Family obligations such as visiting an ageing relative can sometimes be strange and double-edged experiences.
Ordinarily, being all part of life’s rich tapestry, they are undertaken freely and willingly out of both filial duty and the commendable urge to spend time with the individual concerned – whilst separately, to be blunt, they can also be tiresome chores with apparently little reward to be had for anyone concerned.
For the past three years and more I have visited my father regularly every week for between one and three days at a time at his home on the south coast where he lives with the assistance of a rotating schedule of live-in carers, this set-up a result of his oft-stated desire not to end his days in a home which the family was only too happy to accommodate.
However, there is no escaping the fact that this situation takes a significant chunk out of everyone’s time, not least because it involves a weekly task of arranging ahead which of the family is going to visit when and then carrying it out.
In addition, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, my siblings tend to be available to spend time with my father less often than your author and for only day-trips each time – hence my current routine.
My father has now reached the stage where his world is drawing in and he spends most of his time seeking to disguise his inability to contribute much to conversations by pretending to be engrossed in his newspaper, a ruse that fails to fool anyone since he does this all day every day.
Simultaneously – and understandably – he prefers to be in the company of familiar faces and if possible family ones. But not in the sense that he wishes, or is able any more to shoot the breeze, chat about the old days or keep up to date with the latest family news.
He simply wants us to be around, as is illustrated by the fact that, having asked the obvious chatting queries upon any arrival (e.g. “How are you?”, “How was the traffic?” and “Was it an easy journey?”), once we have settled down in the drawing room where he spends most of his time, he immediately picks up his newspaper and carries on ‘reading’ it without another word.
Until (that is) you leave the room, whether that be to visit the lavatory, make everyone cups of tea, go to the computer to check your emails or – in my case, habitually after lunch – excuse myself to go upstairs for a nap.
For some reason any ‘retirement’ from his presence concerns if not irritates him.
He just cannot grasp the point – however many times it is repeated to him – that my standard daily routine involves rising at some point between midnight and 2.00am and spending the next twelve hours awake, either on the computer or doing stuff that every human being does when up and about.
Which will eventually naturally leave me in a state of some ‘sleep deficit’ – a ‘debt’ that at some point I need to address in order to keep functioning.
As a result, whenever I announce (“If nobody minds …”) that I am going to retire upstairs for a period, immediately I have disappeared on that mission my father begins making snide remarks to anyone who will listen.
“What is Bill doing?” he asks them, or indeed nobody in particular, as if he is shocked and dismayed that any son of his would be such a lightweight as to need to sleep for between 30 and 90 minutes of an afternoon.
“What does he do all day?” he continues, no doubt because – on the evidence of his own erroneous observations – for as far back as he can remember I have done nothing but sit on my butt, read the newspapers or watch the television – oh, and consume food and drink.
The truth, of course, is that these have never been what I do all day – that is, save when I spent my time with him. Because that is what he does all day and I am just ‘fitting in’!
For the past few years, to all intents and purposes my life has effectively been on ‘hold’ because of my weekly visits to my father.
Even when I am not with him it is not easy to concentrate on my writing obligations or other hobbies, or even arrange but a few social engagements (not that this aspect particularly bothers me) because I have to remain on permanent stand-by to set off to the coast where – inevitably – my time is basically spent ‘sitting with my father’, unable to research the articles I am committed to delivering and generally unable to do what I want or relax.
Time spent alone is a most precious commodity in the modern world.
Occasionally this can get frustrating and stressful. I spent the bulk of my life under the illusion that by now – at sixty-seven years of age and ‘retired’ – I’d be in seventh heaven, doing all those things I’d always wanted to do but hadn’t yet had the time.
Instead I spend nearly half every week baby-sitting my father.
It doesn’t help that I feel unworthy when friends and others comment admiringly, as they sometimes do when referring to my current regime, to the effect “With your family’s special closeness and values, of course, there was never going to be the case but that you’d do it willingly out of duty …” because, frankly, I don’t always harbour such altruistic thoughts.
As it happens mine were far from charitable yesterday, for example, when (after about an hour) I was awoken abruptly from my afternoon nap because those downstairs could no longer take my father repeatedly asking them, in a state of increasing agitation, where I was, why did I need to sleep all day and why didn’t someone go and wake me up?
And thus it was, when I came downstairs to join my father just after 4.00pm, he said nothing but continued flicking through the pages of his newspaper, whilst everyone else just carried on ‘killing time’ until the hour arrived for retiring to bed.