Shortly after booking a train ticket from London to West Yorkshire to accompany my mum to the doctor, I received a letter explaining that due to Covid-19 the appointment would now take place over the phone. Having booked the time off work, I decided to visit her anyway – despite the fact she and my dad, who separated 50 years ago, both still live in a small town surrounded by Covid-19 hotspots. Indeed, it was possible my visit would infringe the latest lockdown regulations, as well as putting my parents at risk. It’s a chance I decided to take.
A few days later I’m sitting in the pub with my mum, who has Alzheimer’s, my pulmonary disease-afflicted dad, developing vascular dementia, and my dad’s wife, Jean, whose hearing is dodgy because there are no slots available at the clinic to have her ears syringed. I am reminded of the old joke about three old people: ‘It’s windy, isn’t it?’ says the first. ‘No, I think its Thursday,’ says the second. ‘So am I,’ says the third. ‘Let’s all go and have a cup of tea.’
You have to laugh because otherwise you’ll cry. In the taxi from mum’s sheltered housing to the pub, mum admits she can’t remember how to get to the village two miles away, where she lived for the best part of 40 years. As we sit in the pub, being reminded to put on our masks each time we go to the toilet (a regular event when your three companions are septuagenarians), the conversation becomes increasingly confused, fragmentary. Mum, who has forgotten she smoked for 50 years, isn’t supposed to drink because of her medication, but now has a glass of red wine that makes her memory loss even more pronounced.
Eating out in a pub is an even rarer treat for my companions than for me, and all appear to enjoy themselves, though I am the only one present who orders an adult meal and cleans his plate. I’m struck by how much they need this human contact, these oldies – the opportunity to sit with old friends, eat, drink and tell ancient jokes. Mum’s only regular contact is with her wonderful, low-paid carers; my father and his wife have each other, though visits from children, grandchildren and great-grand-children have had to be severely rationed.
Mum, a tiny thing, four foot ten, has always been lithe but in recent months – perhaps because she gave up smoking – has put on a few pounds. My dad, five foot two, who always struggled with his weight, reassures her that when you reach 70, a few extra pounds can be beneficial to your health.
‘What a lovely thing to say!’ laughs mum. ‘Will you marry me?’
My dad laughs too, uncomfortably. His wife’s smile is glassy: she might not hear much but she heard that.
After lunch the four of us walk up the hill to the house where my dad and Jean have lived for 15 years, nestled on the edge of a small estate. As we walk, to demonstrate her agility, mum suddenly kicks her foot above her head – reminder of a lifetime teaching dance. Mum raves about the house as if she’s never visited before; in fact she’s been here many times. This being Calderdale, by entering the house it’s possible we’re breaching local regulations, and even visiting from London has put my parents at risk. But it’s one I felt compelled to take. Mum is 72, her Alzheimer’s is worsening at an alarming rate; dad 76, with heart failure and COPD which badly affects his memory. How many more opportunities will there be to get together, laugh, and reminisce?
Now mum and dad are off again, remembering – trying to remember – how they met at a meeting of the Socialist Labour League (I was conceived at a party conference in Morecambe); how notorious SLL leader Healy attempted to seduce her, as he did every teenage girl, by insisting ‘we will sleep together on the eve of the Revolution.’
Then mum repeats another of her old stories – when she couldn’t attend a meeting because she was washing her hair, and one of the SLL zealots snarled: ‘By washing your hair you are betraying your own working class!’ Except mum can’t get the words right – can’t remember exactly what was said, by whom, and to what purpose. We all laugh anyway. We all know the story and anyway it happened a long, long time ago, in another time and place – where mum and dad were young, and together, and still believed they could change the world – instead of it changing them.