Today was a difficult day.
J and I drove to Manchester to visit my parents, and I went knowing that my sister would be there. My mother is in the same state - unable to speak, not eating, she has a chest infection, a PEG which is a tube directly into her stomach through which she is fed. She is exisiting, not living. My sister had come up from London yesterday, and I deliberately wanted to see her, as I wanted to reinforce whatever connection we had established last week when we spoke for the first time in some 35 years.
J was a star. He sat and talked to my sister for a while, whilst I sat with my mother and just tried to come to terms with the fact that I will never have the chance to talk to her again in this lifetime - I was just too late, or rather I was asked (allowed?) to come to see her when the chance for any meaningful communication was truly over. Then he went and talked to my father whilst I talked to my sister, who has had a nightmare couple of years dealing with my parents. I cannot understand why she didn't ask me to come sooner, but I suppose she was frightened of my father's reaction.
My father is an enigma. He is totally devastated and defeated by what has happened to my mother, and refuses to let her die with some dignity. To this end, whilst he, my sister and my mother's carer were visiting her in hospital about a month ago, they discovered that she had not eaten or drunk for several days and they made an attempt to feed my mother using a syringe to get some fluid into her mouth. The hospital staff apparently reported this as an "assault" and social services and the police somehow became involved. The hospital, however, had not fed her, or hydrated her until they were forced to do so. Apparently, and this was news to me, hospitals have a right to withdraw treatment without consulting the immediate family if they see fit to do so, and my sister and father had to get solicitors and barristers involved so that my mother would be hydrated and this feeding tube placed directly into her stomach. I had no idea that this had been such an appalling nightmare for all of them.
I have told J and I have told both my children that it is my wish, my express desire, to be allowed to die with dignity. This means that if I cannot toilet myself, feed myself, or speak for myself, then I do not want to be kept alive. The quality of life is more important to me than the quantity. I suppose my mother is not in pain, but as I suffer from chronic pain, were I to be mentally impaired in any way, I would not be able to rationalise the pain, and would probably be killed anyway by an overdose of morphine to stop me screaming! Oh the joys of thinking about these things....
Two good things have emerged from this devastation. Firstly I have contact with my family for the first time since I left to marry G in 1974, and have met my sister and have had some type of reconciliation with my father. Secondly, J has been able to talk to my Dad and fill in some of the gaps in his history and in my family history and that has been really helpful to me. I so hope that my sister and I retain our contact even when all this nightmare is over. She is lovely - and I am proud of her. She does what she does with humour, with dignity, with care and pride, and is someone I am glad to have met. I would have enjoyed meeting her even if she were not my sister but there it is - I do love her even though I hardly know her yet.
The flat in Manchester is cheerless. One enters through a long and narrow entrance hall, with floorboards that creak alarmingly. The bedrooms are off this hall, and it ends where the lounge and dining area begin and they are connected to the kitchen. My mother's bed is made up in what should have been the dining area. The lounge is like a colourless waiting room - chairs pushed round the sides of the room to make space for the hoist should my mother be able to get out bed again at some point, and the walls and furnishings colourless. The temperature is kept high so that my mother - and presumably my father - will feel comfortable.
The place feels like a box, and my father who cannot walk and will not leave my mother for fear that she will die if he goes out is a prisoner in its walls. He told me that he knows his leg muscles are growing weaker for lack of excercise but then he shrugs his shoulders and says there is nothing he can do. He and mum moved into this flat four years ago when they were both in their 80s, and since then there has been a catalogue of health disasters culminating in my mother's fracturing her humerus which was the start of this final downward spiral.
The awful thing, the truly hurtful thing, is that I have been asking to go and see them for years. I could have been there to help. I should have been there to help. But noone would go against my father fearing his anger, and yet now, after all this time, he gives me a hug when I hug him, and I know that he too feels only sadness and huge aching regret for all the wasted years of our lives, when we could have enriched each other's existences. But I could not follow his religious path, and so he disowned me.
We were both hotheaded and unwilling to compromise. Now, although I understand my younger self, I think I too could have been more circumspect, more willing to bend a little but he too was totally uncompromising, just cutting me out of his life. Ironically, I think I have probably seen more of him and my mother than either of my two brothers during the past few weeks. There is no point in going back over all of it. It is old history and what is done is done.
That is the wisdom - and sadness - of age.