Mother is slowly sipping roast parsnip soup under the watchful eye of her carer. She eats her lunch purposefully, leaning her head down as she brings the spoon up to her lips. Her right-hand trembles, but this time the soup doesn’t slop over the side of the spoon.
‘We’re going make you big and strong again,’ says the carer, cheerfully, as Mother swallows the warm soup.
‘Huh,’ says Mother.
The noise she makes is so indistinct I am not sure if she is agreeing with the carer or dismissing the idea she could ever be strong again as ludicrous; a naïve and unconvincing cliché.
‘Good soup?’ asks the carer.
‘Yum, yum,’ says Mother, smiling and rubbing her stomach.
I’m bemused again. What does she mean by choosing that childish phrase and child-like gesture? Is she taking the mickey out of us for the daily fuss we make to ensure she eats and drinks more than she did in the days before her fall? Or is this her dementia playing Twister with her personality? I hope it’s the former.
It’s certainly becoming harder to gauge her tone. And her voice, which used to be vibrant and camouflaged her ninety years of wear and tears, is quieter and weaker now. She lives inside herself more than before. Since returning, she stays in her room longer, sleeps more and tunes out of family conversations sooner. She’s like a camper, setting her tent in the corner of the field, happy to be on the same site as everyone else but keen not to be too close.
I’ve noticed she has started to find simple things, which others would take for granted and unremarkable, as wonderous and worth commenting on. Sometimes to the confusion or embarrassment of others.
‘She tells me I am ‘very clever’ to draw the curtains by myself,’ my daughter said.
‘This morning, she said I have ‘brilliant’ hair,’ said my son.
‘I have ‘beautiful’ taste in teacups,’ said my wife.
At first, I thought this was her being overly solicitous. Now I think all her innocent and candid observations are a function of her mild dementia – the world and the people around are genuinely wonderous to her.
She can still play the dame, though, and is more than willing to give me a piece of her mind in small, sour pieces. Only yesterday, she accused me of being overbearing and acting like a prison governor.
‘What are you going to do if I say ‘No’? Force feed me?’ she asked when I suggested she had a small, second helping of pasta.
‘But you need to put some weight on,’ I said.
‘What is this place a gulag for the old?’
As I had just finished reading ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, I was able to explain to her that she was definitely not living in a gulag.
‘And if you were, you would be punching and kicking your way to the front of the queue to get a second helping of my wife’s wonderful penne al’arrabiata,’ I said, looking forward to telling my wife how I had defended her cooking.
‘Creep,’ said Mother and slunk slowly away from the table.
Luckily, Mother likes soups more than pasta. Minestrone is her favourite. But today’s roast parsnip soup is going down well enough. She’s dabbing a chunk of bread around the sides of her empty bowl.
‘What sort of soup was this?’ Mother asks.
‘Roast parsnip,’ I say.
‘Your father liked curried parsnip soup. Got the idea from a woman in the local pub.’
‘Was it nice?’
‘No. She was imprisoned for embezzlement. Cooked the books somewhere. Got quite a stiff sentence.’
‘I meant was her parsnip soup nice?’
‘No idea, darling. I never tried it. I can’t stand parsnips.’
‘You won’t be wanting more of this then?’ I say holding up the soup ladle.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ she says. ‘Nice though it was. Too many parsnips make you windy if you know what I mean?’
The carer looks at the kitchen floor. I pour out the remains of the soup into a bowl for my lunch and decide next time, I will ask her what soup she wants before I make it. And remember that she isn’t lost yet.
Read the next in the series – In the sweat of your brow shall you eat