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Lucas Elkin: On Loss

Life’s a pudding full of plums – Care’s a canker that benumbs

Last week, an old friend of mine died. When I say ‘old’, I mean it in both senses of the word: we’d known each other for fifteen years or so; he was a touch past his 93rd birthday. We’d got to know each other via a shared interest in a somewhat obscure branch of horology. After being introduced by another mutual clocks friend, to find that one of the world’s most knowledgeable authorities in the field happened, by complete chance, to live a mile up the road from me has been one of life’s great boons. We complemented each other well: if he bought something, or wanted to move some items around in his collection, I’d do the manual labour. If I came across an auction oddity, he’d give freely and generously of his time in examining and evaluating the item for me. If we wanted to attend a lecture or visit a collection, I’d drive and he’d buy the tea when we got there. His 90th birthday lunch was a splendid occasion, a large group regaled with many cheerful anecdotes and laughter. It has only been the last three years – a very short period in the scale of a long life – that has brought about incurable cancer, frequent hospital visits, nursing homes and constant care.

On one of my last visits, he started chatting about the physics of aging: to do with neutron particles, he wondered, his ever-enquiring, un-dimmed mind clearly turning the matter over during the long hours of limited physical ability. “Never get old!” he advised me.

This week I’m back in London, looking after my Dad (known to regular readers as Mr E, or Susan calls him, My Loved One or MLO) whilst my mother has a few well-earned days away with an old friend/ work colleague and a bottle of gin.

And I’m observing a completely different form of aging and illness first hand. Since I last spent a length of time with my Dad, any capacity for conversation has completely gone. We exchange bizarre non-sequiturs: “Would you like egg on toast for lunch?” I’ll ask. “It depends on when we cut the roses back” comes the answer. Or I say “Let’s dry your feet” and he replies: “It’s all to do with annual copyright, of course”

As Susan often comments, this is a frustrating sort of existence. Infinite patience is required. And something new I hadn’t realised before is that it’s also pretty lonely for the carer. Although there’s someone here, actually he’s not here at all.

“Never get old…” the sage clocks man said. It starts to look like sound advice.

When it’s gone, it’s gone

When my elder daughter (now a student nurse and known to regular readers of this blog as GD1) was about three, she took great delight in hiding things.

“Where are the car keys?” I’d ask.

“Gone!” would come the answer, with a delighted beaming smile.

“Yes, I know they’ve gone” I’d say. “Where have they gone?”

“Gone!” she’d say again, even more pleased with herself.

Much the same thing seems to be happening at my parents’ house of late.  As I had a bit of time on my hands, I thought I’d have a shave, an event that generally only happens about once a week. This process requires a razor (check), lather and brush (check, check), a supply of hot water, a basin to catch it in and a plug to retain it (check, check…) “Erm, where’s the plug?”

“I think it’s gone” says Mr E.

I stop myself from the same follow-up question I asked my daughter 20 years ago, knowing it’s unfair to ask – his condition in its current state completely prevents any form of coherent answer, and would probably only add further confusion and unnecessary stress. I’ll go out and buy a multi-pack of plugs in the morning, remaining bewhiskered in the meantime.

After that, I decided we’d go out for the day. The newspapers – two broadsheets, so quite a pile – were undoubtedly in the house when we left. When we got back I went out to mow the lawn, leaving Mr E on the sofa, with the cat, his feet up – and, I know for categorical certainty, with today’s papers.

He didn’t stay there long, pottering out to see what I was doing fairly shortly afterwards – and in that moment, the papers, which I was thinking I might look at this evening, upped and vanished. I’ve looked in the obvious places – the recycling, the waste paper baskets. Mr E is just as nonplussed. Humouring his well-meant suggestions I can confirm they’re not in the airing cupboard, his underwear drawer or the oven either.

“Gone!” as GD1 would have said, with glee.

I’ve given Mr E yesterday’s papers to look through again, one glimmer of advantage to his advancing Alzheimer’s being that he hasn’t noticed. In the meantime, if anyone still has copies of Wednesday’s Times and Telegraph, would you mind if I borrowed them? Thanks in advance.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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