It's a sad thought, remembering various friends' mums and dads as they were forty, fifty and more years ago, vigorous and full of the excitement of the brave new world of prosperity ushered in by the 1950s. Where are they now, I wonder, all those parents of my playmates that once lived in and around the street I grew up on? You forget how it feels to be known and automatically welcomed inside neighbours' houses whenever you knocked on the door; to be forever, as it seemed, part of each other's family story. Towards the end, though, I now know how some parents don't even recognise their own children, let alone remember the names of inseparable playmates from long ago, and how those family stories – especially the untold parts and those parts glossed over as convenient fictions – are lost irretrievably with failing memories. My mother certainly didn't know me, although she did insist that I really should meet her son, as she was sure we'd get along really well.
It was with some surprise that I realised it has now been nine and eight years respectively since my own mother and father died. And, I confess, it was also with some considerable relief. The thought that my mother, in particular, might still be alive in her care home – with her 93rd birthday coming up later this month, but her mind and sense of self totally blotted out by the cloud of dementia that had already enveloped her ten years ago – filled me with dread. How different the last decade might have been! Running the story of their declining years through my head, I lighted upon the memory of the last time I saw my father.
Dad (front & centre) at Burma Reunion 1947
For the final fifteen years of their lives, my parents had moved away from our home town and into a mobile home which my sister had provided in her back garden. It was a loving gesture and a handy arrangement that suited everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. The journey to visit them had become much longer – rather too long with young children in a hot car – and I was deeply saddened to lose the essential connection with the town I had grown up in. It broke something in our family that was never fixed, and I regret to say I became a bit of a stranger, phoning regularly but visiting rarely. So it goes.
The story of how, after various medical crises, my mother began to dement, and how my father concealed his bowel cancer until it was too late – not wanting to be a nuisance, and committed to seeing the wife he had loved so dearly through her ordeal before seeking treatment – need not be dwelt on. It all happened quite quickly, over a few years. No sooner had my father reluctantly allowed Mum to be admitted to a care home than she died. Dad finally owned up and sought treatment, surviving just one more year; he died in hospital after emergency surgery, just weeks before what would have been his 90th birthday.
During that last year he'd had something of a renaissance. Finally able to listen to jazz all day at reasonable volume, he'd dictate his latest Wants List to me on the phone, and I'd fill it via Amazon. He was astonished at what treasures could be sourced and delivered next day with such ease. He also started taking a lengthy daily walk and reading – Mum had never been a great reader and always resented anyone reading in her presence – so stout shoes, waterproof trousers, large-print books, a magnifying reading light and various audio-books all fetched up, Express Delivery, at his door.
It didn't last, however. I visited him in hospital after that final surgery. He looked the way very old men look in hospital, bleached and delicate, and somehow weightless, like driftwood on a beach. He knew I knew he'd been an idiot, ignoring his symptoms for so long, but he also knew I knew why he'd done it. There wasn't a lot to say. We'd had some good conversations in the preceding year, and he needed rest to recover his strength. I stayed for an hour or so, until some nurses appeared by his bed, and said goodbye, giving him the gentlest hug I could manage, and promising to come back next week. But I got a phone call the next day telling me he had died in the night from some surgical complication or other.
However, that wasn't quite the last time I saw him. As I was going down the hospital corridor, I realised I'd forgotten a carrier-bag with various supplies I'd bought for the drive home, so I headed back to get it. The curtains had been drawn round his bed so, knowing where the bag was by the bedside cabinet, I reached through to retrieve it. He couldn't see me, but I saw him through the gap between the curtain and the wall, getting a bed bath from the two young nurses. The old rogue had perked up, was laughing and joking, and clearly enjoying himself. Well, who wouldn't? I watched for a few seconds, then left, glad to have had a rare glimpse of the man just being himself, and not being my father. It seemed pretty clear he was on the road to recovery, and I drove the five hours home happily enough, anticipating the receipt of the next items on his Wants List.