A few years ago now my father ‘let go’ his ancient gardener and faithful retainer because – to be perfectly honest – he had passed his sell-by date. By then he was approaching the age of eighty and his ability to work during his weekly visits had reduced to little more than riding the lawn-mowing tractor, a task that in ‘value for money’ terms had become exorbitant compared to his days of yore when tending the garden’s acreage with its varied landscape and complicated flower beds etc. was (and indeed is) something of a Herculean ‘cleaning of the Augean stables’ epic. My father had agonised for a period about the decision not least because in terms of good intentions and respect the old chap couldn’t be faulted and the two of them enjoyed their habitual mid-morning breaks for a cup of tea and a biscuit in the kitchen whilst they chewed the cud together and put the world to rights.
More recently my father’s ex-gardener’s son – one of those chaps who can fix anything practical from tree-lopping to tarmacking drives – came over to attend to something or another whilst my brother was also in residence. The three of them had a wide-ranging conversation that took in an enquiry to how the old chap was faring. It surprised neither my father nor sibling to learn that the ex-gardener had been banned from driving and was now instead terrorising both motorists and pedestrians at the handlebars of his newly-acquired mobility scooter.
There was also a reference to forgetfulness and perhaps dementia. The visitor, who had family connections to nursing and therefore some amateur expertise in the issue, explained that an early indicator of the same was a tendency towards repetition of stories – especially to audiences of family members or friends, which circumstance – had the teller’s mental faculties had still been at their peak – ought to have ‘told’ him he was re-treading anecdotes they must have heard before. And therefore wouldn’t have told them.
Most families with older or ancient relatives will be familiar with the syndrome and live with it because that’s what families do. My own kids tease me whenever, without realising it, I begin to tell them things that I’ve imparted to them previously, perhaps even more than once. Occasionally, e.g. when I’m on the phone and friends or my brother do it to me and – depending on my mood – I either point this out, or I don’t. In the latter case this sometimes happens because I feel it would be impolite. After all, why pick them up on something which might cause them distress or worry when – at the end of the day – they’re only wasting a minute or two of your life that you could have spent doing something else?
I was reminded of all this last night, whilst staying with my father. He has – I’m plucking a figure here – maybe sixty tales stored in his hard drive memory that he can deploy, word and gesture perfectly, at a moment’s notice. Nobody points an instance out to him any more – well, because what’s the point?
It’s a communal and healthy aspect of human society and interaction that we should feel able to contribute to a conversation taking place, even on those occasions where one gains the impression that the individual is not so much taking part in the flow of chit-chat unfolding before him as hoping and waiting (I’d hesitate to say stalking) for an opportunity to launch into one of his well-tried stories.
A different angle upon the same theme occurred last night. For no particular reason, after dinner, we relaxed by watching television later into the night that is normal for any of us. Eventually, when just my father and I were left in the room, sitting on the sofa, he nodded off half-way through a programme. I became aware of it and, instead of rousing him and sending him off to bed, I let him snooze on.
Suddenly he awoke, switched the television off via the remote control, struggled to get to his feet and set off towards the corridor.
“Where are you going?” I eventually asked him.
He stopped in his tracks for a moment to gather his faculties.
“I was … er … going to bed …” he replied.
It didn’t take me long to appreciate what was going on. My father normally lives alone and, if say he nods off in front of the television and then awakes again, he assumes that there is nobody in the house, let alone the room, and just ‘does his thing’. The odd aspect of this I noted was that, although he’d switched the television off, he’d left on all the lights in the room as he exited.
This morning I’m still trying to work out for myself whether or not it would have been weirder if he hadn’t.