While my mother was a determined and constantly busy person, she begrudged having to do any more walking than absolutely necessary. If Mark Twain thought golf ruined a good walk, mum rather thought a good walk a bit of an oxymoron. After dad died she had a long delayed knee replacement and without his constant nagging she took her rehabilitation somewhat half-heartedly and reduced to a trickle her walking.
There were some historic reasons for this antipathy which never affected the rest of us; at a relatively young age, in her early 40s she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Back then, in the 60s, this was expected to be crippling but she was offered some fairly experimental drugs to try and moderate the impacts. It did mean that walking could be excruciating for her and stairs an especial challenge. Mind you garden centres and places like Sissinghurst and Hidecote never seemed a challenge to her.
There were side effects, especially in terms of blood pressure. That in turn led to mum having to forswear alcohol, something she begrudged more than having to walk.
Dad pretended to be sorry for her but with the increasing pressure on stopping drinking and driving, he wasn’t adverse to the sober driver being Mum. Indeed, so commonplace was dad driving to an event and mum driving home that when, latterly the medication changed and she was told she could partake of the odd G&T or glass of wine, he found the idea he had to stay ‘dry’ hard to take.
‘Des, you know you’re driving tonight?’
‘What? Are you sure?’
‘Yes, it’s your turn.’
‘You sure you want to drink? You have to be careful.’
‘So if you have say just a glass, then you could drive?’
The man was ever hopeful. Mum’s reaction? A smile and a small shake of the head. Some people need to be loud in making their point. Not mum. Her gestures tended to be minimalist, almost invisible but for those who knew her they spoke volumes. She knew her mind and didn’t feel the need to ram any point home.
I knew this, just as dad did but, because she rarely pressed any point, it was so easy to be seduced into thinking her apparent inclination to defer to one of us (or maybe her disinclination to debate it) showed either a lack of confidence or a willingness to pass the decision making onto us.
This manifested itself in how she dealt with her mobility.
During a regular call, she mentioned how the stairs to her bedroom were becoming more of a chore. We both knew, or at least, we both could guess that because she had not followed the physiotherapist’s programme post knee replacement and was unlikely to start now, she would need an alternative strategy.
And, indeed, when she bought her bungalow and had it refitted, this was included in the plans. We discussed it at some length. The dinning room had been adapted so there was an ensuite wet room which meant it could easily be converted to a downstairs bedroom if the need arose. As now. So, having posed the issue mum asked for my opinion.
‘I guess we convert the dining room. As planned. You’ll need to decide if you move your bed down there and maybe move out one or two bookcases or get a single bed for it.’
The dining room was lined with bookcases to create a library effect which she liked but it did rather shrink the available space. ‘I suppose you may want to think about curtains and whether…’ I petered out. ‘Mum, are you there?’
Something told me she wasn’t engaging in my suggestions.
‘You father would have liked the library.’
You need to remember that, when my mother prayed in aide my father, it was a sign to me that I was on the wrong track. So, thinking quickly, I realised she wanted to keep the library as it was which would mean a single bed. Even then it would be difficult for her to have a wardrobe downstairs. ‘I suppose we could change the cupboard under the stairs, make it a small wardrobe. But then…’
‘I like my bedroom, dear. It’s lovely to look out over the garden.’
That threw me. ‘Yes, but if the stairs are proving to be a challenge we need…’
‘I thought a lift.’
Now this was a turn up. If mum had ever commented on a stair lift it wasn’t complimentary. ‘Really? Okay. Well if you think so? I can talk to a couple of the providers, find out what they can do and the sort of prices and…’
‘A nice young man (another hint that she was ahead of me) came round last week. It will be a bit of a technical challenge but he was sure they could sort it out.’
‘Right? Who…? When…?’
‘They’re called Stanna. Dorothy (one of her WI stalwarts) raves about hers. The grandchildren love it.’
‘Oh. Yes, well. Marvellous. Do you want me to talk to him, find out what..’
‘I just wondered if you wanted to be here when they fit it? They say it will take them about four weeks from now.’
You couldn’t help smiling; she had it all sorted out and she played me like a rather dopey carp. Dad would have huffed and puffed, would have wanted to get competitive quotes and, in his last few years, debated things with me and the Archaeologist. She was well aware that when he knew he was dying, he impressed on me and the Archaeologist that we had to look after mum (as if it needed saying, though he wasn’t saying it for us but for mum, the subliminal message being ‘Barbara, your sons will help you if you listen to them.’) And the stages we went through that afternoon, the ritualised dance was playing to his memory rather than any inclination mum had to discuss something as mundane as a stair lift with me. Yes, she was saying, I know you can help but (a) I don’t want to bother you; and (b) I’ll ask for help when I need it; but (c) just in case he’s still listening let’s pretend that I’ve consulted you.
The lift proved to be a success. She loved it, regally disappearing upstairs with a tray on her lap with whatever she needed. To my knowledge it never let her down and enabled her to spend her nights in her bedroom, at least until her final few weeks. And yes, it was appreciated by great nieces and nephews and grandchildren. For her it was Per Stanna Ad Astra – she couldn’t be doing with the Ardua bit, not if she didn’t have to…
As I watched her disappear round the corner before she dismounted I speculated on whether, had dad been the surviving parent, he would have had a stair lift. No, I decided, he would have converted the dining room. He would have said it was because of cost but really it would have been because he wanted to hide any frailty. Oddly, it was mum’s strength that she could embrace her weaknesses that made her the stronger of the two. How often is that true?
And here’s a poem of Dad’s about fun in the third age…