July 23, 2010: Blossomtime

By Duncan McLaren , Friday 23 July 2010

Alphabet A Author Duncan McLaren documents his relationship with his mother, Mabel, who is now in a care home, in this tender and compelling online diary
Young MabelYoung Mabel

I’m sitting with Mabel in her room. Outside the window, an acer tree and a bush aflame with orange flowers dominate the scene.

"I’ll be seeing you in orange blossom time," sings Mabel.

I’m about to suggest that the line of the song mentions apple blossom, when Mum points out a bird walking on the grass, a bird that simply isn’t there. I must respect her point of view for the sake of her self esteem, so instead of contradicting her I remark how beautiful the view from her room is, to which platitude she smiles warmly.

This is the second time I’ve been in Mum’s room today. Earlier, while she waited in the lounge to be taken on a coach trip, a senior carer and I decided to come here to complete Mabel’s six-month review. This mostly entailed me reading through and signing off facets of a Care Plan that I’ve come to be familiar with. But the carer and I did have an in depth conversation about continence. Mum’s fine during the day, but because she is effectively confined to bed between 9pm and 8am, she is usually wet by the morning, despite the incontinence pad she wears while sleeping. Sometimes the sheets are changed in the night but mostly it is the day staff who get Mabel up and dry her off. It’s an aspect of her regime that I’m not happy with and the situation is under review. Apparently a continence nurse is due to visit the care home soon and she’ll be considering Mabel’s case.

"I wonder how much that kilt cost," asks Mabel, out of the blue.

Mum is looking at the framed portrait that was taken in 1941, one of the many photographs that enliven the walls of her room. It’s a black-and-white photo that was hand-coloured by Wilson Laing, who ran a photography business in the town from the late Twenties to the Fifties. I can understand why he spent so much time introducing red, blue and green to the kilt Mabel is wearing, but I don’t know why he felt he had to put colour into the 16-year-old’s cheeks.

"I wonder if it cost more than the photograph," is my considered reply.

"Mother will have put the receipts somewhere," says Mum.

I know where this is going. And indeed I don’t have long to wait for the inevitable: "Where is mother?"

I do as always when Mabel asks me this. I take her hand in mine, and tell her that her mother died in the same year that I was born, more than half a century ago. Mabel marvels at this news, then pulls herself together and asks why she wasn’t told.

"Of course you were told, Mum. It’s just that you’ve forgotten. But it’s OK. Your mother’s gone but I’m here instead. That’s what happens in life and it’s not so bad is it?"

Mabel blinks, and then nods, and we settle down to what I take to be a philosophical silence. After a while she tells me she had a terrible dream last night.

"What happened?"

"There were six men and they asked me to go home with them. I said OK but that there was to be no nonsense."

"And was there any?"

"Yes, but I made sure they didn’t get anywhere."

I think about this for a few seconds then ask. "When you woke up were you wet?"

"Soaking. I could feel the water with my hand."

I wonder if Mum’s incontinence is contributing to bad dreams, or vice versa. I must make sure that I have a word with the continence nurse before she visits. After all it’s unlikely that the busy professional will have time to ask Mabel about her dreams. "Any flood symbols, Mrs McLaren? Any battles at sea?" No, only I’m likely to hear about such watery horrors.

Meanwhile things have moved on in Mabel’s stroke-affected mind. She asks me to tell her about the girlfriends I had before her. From this I gather that she thinks I’m my father. So I remind her of my name, and make sure she’s looking at me while I say it. However, a minute later she does it again. That is, she claims that she’s told me about her boyfriends and so it’s only fair that I tell her about the girls I knew before meeting her. Perhaps she’s dwelling on this because recently I pressed Mum to tell me what she could remember about a man called Tommy who features heavily in her diary for 1948, when she was 23. Anyway, today I tell her the truth as I understand it:

"Ian didn’t really have any proper girlfriends before he met you. You put everyone else in the shade."

This perspective delights Mabel. She sings: "I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more."

More silence. Then Mabel, in her dementia, asks: "Do you think we should have any more children?"

This is surely a throwback to a conversation that Mabel and Ian had in the mid-Sixties. Indeed, I remember my brother and I being asked by Mum if we wanted a little sister, and I recall my eight-year-old self not feeling competent to answer the question. I feel I should be able to rise to the occasion this time around.

"I think things are fine as they are."

"Yes, so do I."

This afternoon there was a six-month review of Mabel, completed in her absence and with an emphasis on continence. But this evening, Mum’s been leading a review of the last 85 years of her life, with emphasis on birth, marriage and death, and with due respect to the mysterious and cyclical nature of it all.

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