Mabel in the strawberry field
Today I’ve resolved to note every word Mum utters. Why? I’m conscious that she is more or less silent these days, but I still love the sound of her voice. So what else can I do but gently encourage it?
She is slumped in her wheelchair, apparently asleep, when I call round at the home. When I sit beside her and take her hand she opens her eyes and smiles. I say a few words of greeting but she doesn’t reply.
It’s quite busy further along the corridor. It becomes apparent that there are four generations of another resident’s family here today. A little girl, representing generation four, stares at Mabel. As the whole family troops out, an elderly woman smiles at Mum, tries to speak to her, and on getting no reply turns to me and says: “She seems happy enough.”
Before transferring Mum from wheelchair to car with the transfer board, always an uncomfortable moment for us both, I tell her that we’re going out for a run in the car with Ian. “Super,” she says. ”Super!” I repeat, smiling at Dad. Oh yes, we have to make the most of each and every affirmation that life, for Mum, is still worth living.
I stop in the town, hop out of the car and come back again in two-minutes flat with a packet from the chemist. “Dad’s medicine,” I tell Mum. “Clopidogrel and atenolol. To keep his blood thin and his blood pressure down. That’s good isn’t it?” But Mum won’t be drawn into speech quite as easily as that.
We’re not going far today, because we went too far the last time we were out together and Mabel was sick. Though I suspect it was an ice cream that caused the difficulty. As we drive along the side of a canal that was built to carry water from the River Ericht to waterside mills a hundred years ago, Ian sings from the back seat:
Oh we parted on the shore. Yes, we parted on the shore
I said: “Goodbye my love, I’m bound for Baltimore.”
So I kissed her on the cheek, and the crew began to roar
Cheerio, dearie-o, we parted on the shore.
It often seems that the songs Dad sings in the car with Mum are a way of preparing the two of them for a separation that neither can avoid. It seems to me he carries this off with admirable panache.
We park on a bridge over the lade. It’s a lovely spot but I think Mabel is oblivious to the sparkling water flowing on either side of us and underneath. “Tea, Mum?” I say, touching her arm. “Lovely,” she replies. So we get on with the tea ritual. I hold the cup for Mum and wait for her lips to open to receive the liquid. I also feed her with a biscuit, but that causes some confusion and twice she chomps on the lip of the plastic cup as if expecting it to be biscuit. I encourage her to keep her eyes open. I tell her when it’s tea not biscuit. I do what I can.
Meanwhile, I’m moving between my own tea and biscuit. The juggling comes to a crescendo when a car comes along the quiet road and wants to cross the bridge. I hand Dad Mum’s cup and the flask, quickly drain my own cup and start the engine. As we roll forward a teaspoon falls off the dashboard but otherwise we’re fine.
A few yards over the bridge we park facing a field of potatoes. The field was planted in wheat the previous year, Ian points out. Yes, this is one of our regular spots, actually parking on the bridge over the water being the optimal variation on this location. We must have parked here about a dozen times in the last three years.
My mobile rings. It’s from my partner, and the message reads ‘BLACKBIRD ATE OUR STRAWBERRY’. I can’t get Mabel to look at the message, or understand my flippant reply (‘SHOOT THAT BIRD’), but the attempt takes me back to the time when we as a family used to pick berries in my uncle’s field. Mabel was in charge of the 12-strong squad of pickers in those days. Thousands of berries being picked, weighed and taken off to market. You can see the picture of Mum standing in the strawberry field above, with Mabel caught for posterity smiling into the camera, bang in the blue-skyed summer of her life.
There are plenty of places selling fruit by the roadside, so I drive to one of them and get a plastic punnet of raspberries and one of strawberries. I offer Mabel both punnets and she chooses a strawberry. Soon she has eaten three strawberries and one rasp and it is time to return to the home.
In the lounge, I go round with the tray of rasps (the rest of the strawberries are for Dad’s tea) offering the juicy, globulated fruit to the residents. Every resident who is awake takes a rasp. So I go round again with the fruit. In the process, I realise Ray isn’t in her usual seat. She normally sits on the sofa beside wheelchair-bound Ann, who isn’t in the room at all. In fact, I haven’t seen Ann for a couple of weeks now. So I ask a carer where she is. Her expression tells me all I need to know. Placid Ann, who had some kind of skin disease necessitating that she sit with her legs bound, has sat in the same spot of this lounge - morning, afternoon and evening - for three long years. Well, she will sit there no more.
Strawberry fields forever? I hope the blackbird in our garden doesn’t think so. And judging by the melancholic strain in his singing at dusk, he labours under no such illusion.