A few weeks ago my dad had a stroke. I only found out because his voice was slurred at 9am. Of course he felt ‘fine’ and wouldn’t go to the doctor, my sister had just gone abroad on a new job and I was in the middle of Open University marking. I drove down a few days later, spoke to NHS direct and he was taken to hospital immediately. I then went round to his local drinking joint to tell his friends where he was. They were all ‘really worried’ but not worried enough to call an ambulance or stop serving him alcohol. I felt a great twang of irritation because the place was populated by the kind of men who call their wives ‘the old ball and chain’ and think of them as The Great Spoiler of Their Fun, yet are unable to work an electric kettle without them. I thought of that line from Father Ted: ‘Remember that time your husband tried to run a bath? And burned the house down?’
It’s horrible having to parent your own parent. I hate it anyway. Dad spent several days in the Clinical Decision Unit at Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital, in the ward where mum had died a few years ago. During his stay there, a young man with a tanned, rippled chest began to cough up buckets of blood. His wife screamed and a nurse whisked blue curtains round his bed while I moved dad into the corridor and sat him down. ‘You’re putting on weight’ said dad, the kind of comment he was prone to. ‘Thanks a lot dad. You always were immensely supportive’ I snarled back. His face crumpled and he tried to put his arms around me. A lump of soggy resentment filled my throat as I hugged him back but I thought you’ve had over forty years to show some affection.
My dad has never been comfortable around women. Raised by his mother and her claggy band of sisters in an Irish Catholic fug, his dad only occasionally returning from army duty, he has always preferred the conversation of men in pubs. Where you stand facing the bar, exchanging grunts. But he was saddled with two clever daughters and all I can remember him being concerned about was that we were ‘good girls’ and not ‘fat’. A clever man but stymied by anxiety he has allowed fear to rule his life. He and mum lived in Broadstairs for twenty years and it was she of course who returned phone calls, organised their social life, and got to grips with the Internet while he pottered round going out for breakfast, down to his local club, back to the house and out again. His family, brothers, sisters, cousins, would phone and write but he never responded so they have all but given up. My sister and I are all he has so he clings to us.
Dad was taken up to the stroke ward. He had an MMR a CT scan and a UTI as elderly people can often get urinary infections which cause confusion, which in turn can be mistaken for dementia. I stayed in Kent, speaking to my sister every day. I noticed that dad found it impossible to sit still, read the paper, or even listen to music. He wandered round and round the hospital garden. But then he had spent the past twenty five years going from place to place, unable to sit still. As though he was trying to get away from himself.
QEQM still operated their ridiculous ‘voice recognition software’ I remembered from mum’s stay. You ring the main number, and are told to speak the person or ward’s name clearly.
‘Dr John Crawford’ you say loud and clear.
‘Putting you through to the mortuary’ says the ‘state of the art voice recognition software’.
No change there then. The coffee was still shite and the wards still smelled of industrial cabbage, but there was a nice security guard who told me on the sly that nobody checked the car park after 6pm so not to worry about putting yet more money in the meter. Dad was on a specialist ward, grumbling about wanting to go home but he was safe. I spoke to a specialist who said that dad would be unlikely to regain his memory and would probably be unable to live an independent life any longer.
Dad is now in a nursing home, my sister is flying over and we have to work out some sort of long term solution for dad. His friends text me or ring sometimes hoping that we can ‘sort it out’ or ‘fix it’ but not offering any practical solutions. He is still waiting for a needs assessment but I have to take him out of the nursing home or there will be no chance of his memory kicking in – he will become more and more institutionalised. Maybe if he starts up his routine again he may – just may – fall back into it? We could hire a carer