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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘The Mother’

A death

So, it’s never a good sign when a hospital phones you at 2am, is it.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer a little bit over three years ago. No doubt it was growing inside him for a year or two before that, but three years ago was when it suddenly became symptomatic, when he woke up one morning to discover he was randomly bleeding from his nose and his mouth, because his blood had given up on the concept of clotting. Prostate cancer had already spread from his prostate through most of his skeleton, to the point that it was Definitely Not Curable. Manageable, though, so much so that he may well, they said, die of something else first.

At first when the phone rang, I thought it was my alarm. Then realised it was a landline number, from my old home town, some sort of switchboard number. I didn’t catch it before the phone stopped. Then, whoever it was immediately rang back a second time.

I’d last spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier, after he phoned to tell me that he’d been to his consultant again. That was that. Not worth taking any more chemotherapy. He was going to be keeping him on one of his current treatments: it might, if he was lucky, keep him alive until the end of the year. If it didn’t work, he probably had a few weeks left.

I answered the phone rather blearily, to a random woman with my old home town’s accent asking if it was me. I found I couldn’t really speak, because I had already guessed where she was calling from and why she was calling. “He’s very confused and very tachycardic. We think you should come to the hospital.”

My mum had phoned a few days earlier to tell me he’d been admitted. He was having trouble breathing, so they had rushed him in in an ambulance, on oxygen. His spleen was failing. “They said his spleen is dead,” in my mother’s words. Now, I know you can happily live without any spleen at all, if you have to have it pulled out for some reason, but when a cancer patient suddenly starts to have unconnected organs turn into big and entirely non-functional lumps of meat, you know it’s not going to be long before phrases like “multiple organ failure” make the rounds.

The hospital was four hours’ drive away. I sat down and had a cup of tea.

Driving through the night, I wondered quite how I was going to react. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad show any sort of emotion of any sort. The day of his mother’s funeral, or any of the days leading up to it that I was home for, he didn’t cry a single tear. After the funeral we went home for lunch, then went out to buy a new camera. I tell a lie: he could get angry, he could shout, he could withdraw into a fuming silent rage. I’ve never seen him be sad, though, or show any kind of tender emotion. The roads were quiet, at first, and I had plenty of time to think about it. By 6am I was overtaking long lines of trucks heading to the North Sea ports, all of us still over half an hour away from our destinations, and I was driving towards a faint smear of dirty orange dawn light. By the time I reached the hospital, worked out where to park, it was just about dawn.

Of course, being half asleep when I’d answered the phone, I hadn’t actually thought to ask where in the hospital he was. It’s a big place, although strangely smaller than it felt when I had to go there to have my teeth sorted as a child, but the oncology ward was a very, very long walk from the entrance. When I reached the doors I had to ring a few times before a nurse came to the door to let me in; and then they hadn’t heard of him.

“Is he in A&E?”

“No, he’s an Oncology patient, and he was admitted on Sunday.”

She kindly led me to the nurses’ station and sat down at the computer, working down the list of wards until I spotted his name. And then another long walk, almost all the way back to the entrance and round another long set of stairs and corridors. I glided through the ward doors behind a nurse coming onto shift (hospitals are generally terrible at security) and found the nurses’ station. “Someone phoned about my father; he’s dangerously ill,” I said; they didn’t really need to ask who I was. “Oh!” they said instead, “you drove all that way straight here!”

He was in an isolation room at the far end of the ward. Not covered in tubes and probes as you might expect, other than an oxygen tube to his nose. He was almost naked, seemed to have thrown all the covers off the bed. Pale, almost hairless save a whiskery patch on each side of his chin, as if hairs had poured down from the corners of his mouth. He laid awkwardly, but he was awake, mumbling. My mother was there, and one of my uncles. I have a pair of uncles who are identical twins, and now I only see them occasionally every few years, it can be hard to work out which is which. I mentally started thinking to myself to avoid saying anything which might imply I thought I knew which uncle it was.

Dad’s eyes were dull, but he looked at me, and said something to me. “See, I said he would come to see you,” said my mother. He mumbled. Even unintelligible, he still had the same patterns of speech. He fumbled, moving his legs, trying to slip one out of the bed.

“Lie down and rest,” I said, like dealing with a sick child.

Mumbling: something about getting up. His breathing was forced, gasping, but strong and regular.

“No, you need to rest. You’re better here.” His skin was speckled with strange, fresh moles, some of them gory red lumps, like overactive birthmarks, standing proud from the skin by a quarter-inch or so. He was covered in bruises, including a large one roughly where, I suspected, the “dead” spleen would be, although I found out later that was just where all his medication had been injected. He started to pull at a sticky pad on his leg: it wasn’t actually being used, but looked as if it might have been for fastening a catheter tube down. “You can’t pull that off,” I said, “it says the glue is too strong. You need a special solvent.” It did indeed say “only remove with alcohol,” and I don’t think it meant “take shots so you don’t feel it.”

Mumbling: thirsty, maybe?

“Here’s your tea,” said my mother, passing him some very milky tea in a lidded plastic beaker. I knew when he had been admitted he had been nil-by-mouth; had that passed because it wasn’t necessary, or had that passed because he was on the way out anyway?

It felt like a long time, at the time, but writing this a few days later, my memory has compressed hours into a few flashes. My mother phoned the friend who gives her a lift to church every Thursday. “I’m in hospital,” she said, as if there wasn’t anyone else in the room. “They called me at 1am.” I wondered to what degree I was the second resort - how long had they waited between phoning each of us? I don’t trust my mother’s memory for facts.

He drifted away to sleep a little, but the nurses came to wash him and change his sheets, as they did at that time every morning. They asked us to leave the room, so we headed down to the deserted hospital restaurant, another very long walk away, down the same corridor that led towards the mortuary. I didn’t really want to eat, even though I had been starving whilst driving, so from the breakfast selection I asked for just a coffee, a sausage and a slice of black pudding. “Just that?” said the server, with a very puzzled look.

We sat by the window looking at the morning sky, and having relatively normal conversation. I tried not to wonder whether he would die whilst we were having breakfast, and instead wondered as to whether he would actually die today at all. This might be a false alarm; just a turn he had in the night.

He was still alive when we came up to the ward, in clean sheets, covered up now, still slumped sideways and vaguely half-awake. The nurses tried to rearrange his pillows, sit him upright, and he slowly drifted off to sleep. His breathing still the same: harsh, gasping, mouth open despite the oxygen tube by his nose. He slumped sideways again, and the nurses decided to leave him be. In his sleep, he dozily tried to pull the oxygen tube from his shoulder, but didn’t have the energy or the coordination.

The consultant and the doctors arrived on their morning round: a garrulous Scottish chap in a red shirt, Mr McAdam. “I’m sorry we have to meet like this,” he said, and complimented me on my facial hair. “We had a very lucid conversation the other day,” he said, “and we agreed it would be wrong to take any further serious interventions. Just too much suffering. He was happy with that decision.” And he ran through the list of problems my dad was facing. A burst stomach, leading to a thrombus. An infarcted spleen. Liver failure due to an additional liver disease. He didn’t actually say “multiple organ failure,” but he didn’t need to.

I realised, which I don’t think the doctors did, that Dad’s breathing was getting noticeably weaker as the doctors were stood around him. He was still breathing, though, even though it was definitely more shallow, definitely longer between breaths. The doctors filed out, trying to strike a balance between the bustle of rounds and the sombre tone needed around the families of the dying.

We watched him breathing, slower, slower and weaker, because there was not much else to do or think about. “I thought he’d gone there,” said my mum, “but then he started again.” She leaned in to see more closely, and held his hand.

There were a few seconds between breaths. The breaths themselves were shallow, hard to hear, very different from the gasping of a few hours earlier. And then: I didn’t think I could hear or see any movement any more. Nothing, and more nothing. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and took a photo of him: the phone made his skintone much healthier than reality did. “I think he’s gone,” I said. It was five to eleven in the morning.

A nurse passed the door, so I waved and beckoned her in. “We think he’s gone.”

She looked down at him, carefully. “I’ll call the doctors,” she said, “so they can pronounce. Do you want a cup of tea?” She went out, closing the door this time, and came back with tea, in the big mugs of the nurses, not the small mugs that visitors get; and some biscuits. We sat, dipping ginger nuts, the almost-certainly-dead corpse of my father in front of us. “I keep expecting him to jump up and say it’s all a joke,” said my mother.

It took over half an hour for the doctors to arrive; their job is to care for the living, after all. We stood outside the closed door of the room whilst they ran through whatever it is they do, working in a pair, I assume in case a lone doctor might be tempted to Shipmanise a still-living patient. “Do you want to go back and see him after they have done?” said a nurse. We went back inside the room; they didn’t appear to have moved him at all. Still slumped against the siderails of the bed, mouth still open, eyes still shut. His skin, getting on for an hour now after death, was white-pale and waxy-looking. I took another photo; the camera still tried to give him a normal human skintone.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” said my mother, but we walked out of the room and closed the door behind us.

“The doctors will write up their notes,” said a nurse, “and you have to go to…ooh, I don’t know!” She shouted to another nurse: “Where do they get the certificate? Is it the cashier?”

“It used to be the cashier,” said the other nurse, “now it’s the bereavement office.” Well that should be obvious, I thought. “I’d go in the morning, it probably won’t be ready today. Give us a call first to check. I’ll give you a booklet.”

We walked back down the long, long corridor, holding our fresh copy of “Help for the bereaved: a practical guide for family and friends” Where the corridor joined the next, we had to squeeze past a folding screen which hadn’t been in our way before, and a sign that said “For Ward 3 Enquiries, ask at Ward 4″; and I realised, it was a death screen, to make sure that no random strangers saw my father being wheeled in his bed, slumped against the siderails, over to the lifts and down the long corridor down towards the restaurant and the mortuary. We walked out down the corridor, and I wondered what would happen next.

Obituary

In which the cat, finally, is not going to return

The phone rang on Saturday morning, and The Mother was on the end. “I’ve got some bad news,” she said.

As a conversation opener, it’s not exactly ideal; but it is, at least, straight to the point. “What is it?”

“The cat’s died.”

The cat has been in The Parents’ care for the past 18 months or so, ever since we moved down to Bristol. Nevertheless, he was still always My Cat, and there was always the thought that one day he might move back in with us, once we had a house in a cat-friendly area (check) and cat-flap-friendly doors (uncheck).

Cat at Christmas

My dad found him, on Saturday morning, stretched out dead just inside the cat flap. No signs of injury. The night before, he’d been happy, relaxed and purring; the parents did not try to find out why he had died. He was about a month or so short of his tenth birthday.

Sad to think that I’ll never again be woken by him climbing on top of me and miaowing. He was, I always thought, an unusually intelligent cat: it’s hard to be sure, but I’m confident he understood at least five or six words of English, and when he was a bit younger he regularly wanted to play fetch. He also managed to survive three months living wild, a few years back, after The Mother lost him en route to the vet. Maybe there will be other cats one day, but they’re all distinct.

In a few months time, I might suggest to The Parents that they take on a rescue cat, because I’m sure The Mother is going to miss having him around the house. For now, though, I’ll content myself with getting annoyed at the random neighbourhood cats that dig up our back garden; and remember lying back in bed stroking one cat in particular.

The cat

Advent

In which The Mother sends an advent calendar

Despite my age, The Mother still makes sure to send me an advent calendar every year. I’m not quite sure why she feels the need. She buys me one, sends it, we remember to open the doors for a few days, then leave it and suddenly remember, around the 20th, that we now have a few weeks worth of chocolate to eat. So far this year we’ve opened it every day, but I’m not really sure how long that’s going to last.

When I was small, of course, I got one every year – but always kept the previous years’. This was in the days before chocolate advent calendars – or, at least, the days before my mother felt it worth buying chocolate advent calendars, which I didn’t start receiving until the 90s. Back when I was a child, every year on the first of December the advent calendar collection would be stuck up on the doors of the house, and every day thereafter I’d run around the house opening each day’s doors. We did, after a few years, start running out of doors.

It took a little wine to make a window

In which we discover a Lesbian who wants publicity

This post has nothing, really, to do with the above title; I was listening to a Hefner album this morning, heard the above lyric, and liked it. Maybe soon I’ll write something which applies to that title, post it under a different title, and so on.

I burst out laughing at the news – which you’ll have heard by now – that campaigners on Lesbos are suing a Greek gay rights organisation* with the aim of getting rid of the word “lesbian”. The word, they say, infringes their human rights. I’m smelling a rat over this story.*** I suspect that “campaigners” actually means “publisher Dimitris Lambrou”, who is the only person mentioned in any of this. If he wants us to stop using “lesbian”, he really ought to come up with an alternative suggestion, because “gay woman” doesn’t really cut it in my opinion. I suggest “dimitrians”, or possibly “lambroans”. Either would be ideal, I reckon.**

The Mother had something to add when she heard all this. “Back when I was a nurse,” she said, “we used to get crank calls all the time. One girl I worked with had a man on the phone, who said: ‘are you a lesbian?’ ‘No,’ she answered, ‘I’m Church of England’.”

I’m sure I’ve heard that story before, as a joke. Never mind.

“She didn’t know what it meant, you see,” continued The Mother, making sure I got it. “Mind you, neither did I then.” This would have been in 1960 or so. And I’m not surprised. Back then she was pure and virginal, The Killing of Sister George hadn’t been made, and I definitely doubt that The Well of Loneliness was on the curriculum at Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar.

* actually, in the stories I’ve read, it’s not entirely clear what type of organisation is being sued

** He would no doubt object to “sapphic”, too, because he’s claiming that ‘new historical research’ has discovered that she was married and loved men. ‘New historical research’ presumably means ‘I looked it up on Wikipedia’, like I just did; it gives both of the stories Lambrou mentions and references them to a 1982 edition of her surviving poetry. In short, his claims aren’t new, by a few thousand years, and nobody’s going to be surprised by them.

*** it’s just as iffy as the “man regrows missing finger” story, also in the news, which Ben Goldacre has easily debunked.

Pests

In which I am repelled by a pest repeller

It looks like I’m a pest.

At the parent’s house, upstairs. I can hear a ticking noise. Something like a ticking noise, anyway. Something, once every second. Bzzpbzzpbzzp. It’s quiet, but penetrating, and I’ve barely been able to hear it for a minute before it becomes intensely annoying.

I rummaged around, trying to track it down, finding out where it seems loudest. And I find: on the landing, something glowing red and plugged into a power socket. BZZP!BZZP! “Ultrasonic pest repellent” it says, on the side.

“What? You’re not supposed to be able to hear that!” said The Mother, when I asked her about it. “You can’t hear it. You’re kidding me.”

“Nope,” I said, plugging it in in front of her. “You mean you can’t hear it?” I said, as I was holding this thing, loudly going BZZP in my hand.

“No,” she said. “Nothing at all.” BZZP!

The Parents are, it turns out, worried they have mice. There is, on a regular basis, a rustling somewhere between the floorboards and the ceiling. The cat is evidently not putting the putative mice off; so they’ve invested in this device, to scare the mice away. Only pests can hear it, it says. And, erm, me. I can’t believe that I have superhuman hearing, so presumably I’m just a pest.

Career Options

In which we wonder why I never thought of something

The Mother is always fond of saying: “you know, with your brain and your skills, you could have done so much better for a career! You could have done anything you wanted!”

So, when we heard on the news this morning about the teenager who allegedly made millions from internet crime, I was slightly surprised she didn’t say anything. I was almost expecting: “Why didn’t you do that? You’re just as bright as he is! You could have made millions from botnets and fraud by now if you’d only put your mind to it!”

Renovation

In which we're not looking forward to a new kitchen

Next week is going to be hell. I’m dreading it. Our kitchen – which passed its 25th birthday last winter – is being ripped out, torn up, and being replaced by something nice, new and shiny. The only problem: it’s going to take all week. The house is already in uproar, and I have no idea how we’re going to eat. Lots of dinners out next week, I think.

It’s a bit of a milestone, doing all this. I can only very faintly remember the kitchen we had before, at the old house. It had a sliding door from the dining area. Erm, that’s it. I’ve lived with the current brown cupboards, brown tiles, freezing cold green tiled floor for so long, it’s going to feel very strange living in something different. This morning, I took photos from the kitchen doorway. I’ve never taken many photos of the inside of the house, itself,* so when things do change I rarely have a proper record of them. If you want to see what our house looked like over the years, you have to look in the backgrounds and the corners. So, I took photos from the kitchen doorway, and I’m going to keep taking them next week as the old kitchen is pulled apart and the new one is built.

The mother didn’t get the point. “I don’t want you taking pictures of it and showing everybody when it’s a mess,” she said. “Wait until the new one is finished, then you can take pictures of it.” I will do. But I want pictures of it how it is now, too, because I don’t want to remember something that’s new and novel. I want to remember something that’s old, faded, and comfortable.

* except for, once, the big green Victorian mirrored ball, round, not tiled, that hangs in a corner of the dining room.

Nationality

In which the family seem foreign

My parents are not Norwegian. They’re English, have hardly ever left England, don’t speak any languages other than English. Until last week, my mother hadn’t had a foreign holiday for 35 years, and my dad had never had one at all.

Now, often, you can look at someone, and spot their nationality. It happened to me in Paris the other month: I only had to go up to someone and say “Um … bonjour?” and I’d get: “Hello, can I help you.” Sometimes the hello came first, so I’m sure it wasn’t just the accent or the awkward pause. I’d assume that the same would apply to the parents too, as they’ve hardly ever left Britain.

But no: they set off for their first foreign holiday together after 30 years married, and they get on the ferry to Norway. They arrive at the ferry terminal in Newcastle, where you’d think the staff would be used to spotting the difference between Norwegian and English people. All of a sudden, everyone, even the English terminal staff, automatically assume they’re Norwegian. Getting on the ship, they’re being greeted: “hello … hello … hello …” – then as soon as The Mother appears on the gangplank, the greeter switches to Norwegian.* Why, she has no clue. Apparently, people from Norway, people from Newcastle, people who meet a lot of Norwegians, automatically assume my mother is one too. Strange.

(and on their return, they brought me a giant sausage. Which appears to be Danish. But that’s a blog for another day, when I’m not too lazy to get the camera out to shoot a picture of it)

* Whether Bokmål or Nynorsk, I don’t know – as the parents don’t actually know any Norwegian of either sort beyond “Does anyone know where the toilets are?” they didn’t appreciate the subtlety – never mind the subtler still differences between spoken and written languages.

A failure of logic

In which we don’t always believe in belief

You often hear people saying something along these lines:

Something horrible happened, but we survived. And then something else horrible happened, but it could have been so much worse. Someone Up Above must be looking after us, because we got through it.

My mother has said it a lot in the past, but she’s not the only one. And every time I think: hang on a minute. If someone has their eye on you, if someone saved you, why did it happen to start with? Why did you need to be saved? If someone’s looking after you, how did something so horrible happen?

The churchgoer in the street

In which major international issues do not disturb the local parish

Given that today, in the news, there’s rather a lot about the slowly-growing and now likely forthcoming schism in the Anglican church, I thought I’d ask the average churchgoer in the street about it. Well, the average churchgoer who is also my mother, at any rate. She’s a fairly average “active” Anglican, though. She’s white, lower-middle-class, female, edging towards elderly, lives in a commuter village, and goes to church every week. She’s a Sunday School teacher, has organised the parish’s Christian Aid collections, sings in an ecumenical Christian parish singing group,* and generally is far more active and puts more effort into religion than most churchgoers, never mind the huge percentage of Anglicans who tick the relevant box on the census but never cross the threshold of a church for anything other than weddings and funerals.

So, I said: “what are you going to do if the church splits in two? Is anyone going to leave St. Nick’s over it?”

Her answer: “What split?”

“You know, the one that has been rumbling for the last few years.” I tried to explain how the rather homophobic Peter Akinola is a figurehead for a group of largely-American homophobic conservatives, who do not like the Archbishop of Canterbury and have been threatening for some time to lead a schism, sometimes in the hope of bending him to their will, sometimes apparently meaning it.

“I’ve not heard about any of that,” she said. “We don’t talk about that sort of thing at church. That’s nothing to do with us.”

So, there you have it. I don’t think The Mother is particularly ignorant. As I said above, I think she’s probably less ignorant than your average churchgoer is likely to be, because she takes a very active interest. But to her, the politicking of a motley band of Americans and Africans isn’t important. An earthquake in Lambeth Palace isn’t important. The Second Coming occurring in the Lady Chapel of our parish church probably wouldn’t disturb most of the congregation, so long as it didn’t disrupt the Mothers Union or the bellringers, and everyone still got a cup of tea (or coffee) after the Sunday communion service. For your average English Anglican, dogma is something you recite during the service without really listening or understanding. It certainly isn’t something to get all argumentative about.

* where “ecumenical” means “Anglican and Methodist”, because they’re the only churches in the village. I’m not sure what they’ll do if those often-suggested plans to subsume British Methodists back into Anglicanism ever make much progress.