Orphaned at 65

WE buried my father on Tuesday morning. He was 101 years old.

The funeral service was held in the small village church where he had been choirmaster seventy years ago. There were yellow and green Spring flowers on his coffin, and vases of daffodils on each windowsill of the church, which was filled by around seventy mourners.

The canon read the eulogy I had written for him, and I added a personal tribute to the man who had been devoted to my mother for 73 years, and who was cast adrift by her death in December.

After the service, we lay his coffin in the grave that had so recently been my mother’s final resting place too.

So, in three months, I have gone from Retired With Parents to a newly-orphaned pensioner. I have written before about the growing phenomenon of people reaching an age to retire from work and still having one or both parents alive.

Again, my new situation would have been extremely rare not long ago, but is one that our increasingly longer-living population means will be become more and more the norm.

When your parents reach such advanced age, their deaths must, surely, affect you differently than if they had died twenty or thirty years younger? Perhaps the sense of loss is the same, but is the grief lessened, both because they were blessed with long and full lives, and because they are finally released from final months of distress and sorrow?

As we left the church, one of the mourners described their deaths as “the end of an era.” Such a statement would seem hyperbolic or vain-glorious; my parents lived out their lives quietly in a small village on the outskirts of a town (later city) in south Wales. They may have lived through major events (in my father’s case, including two world wars, four monarchies and twenty-five governments), but the rhythm of their own lives was the steady one of generations before them in that village.

But I understand what was meant; having lived together in their village home for so long (73 years married and four years of courtship before that), their passing does feel like something significant – not least, of course, in my own life, but also for the village community.

Our daughter, meanwhile, has moved into my parents’ home; life goes on, there is continuity. I’m glad about that.

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Saying goodbye to my mother

WE buried my mother on Thursday. She died, a week earlier, in the care home where she had lived since February.

My father was at her side when she died, suddenly but peacefully. They had been married for 73 years, so it is some comfort to know he was there when she passed away.

Dad decided that he would not go to the funeral. I was glad. At the age of 100 (it is his 101st birthday tomorrow), the physical and emotional effort would have been too much for him.

I spoke at the service on his behalf. I asked everybody to remember mum as she was throughout her 95 years. Remember the sense of fun, the love for her family, the capacity for hard work, and not least her determination to have things done just the way she wanted them.

I did not want family and friends to be left with abiding memories of how she was in the last year of her life. Dementia’s baleful shadow had darkened the joy, but she deserved much more than for dementia to define her life.

I have written before about the modern phenomenon of people reaching retirement age and still having living parents. My parents, for example, were still young when their parents died. My two grandfathers were hard-working men; one was a coal miner, the other a tinplate worker. Men who did those sort of tough physical jobs tended not to enjoy long retirements.

But for us products of the ‘baby boomer’ years immediately after the second world war, things can be different. Many of us have the privilege of having parents who reach advanced age. With the privilege comes responsibility; often, as in my case, that responsibility eventually comes down to the moment you realise your parents need to move into a care home for their own comfort and safety.

My mother’s long life is now over. Dad remains in the care home that he had shared with mum since June. Both of us are finding ways to adjust to our changed circumstances.

Dad came home from the war to no job and no pay

I HAVE been discovering details of my father’s life over the last few days. His hearing has improved since the care home staff gave him a course of oil drops to soften wax in his ears, and he has become more like his old chatty self.

His mother died giving birth to him (in 1914) and I knew that he had been raised by a spinster aunt. What I didn’t know (or had forgotten) was that his father also had a brother, Tom, who was killed as a young man in a coal mining accident, and three more sisters in addition to the one who raised him.

All three married, and two of them subsequently became mothers of daughters, each of whom married in turn. It seems very likely, therefore, that I will have many cousins that I know nothing about.

I had been thinking that I should attempt to research mine and my father’s Irish ancestry (his grandfather had emigrated to Pembrokeshire from southern Ireland and married a woman from Tenby before moving to Swansea to work in one of the many steel mills in the town.)

But now I realise that I also have a large Welsh family on both my father’s and my mother’s side. I have made tentative enquiries with the Swansea U3A’s Family History group about starting some research.

Today, my father was telling me about his time in the British Army. As a tinplate ‘finisher’ he was classified as being in a reserved occupation when World War Two started. It was agreed that the level of manual labour involved was too arduous for women.

But in 1944 he received his call-up papers, and reported for duty at Brecon Barracks – despite the protests of his bosses at the Fairwood Tinplate Works in Gowerton, a village near Swansea.

When he was finally demobbed in ’47 (two years after the war had ended in Europe) the Fairwood had closed. An uncle of my mother’s, who worked at another tinplate mill, told him that he had heard that ex-Fairwood workers who had been called up to the armed forces during the conflict would not qualify for redundancy payments.

“So I went to see the union rep” my father told me “and asked him if that was true. He said ‘Yes that’s right’. I said ‘Why did you agree to that?’ And he said ‘Because we didn’t know how many of you would be coming back.’ ”

I think that was shameful.

Sadly, while my father has been restored to his love of conversation, my mother slips ever further into the dementia patient’s land of lost communication. Her few, muttered, sentences now are nearly always addressed to her long-dead sister.

And so the wheel keeps turning, and I struggle to find any sign of God’s grace as I sit at my mother’s bedside.

Everything has changed: a moral dilemma

WE passed a sad and significant milestone in my mother’s journey in dementia on Friday of this week. For the first time, she did not know who I was. She thought that I was her father. Nothing could convince her otherwise.

Today, she seemed brighter when I visited her at the care home where she lives with my father. She seemed to understand when I told her that yesterday Jacqui and I went to see our son and grandchildren in Gloucester. I left her sitting quietly in the lounge when I went to see my father in his room.

When I came back, everything had changed. She was terribly agitated. Her hands gripped desperately the arms of her chair. Her legs continually jack-knifed up towards her chest. Her eyes were staring straight ahead at sights known only to her. She was having urgent and angry conversations with or about her sister, dead now for thirty years and more.

Earlier this week, a mutual friend informed me that an ex-work colleague’s mother-in-law had died. I telephoned my ex-colleague (he was Best Man at my wedding 27 years ago). He explained that his mother-in-law had fractured her hip in a fall, and had died in hospital after contracting pneumonia.

I said I was very sorry. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “It’s a blessing. Her dementia had got so bad that she didn’t know who she was, or where she was, anymore. Her death was a release for her and us.”

I am not ashamed to admit that I have reached the point where I simply want the same release for my mother. Is it morally wrong to wish for the death of a parent? I cannot believe it is.

Perhaps I am being selfish, wanting to remember my mother as she was, not as she is. And I know that, if she is ‘spared’, worse is to come for her yet.

I have written before about how Britain’s ageing population means more and more will face this situation; people who have reached retirement age themselves, with parents who are still alive but struggling with the physical and mental consequences of advanced age.

I find myself increasingly impatient with the medical and religious arguments against what is called assisted suicide. I know my mother, a proud and independently-minded woman, would not have wanted her closing days to be like this.

Distressing for us; surely insufferable, in her lucid moments, for her.

Sad journey

TODAY, for the first time, my mother could not remember my name. She thought that, perhaps, it was Harry. The real Harry is the man to whom she has been married for 73 years. She cannot remember their wedding or their long life together.

Her care home is just across the park from my house, so I can visit her almost every day. The carers are kind and gentle. But I know that, increasingly, all we are doing is holding her hand as my mother continues on her faltering journey into this darkness.

I am not a man of faith; if I was, I would struggle to explain or find a reason for what is happening.

I know that I am hardly unique in this experience. But this is my mother, and I am losing her slowly.

Laughter in the darkness

TODAY I told mum that dad was no longer able to visit her at her care home. He has been in hospital for a few weeks, and she was asking why he hadn’t been to see her.

“His legs are too bad,” I said. “He can’t walk any more.”

“Oh, I’m glad about that,” she said.

“Why are you glad?”

“Because I thought that perhaps he had gone off with another woman.”

Dementia is a horrible thing. But occasionally it can make you laugh out loud. Even if it is just laughter in the darkness.

Mum moved into Hillside Care Home in February. She had been growing increasingly confused and anxious for several years.

One day I dropped off some cleaning things I’d bought at the supermarket.

“I’ve left everything in a bag in the kitchen” I said.

“Where are they?”

“In a bag. In the kitchen.”

“Are they coming in?”

“Do you mean is Jacqui (my wife) coming in?”

“Yes.”

“She’s not here. I came on my own.”

“But she’s all right, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she’s in Llanelli.”

“Oh, thank God.” As if, by visiting her sister in Llanelli, Jacqui had evaded some danger or threat.

Dementia can be funny and sad at the same time.

“Has he got a wife?” mum asked my cousin one day.

“Who?”

“Him.” She pointed at my father, sat in his usual place on the sofa in front of the tv.

“Yes, he’s got a wife. You.”

“Who is he then?”

“Uncle Harry. Well, I call him Uncle Harry. You just call him Harry.”

“Oh, I thought he was dead.”

We were able to keep mum at home until it was no longer safe for her to stay there. We were lucky enough to find a good care home just minutes away from our house.

In one of the several lounges, there is a scale model of the Titanic. Initially I thought it could have been a metaphor for mum’s dementia. A life holed, a voyage discontinued.

But the metaphor would not work. Mum, and many of the other residents at Hillside, have not been sunk by a single catastrophic event.

They are more like survivors in a lifeboat, drifting in uncharted waters with uncertain bearings and a malfunctioning compass. And the lifeboat is slowly filling with water.

Soon after she moved, I called to see mum and found she had gone out on a bus trip. The next day I asked her how she enjoyed it.

“It went on and on,” she said. “Bumping.”

“So you won’t be going again?”

“Oh yes, I expect so.”

She had taken to wearing rouged cheeks and bright red lipstick. Her handbag was full of make-up; some of it even belonged to her.

Jacqui and I sat with her in the conservatory lounge. There was a magnolia tree in full bloom in the garden next door. It was getting towards evening, and the birds were singing in the trees. The birdsong mingled with the sound of police or ambulance sirens in the city laid out below us.

We walked home through the park. Children were playing beneath the trees.

“It’s difficult,” Jacqui said.

“It is what it is. And it’s not going to change.”

Except that now there are more bad days than before. Days of private, whispered conversations and smiles. Busy restless fingers pulling at invisible threads.

I see my mother slowly moving away from me. But just now and then, we still catch the sound of laughter in the darkness.