The call came in the morning, on the last day of the Christmas holidays. I hadn’t been up long. I was munching on a bowl of muesli in a chilly conservatory wondering how much longer to allow my son to keep playing on his much anticipated Christmas present, the hallowed X-Box. It was one of those days when I reluctantly started to wake up to the reality of normal, scheduled life where trainers had to be bought and homework completed for the first day back at school. You know, that short limbo period between the carefree time of Christmas and the scheduled school day. The tree and decorations were all still up, their sparkle starting to look a bit silly and out of place, like someone wearing a party frock in Homebase.
The phone rang. It was Mum.
“I’ve had a fall. I lost my balance getting out of bed. I can’t put any weight on my left leg but I’m not sure whether I should call an ambulance.”
My mum is one of those people who still thinks she’s ten years younger than she – like the rest of us! “Call and ambulance,” I said.
Later that evening, after my husband had returned from his first weary work day in London, I dashed into Watford General, the nearest hospital that still has that most of rare of things, an A&E department. Ten hours after being admitted I expected to find her in a ward, but instead found her in a bay in what was a very over-crowded, over-stretched A&E.
Sitting up on what passes as a bed with her longish legs dangling over the end, she greeted me cheerfully. Riding on the effects of morphine and the camaraderie of the heroic staff, she was bearing up much better than I’d expected. I recognised this. It was only 5 months ago that my husband was in a similar semi-euphoric state shortly after breaking his leg coming off his mountain bike at the most inconvenient time in our year. That’s another story which many of you will be more than familiar.
Yet without her tinted hairpiece in place that she has worn for most of my adult life, she looked aged beyond her years. Dressed in nothing but a hospital gown, her normally elegant exterior had been stripped, albeit it temporarily, and the reality of her full seventy seven years lay bare before me.
I silently pushed the resulting disquiet to the back of my mind as I sat down to chat to her.
“Well, it’s not a broken hip as we’d feared, but a broken pelvis” she explained.
“Yes, the nurse in charge filled me in when I arrived,” I said. Amongst the hubbub and organised chaos of an over-stretched A&E, I’d hovered until I found someone to point me in the direction of my mother and fill me in on what the injury was. “That’s a bit of a relief,” I added.
“Well, sort of!” she quipped with a half smile. “It would be easier in some ways if I knew I could have an operation to fix it, but apparently there is no treatment except physiotherapy.”
She was right. We later found out that the quickest way for these injuries to heal is to use them, to start moving as soon as possible, even if its painful.
As I left her that night, not knowing when she would be moved to a ward (which were also struggling to meet demand), I passed elderly ladies on trolleys in the corridor waiting for bays like my mums. The gulf between the standard of living expected and enjoyed by many outside that hospital and the reality inside was sobering; the sorry state of the NHS was brought sharply up close and personal for me that night.
The next day I returned to find her in a comfortable bed in an Acute Assessment Unit (an interim place between A&E and a ward). Two physiotherapists were assessing her ability to stand. Their professionalism and respectful manner were exemplary.
As I sat watching her excruciating attempt to stand, the disquiet I sensed the night before that I had shoved to the back of my mind came stridently to the fore. This normally very independent, busy, intellectually curious lady was suddenly at the mercy of her undeniably frail body.
She was dependent.
Although there was a huge gulf between her and the slumped, half asleep ladies around her, there was no doubt that she was moving toward that category that we as children daren’t acknowledge: old. That age when zimmer frames and commodes, fluffy slippers and boiled sweets become a cornerstone of one’s daily existence. Not that I can ever see my mother sucking on a boiled sweet! A glass of red wine is more her kind of little luxury.
She’s far from this daily mundane reality, I know, and she’d probably shriek in horror at my even considering it, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was the beginning of what might be the end; the end of my mum’s full and complete independence.
Before you wonder if I’m being melodramatic, it might help to know that 30 years ago she suffered multiple injuries in a car crash (see this post if you’re curious about that). Despite overcoming them with remarkable courage and grace, her body has suffered many complications over the years and more recently her balance has deteriorated.
A realisation of this kind comes stealthy, quietly entering your world like a polite, silent messenger. You don’t realise it is there until you stop to acknowledge its presence.
I realised this was a defining moment. It is the point at which the shoe is put on the other foot, or at least presented as the near future reality. It is the moment when the dependents become the carers, when the ones responsible for those who used to care for us have to relinquish that role. That point defines the start of a new era; when the old become like the young in their dependence, yet they become dependent on their ‘young’. This is what people call the Circle of Life, I guess. As my mum slumped back in her bed, lines deeply embedded on a face that has seen more than her fair share of woe, I realised my time, and that of my brothers’, to step up the plate was emerging.
I am incredibly lucky that my older brother is unmarried and lives with my mum. Although he has some kind of undiagnosed autism, he is fully able to care for her (as well as argue with her!). And so I will be spared having to try and care for both my family and her at the same time. Instead I’m taking on all the administrative and communication side of things (you wont be believe how many friends my mother has!). For this new contract to work, it takes acceptance and humility from the parent. Thankfully my mother is one whose pride doesn’t stop her from relinquishing that role; she accepts care and attention willingly.
It also changes dynamics between the siblings. I already notice a difference in the way I’m relating to my older brother who lives with my mum, and my twin brother who lives farther afield. A maturing, almost, a sense of pulling together and acknowledging each other’s valued roles.
This may only be for a short season. She is receiving intensive physio and care at our local hospital as I write. The hospital staff estimate it will take about 6 weeks to fully heal, but that she’ll be home in a week or so. I’m sure she’ll be able to resume semi-independent living again by the spring, but I wonder if the days of taking the train to London to see a show or listen to talk are over. I wonder even if she’ll be driving again. Time will tell. But in the meantime, my brothers and I are being given a foretaste of the likely near future for my dear mum.
A new season has begun. After all my mum has done for me over the years, I am more than happy to embrace it.