Two hundred and twenty days after the pandemic and I’m not sure which is the biggest threat to my father: my impatience or Covid-19.
I offer you bad news about the new blockade.
“Cookies.” He answers. “Nicole Kidman!”
The Australian actor is one of Dad’s favorites. Despite being immobile and turning 90, this affection does not fade, perhaps even increases. The same goes for cookies. The only thing more important than Nicole and the cookies, today, is not to stay in a draft. Any attempt at conversation returns to the triad of priorities at the center of the old man.
Dad, I go to the stores …
“Nicole Kidman. Cookies. Door!”
This is not madness; He doesn’t think Kidman is in the Co-op. Somehow she’s crashed from Sky TV and can’t watch a show she’s recorded in which she’s starring in, and I’ve promised to get on the phone and fix it. I haven’t found the time because the thousand other things to do at my parents’ house have consumed another day and my scant reserve of good will.
I bring her a cup of tea, so that 92-year-old mom won’t stop and co-opt her on another trip to the kitchen as she walks past her chair.
“How are your mom and your dad? This polite question, which I am delighted, though increasingly surprised to answer with the word of its survival, has taken on a grimmer tone since Covid. People are waiting for bad news, but all we have is more of the same.
I went back to live with my parents in 2017, when I was in my 40s, to help them and myself as they seemed to be dying, and I was definitely getting a divorce. I wrote about the period two years ago. They recovered, slowly, in a kind of precarious stability, while it took me three years to get back on my feet and move again. Covid has imposed a stricter separation than any of us imagined. Not that my parents have noticed much difference.
Toilet paper paranoia, terminal shortness of breath – we were into all of that before it went mainstream. We got into this crisis precommitted, reeling at a different pace. Living with my parents in their old age had been like stepping out of history. And then in March, it seemed like history had made us all the same. Dad hadn’t been able to leave the house without help for two years. “I keep a low profile anyway,” Mom reflected, at the dawn of the first closing. welcome to our world, he seemed to be saying. Now they are all retired.
My father’s poor health has made the scale of his care beyond what we can handle as a family. Since the end of 2018, he has needed four daily visits from professional caregivers. With everyday indignities outsourced, I have moved out of their home for the second time in 40 years, although there are still many things my parents need in order to live at home. When the first closure was approaching, I was fixing an apartment in a very infected neighborhood and I stayed there. My sister’s job disappeared under the restrictions and, despite being 60 years old and asthmatic, she entered the care gap. 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 it means. However, a call to the front is always just a call away.
Dad is determined to die at home. It remains to be seen when, or from what, but you’ve had enough hospitals already, so that’s your decision. Doctors, district nurses and palliative care teams had assured us that they would facilitate this, but I read in April that if you leave now, they will not come. Instead, we will be required to download an instructional pdf and wait for the delivery of the necessary drugs and devices to take it to the other world ourselves. Nobody tells us this: I find out from the newspaper. I do not share my discovery. Shielding is not just physical. Part of the caregiver’s role during Covid is to limit their own hysteria and helplessness around caring, just like a parent would. Like a good soldier. It is an elaborate union of denial.
When their neighbors closed, Mom and Dad’s house became the busiest on the street. Caregivers, district nurses, three ambulances (one necessary; two for imaginary emergencies). When you can’t do anything yourself, it’s all someone else’s problem. In June, my sister seemed tense. The government guide recalled George Carlin’s joke about the military intelligence oxymoron. In July, I got on an empty train and went with my parents.
“Does the thing keep making people sick?” Mom asked, staggering toward me. You can also try to socially distance yourself from a puppy. The Thing is Covid, whose name eludes them as easily as mine. The old mind is egalitarian in its way; global crises are just as surely forgotten as small matters. Everything is lost anyway.
Out of psychological necessity, I joke about the death of my parents, but I don’t want to lose them in a headline. However, the story behind the Covid story is that life and death continue. I wasn’t with them one morning when my mother fell, fighting over the ironing board we begged her not to use, and cracked her head on the kitchen floor. I passed my driving test (age 49) in March, intending to take her to nice places; instead, our first trip is to the hospital.
They don’t let my brother and I go in with her, and this is where the crisis hits home. Like a benign Goldfinger looking at a beloved Bond, I hope my parents die. We have been working towards it for years, but being separated from them while they suffer, this awakens a deeper pain, something beyond bragging.
I cook in the car, knowing that Mom 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, who is here, in part, to monitor my naive driving, enters the hospital to look for her.
“Is it okay to leave the car here?”
“Yes!” Yell back.
But I parked next to the access ramp to the air ambulance platform and when he pulled out our black-eyed, stitched mother from A&E, the helicopter descends almost directly towards us. We put it in the car in the downdraft, like a remake of Last Of The Summer Wine set during the Vietnam War.
“Well,” Mom yells over the rotors as I reverse. “It’s good that you can drive.”
In August, my mother’s bonhomie has faded. She says she can’t take it much longer, being trapped inside with dad. “It’s driving me crazy.” And this despite the fact that we take it to the pubs, hairdressers and garden centers now open. The changes may seem subtle, from occasionally going out to almost never; But six months later, I see a difference. Deprived of the stimulation of even the most basic errands, like picking things off a store shelf, for example, her memory seems drained. And there’s less respite from my dad’s live broadcast of his own needs.
“Whatever happens, try to come back,” he says, referring to what happens with Covid. I know how she feels about Dad, but this is not a time for promises, so I divert my helplessness onto her. “You have to defend yourself,” I tell this nonagenarian who can almost walk. I no longer try to referee them. Besides, I can go now. I affirm positivity, then I run guilty.
At the end of October, I return to monitor my parents when the newspapers anticipate the government’s announcement of the second shutdown. Mom clutches the cover, urging me to flee.
It sounds terribly horrible. Go where you want to be and stay. “
I’ll be back, whatever happens, I say. But his attention has shifted suddenly, but usually, to the bottle of Cillit Bang that he has left on the counter.
“Did you put that there?”
“So am I using it?”
Well, there it is.
While Dad’s world is reduced to a cookie, my mother’s is a clean sink. If only I could remember. I convince her to sit down, which is never easy. We talk about Covid, but aside from the headlines and a granddaughter in Liverpool who has shrugged her shoulders, her deadly margin seems to pass us by. My mother’s last old friend just died of Parkinson’s, the one before an aneurysm. My parents have the Pyrrhic privilege of being the last of their gang to die. My mother downplays this, but her eyes are watery.
“I no longer have anyone to write to …”
We hold hands. Emotions establish their own rules.
“I’m lucky,” he concludes. “I’m not living alone, although I know that Dad doesn’t have much input … at least I have a family.”
We acknowledge our luck, but there are aspects of it that we do not discuss. Keeping our parents, especially Dad, out of a nursing home has been a blessing, an achievement, and a relentless challenge. Last year it made sense to consider it, and if it weren’t for Dad’s total resistance, it might have happened. Would he, or would they, have survived this year, if so? How would we have navigated guilt if it weren’t? Sometimes it feels crazy at home, but it’s still the biggest problem.
“Older people on their own should be afraid to pick up the newspaper,” Mom continues, “because there are so many things you shouldn’t do. I think the English are pretty good neighbors. If you were alone, you may be lucky and have a good neighbor. We have always had good neighbors. “
And close deals?
“I think it’s horrible. Sounds like the touch of death to me. If you had a little shop … “
For the past six months it has been bothering me, more than the government seems, that house-to-house caregivers among the vulnerable are not being mandated or provided with testing. Meanwhile, the pubs that keep me sane are closing again, some forever. I point this out to Mom.
“If they cough, I’m leaning back,” he says of caregivers. But if they come to your house, you can’t tell people what to do. You just have to keep going, right? “
I have fixed Kidman’s problem through Sky’s automated call center. It would have been easier to get her to come and perform here in the front room. Now we can see the bad news on all channels. Television blasts at industrial volume. Subtitles too, just in case.
“This is a very, very difficult decision for the prime minister …” says the news reader.
I ask Dad what he thinks of that.
“Quite concerning, obviously. Very worrying. I am in the lap of the gods. At 90, you can die from almost anything; if it is not one thing, it could be another. All I can do is carry on normally. It’s the young people who worry me. “
“What are those?” Mom asks from a picture on television.
That is the virus.
Oh, how horrible. It looks like a lollipop. “
I tell them that I will keep coming back, whatever the government says.
A reporter appears on screen from Edinburgh.
“It must be hotter in Scotland, wear a sleeveless dress,” says Mom.
She’s inside, I point out.
“Still, I’m not taking my cardigan off.”
The reporter says Sean Connery has died.
“While you sleep, surrounded by your family,” Dad repeats the news, so reassuring must this prospect seem, the gold standard goodbye. He and Connery were born three weeks apart.
“What about you?” Mom asks.
“IN YOUR DREAM! SURROUNDED BY YOUR FAMILY! “
I leave them, yelling about the peaceful passing of James Bond, while I, Goldfinger, reserve a table at the pub before it closes for “the predictable.” And what a vanity that has turned out to be. Man plans, God laughs, the saying goes. I stopped planning months ago. We’ll see if the universe lives up to its end of the bargain.
• The author blogs at reluctantcarer.com
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.