The father had had an embolism in his brain more than a year ago. It had happened one
Sunday after he had been out for a walk and a drink in the local pub. The mother had been
visiting her sister that weekend and he hadn’t expected her back until later that evening.
He had felt strange and had sat down on the bed. The world had become kind of tilted and
then the vision in his left eye went. An unexpected nausea that also felt strangely comforting
and welcome had been rising from his chest and had settled in his mouth close to the lips. His
left hand felt numb, but also kind of bigger and pulsating. He had rung the ambulance himself
before he lost consciousness.
He now couldn’t remember any of this and neither the events that had followed. His time in
the intensive care unit for example. Only one visitor at a time had been allowed in and so the
mother and the daughter had been taking turns. Every time they had passed each other at the
thick tight-fitting doors that closed with a swishing sound, the one going in would look at the
other inquiringly, as if to ask: what have you done? Is he still alive?
He also had trouble recalling his daughter’s age and other details about his former life. Of
course, thought the daughter, of course he remembers useless facts, who was prime minister
for how long and what year that political event or other had taken place. But he barely
remembers my name.
The father was not aware of that discrepancy. The mother didn’t want to talk about what he
remembered about the daughter or not, it made her feel uncomfortable and she also thought
the daughter was going on about it too much. They had other things to deal with than hurt
feelings or unresolved childhood issues. Besides, it would be better not to be too outspoken
about such things, or anything really. It would look bad if the father should die sooner than
expected. Of course, nobody be sure when this would be.
The mother and daughter had cared for the father since he had been discharged from hospital
after almost 4 months with a prognosis of: “There is nothing more we can do. But he can live
like this for another 10 years or even longer. “
Their lives now took place in the room that had previously been the parents’ bedroom and
had been converted into a hospital room. The father stayed most of the time in a hospital bed
that could be adjusted up and down and took up most of the room. The mother had a fold
away camp bed in one corner where she slept on at night. She could not leave the father for
longer than 15 minutes as he would get anxious and call her name again, and again.
He was fond of his daughter, but she didn’t appear much in his thoughts and he didn’t want anybody near him apart form the mother and his dog. It wasn’t anything personal.
The dog was a German shepherd called Prince. The father had owned a succession of dogs throughout his life from boyhood, all called Prince. This last Prince had been devastated when his beloved owner had been taken away for a long time without explanation and he had been out of his mind with joy when he had been brought back on a stretcher and almost toppled over the paramedics that were carrying him up the stairs. He was hugely protective of the father and suspicious of everyone, even the mother. But especially the daughter.
When she or the mother prepared the father’s medication he seemed to keep a close eye on them. Sometimes, when the daughter hesitated with a blister pack of tablets in her hand hovering over the little plastic dispenser, thinking: should I dissolve more of the little white ones with the gap in the middle? How long would he be out for the count? Would he wake up again? the dog gave a low growl. Or when the mother drew up a syringe for the nightly injection and thought: I think I read somewhere that injecting air into a vein is deadly but cannot be detected in an autopsy, he bared his teeth and gave a short sharp bark.
The mother and daughter shared the burden of care according to their abilities to suffer and endure and according to their loyalty to the father.
Neither of them could compete with the dog when it came to that.
The mother always kept in calling distance, she tried to do crossword puzzles with him and made him do writing exercises. She cooked his favourite meals and encouraged him to do things with his “good side” and made him exercise his “bad side” and read article after article about how people still had had a complete recovery after brain damage years after the incident. She did not want to let go of the idea that they would have a nice retirement together after a long and hard working- life. The details had to be adjusted a bit, they would have to take a wheelchair taxi when travelling for example and require assistance with certain things. But they could still visit the theatre or meet friends in a wheelchair accessible restaurant. People in wheelchairs could have a normal life. But gradually she had had to come around to the realisation that it wasn’t only about the wheelchair. The father would not travel anywhere anymore and thus neither did she. He couldn’t even concentrate on a TV show, let alone a theatre play, and she neither was able to read a book or follow a film as he was constantly interrupting her with his calls and pain and anxiety. She was trapped. After caring for others her whole life, first her siblings, then her children, then her parents- she had envisaged
retirement as at last being able to spend the day how she saw fit. Now she was the father’s slave morning to evening and through the night. But she hadn’t dared to be resentful, not at first. But now, after more than a year, she found herself having certain thoughts that made the dog growl.
The daughter did the heavy lifting required to put the father in the wheelchair and shower and she rolled him onto his side to put him onto the bedpan and she cleaned him and the bedpan afterwards. She had taken charge of all correspondence with government agencies. On the phone she was a caring daughter who fought for her father’s treatment.
At mealtimes she observed the father, how he clumsily lifted a spoon with pureed food to his lopsided mouth and sucked it in with a sound that made her skin crawl. She wiped his mouth with a hard gesture. “Ouch!” he shrieked. The daughter looked at the mother and said “Sorry”.
She sometimes tried to recall fond childhood memories of herself with the father, but it was as if her thoughts turned away and drifted into a foggy haze of light and shadows, of forest sounds and children’s voices. She sometimes heard the father’s voice in her head like it had been before the embolism. And she got angry at all the sentences that had stranded there on her mind’s shore and not one kind one was among them. Did he deserve to be cared for this well by her mother? She didn’t think of herself as caring well for him, she was sure he could feel the spite in her every touch and move.
And the dog that was always sitting beside the bed, with that heartbroken gaze, licking the paralysed hand of his master. She had to grit her teeth and turn away with loathing.
Also, in her mind, certain thoughts had begun to form.