Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A birthday and a deathday

Today is no 4's birthday. I can still remember very vividly the feeling of being utterly overwhelmed that hit me between the eyes the day I took her home from the hospital. I'd come in, and at my mother's insistence gone straight to bed with the new arrival. I didn't get much peace. Two minutes later the other three, then aged 5, 3 and 20 months piled in, and jumped around the bed next to their new sister. Blimey, I thought. I've got FOUR children. How the bloody hell am I going to manage that? I look back at those pictures, and still wonder how I did it.

Particularly as no 4's arrival coincided with possibly the most stressful period of our lives. Spouse had just been involved in a corporate buyout of the dental practise he then owned, which had necessitated lots of late night meetings in London, worryingly close to no 4's arrival, but did liberate enough cash for us to have a new extension done. Work started when she was five weeks old, and as the builders were planning to knock the end of our house down I repaired to my mother's for a fortnight, only to discover she had to be called away suddenly. I couldn't face the thought of being in her house with four small children on my own, so Mad Twin kindly put me up till my own home was in a semi habitable state.

The first year of no 4's life is therefore a blur of stress, hard work and a fair amount of trauma in the shape of the other major difficulty we had at the time. Namely my father in law's failing health.

Up until the age of 75, Fil was incredibly fit. For a man (as Spouse always says) who abused his body spectacularly badly when young , he was pretty active in his early 70s. Then, when no 1 was eight months old, he had a massive stroke and we were told he was going to die. Fil was made of much sterner stuff then that, though. So, after two weeks semi conscious and three more months in hospital, he did recover sufficiently to get home, and spent the following year determinedly learning to walk again - at one point in competition with no 1 who was also just taking her first steps. Being as stubborn old cuss, he did it, and he and Mil were able to set up home in a flat which fortuitously came available down the road from us.

For a long time they used to stagger up and down the road together, leaning on each other and their walking sticks. To our amusement, they ended up knowing more people on the road then we did, as they had time to stop and chat, and as I was still working then, Spouse and I didn't.
Fil also still managed to organise his regimental reunions every year, although it was to an ever dwindling group of people. I typed the letters for him (being old school, even when he was fit, Fil couldn't have used a computer or typewriter if you'd paid him.), and I still have the copies on my computer, detailing the campaigns he took part in at the end of the war. As was common with his generation, he always played down what he actually did, but I think he was alot more courageous then he let on.

He was certainly honourable. At one point at the end of the war his regiment were (like many others) ordered to repatriate Yugoslavians. According to Fil, everyone knew they were going to their deaths. He and his comrades refused the order, which could have led to their court martial. The only reason it didn't was because the Nuremberg Trials had been taking place, and the defence of some Nazis that they were simply obeying orders had been deemed inadmissable. If an order was morally wrong, it was said, then a soldier could disobey it. Fil and his friends cited this in their defence, and avoided both the court martial, and the forced repatriation. Elsewhere, other Yugoslav refugees weren't so lucky as you can see from this. According to Fil, everything in this article is true, and the episode is a shameful blot on the Allied Forces at the end of WW2, simply done to appease Stalin.

Knowing this about Fil, made it immensely difficult to watch his slow painful decline into ill health. Particularly, when he ended up with well meaning carers who patronised him horribly. After his stroke, if you didn't know him, you'd have thought he was just a rambly old man, but we who were close to him, could see the subtle changes the stroke had wrought: the increased tetchiness, his frustration at not being able to do more, his forgetfulness about the recent past. It infuriated me when people patronised him (like the social worker who I frankly wanted to kill after she sat here practically patting his hand, saying There, there, as if to a small child), because I wanted people to see him as I did: a man of courage, of principle, of humanity, who'd been rendered helpless by the ravages of an illness that overnight had made him impotent.

Fil, being Fil didn't go gently into that good night. He struggled on even after he fell and broke his hip just before no 3 was born (I could write a book about juggling care of small children and the elderly, I tell you). He kept going when he suffered another minor stroke, which meant he could no longer write ( a source of huge frustration, that: it was only writing bad tempered letters to Tony Blair which kept him going.)

The last year of his life, and the first of no 4's was a succession of small failures, and shuttings down, of the realisation that less and less of the world was available to him, and the walls were closing in. Mil was his main carer, despite her own infirmities (she has suffered for many years from a condition known as a benign essential tremor, which basically means she shakes a lot and loses her balance constantly. How she looked after him is beyond me.) Fil led her a right old dance it has to be said, becoming ever more querulous and demanding, and selfish. But it was a selfishness born of desperation, I think. If he didn't demand she attend to his every need, I think he was afraid that he'd just keel over. It wasn't really like him to be that selfish though, and finally six weeks before he died, I think he woke up to the fact that he was slowly killing her with his demands.

We had begged him to consider going into a home so Mil could have some respite care. (Hence our meeting with the patronising social worker). He'd refused, saying he didn't want to to be in a home with a bunch of "old" people (I can't say I can blame him. Why would you want to play bingo with geriatrics just because you happen to be over 80?). I offered him a bed at our house (though I'd balked at the thought of it - how would I manage a school run, an elderly man, who needed constant care and two small children, if only for a week?), but he told me we were too "young". Like I said, he could be an awkward old cuss, and though I could usually manage to jolly him along to do things, I couldn't jolly him into that one. Until that January, when Mil was so exhausted, and Fil finally jolted out of his selfish cocoon and agreed to temporarily go into a home.

The home did their best, but it was a grim experience for him and for us. Spouse and I left Fil there one cold January Sunday, while Mil went to stay with relations. We both felt dreadful as we left, seeing this bewildered figure in an old raincoat, plaintively asking if he could go home. And worse was to come. I arrived the next morning to see how he was, with no 4 in my arms, and no 3 gathered around my ankles. Fil was stuck in his room, refusing to come out. "This is a terrible place," he said. "Take me home." I had to tell him over and over, as you do a small child, that he couldn't go home, and that it was only for a week. He was furious with me and Spouse for putting him there, and I wept as I left, because I didn't want him there either, but really, there was no other choice.

In the end, he stayed for two weeks, and by the time he left, he was more sanguine about the experience. Bil, Spouse and I visited every day. I took no 4 with me on my visits, who bounced around cheerfully on her bottom (she never crawled) and pulled faces at him. I like to think that cheered him up and that they connected on a very simple level - by then he found the older ones simply too exhausting to be around. He'd spent a great deal of the previous two years asking me why he was still here - "To see your last grandchild," I kept saying, and looking at him laughing as no 4 blew raspberries at him, I'm glad that even though things were so very grim for him at the end, she brought some little pleasure into his life.

When he moved back home, the boys had sorted his bedroom out so he was comfy and able to sit in bed watching the endless videos of 'Allo 'Allo and Dad's Army which he loved. He was more gentle and appreciative of Mil, and I hope his last two weeks were a more peaceful and happy time he'd had in a long while.

My last proper conversation with him, was a week before he died. I'd popped in one evening, and found him and Mil watching a programme about Diana and Charles. Fil was propped up drinking his daily nightcap of a whisky and a glass of red wine, pontificating about how Charles should never have married her. I sat on the edge of the bed and we laughed our heads off. For a brief moment the old Fil, the one I wanted the world to see had come back. I walked away that night praying that he would finally be at peace, and a week later on no 4's first birthday, he was.

I spent all that day trying not to let the children know their grandad had died, because I didn't want them to associate no 4's birthday with sadness. But my efforts were for nothing, as no 1 informs me she overheard us talking, so she already knew when I told her the next day. Now they all know that no 4's birthday is also Grandpa's deathday, but it doesn't seem to bother them. And as I always say to no 4, he chose a happy day to go, and she gave him a lot of happiness before he left us, so we shouldn't be too sad.

Fil was a keen gardener and insisted on buying us bulbs for the garden. The day after his funeral, the first daffodil of the year came out. And on the first anniversary of his death, the first daffodil of that year bloomed. Spouse thinks I'm fanciful, for thinking it, but I like to imagine that's his way of keeping in contact (this year with all the cold weather, mind the daffs are a long way off blooming.) I know that I was immensely lucky to have such a great relationship with him, and for my children to have had him, even if only for a little while.

In Sheffield Cathedral, in the regimental chapel of the York and Lancaster Regiment to which Fil belonged,there are benches dedicated to the memory of soldiers from the regiment. Last week we were sent a copy of a picture of one with Fil's name on it. As a soldier to the end, I think it's a fitting memorial.

Meanwhile, the birthday girl is having lots of fun, her siblings have temporarily forgotten that this is Grandpa's deathday, and that I think, is fitting too.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading this post and seeing the pic. Hope little (big) cous enjoyed her day. Ruth xx

Jane Henry said...

Hi Ruth. Aw thanks. That means alot. Littlest cous had a great day thank you. I had to practically prise that watch off her at bedtime!xxx

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Damn ou JH for having me in tears (in your defence I have very responsive tear-ducts): you write so very poignantly about your family and the issue of sharing a birthday and deathday strike an especial chord with me.

My only known grandparent (mum's mum) died on my mum's birthday; my mum then died on my dad's birthday, which had also been their wedding anniversary day (we always joked it was so he wouldn't forget when it was!).

The need to keep living is important; and a young birthday helps that.

Unknown said...

Lovely post. I liked the way you talked so naturally about life's challenges and rewards: old age, death, new birth, childhood.