This is Easter 2017 and she’s trying to sell me on the proposition that she’s 69! I’m in my middle 50s, so you’ll appreciate how cramped this would make it in the late-middle-age/early OAP compartment.
It kicked off when I said or implied — I cannot now recall how it went line by line — but whatever I’d said clearly I suggested that she was in her middle 80s.
“What age do you take me for?”, she goes.
“You’re…84” I said.
“I am no such thing!”, she says, “I dunno where you get that from.” And with that she ups and harrumphed off over towards the kitchen area. (We’re in the house in Dunmanway at the time, sitting at the dining table.)
How it came to be revealed that we had differing chronological methodologies is that we were discussing whether or not she should have the house painted — the exterior of the house, front and back and the eastern gable end.
She was keen to do it, so much so that she’d had a couple of quotations — written, itemized quotations. She asked me to look at these.
But I was going “Do you really need to have the house painted?” I thought the place looked perfectly grand. And even allowing for the fact that she and I have always had quite different notions about what ‘looking grand’ looks like, believe me, the place didn’t need €1,500 worth of painterly application.
Nobody, I say nobody, would have looked at that house and thought, ‘Goodness, that place could do with a lick of paint.’
Nobody, aside from Mum, that is.
Look, I didn’t care whether she painted the place or not. What I was worried about was the fact of her doing €1,500 of business (in cash) — not that she’d be ripped off necessarily, just the risk of confusion and/or misunderstandings and then all the consequent kerfuffle and upset.
She had had two strokes by then — two that she’d been hospitalized for I mean — and a level of dementia had clearly set in. Overall she was good however, in the circumstances — very good — I mean you’ve got to be in good nick to keep a house going and do all your own shopping and cooking and cleaning and gardening &c. And it wasn’t like she was just keeping things ticking over, the place was always spotless, the garden always manicured, and she herself, in her person, always just so — particular about which cardigan went with which trousers and the exact tuck and puff of the cravat-like scarves she liked to wear. Nevertheless, clearly there was significant cognitive deterioration. And she knew this herself because my guess is she wanted me to synopsize the quotations for her in terms of the merits and demerits of each and basically pick one and say ‘This is the one you should go for, Mum’.
By this time she had trouble with all communication, but especially written communication, letters from insurance companies, for example, informing her about the on-going evolution of their data protection policies (admittedly, such letters are baffling to most of us, to all indeed but the gimlet-eyed lawyer or administrative specialist) but, more significantly, the language and grammar of television had ceased to be meaningful for her — for example she’d stopped following the TV soaps for which she was once so avid. Indeed, since around the end of last year, I noticed that she appeared to no longer really differentiate between any of the stuff on television, so sports, game shows, news, natural history, Scooby-Do, Britain’s Got Talent…, it made no difference anymore, all was just bland pap, and she’d sit there in her preferred chair just staring at whatever was on the screen, drifting in and out of shallow sleep.
Although sometimes she’d pipe up and say “Oh look, it’s Mary Lou”, or “That’s that shnake Adams”.
Why the dementia left her with the capacity to identify Shinners is a curious mystery. She cared nothing for public or current affairs: she wouldn’t be able to tell Leo Varadkar from a bucket of sand and cement; ditto Teresa May. And I consider it an act of mercy that she was spared consciousness of Mr Trump and his campaign to Make America Great Again. I used to gently question her about such things when I called, to check on how good was her grasp of all such Who, What, Where & When stuff. She admired David Cameron immensely, mostly (from what I could gather) because he spoke posh and had nice hair which he always kept neat and tidy. However, after Cameron there was nothing.
Anyway, the house is grand, it doesn’t need painting is the endpoint I was attempting to usher her towards. However, as might be imagined, there was a subtext to my utterances which unfortunately found its way abroad, which is what led to the pugnacious “What age to you take me for?” question.
“How do you figure that I’m that age”, she finally comes back with.
“Very simple”, I said, “we call it arithmetic…”
“Never mind with your smart talk now” she interrupted.
“Look,” I said, “when were you born?”
She seemed taken aback by the question and took a long time to answer — 5, 6, 7, 8 seconds — which in a conversation is a long time (I regretted asking the question, in fact, because I feared that she was about to tell me that she was born in 1948, which of course would have shot my goose), however, eventually, “1933”, she says.
“OK” I said, “1933, that’s correct” — I took a slip of paper and on it in pencil jotted down the following so she could refer to it later should she wish to — “therefore, in March 1943 you were 10 years old, isn’t that correct?”
I waited until I got a begrudging nod in affirmation from her.
“Excellent,” I said, “so in 1953 you were 20, right?; and in 1963 — 30; and in 1973 — 40; and in ’83…” …[but] that was as far as I got because she snatched away the piece of paper from under my pencil and scrunched it up in a ball saying “That’s all rubbish!”
Again she harrumphed off for another 10 or 15 minutes clattering anew with more make-work activities while she composed what she felt would be an effective response to this fat man and his fancy mathematics.
I should also say, by the bye, that I wasn’t at all invested in this dispute. If someone wants to make like they’re 38 when in fact they’re 58 that’s no concern of mine — I’m a bona fide liberal about all such matters — you think you’re a descendant of a long-lost line of the House of Hapsburg, go ahead, be that thing…
If Mum wanted to be 69, I had no substantial interest in convincing her that in fact she was 15 years older, none whatever. My thing with Mum that day was two-fold:
1. As explained, the house really did not need painting.
And 2. — and this was just as important to me — if you believe you’re 69 then go ahead and make that argument, because, as I see it, if someone can put together an argument — any kind of argument (logically put one thing next to another such that you’ve got a chain of reasoning) — then it seems to me you’re in pretty good shape, even if the conclusion you’re driving towards is completely wrong-headed.
So, in no small part, I was really hoping that she would make a reasonably convincing presentation in support of ‘Proposition 69’.
But, alas, no: she had another couple of attempts at composition and come-back but eventually — to my surprise (because tenaciousness was one of her chief characteristics, she was certainly not a giver-upper, not in this sort of situation anyway) — to my surprise she gave up on Prop 69 without that much of a fight — all the old fight was gone — and, dejected, she sat down at the table across from me, blanching at the possibly that she was indeed into her middle 80s.
Mrs Hockney next door was quite taken back to learn that Mum was not in her 70s as, apparently, she’d maintained to Mrs Hockney, and Mavourneen across the road as well, no doubt, for nearly two decades. Some people are like that about age. I’m not and cannot well understand those that are. There’s no real harm in the like of it, of course. The only trouble is, reality has a way of catching you out, and the fact is when you’re 84 you’re 84.
If you live just a little past your 83rd birthday you’ve lived a thousand months — 12 months in a year, therefore 10 years is 120 months — it’s not a lot when you think of it in these terms, is it?
If, when you were a child and believed in fantastic things, someone offered you a bag of gold coins but at the same time told you that this is all the treasure you will ever have in the world, how would you be with that cache of gold?
Mum was born in March 1933; by the time I was born she had spent just about a third of her allocation.
By the time she was the age I am now two-thirds. She was living in Cork then, which was the time of Mary Robinson’s election, the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of Apartheid, Dances with Wolves was in the movie theatres and Dancing at Lughnasa the new play at the Abbey, I was in Edinburgh, Liam in Australia, Angela in Crosshaven — Donal T. an infant — and Mary and Frank just married.
After that she had that nice place in Clonakilty overlooking the town, and then finally she moved to the stage-setting for the last Act — Lakeview, Chapel Street, Dunmanway.
By the time she moved to Dunmanway she had less than two hundred of those precious coins; and by the time she got Dunmanway in a state she was happy with she had fewer than one hundred.
Do not wait for a doctor to tell you that you’ve only got a few months to live, the fact is all of us have but a few months to live — it may be 80, it may be 180, it may be 580, the point is, it’s a few months.
It’s glass half-full thing. It may not work for everyone but for me this conception of things makes each coin infinitely more precious.
That’s the thing with these coins we don’t know our allocation. All hope for the fullest measure, of course, but we don’t know. It’s as if you don’t carry the bag of gold yourself at all, a silent servant does so, this invisible non-communicating figure who shadows you always and everywhere carries the bag for you, and every time you want to spend another coin at an amusement park, every time you set out in a new and reformed direction full of resolve and new-born hope, every time you snap your fingers and say “Com’on, com’on, I’m going all in with this sucker” and ask for another two or four or six or eight coins to pile onto the pile at the centre of the gaming table, this figure reaches into the bag and hands over the coins you’ve commanded…
…until one day when he pulls out a coin and then shows you that it’s your last for the purse is now empty.
…Or he plunges his hand into the bag and there are no coins at all, and you’re shocked for you have all these dreams and schemes…
For that servant — your bag-man — is of course the Grim-visaged Reaper. He does not surprise you in the noonday marketplace, nor in far away Samarra after sundown, thereby heralding your last long sigh — the dream’s end — he’s been with you all the time, every step of the way, from the moment you were born.