My Mum lives in a care-home because she has early onset Alzheimer’s, a cruel form of a cruel disease that goes after people under 65. This can be particularly tricky because the sufferers are often still in their prime with highly-responsible jobs and dependents. Mum was a nursery school headteacher, and I was still at school and my sisters still at university, when she began asking us “Have you eaten enough?” several times an hour. Visiting Mum really is the least I can do and at the third time of asking I hopped on the train from London to Birmingham, and then from Birmingham to far-flung Rowley Regis, to see my mother.
Two and a half hours later when I strolled into Mum’s grey – but excellent – care-home I could immediately tell she was in a great mood. She recognised me instantly, smiled broadly, and waved in her signature manic way when her jewellery – a collection of ‘New Age’ type stones found in tourist shops in Cornwall and Celtic metalwork – clicks and clacks like a little maraca.
“Hello Mum,” I said.
“Hello!” came the reply.
If still physically possible one of the most important things to do when visiting a loved one in a care-home is to get out of there as quickly as possible. The other patients wander around and stare at you and it smells like miscellaneous cleaning products. I grabbed Mum and we shot off around the corner to a cafe which is more like a Little Chef. As we were walking along, her little legs a blur of activity, we caught up on lost time.
“So how have you been?” I asked.
“What have you been doing?”
“Oh just, you know…just going to the what-not.”
“Oh yeah, same,” I replied.
We got to the cafe and ordered two cups of tea, a slice of lemon meringue for me and, after minutes of furtive deliberation, involving pointing at different cakes and fingering the wrapping of the various bars on offer, a caramel shortbread for Mum. We sat down as she rubbed her hands incessantly, creating a pleasant dry and scratchy sound. I had recently enjoyed both series of the excellent “Catastrophe” on Channel 4 and thought this could be a fruitful conversational boulevard.
“So what is your favourite sitcom Mum?”
Quite content with merely being in one another’s company, we sat in silence for a while, although the silence was frequently punctuated by Mum humming “A Hard Day’s Night” under her breath because we had sang it together earlier and it had obviously lodged itself in her brain in the same way “we need more bacon” and “we need more Innocent smoothie” had in the great bacon and smoothie stockpiling of ’11, when our fridge resembled that of a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist preparing for a nuclear winter.
After approximately an hour of sitting in the cafe, which included me frequently tapping her tea-cup to implore her to drink it, we decided to call it a day. We walked along the run-down road that leads to the home and arrived back in roughly 10 minutes. Because Mum was in one of those good moods that anyone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s will recognise as bittersweet, I foolishly tried to capitalise. Rather than depositing Mum back at the home as is my usual modus operandi, be I on my own or with other members of the family, I waddled after her into the home so that I could stuff my cheeks with some quality time.
On return to Mum’s little room she disappeared into the toilet for about ten minutes. I messed around with her CD player which seemed to be intent on playing at whatever volume it so wished. When she came creeping out of the toilet she was muttering under her breath about random things and Karen, another former teacher at the home with whom Mum has bonded.
Earlier on in the day when Mum was stood in the doorway of her room, as I helped put her lavender fleece on, a slightly emaciated hand shot into vision and touched Mum’s shoulder. Mum turned to see where the hand had come from to see Karen stood there, beaming. Mum waved and said “Hello!” and they smiled at each other like two children on their first day of school who have just found someone they know they are going to be friends with. I suppose every time they bump into each other on their little expeditions around the bottom floor of the home they are struck with that breathless excitement that comes from meeting someone you instantly really like for the first time.
“Shall we go through to the living room?” I said.
“OK,” she said, although I really could have said anything. The inexplicable and stealthy turn for the worse had happened.
I ushered her towards the living room with my hand on the small of her back, feeling her stegosaurus-esque spine which once split her swimming costume on a water-slide in Devon, and caught the eye of one of the young care-workers, Kelly.
“I think I’m going to head off,” I said.
“OK,” she replied, “do you want to come over here Jane?”
Mum drifted towards the young woman.
“Bye Mum!” I said, giving her an unreciprocated hug and kissing the top of her head,”Can you let me out?” I then asked Kelly.
She walked me down the dark corridor and punched in the code. The door swung open and suddenly there was Mum like a pale apparition.
“No Mum, you’re staying here!” I said, smiling.
“Ah OK, am I?”
“Come on Jane,” chimed in Kelly, linking Mum by the arm, “let’s go.”
“Bye Mum!” I said, and the door closed softly. I walked down the stairs, fighting back the slightly tumultuous feeling in my stomach, and reflected on the last two hours. Other than the dicey final ten minutes it had been a success and well worth the journey. I decided that I had been coasting towards a resounding 3-0 victory with 2 minutes remaining but the ‘keeper had switched off and let in a dirty consolation goal from an unnecessary corner. It does mar the victory somewhat but three points are three points and you would have taken it beforehand.
You have to laugh, really, because it is just life, but that doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes feel like howling at the moon: “MUUUMMMMM! Where are you?! Come back!”