It’s been a year since we moved in with my father, on 30 September 2021. Not a happy year. But utterly memorable. We’ve kept him fed, watered, warm, fairly healthy, clean and, most importantly, we have kept him company.
Eric will be 95 in January. He hasn’t left his bedroom for several months. No more power in his legs. He doesn’t eat much. He has a commode and a TV. Vascular dementia is slowly killing him. We leave out family pictures and photograph albums to jog his memory, which is riddled with supertanker-sized holes.
His questions on an average-to-bad day might include “are my parents alive”, “where do I live”, “are you my brother”, or “do I still go to work?” He has no short-term memory beyond 4-5 seconds, while his longer-term memories are patchy.
He was once a tough guy, who inspired my dread and admiration in equal amounts. It’s all there in Blog 260 (https://thebiscuitfactoryonline.com/2020/02/09/260-bad-company/).
Now his agency is almost gone. Odd splashes of ego and confidence remain, although he cannot read much or walk far.
Going to the toilet can be an effort. He prefers his drinks through a straw. Food with a spoon.
Living with Dad is like swimming through mud. Ensuring he gets drink inside him, fretting over his minimal appetite, worrying constantly that he may be cold, uncomfortable, sad or lonely. No holidays, few breaks. Anxiety.
Yet he brings unexpected and strange gifts. His past intermingles with the now. I awoke him one morning, but he couldn’t leave his dream. He was making a speech: “I’ve had a wonderful day that I’ll never forget, and you gentlemen have a wonderful golf club. Thank you so much.” (Was that an allegory for his life?)
Inadvertently, he makes us laugh. He likes his curtains drawn at night, so that no neighbour can see into his room. Even though his room is on the top floor of three, a light at night might make him viewable from houses higher up the street. I drew the curtains recently, only to be told that there was still a slight gap at the top. I pointed out this was too high for any neighbour to see in.
“What about airline pilots?” he replied.
The trick to keeping him buoyant is talk. Finding a subject that he partially recalls, then thoroughly exploring the topic, and all the offshoots. He was once a golf club secretary for five years, so we might chat about the members, the course, the sport, the bar, the staff, and so on. Maybe as we watch golf on TV. I make a note on my phone every time he vouchsafes a new detail. Then add it to the next conversation.
Maureen is also brilliant with him, but we have hit a towering problem. He recently resurrected a series of sleazy remarks that he made to my wife not long after we moved in. Blunt, unsubtle requests to fondle specified parts of her anatomy, and for her to reciprocate. Maybe he mistakes Maureen for his wife, who died in 2006 – or just sees any female visiting his bedroom as ‘fair game’. When the remarks emerge, they are often accompanied by attempts at self-pleasuring beneath the sheets. He cannot help himself. Maureen gets distressed: angry and upset. She withdraws from visiting his room for a few weeks. I get it. I fill in and step up a gear. Neither of us complains too much as it brings down the other.
Dad and I have unresolved tensions, forgotten by him. Rage leftovers from my childhood. I want to vent that occasionally, but he wouldn’t begin to understand.
Yet there is also a welcome intimacy that I would never have anticipated. Sitting him up in bed for his drinks requires that I nestle softly into his neck, my arms locked under his armpits, before lifting him up and back. We both smile at the effort. “I flew through the air,” he sometimes gasps. And I empty his bedpan, with its piss and stinking turds. I have helped clean his room after he tried to shit in a urine bottle.
It may seem odd, but intuition tells me that this closeness is healing, for both of us. And there is usually a chuckle around the corner, even if one party doesn’t see the humour.
Eric lives almost entirely on tea and custard creams. I took some up a while back and he noticed that one of the biscuits had a corner missing. He scrutinised it keenly, pointing his finger at the absent section and then looking me hard in the eyes. “Did you eat that?”
Until Dad started to suffer, I gave little consideration to dementia and related illnesses. The learning curve has been immense, witnessing a remorseless one-way condition. The blessing is that he forgets any woes almost as soon as he discovers them. He has become like a child, kicking his feet under the bedclothes as he goes to sleep.
We watch endless hours of sport, to help pass the time. One of the five cats we brought to his house generally jumps up on his bed while we view. Once, during a televised soccer game, his face crinkled in thought. “Do cats form football teams?” he asked.
I’ve discovered how much Dad loves language. I’m grateful, as I can see where I get it. He can still recite chunks from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. At his East London junior school in Globe Road, Bethnal Green, he regularly used the same two words to win the weekly spelling competition. Unique and antique. The other kids weren’t interested. As his condition worsens, nursery rhymes fascinate him. ‘Jack Sprat’ mesmerises him. He puzzles over the meaning, wondering why Jack’s wife “would eat no lean”. If one of our felines jumps up while he ponders, he starts the rhyme again. “Black cats can eat no fat”.
Football chat animates him, taking in Eric’s first visits to Leyton Orient in the 1930s, or seeing Tottenham play Arsenal in the annual ‘Jubilee’ game each August. He marvels at an intrepid expedition south of the Thames (“like a foreign country”) to Charlton Athletic, where Derby County were the visitors. Dally Duncan and Sammy Crooks are two names he somehow remembers from the game.
Soccer talk invariably ends with the question of how much a ticket would cost now. When I suggest somewhere between £40 and £50 for a top game he explodes with surprise, indignation and laughter. “But it was threepence when I was a boy.” That conversation can take place ten or more times if we watch a game.
I try to be kind, tolerant and compassionate. I strive to treat him with the tenderness I would prefer if ever ending up in such frailty.
But, some days, just being in the same house is mentally exhausting. A ceaseless stress is his repeated requests for cigarettes. I explain dutifully that he has almost killed himself with fags, that he risks setting the bedclothes alight. He agrees that any more would be unwise. Two minutes later he asks if he can have a cigarette. The night hours can be ravaged by his cough, linked to the tapestry of scars on his lungs from 80 years of smoking.
I still work, in a small study just yards from his bed. My ears are always listening for his requests for help, or for the squeaking floorboards that tell of his short trip to the commode. I haven’t touched alcohol at home for months. Being drunk and caring don’t mix.
The big daily pleasure, the Great Escape, is my four-mile afternoon walk at a local nature reserve. And there is a morning break when the carers wash him. When my brother Neil stands in, Maureen and I enjoy delightful hours away. Usually the coast or the cinema.
Then it’s back to the circular reality of sitting by the bed, hoping the TV will preoccupy him or discussing his life. His father Harold’s death when Eric was just a toddler. The horse and cart that crashed through the window of his mum’s shop in Bethnal Green in the 1930s. His neighbour Podar Currie, whose family were so poor that there were no birthday presents. The firework that cost half a penny – known as the Boy Scout Rouser. Going to the speedway at Hackney Wick Wolves, with his cousins Terry and Alf, proudly wearing his red and gold scarf.
A good session plunges him into sleep for hours. Often preceded by the admission that he is “all mixed up”.
He recalls looking over his gran’s back wall in Moss Street at Oswald Moseley and his parading Black Shirts. He remembers London’s barrage balloons that were often released too late in the Blitz.
You learn to chip in with names and dates and events so that he forges on.
We talk of his evacuation to Norfolk and Staffordshire during WW2 with his grammar school. Meeting Kenny from Kennington and Ronnie and Renie from Ladbroke Grove. Then back to London, cruising the streets looking for dog ends. Classic line from Eric: “I would smoke anything that lit.” His first job at the Ardeth Tobacco Company. First girlfriend – Joyce Lewis.
In 1944 he joined the navy, aged 16. Trained as a coder.
Missed any WW2 combat. Sailed around the world, including Cape Horn, lingering longest in Ceylon. Demobbed at Whale Island, in Portsmouth, in 1948.
Back to East London (Homerton), he began work at Billingsgate fish market. Morning finishes, long sessions at Hackney public baths to wash away the stink. Going dancing at the Tottenham Royal on Saturday nights with his mates Wally Knight and Billy Tissle. Meeting Mum at Butlins in Skegness, marrying her in 1952.
After that, the haziness thickens. His football mates and his jobs flit in and out of his mind. I’m usually the one telling the story. Which is all he has to hang onto, for no more than a couple of seconds, before the void returns.
In the wider world, in 2022, there is deepening chaos. War, financial collapse, political deceit and ineptitude globally. I’m glad Eric cannot begin to comprehend the turmoil.
An odd vision came to me the other day. That Maureen and I are metaphorically protected, almost invisible, tucked away to the side, as we push Eric along his destined journey by night, in a cart or a wheelbarrow, while the warring troops sleep. He rests by day when battle recommences.
His involuntary humour helps keep us pushing. We were watching cricket the other day. He finished his cup of tea, and I handed him his two prescribed pills.
“Are there pills for cricket?” he asked.
“Dad…why would pills be needed for cricket?”
“To stop people falling asleep”.
My father the demented, dwindling genius.
We could put him in a home, but nobody would know him intimately, or truly care for him. He always said he wanted to die “in his castle”, so that’s the plan. On we go.