Two hundred and twenty days into the pandemic and I am uncertain which is the bigger threat to my father – my impatience or Covid-19.
Bad news about the new lockdown, I offer.
“Biscuits.” He answers. “Nicole Kidman!”
The Australian actor is a favourite of Dad’s. Despite his being immobile and turning 90, this affection is undimmed, perhaps even increasing. Ditto the biscuits. The only thing more important than Nicole and biscuits, today, is not being left in a draught. Any attempt at conversation reverts to the triad of priorities at the old man’s core.
Dad, I’m going to the shops …
“Nicole Kidman. Biscuits. Door!”
This is not dementia; he does not think Kidman is at the Co-op. He has somehow locked himself out of Sky TV and cannot watch a show he has recorded in which she stars, and I have promised to get on the phone and fix that. I haven’t found the time because the thousand other things that need doing at my parents’ home have consumed another day and my slender reserve of goodwill.
I fetch him a cup of tea, so that Mum, 92, will not get flagged down and co-opted into yet another trip to the kitchen as she trundles past his chair.
“How are your mum and dad?” This polite inquiry, which I am delighted, if increasingly amazed to answer with word of their survival, has taken a more sombre tone since Covid. People are waiting for the bad news, but all we have is more of the same.
I moved back in with my parents in 2017, when I was in my late 40s, to help them and myself out, since they seemed as if they might be dying, and I was definitely getting divorced. I wrote about the period two years ago. They rallied, slowly, into a kind of precarious stability, while it took me three years to get back on my feet and move out again. Covid has enforced a stricter separation than any of us envisaged. Not that my parents have noticed much of a difference.
Toilet roll paranoia, terminal shortness of breath: we were into all that before it went mainstream. We came to this crisis pre-compromised, staggering to a different drum. Living with my parents in their old age had felt like stepping outside history. And then, in March, it seemed as if history had made us all the same. Dad hadn’t been able to leave the house unaided for two years. “I keep a low profile anyway,” reflected Mum, back at the dawn of lockdown one. Welcome to our world, she seemed to be saying. You are all pensioners now.
My father’s sliding health has made the scale of his care beyond what we can cope with as a family. Since late 2018, he has needed four visits from professional carers each day. With the everyday indignities outsourced, I have moved out of their house for the second time in 40 years, though there is still a lot my folks need to enable their living at home. As the first lockdown loomed, I was fixing up a flat in a heavily infected borough and stayed put. My sister’s work disappeared under the restrictions, and despite being in her 60s and asthmatic, she stepped into the care breach. I spent three months alone after almost three years of living with my parents. My mother often says she had a good war. Finding peace in the pandemic, I know what she means. A recall to the front, though, is always just a phone call away.
Dad is determined to die at home. When, or what of, remains to be seen but he has had enough of hospitals, so that is his decision. Doctors, district nurses and palliative care teams had assured us they will facilitate this, but in April I read that, should he shuffle off now, they will not come. Instead, we will be obliged to download a pdf of instructions, and await delivery of the necessary drugs and gadgets to ease him into the next world ourselves. No one tells us this: I find out from the newspaper. I don’t share my discovery. Shielding is not only physical. Part of the carer’s role during Covid is to limit your own hysteria and powerlessness around the cared for, like a parent would. Like a good soldier. It’s an elaborate union of denial.
As their neighbours locked down, Mum and Dad’s house became the busiest in the street. Carers, district nurses, three ambulances (one necessary; two for imagined emergencies). When you can do nothing for yourself, everything is someone else’s problem. By June, my sister sounded fraught. Government guidance recalled George Carlin’s joke about the oxymoron of military intelligence. In July, I jumped on an empty train and went to my parents.
“Is the Thing still making people ill?” asked Mum, tottering into me. You may as well try to socially distance yourself from a puppy. The Thing is Covid, whose name eludes them just as readily as mine does. The elderly mind is egalitarian in its way; global crises are forgotten just as surely as small matters. Everything gets equally mislaid.
From psychological necessity I joke about my parents passing, but I don’t want to lose them to a headline. Yet the story behind the Covid story is that life and death go on. I wasn’t with them one morning when my mother fell, fighting with the ironing board we beg her not to use, and split her head on the kitchen floor. I passed my driving test (aged 49) in March, with the intention of taking her to nice places; instead our first trip is to the hospital.
They won’t let my brother and I go in with her, and it is here that the crisis comes home to me. Like a benign Goldfinger watching a beloved Bond, I expect my folks to die. We have been working up to that for years, but to be separated from them as they suffer – this stirs a deeper grief, something beyond bluster.
I stew in the car, knowing Mum cannot give a good account of who she is, or what has happened, and that she is genetically programmed not to ask for help. After several fruitless phone calls, my brother – here, in part, to keep an eye on my naive driving – goes inside the hospital to find her.
“Is it OK to leave the car here?”
“Yeah!” He shouts back.
But I have parked beside the access ramp to the air ambulance pad and when he wheels our black-eyed and stitched-up mother out of A&E, the helicopter is descending almost directly on to us. We bundle her into the car in the downdraft, like a remake of Last Of The Summer Wine set during the Vietnam war .
“Well,” yells Mum over the rotors as I fumble into reverse. “It’s nice that you can drive.”
By August my mother’s bonhomie has faded. She says she can’t stand it much more, being stuck inside with Dad. “He’s driving me mad.” And this despite us driving her to the now-open pubs and hairdressers and garden centres. The shifts may seem subtle, from occasionally going out to almost never; but six months in, I do see a difference. Deprived of the stimulus of even the most basic errands – choosing things from a shop shelf, for instance – her memory seems depleted. And there is less respite from my father’s livestreaming of his own needs.
“Whatever happens, try to come back,” she says, meaning whatever happens with Covid. I know how she feels about Dad, but this is not a time for promises, and so I deflect my powerlessness back on to her. “You need to stand up for yourself,” I say to this nonagenarian who can just about walk. I don’t try to referee them any more. Besides, I can leave now. I assert positivity, then guiltily run.
At the end of October, I’m keeping an eye on my parents again when the papers pre-empt the government’s announcement of lockdown two. Mum wields the front page, urging me to flee.
“It sounds bloody awful. Go wherever you want to be, and stay.”
I’ll come back, whatever happens, I say. But her attention has suddenly, but typically, shifted to the bottle of Cillit Bang she has left on the counter.
“Did you put that there?”
“Then am I using it?”
Well, there it is.
While Dad’s world reduces to a biscuit, my mother’s is about a clean sink. If only she could remember it. I persuade her to sit, which is never easy. We talk about Covid – but aside from the headlines and a granddaughter in Liverpool who has shrugged it off, its mortal margin seems to pass us by. My mother’s last old friend has just died of Parkinson’s, the one before that of an aneurism. My parents have the pyrrhic privilege of being the last of their gang to die. My mother plays this down, but she is teary-eyed.
“I’ve no one to write to any more …”
We hold hands. Emotions make their own rules.
“I’m lucky,” she concludes. “I’m not living on my own, although I know Dad’s not much input … at least I’ve got family.”
We acknowledge our luck, but there are aspects of it we do not discuss. Keeping our parents, Dad especially, out of a care home has been a blessing, an accomplishment, and a relentless challenge. Last year it made sense to consider it, and were it not for Dad’s wholesale resistance, it may have happened. Would he – or they – have survived this year, if so? How would we have navigated the guilt had they not? It feels like madness at their house sometimes, but it is still the better problem.
“Old people on their own must dread picking up the paper,” continues Mum, “because there’s so many things you’ve not to do. I think English people are quite neighbourly. If you were on your own, you may be lucky and have a nice neighbour. We’ve always had good neighbours.”
And shutting businesses?
“I think it’s awful. It sounds like the death knell to me. If you had a little shop …”
It has been nagging me – more than it has the government, it seems – for the past six months, that carers who go from house to house among the vulnerable are not subjected to, or supplied with, mandatory testing. Meanwhile, the pubs that keep me sane are closing again, some for ever. I point this out to Mum.
“If they cough, I’m inclined to reel back,” she says of the carers. “But if they’re coming to your house, you can’t tell people what to do. You just have to get on with it, don’t you?”
I have fixed the Kidman problem via Sky’s automated call centre. It would have been easier to get her to come round and perform here in the front room. Now we can watch the bad news on all the channels. The TV booms at industrial volume. Subtitles, too, just in case.
“This is a very, very difficult decision for the prime minister …” says the newsreader.
I ask Dad what he makes of it.
“Quite worrying, obviously. Very worrying. I’m in the lap of the Gods. At 90, you can die of almost anything – if it’s not one thing it could be something else. All I can do is carry on as normal. It’s young people I worry about.”
“What are those?” asks Mum of an image on the television.
That’s the virus.
“Oh, how horrible. It looks like a lollipop.”
I tell them I’ll keep coming back, whatever the government says.
A reporter comes on screen from Edinburgh.
“It must be warmer up in Scotland – she’s wearing a sleeveless dress,” says Mum.
She’s indoors, I point out.
“Even so, I’m not taking my cardigan off.”
The reporter says that Sean Connery has died.
“In his sleep, surrounded by his family,” Dad repeats the news, so soothing must this prospect seem, the gold standard goodbye. He and Connery were born three weeks apart.
“You what?” asks Mum.
“IN HIS SLEEP! SURROUNDED BY HIS FAMILY!”
I leave them to it, shouting about James Bond’s peaceful passing, while I – Goldfinger – book a table at the pub before it closes for “the foreseeable”. And what a conceit that has turned out to be. Man plans, God laughs, the saying goes. I stopped planning months ago. We’ll see if the universe keeps its part of the bargain.
• The author blogs at reluctantcarer.com