February 17, 2012: the van Gogh in the room

By Duncan McLaren , Thursday 16 February 2012

Author Duncan McLaren documents his relationship with his mother, Mabel, who is now in a care home, in this tender and compelling online diary
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From her wheelchair in the corridor Mum greets me as I enter the home. She’s back to doing this and I celebrate the small recovery in her vitality that it represents. She even greets Ian who is sitting in the back of the car with the window down. Oh, not a proper greeting just a disdainful snort and raising of the eyebrows. Dad never gets a meaningful hello or goodbye these days, but he doesn’t seem to let it get to him.

With Mabel transferred to the car I fold up the wheelchair and park it in the porch. Then I hurry along to Mabel’s room, not to fetch gloves as I sometimes do, but instead to pluck the van Gogh from the wall. This is one of many van Goghs I copied in 1990 while writing a novel, and, as it was Mum’s stated favourite of the ones she hung in the family home, it’s the painting that’s ended up in her room at the care home, amongst a selection of family photographs. It’s a self-portrait of the artist on his way to paint in the countryside around Arles in the south of France, but it reminded Mabel of Ian going off to work here in Perthshire, carrying the tools of his trade, as he did when they were first married.

I stop the car when we get to the bowling green. I place the ‘van Gogh’ on the lawn and take the photograph I need to complete the picture story I am in the process of putting online. It’s a story involving Mabel and Ian from 1994, when they were in their late sixties. That’s the time, newly retired to their home town, when they took up bowls. The bowling era lasted until their mid-seventies. That largely coincides with the final phase of their gardening era as well. Ian says that in many ways his active and enjoyable life came to an end by the time he was 80, five years ago.

Well I reckon there’s still something to be had for both Mabel and Ian in their mid-eighties, despite one’s dementia and the other’s diabetes-induced and severe health difficulties. Is it not a beautiful day? We pass Loch Clunie where one swan is standing on the ice while its mate is swimming in the water. “Which swan are you, Mum?” I ask. Mabel doesn’t even glance towards the glistening loch.

We turn off the public road on to a private one. Not that the distinction bothers me: I drive where I think my parents might like to go and so far no-one has tried to turn us around. I point out to Mum three horses feeding in a field. “How do you know?” is her response. I can’t ask ‘How do I know what?’ as it wouldn’t get a reply, so I say, “Because I count three horses and I see them standing around a bail of hay, munching their heads off.”

I get Mum to admit it’s a beautiful sunny day. I get her to admit that she would like a cup of tea. And, after feeding her a biscuit, I get her to acknowledge that it’s a good job she’s got a big mouth. That’s three ‘yeses’ in one trip. Yes, yes and thrice yes!

Back at the care home I settle Mabel in the main lounge. As I’m doing so I’m waylaid by Edith, who wants to know if I’ve got a car. She tells me that if she can only get out of here then she could contact her friend, who would get in touch with her solicitor, who would sort all this nonsense out. “I only came for a visit!” she says. I tell her as gently as I can that she’s been here two years. This information takes Edith - who is still sharp but has severe memory problems - aback. Actually, it’s over three years that she’s been a resident here, but I don’t feel the need to correct the information I’ve already given her.

“Have you got a car?” she repeats.

“Yes, but it’s full of people,” I reply. How pathetic is that – lying to a 90-year-old woman at the end of her tether. Actually, it’s not such a big lie when I think about Ian in the back and van Gogh in the boot, both of whom are waiting to be taken home.

“Do you know who has got a car then?” she asks. I don’t immediately respond, so she concludes, “You don’t know and you don’t care.”

I tell Edith that I will make an enquiry on her behalf. As I’m walking to the office. I’m thinking it’s a shame that the poor woman hardly ever gets out. The care home organises monthly excursions in the summer but that is not enough. Mabel gets out every second day, for goodness sake.

The senior carer looks up. I ask if Edith has been taken out recently. Marion comes up with three trips in the last week or so, including one to the cinema with the care home manger to see Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. I’m sure that went down well, as Edith’s job in the civil service brought her into occasional contact with the then Prime Minister, whom she greatly admired. I believe the film is a study of the process of ageing, fading powers, doubt, disappointment and loss. Even more for Edith to relate to. She would have loved the film, no doubt. And no doubt too she has now forgotten everything about it.

Having said goodbye to a content-seeming Mabel, I’m about to drive away when Ian points out the platform that still rests on the ground by the passenger door of the car. So I stow that away in the boot and in the process come across Artist on the Road to Tarascon, which, with love and - I hope - humility, I restore to its rightful place.

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  • Tess Moran

    Posted: Friday 02 March 2012

    Through reading Visiting Mabel Diary accounts today, it has made me pause and cry today. The depth of respect by a son towards both parents is a poignant wittten observation of such love, tenderness and committment. Duncan make it possible for them to maintain a quality of life, moment by moment, to those that gave him life. Through reading the diaries my day has been visited by an angelic messenger of God, through Duncan's deep love for his parents I see God's hand on earth.

  • Derek

    Posted: Saturday 25 February 2012

    Enjoy reading this always as it mirrors some of my experiences. My wife has been in a care home for +3 years and after suffering a stroke can no longer walk or see but seems content and is very well cared for. What more can one ask? We are both 85. I visit her nearly every day and give her some soft fruit which she enjoys and it is something that brings us together. On a nice hot day I can take her out into the gardens in a wheelchair but otherwise she spends the day in a recliner chair.

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Precious cargo plus pig lead

Duncan's partner Kate joins the McLarens on one of their regular song-filled jaunts through the countryside

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Visiting Mabel

A carer's diary

Read Duncan McLaren's tender and compelling online diary about his relationship with mother, Mabel, who is now in a care home.