in which my father comes back to life, only to face a ruthless assassination attempt by his faithless son…
We sit either side of her, me on the piano stool, my sister in a resident’s chair that happens to be empty. That’s maybe the spookiest element of this place. Sometimes the residents disappear without warning or it seems, mourning. There one time, gone the next. The transience sits uneasily with the monotony of the long unchanging days…
Today, my mother seems alert, though her head is bowed as usual so her chin rests almost on her chest. She looks up with one eye searching, and seems to recognize us. We ask how she is but she doesn’t reply, distracted by the movement of someone passing by. We chat to her, about my sister’s flight over, about the weather, about nothing special. Tea and a piece of cake is brought by a carer called Marie. She and I have had occasion to speak on previous visits. I introduce her to my sister. Marie is from Poland and has been working in the UK for several years. She came originally in order to earn enough money for a new fridge and cooker. She stayed because the extended family, including a husband, a son and a daughter who is newly married, have come to rely completely on the money she earns. I know it can’t be more than a few hundred pounds a week, but still she stays. It’s been seven years now. She lives alone in a bedsit a few miles from care home and only goes home once, or maybe twice a year.
When Marie goes, I still hesitate to break the news about my father. There’s no easy way to segue into such stuff. At least none that comes to mind. So, whilst mother is sipping tepid tea from the wing-handled plastic cup my sister is holding to her lips, perhaps I should tell of how she came to be here in the first place. Because her being here was, in large measure, my doing. And galling as it is, in order to explain why I would do such a thing to my own mother, I must resuscitate a man who is even now lying in the hospital morgue, ice cold, blue-tinted and silent. At least if the movies are anything to go by.
Resurrection might seem a tall order, but just twenty-four hours after his last breath—to my mind at least—my father is not yet thoroughly dead. These are the facts as I recall them. My father might tell otherwise, but this is not his version, it’s mine, and should thus be treated with all the caution that attaches to a very partial view…
Our relationship was ever awkward and angry. On both sides. Whenever we saw each other, he would offer his hand but could never meet my eyes as he did so. Physical contact of any kind was hard for him. Perhaps his upbringing as one of nine children in Donegal in the west of Ireland had been austere and loveless.
My father’s own route out of Ireland and poverty and the whole Frank McCourt-style misery, was to come to England as a young man of eighteen to work at Heathrow airport, and about this aspect of his life he spoke with pride. From the youthful romance of flight-planning DC3s and DC6s on their Atlantic runs, he’d gone into airfreight sales and quickly climbed the tree to management, home ownership and membership of the local golf club. And yet somehow along the way, the thrust he’d needed to achieve escape velocity at such a tender age, all the courage he’d shown in breaking free of the past, had morphed into a destructive force.
He curdled and soured progressively over the years. His many affairs and flirtations with other women brought long periods of purgatory and an atmosphere thick with menace. Always wanting more, he had no way to be happy with what he had, or who he was… On my eighteenth birthday, with Elvis Presley’s death still dominating the headlines, he and my mother and sister emigrated to America in pursuit of his career as an airline manager. We fell out badly over my going with them.
Like sons everywhere, I’d rebelled against the values of my father and was drunk on the politics of the left. I said America was a heathen land with no national health service, no social security system and no conscience when it came to raping the resources of other countries. He wanted me to go with them and study business. I refused. Instead, I would stay in the UK and study English. He told me he wouldn’t give me a penny in support and we agreed to differ. I took a year out and got jobs on building sites, at the Post Office sorting mail and in a factory making metal office furniture. I saved what I could. For a long time, I only saw him for brief holidays. Things were better like that.
But when, ten years after going to America his career ended in demotion and redundancy, he and my mother sold or gave away everything they owned, including our old Labrador Parry, and limped back to the UK. There, he suffered a nervous collapse that left him bedridden for a year or more. Unable to take responsibility for what had happened or to see that some things in life are mere accident, he turned his bitterness and disappointment on his wife, his family and his friends. But it was his wife and my mother who took the brunt of his anger.
None of us realized the full extent of his behavior back then, or perhaps we all turned a blind eye to the signs. I’m not sure any longer. My mother may have been his prime victim but also his prime protector. There was collusion between them. This was Stockholm Syndrome in suburbia, and there was little we could do to help because at some level she didn’t want to be helped. I tried many times, and failed. And so it went on, for years and years.
When my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and her physical and mental abilities began to seep away, my father’s anger and anxiety grew out of all proportion. He justified locking her in her room as being for her own safety. He banned friends and family from seeing her, for reasons that were never entirely clear. He point blank refused to allow anyone to look after her in order to give them both a break, even for a weekend. He needed the burden of her care to justify his own misery perhaps, and at some level, he was jealous of the attention her condition brought her.
As she deteriorated, carers came in three times a day to look after my mother in her own home. When they reported suspicious bruising on her arms and legs, word got back to my father and he would no longer allow them to wash her. Social services were called in. The charm he’d used as currency all his life allowed him to wriggle free of further intervention. Still, the flags were now officially red.
When social services and then the police were asked to intervene again—more bruises and his ‘inappropriate touching’ of a carer—I was called to a meeting of police officers and social services officials. Twelve people in all, we sat around a conference table and the assembly of professionals heard my evidence together with reports from the care agency. They were silent as I recounted the long history of my parents’ relationship. The thought of my own complicity choked my words and I looked around at the assembled faces half expecting to be indicted myself. Why hadn’t I done more I wondered? How had I allowed things to reach this point?
The head of adult protection services was incensed and threatened to go straight round to the house, but he was talked out of it. Others said that without firm proof, such an action could only make things worse. More discussion resulted in stalemate with a firm commitment to be more vigilant, but little in the way of concrete action. It became shockingly clear that husband and wife each have inviolable rights over one another’s welfare and that the law struggles to assert itself in such situations. Without my mother bringing a complaint, without independent testimony, it was clear there was little that could be done. Other than to remove her from her own home.
They asked me what I thought about that. I said we should, if only so we could work on his behavior without leaving her at risk. Still, we needed his permission, if you will. And so, we circled him. I played the concerned son and the authorities regularly sent in social workers to let him know he was being watched. We all soft-peddled the abuse. To his face, anyway. We worked instead to gain his trust and I spent more time ‘being nice’ to my father than I had in years. By citing his heroic efforts to take care of his wife of fifty years and the sacrifices he’d made and was still making with his own health, he was first flattered, then cajoled into considering a care home for my mother. We sold the idea as a temporary respite, a chance to see how things panned out.
Finally, he agreed. Even though it broke my heart to see her ejected from her own home, and with my connivance at that, at least he could no longer hurt her. I went with her and tried to settle her in as best I could. It was hopeless of course. I would visit my mother to find her in the upright armchair, vacant and disorientated, sometimes weeping, sometimes surprisingly okay, as she seems to be today.
With my mother in the care home, I cut off all contact with my father. I had no reason to ever see him again. For years I’d tried to buffer the worst excesses of his behaviour. Now, with no victim in easy reach, I was free of all that. Friends and extended family had long ago given up on him. I was amongst the last to abandon him, but when I did so, I now understand that I hurt him deeply. He told anyone he could that I was bi-polar or plain mad. He went to the police with the same story. It only occurred to us all too late in the day that perhaps he too was suffering some form of dementia.
But what’s done is done and whatever guilt I may feel, it seems Oedipus rises. My mother and I will live together, if not as man and wife, then certainly with a degree of intimacy unusual between mother and son. A Greek tragedy is about to be revived in the leafy suburbs. I only hope I can come up with an ending that doesn’t involve going blind or wandering in the wilderness. Because now the prospect is becoming real, it is just a tad unsettling to contemplate, even without the tragic end. The concrete reality is right here, right now, in front of my eyes.
Whilst I’ve been exhuming my father and conducting a rudimentary and rather uncharitable postmortem, my mother has tired and is now falling asleep in her chair, her eyes rolling, all body strength gone. She is leaning unnaturally to one side, her neck at an angle like she’s been hanged and cut down. My sister is trying to keep her upright. I reach to support her elbow, but the downward pressure of her tiny frame is surprisingly hard to buttress. My sister suggests it might be time to call in some help.
When we go to leave a few minutes later, there is a care worker either side of my mother. They are pulling her dead weight forward in the chair, the better to slip a sling behind her torso that will wrap under her arms and fasten across her chest with Velcro. The sling attaches to the two outstretched forks of the white metal hoist parked and ready to lift my mother out of the chair and lower her into the waiting wheelchair.
I watch closely because soon I will be performing this manouvre. I know that by the time we’re driving away, the care workers will have wheeled her down the corridor to the bathroom and begun to change her nappy—they call them ‘pads’. Again, something I will be doing very soon. We look back in her direction as we reach the door to the lobby, but we can’t see her for the carers and the machinery of the hoist. It’s not the goodbye my sister wanted and I can see she’s not very successfully holding back tears. We haven’t told her of our intention to take her home.
We haven’t mentioned the death of her husband and our father, the man she was married to for more than fifty years. The right moment just didn’t seem to come along. I’m sure it will. I tell my sister it will. I tell her I’ll handle it when she’s gone, back to Canada. And I will. I have to.
Before I go, I just want to say a little thank you…for sticking with me on this. Families can be tricky to talk about and hard to listen to…so, by way of brightening the future, why not join me next time to discover if love at first sight is real, or just an illusion…remember that photo of Genie? I do…