In this house of illness and pain I get lonely. Everyone is in bed by eight o’clock and the long night stretches ahead. Tonight I can hear the rain plinking on the skylight which reminds me of the sound of rain on a tin roof, the sound of my childhood. I am tired. My father can only take soft, resistless things. His swallowing or as the Greek carer calls it “his slow” is very deteriorated. Every day there are two sets of meals to make. I’ve been searching out the kinds of foods he can slow and which my mother and I can also eat with him, not so much to save the work as to include him and to try and beckon him somewhat out of the twilight in which he is living.
When you’re in hospital, or in my father’s case living in a hospital bed in his own bedroom and then in a padded hospital lounge chair all day, meals are the highlight of the day. The clinking of the trays along the corridor, the slowly approaching voices. If you can’t look forward to that, what is there to look forward to? pain and dosings, people who pull you about and speak in a singsong tone, and death.
There is a lot of work to do, and a lot of cleaning up afterwards. It’s like having children but sadly, I have been spared that joy. I have become preoccupied with brewing everything from scratch and am making rich bone broths on beef neck and chicken frames, slow-cooked casseroles in which the meat dissolves into tenderness, a rich bolognese which simmered on the stovetop for three hours until it was silken and plump. I offer little trays: clumps of his favourite soft cheeses and soft smoked oysters, and Dad might manage a teaspoonful before he turns his face away. The next day he will have more energy, he seems brighter, so the effort feels worth it.
The carer has told me, “I cannot help my mother, I cannot help my father – but I can do this.” She looks after my father as though she loves him, standing ready with the clotted tissues for the food that he has held in his mouth for a quarter of an hour, refusing to swallow. She says, “You want to slow? Try to slow it. You can’t slow? Ok, then split it. Split!” And my father spits and she wipes his mouth for the four hundredth time.
I had to do this today and I did it as well as I could. My brother had entered the bedroom and stood covering his eyes while I held out the tissue to Dad and then, behind Dad’s back so as not to hurt him, indulged the paroxysm which instinctively clutched my whole body. It’s not his fault and I’m not at all disgusted with him, I love him. It’s just a bodily reflex. The sensation of hot liquid coming out of my father’s mouth is too much for me. My mother lying up against her pillows announced, again, “Oh! you would have made a terrible nurse.” I have no doubt this is true. She gestured towards my brother, standing just inside the doorway so as not to infect Dad with his cold. She asked the invisible audience who accompanied our childhoods, “How did I end up producing two such lily-livered cowards?”
My brother’s late appearance, two weeks into my short visit, is on account of the feud he and his wife have had with me, kept up for more than six years now; I threw a plate and they cannot forgive me. This was in May 2010. We had a family dinner at which my brother was tired and so stressed that he roared at his kid. The boy was two and I have seen him four times since. My brother is huge and his roar made us all jump. I said, “You know – I’m not sure you need to use quite that much volume.”
There is dispute over what happened next. Brother says he said, We’re not interested in your parenting advice. My memory of it is: You don’t have kids so we’re not interested in your opinion. The cruelty of this when he knew, they all knew, they’ve all known, how desperately, dearly, deeply, strongly I yearned and tried to have children of my own, cut me like a clamshell across the throat. I can feel its ache now, as I write about it.
The feeling of having been excluded, after a lifetime of being told by this family and this same brother I was over-emotional and over-sensitive, that I had “such an imagination” and thus had constructed most of the abusive events which dotted our historical landscape like felled trees, of being told that my opinion didn’t matter and my experiences had never existed, created a pain that felt intolerable in my body. I grabbed my plate of Thai takeaway and hurled it to the floor. As it left my hands all of the anger left my body and I thought with great distinctness, “Oh, you idiot. You are never going to hear the end of this.” And as so rarely, I was right.
Plategate, a friend called it over dinner this week. She was joking that if I ever see my estranged sister-in-law again I should monitor our conversation for imagined slights. I should say, in a dark, gormless brute’s voice, “Oi, wotchit. Don’t you be sayin’ that, or I’ll killya. I’ll killya with this… plate!” She mimed drawing a tiny side plate out of her breast pocket and we folded up with laughter. Plategate changed our whole terrain and I have not been forgiven by my brother and his wife. She still keeps herself and her children apart from me on the grounds that I am dangerous, terrifying, violent. This accusation wounds me because it sits next to the hidden violence of my mother, who suffers some kind of condition that leads her to build towering rages which moments later in the wreckage she is unable to remember. All my life I have had a bone-loosening fear of that terrorising rage. The destructive, the lasting bolts she hurls. The silence afterwards, broken by my father saying, “Well, I was sitting right here, and I didn’t hear her say anything like that.” There have been times when I found no one looking back out of her eyes, they were avid like a bird’s, there was no one to reason or plead with. Very few people outside the family have witnessed this phenomenon and it was a great relief to me each time when someone did.
My brother meanwhile has an explanation that ties everything in a bundle. There must be something wrong with me. In our twenties he told me there was something “wrong with your basic personality” and that was why I kept choosing unkind men. “You cling to these imaginary or exaggerated events because they give you an explanation for why your life hasn’t been all it could have been.” He has told me that as a child I was so irritating that our mother had no choice but to get angry with me. And once, perhaps a decade back, in a gentler mood he said, “I think you’ve just never experienced unconditional love. I think Mum and Dad didn’t know how to love you.” This struck me as a shaft of light between the trees and I bounded upstairs to ask Dad. This was after Dad’s stroke but before the cancer and he was lying in his daytime cane lounge chair, gazing out into the trees. “Dad,” I said, “Dad!”
My father turned his head slowly. “What?”
I was so excited I was hopping from foot to foot. “Dad, would you say your love for me was… unconditional?”
“Oh, yes, pet,” he said. “Largely.” He looked startled when I started to laugh merrily.
To be difficult to love is the fate of some of us. Of most of us, maybe, when we really get close to one another. Mopping up after another meagre meal which my father has picked at and spat out, passing the carer on the stairs as she carries him his fourth glass of cold milk for the night to make up for all the meals he wasn’t able to manage, I think about this. To love one another in all our difficultness is perhaps the most exacting grace of all: it is the fur in our mange, it’s the comfort in our cave; that’s just nature of love, it’s the manner of the beast.