Man in the Middle – Chapter 36: For whom the bell tolls

A middle aged man realises his elderly mother can no longer cope alone, so she moves in with them. Squeezed by the demands of the demographic time bomb and the requirements of the rest of the family, the Man in the Middle is bemused that life has become a hi-wire act, just when he thought it should start getting easier. How can he keep everyone happy and survive with his sanity intact?

If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read
No. 1: The Letter here

No.36 For whom the bell tolls

It’s twenty minutes since I slouched past Mother’s bedroom door, yoga mat under my arm, and I can still hear her talking on the phone.

Twenty minutes is an unusually long call for her because her hearing is so poor and her patience quite short. She also keeps calls quick because she thinks telephone charges are ‘scandalously’ high along with the TV licence, bread, milk, butter, eggs and cake. She lives in an imaginary, inflation free Eden.

The last call this long was with a fraudster, who was trying to prise loose her bank account details. Instead they got her life story in a pause free monologue of approximately fifty minutes. I felt sorry for the fraudster. It must have felt like being kidnapped by the terrorist wing of the James Joyce Society, who never set prisoners free until they’ve been forced to read out loud Joyce’s 265,000-word, stream of consciousness masterpiece ‘Ulysses’.

I make a mental note to ask Mother who she was talking to when she comes down for breakfast. If it’s the doctor, I like to know what’s been said. I am in the Downward Dog pose at the time. I realise I’m getting better at yoga because last week I would have fallen over if I had tried to think at all while attempting Downward Dog. Is it time to move on from the five-minute beginner’s warm up video?

I flop into Savasana, the Corpse Pose, which involves lying flat on your back and breathing. I keep my eyes closed as I hear the clumping of Mother’s crutch on the wood floor as she walks through the sitting room to the kitchen. The fact I do not open my eyes to look at her going past is another sign of my growing power of yogic concentration and ability to control my mind / body duality.

At breakfast, I read a report which says 8,000 older people have died of corona virus according to their death certificates in care homes. The death rate in April is 10,000 higher than usual for this month. It makes me wonder what would have happened to Mother if she had gone to an old people’s home instead of moving in with us and feel relief Mother is here with her family, not alone, isolated and scared in a care home. Would she ever want to go to one, after this?

‘Who were you talking to,’ I ask Mother, as she butters her toast.

She looks up and out toward the garden.

‘B— has died.’

B— is an old friend, who worked with Mother worked in the fifties and stayed friends.

‘I was just on the phone to her husband. She died a few days ago,’ says Mother.

‘I’m so sorry,’ says my wife.

‘Was it Covid?’ I ask.

Mother shrugs her shoulders. Her friend was in a care home for people with dementia.

‘When is the funeral?’ asks my wife.

‘I don’t remember anything about a funeral.’

‘Is she allowed to go to a funeral?’ I ask.

‘I was thinking of sending flowers and card, really,’ says my wife.

‘It’s happened, already, I think. Poor B—.’ She sighs.

I can see my son looking under his eyebrows at Mother for signs of distress. But she isn’t shedding any tears and no flood of memories is unlocked. Perhaps she feels she lost her friend to dementia years ago and this is moment has lost its immediacy and hurt. Perhaps she is decided to keep a stiff upper lip?

Anyway, how are you meant to behave when someone you know dies? Can you train for it? Or do you just hope you will find a way to roll with the punch, like a boxer, who knows they must get knocked down one day, and that when that happens it’s instinct, not training, which gets you back up on your feet.

‘I’d like to organise a Mass for her. I’ll go and see the priest today,’ says Mother.

‘I think you better call first. I don’t think you can go to the Church yourself,’ says my wife.

‘Still this bloody Covid thing,’ says my Mother.

‘I’m afraid so,’ says my wife.

Later that afternoon, details from the church and florist to hand, I open Mother’s bedroom door.  She is asleep, fully clothed. Exhausted by emotion. Her radio is on and, for some reason, she’s tuned into Radio 2.  They’re playing ‘We are Family’ by Chic.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 37: Cummings and goings