Tetley tea, added one tablet of sugarine and a dash of Farmer’s Best and at the side of the white cup and saucer she placed a teaspoon and a Nice biscuit. I watched Salt’s mum take it to Mabel’s room and felt a heaviness weigh down on my lower throat and chest. This routine, exactly how Mabel likes it, happens every morning. Salt’s mum showers and then prepares Mabel’s breakfast, exactly how she likes it.
No-one else can offer this tenderness and the endless unrecognised acts of caring that ensure that Mabel is happy, dignified and safe. These relationships can be fraught. The dedication of caring for elderly parents demands a selflessness and consistency that is similar to that of caring for a small child. There is no escape just a desire to escape. You can love them deeply and at times not like them, and the context requires patience and deep breathing as well as remembrance. I loved my grandfather very much but I felt I needed to be with my mum to help hold her up while she held him up and did everything exactly how he liked it. It can be done because there will be an ending, and because there is an ending we offer the tenderness of a cup of tea in the morning with a Nice biscuit on the side.

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