My dear old Dad’s allotment shed had been family folklore for as long as I can remember, it was a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis housing two of the Old Dear’s discarded armchairs, some old blankets, a camping stove, battery radio and wind up gramophone. Also his collection of homemade wines which my mother refused to have in the house since one of her fellow WI members referred to him as the “Village Moonshiner”!
On the occasions when I used to accompany him as a child, he’d make a mound of sandwiches, big wedges of mum’s lemon drizzle cake or Victoria sandwich along with bottles of pop and flasks of tea. We’d walk the length of the lanes hand in hand past hedgerows full of bluebells and Queen Anne’s lace to retrieve the shed key from under the plant pot by the door.
I was always puzzled when he’d re-wrap the remainder of picnic in greaseproof paper and leave it on the work bench assuring me with a wink it was for the allotment fairies that looked after his flowers. It was only years later that I realised that itinerant farm labourers and fruit pickers regularly used his shed as overnight accommodation and the remnants of our substantial picnic would have provided a much needed meal.
When I now recall those days I recognise that these gestures were widespread community currency. I don’t for a heartbeat think my father thought he was being kind; it was just a time in our society when we looked after our neighbours because it was simply a way of life for our parents and grandparents. As was never passing someone you knew without offering a lift or sharing an apple tree harvest. Good deeds were regularly carried out with intention not for attention.
This pandemic for many has certainly generated an overwhelming urge for many to spread kindness. It’s heart-warming that families are realising that games night can be every night, mums & dads enjoying regular stay at home date nights when the kids have gone to bed and connecting with long lost friends and family members online; not forgetting during all this time Mother Nature is recharging her batteries. I’d like to think that simple acts of kindness will remain an integral part of our daily lives because when eventually our NHS white knights have fought and slain this fire-breathing Covid Dragon and we emerge into the light once again, we shall have a chance to do things better; let’s not waste it!
The old dear last week handed me a bag of old photos that she had come across whilst having a clear out and I have spent a week in scanning heaven; simple things! I’d asked her to dig out my first school photo so that I could participate in a Twitter anti-bullying campaign. The photo in question shows me as a truculent and sullen four-year-old who clearly didn’t (and still doesn’t) enjoy having a photo taken and bears a strong resemblance to the children from the cult horror classic “Village of the Damned”. I should also mention that I only had half a fringe as whilst playing hairdressers with my sister had hacked it off to the roots with a pair of nail scissors. Mum still hasn’t been able to locate said picture but whilst searching she came across some other hidden gems including this one of my sister, Beverley Big Pants modelling one of my hand-made outfits! No doubt I’ll need to buy a shedload of gin as compensation for publishing this little beauty.
Back in the day when I was a hard-up student, I decided to put my dressmaking skills learned at school to good use. As I was so dire in the cookery class my harassed teacher had been relieved to offload me and school chum, Louise Williams onto the dressmaking teacher and rescue my poor family from potential salmonella poisoning when they were constantly forced to eat my latest incinerated culinary offering. To be fair I can follow any dressmaking or crochet pattern to this day and my ability with both smocking and ruffles was the envy of the class, however, none of the above qualified as “high fashion” statements at that time. In my limited and immature view, an abundance of sequins including various other adornments compensated for a lack of cutting edge style.
My mum gave me some old material and lining which she thought might just keep me busy & out of trouble and fortuitously my sister was to be the recipient of my needlework endeavours. There was just one small problem in that I lacked any talent in design or creativity. However, I clearly thought I was going to be the next Stella McCartney whilst I threaded my mum’s old Singer sewing machine with shirring elastic and frankly, any mis-stitch could be resolved with a flourish of sequins.
Unsurprisingly my clothing label never did make it to London Fashion Week and the Singer is now gathering dust in the attic.
Demanding clients and long working hours had left me weary and grumpy with a headache so I decided to take young Ruby for a quick stroll as even though it was overcast, it was still very humid. Having left her for an hour and half that morning to do the shopping run, I was dismayed when I returned and she’d managed to open the cleaning cupboard and destroy a packet of wet wipes and tumble drier sheets not to mention a Yankee Candle diffuser. So I thought a short walk when the dark destroyer and I could cool off would be the order of the day
As we strolled on one of my favourite walks along the country lane that runs past the cemetery, I came across an elderly gentleman who I frequently met on his way to the graveyard with a bunch of fresh flowers in his shopping bag when we always stopped to say hello. He had confided in me the day before that he’d just adopted his little Bichon Frise from the local animal sanctuary. The pint-sized dog, now called Max, had been seized by the RSPCA from a puppy farm. You could tell he adored this little dog sporting a brand new harness and sparkling collar. He proudly told me how when he went shopping the little dog was always waiting for him on his little blanket on the sofa right where he had left him and after Ruby’s adventure that morning I couldn’t help but feel a little envious.
He sadly confessed he’d lost his wife earlier in the year so had taken his new friend up to the cemetery to introduce them both to each other and also to let her know that he wasn’t on his own anymore so she didn’t have to worry about him. He was also thrilled that he’d seen and met so many people since walking the little fella and I suspected like many elderly folk, he had felt isolated and lonely since his wife passed.
Did angels have a hand in bringing these two souls together, I’d sure like to think so. As I waved to the companions walking home alongside each other my day suddenly didn’t seem quite so grey as I was reminded that there are good people in the world and sometimes just sometimes there are happy endings too.
So what’s a good day for you? A trip to the spa, beauty salon, picnic with the family or a lie in. For many carers a good day can be one where their loved one isn’t picked up by the police at 3am strolling around the streets or found wandering around the garden naked or perhaps one where they’re not up to their armpits in incontinence pads. Many of you might find humour in these situations, however, for a carer they can frequently be another day of overwhelming black despair leaving them nowhere to turn in a society that’s simply doesn’t understand dementia and habitually fails both the carer and the sufferer.
After my Dad’s accident a good day for me would be one where I didn’t have to jump back in the car after getting home after a day’s work followed by a visit to see him when I would shower him and then drag myself wearily home. As I opened my front door I would often hear the phone ringing because he’d had another fall or was having a bad day and insisting that I collect him immediately.
When you’re a carer there’s no such thing as a sick day or a day off; you could argue that it’s the same for parents but the thing is no one really ever wants to be a carer. This is a role thrust upon many overnight and it’s irrelevant if you don’t want to be one or have no experience in the role; a little like national service. No one prepares them for the coming days, weeks, years of continuous round the clock care of soul destroying drudgery. Days of endless washing, cleaning, bathing, toileting, feeding and frequently getting through the day on pure adrenalin not having slept for days because their charge hasn’t; then getting up the following day to do it all over again. Trust me when I say there are few things worse than severe sleep deprivation and with no light of the end of the tunnel that makes it all the harder to bear on some days.
Let me be clear about dementia there is NO remission or recovery. Those that have nursed a loved one through dementia will know that they don’t fade away gradually in front of your eyes but destructive chunk by chunk on a day by day basis. Often it’s hard to recognise their loved one particularly when they do and say such uncharacteristic and hurtful things frequently becoming increasingly aggressive; I never imagined that I would one day be bathing my once proud and mild mannered father.
Spontaneous drinks after work or lunch with friends become a thing of the past and friends start to fall by the wayside partially through lack of understanding and partly because you no longer have anything in common. Every carer would love the freedom to accept a random invitation but sadly suitable “sitters” for dementia patients are few & far between. However, much as we like to think we live in an informed society; dementia carries a stigma of elderly incontinent folks. The worst thing is most of us will one day be those incontinent old folks.
I don’t mind admitting now that juggling everything whilst trying to be a carer nearly broke me so if you or a loved one are currently fighting the good fight day in and day out, I wish you courage and resolution on your journey. Know that many follow in your footsteps and many have walked that well-worn path before you. Be assured that it’s okay to feel resentful and it’s also okay to vent. Seek help and don’t take no for an answer as I know that it can be a postcode lottery in terms of the support you get but remember too that you need to take care of yourself. Time is the precious currency of carers; it’s worth is beyond gold and you can’t buy it or steal it but for many it is a luxury that is in short supply.
Yesterday was one of the saddest days ever as my big beautiful black boy, Hobo at the grand age of 14 made his journey across rainbow bridge. As he featured so much within the pages of this blog I felt that it was only right that I shared it with you. Life is sure going to be different without the big lumbering panther lounging around the neighbourhood and I know many will miss him.
I remember well the moment we met at the rescue centre when he was six months old and had already been returned several times. He swaggered into our lives much like Thomas O’Malley from the Disney film The Aristocats, charming everyone that met him and spent much of his time visiting all the houses in the neighbourhood; many where he had a basket awaiting him and a meal! Whilst he didn’t have much time for other cats unless they were kittens he adored people and would lie in the sunshine waiting for a car or van to pull up outside the house so he could greet any visitors. In fact one unsuspecting carpet delivery driver realised he had a stowaway only when Hobo awoke half way through the journey across the Tamar Bridge into Cornwall. His stubborn ways have both amused us and caused exasperation in equal measures particularly when we had a cat flap installed and discovered that he was simply “too posh to push”; trust me 3am wake up calls which increased in volume if ignored were vexing to say the very least.
I am without doubt a little lost right now as thirteen and half years is longer than many friendships last and he was the very best kind of friend; one that kept your secrets and was never dishonest. Without doubt he definitely chose us and if anyone is thinking of adopting an animal please don’t overlook the shy ones, the odd looking ones, the ones abandoned because of allergies or not enough time. They’re often the ones that so deserve that chance and I think Hobo would like that because I wouldn’t have missed the last thirteen and half years for a heartbeat.
I’d like to think of him up in heaven sprawled across the garden furniture in the sunshine as he so often did keeping the old fella company whilst he drank his cuppa and read his newspaper. RIP big boy & give the old fella a kiss for me x
I think it’s fair to say that since the old fella passed I’ve lost my way a little stumbling around like a lost soul but I think he’d approve of me becoming self-employed which is my first step in moving on. Bereavement without a doubt, leaves a gaping hole in your life and I vowed that because of the poor experience which we had with Dad’s care that I would make something positive come out of a bad situation; so meet Miss Wigglebum.
I thought long and hard about becoming a fosterer before completing the application form for a small rescue and when they announced they were coming for a house inspection it somehow made it all real. Truthfully I was expecting to foster an older dog whose owner had passed away so when I had a call unexpectedly one Saturday morning concerning an emergency rescue I didn’t have time to think too much about it. I had no idea that my new houseguest was a ten week old springer pup who when handed to me was yellow from being sat in her own urine. Having not had a baby in the house for some time I don’t think I was quite prepared for the puppy devastation whirlwind. We’ve baby-gated for England (in fact if I ever write my memoirs they’ll be called “Babygate”) and because we are Miss Wigglebum’s third home house-training is a bit of a marathon. I often wondered why with three cats and little experience in the puppy raising field the rescue chose me to be her fosterer but maybe they had few options as they tell me it’s getting harder to recruit fosterers.
As a rescue she is not without her problems; underweight with severe guarding aggression are just a couple of them but our puppy trainer reckons it’s because she left mum too early and then lived in a shed on her own so she’s told me to take one day at a time. On the days when this cute puppy transforms into the “Bride of Chuckie” I’m left wondering what the hell I’ve done but I’m determined not to give up on her and I know that I have enrolled the best help I can. I met Jenny her trainer as one of the judges at the fun dog show at a local rescue and she took pity on me and awarded Cujo a rosette for “waggiest tail”. She must have noticed my look of sleep deprivation and despair so we got chatting and I discovered that she was running a local puppy class. Jenny as a breeder of springer spaniels calmly reassured me that there is no perfect dog and added there is nothing she hasn’t seen before so fate had once again stepped in and provided us both with a saviour.
We have met some amazing people as part of her journey and accidentally meeting up with a group of dog walkers at 7am every morning has given her the socialization she was lacking. Dogs of all ages and breeds are teaching her manners and their patient owners understand this; in fact, she has a better social life than me!
Now Ruby, as we have renamed her is fourteen weeks old and it feels like she has been here forever; the training is one step forward and frequently two steps back but I am determined not to give up on her as I will be the one who failed her if I don’t do all I can to ensure that she is a happy, healthy and well-behaved family pet.
As the old fella often remarked when I would whine about some insignificant minor inconvenience, “life doesn’t always give you what you want, it gives you what you need” and somehow I think he would approve.
One of the advantages of working from home is being able to enjoy the summer weather so I decided to take full advantage by obtaining quotes to have part of my garden decked. Subsequently, I contacted four contractors but as is the case here in Britain only two bothered to turn up.
I selected the company I had previously used for a small fencing job and as they had appeared to be fairly efficient arriving early, bringing along surplus timber just in case and speeding through the job. However, as he initially said he wouldn’t be able to start the job for some weeks I was amazed when he turned up one morning unexpectedly and told me that he’d had a cancellation and was able to start. A bit flustered I reluctantly agreed and that was when he asked me for an advance to pay for the timber delivery. Now that should have been the first red light but he was a small business and he had been very vocal about his marriage break up and child custody problems, so we agreed that he could have access from early the next morning.
I have to admit to being a tad disappointed that he didn’t arrive until mid-morning the next day citing family problems. It was then I noticed he was on his own carrying all his tools in a supermarket carrier bag so I enquired about his partner to be informed that he had left and was now working alone. I have to admit to being very concerned at this point but as I had paid for the timber I felt that I had to run with it but later that morning I was horrified when he asked which bus he should catch to the local hardware store as he had run out of screws.
The job progressed but I was seriously disappointed, it sloped and when it was finished it looked like something a first year woodwork student had cobbled together totally lacking the professional finish which I had asked for. The two steps I specifically requested onto the garden sleepers with incorporated ramp for my hedgehog visitors which I had provided a sketch for was frankly an amateurish eyesore and I had received a handful of splinters from the handrail alone. I realised that the works displayed on his website were clearly earlier projects when he’d been working alongside his former colleague or “borrowed” from google along with the reviews. The final straw was when he asked if I could lend him a level so I ordered him off site. Barbs, my bestie, told me to have a couple of vodkas as it would look better in the morning; it didn’t!
My not-so hedgehog friendly ramp
I’ve got a secret; one I’ve been dying to share with you for a week or so! I’ve been debating for some time whether to go freelance and I’ve done it. The deciding factor for me was after an uninspiring 1:1 with my area manager in which I was told “the company did not reward loyalty or long-term service”. So after this disheartening meeting I had a eureka moment; for those that have seen one of my favourite films “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” remember the scene where the Judge debating on whether to retire shouts “today’s the day”?
The old fella had long disapproved of the organisation I worked for and every year when they failed to provide me with a cost of living pay rise claiming a dip in overall company profits despite both the directors driving around in brand new Range Rovers, he pointed out that even Dick Turpin wore a mask.
So I tendered my resignation and four weeks onwards I’m doing okay and waking up looking forward to each day instead of hauling my tired arse down to the bus stop before 6am each morning. Ironically, the day after I resigned a white flash on my Dad’s old armchair caught my eye. I picked it up and my heart somersaulted when I realised it was one of his old business cards. It now sits on my laptop under my wrist rest as a reminder that the old fella would have been oh so proud. I don’t know what lies ahead but for the time being I know that this is the right time for me.
For those out there thinking of taking the plunge; try it you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner #followyourdreams
As children when the old fella kissed us goodnight the evening before our birthday he would deliver what became known in our family as the birthday speech, more eagerly anticipated than the Queen’s Christmas Day one. His speech started with the immortal line “now this is the last night you’ll ever be thirteen again because when you wake up in the morning you’ll be fourteen” and this fast became a family tradition
I’m pleased to say that as we got older this particular tradition stopped; think Dad recognised the teenage eye rolling and wisely decided to quit whilst he was ahead. However, it was resumed when my nieces were old enough to appreciate it and woe betide if granddad ever forgot as he would be curtly telephoned before bedtime by the intended recipient to remind him that he was late.
Another part of our family folklore was that as a small child my sister, used as a tactic to delay her bedtime, would always chant “don’t turn the light off, don’t shut the door & talk as you go down the stairs” when my parents went to kiss her goodnight and it comforted me to repeat it to the old fella every evening when I took my leave of him at the care home. So it somehow seemed appropriate when the vicar included that phrase during the service at the funeral reminding us that by leaving the door open he would always be with us.
Family traditions and rituals are the tapestry of our childhood memories and remind us of the love woven into our daily lives. What sometimes appears to be an insignificant word or gesture will frequently become an echo of time past which will often bring a smile or much-needed inspiration on an otherwise rainy day. By treasuring our family customs it enables us to hold on to those we love who are no longer with us but yet still guide and inspire us through turbulent and difficult times. Somehow I know that the old fella would think that that is the best legacy of all.
Last year I had a rare night out catching up with some former colleagues over a drink and a bite to eat. Whilst it was great to see them I felt for the main part that they were tiptoeing around me and wondered whether I had a neon tattoo on my head emblazoned with the words “fragile; dementia carer please handle with care”. One of the husbands of the other girls was in remission from cancer and they all expressed concern over his recovery and yet in much the same way as Voldemort is referred to in the famous Harry Potter novels as “he who must not be named” dementia in many social situations becomes the elephant in the room. Now I’m not blaming my friends as I know it’s a difficult subject to broach and frankly some of the behaviours of many dementia sufferers scare the bejesus out of most of us but here’s the thing; it currently effects 850,000 people in the UK alone and by 2025 it will be over a million so chances are everybody at some point will know someone struggling with dementia.
Make no mistake Alzheimer’s is a killer and a destructive force in the lives of many, in much the same way as Motor Neurone, Parkinson’s, Cancer and any other progressive illness. There is no get out of jail card once you have been diagnosed and there is no recovery for this marauding killer that steals your loved ones right in front of you, piece by heartbreaking piece. One of the most bittersweet moments of my struggle was that I did not travel the old fella’s dementia journey alone for my bestie Barbs, was also fighting her own battle with her father who was also diagnosed last year. We’ve laughed & cried together, vented, raged against the injustice we have suffered at the hands of the social care system and shared advice in navigating the treacherous waters of Alzheimer’s but both of us have also sadly discovered that many of our other friends not knowing what to say to us have ended up saying nothing at all. Frankly, are we any less worthy of compassion simply because our loved ones no longer have the mental capacity that they used to. Is it any wonder that so many dementia carers feel isolated and alone?
So can I ask you to do just one thing for me today for all the families lacing up their boots to face another day of battle in their war against dementia; ask them how they are, drop them an email, write them a card, give them a call, offer to meet them for coffee or pop over to their house with a bottle of wine. Granted, Alzheimer’s has some appalling symptoms and causes sufferers to do fairly uncharacteristic things but I promise you, it’s not infectious and you can’t catch it. So go on be a good friend in the life of a dementia carer today after all what’s stopping you?
My wish for you is that you continue to astonish a mean world with your kindness