July 9, 2010: Emergency at Backwater Dam

By Duncan McLaren, Friday 9 July 2010

Alphabet T The fourth of Duncan McLaren's poignant online diaries about visiting his mother, Mabel, who lives in a care home
Mabel McLarenMabel McLaren

I’ve taken Mabel out for a Saturday picnic. This has long been established as a highlight of our week. Mum is in the front passenger seat of the car, marvelling at the size of trees and the number of sheep passing in front of her eyes, and Dad is sitting behind her. I’ve just made a remark about the landscape to which Ian has made no reply. This is unusual, so I ask him if he’s feeling all right. He whispers that he feels terrible. It’s only a mile to today’s picnic spot by the side of a reservoir, so while questioning him about what might be wrong, I drive on. When I park, I turn around to discover that Ian’s eyes are shut and he’s dribbling. I spring out of my seat and get into the back of the car. He doesn’t respond to my voice or touch. I’ve seen Mabel like this, and in her case it was a stroke that caused the blackout. So I need to call for an ambulance. Luckily, I’ve got my mobile. No signal. I sprint towards the only other vehicle in sight. They can’t get a signal on their phone either but volunteer to drive to the nearest landline and call an ambulance. As I run back to our red car, inside which sit my once-strong parents, a wave of panic engulfs me.

But when I get there I’m calm enough to check that Ian is still breathing. Mabel has no idea what’s going on in the seat behind her. All she wants to know is where the cold draft is coming from. Both the back doors and the boot are open so that Dad can get as much fresh air as possible, but all I tell her is that Dad isn’t well and so she must put up with a little discomfort for a while. She’s still wearing her seatbelt, which is for the best, I decide. I need to be able not to worry about Mabel and concentrate on Ian. 'Dad?' I say, stroking his face. The thought flashes through my mind that if this is the end for him, at least it’s sudden, which is what he would have wanted. But hot on the heels of that thought is the one that I do not want my 84-year-old father to die. Or, if he must die, then let it not be for a few years yet. None of my movements or words is to any practical purpose, but to my intense relief he begins to murmur. A minute later and he’s telling me that I need to take care of Mabel, who is noisily losing patience with a situation she doesn’t understand. 'What’s going on?' she shouts. I give her one of the sausage sandwiches from Dad’s picnic basket in a bid to normalise the situation. 'Mabel’s is the one with HP Sauce on it,' says Ian, without opening his eyes. Too late, it’s a mustard one I’ve given her, and because I haven’t taken the time to oversee the hand to mouth business, the sausage is already in her lap and she is chewing on an empty roll.

Slowly, Ian recovers his capacity to speak. He asks to be put in a lying position. It seems like the time that Mabel had a mini stroke, in that she went from lying unconscious to feeling herself again in half an hour. So I’m beginning to be hopeful. I sit beside Mum and gently interject as she tries to throw lumps of unwanted bread through the windscreen. I’m even more hopeful when the couple return for long enough to say that an ambulance is on its way. When the emergency vehicle eventually comes into sight, how uncanny it looks, like Postman Pat’s van, trundling along the long empty stretch of road that crosses a rolling hill. Is this life-and-death situation really happening? Nothing out of the ordinary is happening as far as Mabel is concerned. She’s sitting alongside her son, sipping tea that he’s made for her. As per picnic usual.

The paramedics tell me that Dad hasn’t had a stroke. He has fainted as a result of low blood pressure, which may have something to do with the irregular heartbeat that is currently under investigation by the cardiac unit at Ninewells Hospital. With this established, the paramedics relax enough to say they recognise Mabel and me but not Ian. Ah yes, it was this pair who turned up the day that Mum collapsed in the front room of the family house two years ago. A connection, then: I thought Mum had died in front of my eyes that day. Just as I thought Dad was a-goner today.

Ian is driven to the hospital leaving me to return Mabel to the care home. As I’m motoring along I’m hit by another surge of emotion, but I don’t think Mabel is aware of my distress. However, I know that at some level she has taken on board what happened at Backwater Dam, because she suddenly says that she doesn’t want to go on long car journeys any more. I agree with her that today has not been a success, but I suggest that in a week’s time, hopefully, we’ll all be ready for another family outing.

When I next see her, Mabel asks if 'Grandad' (my parents have no grandchildren) is going to be all right. She adds that it’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to say nice words to him before he was taken away. I’m able to reassure her that Ian is being well looked after at the hospital, and that by the time she next sees our five-star picnic maker he’ll have a pacemaker helping him to butter the rolls and fill up the flask.

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