Friday 18 August 2023

Muddling through changes - by Lu Hersey

 Life is all about change, when you think about it. As the year turns and early morning autumn mists form down on the Levels, I'm trying to get ready for a few changes I know are coming. But the thing about preparing for change is life often doesn't go according to plan...

Yesterday I went to see my father, who lives a hundred miles away, on his own. He's 96 this year, but manages to live independently and is in reasonably good health. He reads the Times every day and does the crossword. Every so often he has health scares and I spend more time there, trying to improve the levels of hygiene and discarding moulding things from the fridge, but mostly he manages perfectly well, considering.

Yesterday he'd told me he wanted to sort through family photographs and to give me a list of instructions for things I'll need to do when he dies. It sounded reasonable, though not a lot of fun - but I'd planned to visit him anyway, so whatever. I mentally prepared for a difficult, but necessary day.

What actually happened gave me an insight into my father's mind that left me so discombobulated I wondered which of us was losing the plot fastest. 

We started with lunch at 11.30 when I was expecting coffee - I'd wanted to bring lunch for both of us, but he'd insisted we had his favourite sandwiches, which he'd prepared the day before. Or possibly the week. It's hard to be sure with my father.  

I ate them politely and we talked about his new neighbour, who he likes. I asked a few questions about the family, but he forgets the names of all his nieces and nephews and muddles them up. Sadly. He likes his surviving brother, but he's not really a family person. He didn't ask me about mine, so instead I  asked about the photographs. "Follow me," he said.

"They're in here, somewhere." 

We were standing in what was once a very organised dining room when his last wife was alive. Now it's a sea of dead electrical equipment, piles of papers, books and unwanted things that harbour life forms I find scary. "Do you know approximately where?" I asked. 

We stood for a while, silently surveying the chaos while he thought about it. "What am I looking for?" he asked. I reminded him. "Oh yes," he said, and found a box that held a few photographs of his last wife and her family, and a copy of Debrett's Peerage from 1987. His last wife was some kind of aristocrat, and she liked to see her family listed.

I told him they should probably be given to her children, who might appreciate them. 

"You don't want them, then?" 

"No thanks."

He decided he needed to go for a walk. He does this most days when he's not driving across town to visit his current girlfriend. (She used to live around the corner, but is now in a care home.) So we walked slowly up the road to the open green at the top, and sat on a bench to look at the view. "Your mother liked it here," he said. He confuses his late wives quite often. 

"Did I ever tell you about the time I saved her from a krait?" 

"What sort of crate?" I ask.

"K-R-A-I-T. Deadly snake. I pushed her into a hedge and she was furious with me, but I saved her life."

I google krait while we look at the view. Deadly indeed, but only found in the Indian subcontinent. My mother never went there. In fact I'm not sure he did.

"Are you sure it was a krait?" (What I meant was, are you sure it was my mother - or if this actually ever happened)

"Quite sure! I hate snakes. Deadly. Did I ever tell you about the baby adder on our bed when we were on holiday?"

And so we walk slowly back to the house. It's not time for a cup of tea yet, so I wonder if I should mention the list of things he wanted to tell me about. But now he's decided we're going to watch some Michael Parkinson interviews with Peter Ustinov from the 70s that he recorded. I'm impressed at his ability to use his new video machine. I didn't know they still made them, but gave up trying to explain how he could use his Virgin Media box some time ago. The programme is an hour long. 

Finally we have a cup of tea and he tells me about his new neighbour. Again. "She was a doctor too, you know. Nice woman, better than that crook with the vicious dog who lived there before. She's about your age."

Ironically, as I'm leaving, the new neighbour shows up. She's at least 80. I feel depressed. But she's also very bright and seems to like my father, so that's good news. 

As I drive away, I wonder how long this can go on. I was hoping we'd come a little closer to preparing for things to come, even if I just took some of the rubbish in the dining room away. But instead, I've learnt far more about Peter Ustinov than I ever needed to know. 

I think that's why I like writing. There is a structure to a book - and an endgame. Along the way, you can resolve things the way you'd like them to go. 

Real life isn't like that. You just have to take each day as it comes. Maybe that's no bad thing, but sometimes it feels like my father's dining room. A big sea of chaos.

Lu Hersey 

twitter: @LuWrites

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Mystica said...

I’m 68 and have started the getting rid of stuff. It works quite well with most things but it is sad when it comes to mementos letters photos. These are only valuable to me and I’ve realized that now. Life is strange

Rowena House said...

I empathise, Lu. As far as I've witnessed, extreme old age is only a happy ending in Tolkien.

LuWrites said...

Think you're right Rowena! But in retrospect, I've been wondering about the connection between the very old and the dying/recently dead. My father wanted to watch a Parkinson programme he'd recorded some time ago - and 'Parky' probably died as I was driving home...

Joan Lennon said...

My heart goes out to you and to him.

Laura Jones said...

All encounters with elderly people seem to hold at least some sadness, don't they? But your father sounds quite remarkable for such an age. Not many people approaching a century are so independent, never mind driving 😮

Jenny Alexander said...

I dreamt I was lying in my coffin, all lovely and peaceful, and I suddenly opened my eyes, thinking 'Oh my God, I cleared out so much stuff but the things I should have got rid of were the things I would find hardest to let go of, because those are the things my kids will find hardest to let go of now.' It transformed the way I was viewing this task, as I clear my house for moving in a few weeks' time. Another lovely post, Lu - so warm and thoughtful. Thank you.

Andrew Preston said...

I just thought that there was something of a running thread of judgement and disapproval in this post. That someone was living life there way, as best they can, and bedamned the frowning opinions of the offspring.

Anne Booth said...

lots of love to you Lu. It's a unique and often overwhelming experience, being with parents as they get older and experience confusion, and I think your love and humour shone through this post.

LuWrites said...

Thanks Joan, Laura Jenny, Caroline and Anne for your lovely comments. xx

Penny Dolan said...

Dear Lu, I have been thinking about your blog eveer since I read it. Sending the hugest of sympathies! Arming yourself, mentally and emotionally, for your'family photo'time, travelling all that way and then find yourself among some totally different memories and plans must have been perplexing in their hurt. They would me! Do look after yourself, Lu.

I agree about the comfort of fiction, and love following the plot patterns and the satisfaction of a good, wise or clever ending

Yet I'm now wary of expecting those real-life moment of reconciliation, the good words spoken in time, the secret or mystery suddenly understood. No matter how much such an outcome would satisfy one's longing, life is rarely that easy.

In other news, the sun is shining and its a beautiful evening . . . .