Christmas presents – such a lot of effort and in the end nothing but trouble! Lizzie got me a theatre trip to London, train fare and hotel and tickets for a show, what a lovely idea. She was that mad when I said I couldn’t go.
“You’ve done Christmas, Mum,” she pointed out. “You’ve done all the work. Can’t you have some time off?”
“I can’t leave your Granddad, love, you know I can’t.”
“Dad can look after him,” she said. “It’s only one night. He can give Granddad a bowl of soup, can’t he?” It sounded reasonable enough.
“Oh Lizzie, sweetheart,” I said, “Your Dad can’t –“ Can’t what? How could I explain? Can’t get Dad into his pyjamas and out of them again when there is no resistance in the limbs, dressing babies is simple compared to that. Can’t tell him to wipe his bum or do it for him if you’re just not getting through. Can’t persuade him back to bed at three in the morning when his teeth are chattering because the heating went off hours ago but he thinks it’s the middle of the day. Can’t find the right reassuring answer to questions like where am I, who are you? Though it’s not the detail, not really. What Jack can’t face up to is the big picture. He and Dad used to have such a laugh together, used to enjoy the football and the quiz down at the pub. Now Dad doesn’t know Jack’s name. “He just can’t,” I said firmly.
“I wanted you to come with me. I wanted some time for us, for me and you together. I can’t go on me own. But I should have known.” Oh what a tear jerker. She thinks she’s doing it for my own good. She’s always been manipulative, our Lizzie.
“Yes, you should,” I said tartly, then tried to soften it a bit. “One day, darling. I’d love to go. I’d love to go with you. But not now.”
For a moment though, I was that upset, thinking how I’d spent my life taking care of Jack’s feelings and knowing he couldn’t spare a night to think of mine. Did he never wonder what it was like for me, it was my Dad for goodness sake who’d gone somewhere deep and dark. When it started I used to think his head was like a honeycomb, how if you were lucky you hit a connection and everything was OK, but more and more often you fell into the holes in between. Now his head seems like an overgrown forest and he’s inside like a scared child, feeling monsters might lurk in every corner and thinking if he sits very still and doesn’t say a word, then they won’t get him.
But on that very day, in the dead zone between Christmas and New Year, when in another universe I might have been in London, all dressed up in some glitzy theatre waiting for the drum roll – that was the night I saw our Brian’s Jamie playing with a balloon. He’s a quiet little lad, good as gold, you don’t notice him half the time and I suppose we’d kind of forgotten he was there, sat playing under the tree while Dad sat same as always in his chair in front of the telly. People can be quite snotty about old folk parked in front of the telly but what they don’t realise is, it’s an anchor. It keeps them still and safe and attached to the world. They don’t follow it, they don’t know what’s going on half the time, but it’s colour and noise and it is familiar. Most important of all, it’s someone talking who isn’t demanding an answer. Real people come up close and put on a funny voice and ask questions more difficult than what’s the meaning of life, questions like how are you today? The telly makes no demands at all. It is everybody’s alibi and that includes the person with dementia. People should remember that.
Anyway I’d been in the kitchen making a cup of tea while Jack was hiding in the back room listening to some match on the radio. Janice, Brian’s wife, had taken Rebecca off upstairs to change her nappy and Lizzie was picking a fight with Brian in the hall about who had had the most to drink and who could go to the off licence to get more gin. Brian mostly goes along with his sister’s ideas, years of experience, anything for a quiet life, but every so often he makes a stand. I was coming through the living room doorway when Jamie patted his balloon to Dad. I was just about to interfere like I always did, to distract Jamie from disappointment, to protect Dad from expectation, when at the last minute Dad’s arm shot out and he batted it back. Back and forth that balloon went and I stood frozen, wanting this moment to last for ever, praying the others would stay where they were.
It was dark outside, but the lights were sparkling on the tree and the fire was crackling in the grate behind the fireguard and I could smell the pine needles and the mince pies warm from the oven. It could have been another Christmas, any Christmas from before, from long ago. Then all at once Brian and Lizzie were laughing and agreeing to walk to the off licence together and Janice was carrying the baby down the stairs singing Jingle Bells off key and Jack came through to ask where was the tea. The balloon lay still on the floor, but Jamie sent his Great Granddad a secret smile and my Dad nodded and patted the balloon with his toe before withdrawing back inside himself.
That moment was my Christmas present. It’s the one I’ll try to remember.
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