How long is too long?
When you’ve been absent from blogging for as long as I have, it’s really difficult to know where to begin again! I had every intention of sharing all my experiences when I moved back to Northern Ireland in 2017 to help look after my elderly father. But when the going gets tough for me, I clam up.
I received a message just before the holidays via my website; a friend from my teen days, telling me how much he enjoyed reading my blog. So, grateful thanks go to him for convincing me to finally get my butt back to the keyboard. He seemed to particularly like the stories of my experiences while visiting Northern Ireland in the past when Dad was still alive. Dad has always been an eccentric man. His exploits were hysterical and I loved sharing them in my blog.
Things started out not bad at all when I arrived in October 2017. Normally when visiting I’d stay in Dad’s house in Robin Hill, just outside the coastal village of Dundrum, but I knew in order to keep some sanity and sanctuary for when my Graves Disease acted up, I needed to find my own place. Having searched online with PropertyPal.com I found what looked like a charming top floor two-bedroom apartment in Newcastle, a couple of miles away from Dad’s place. I was very lucky. It indeed turned out to be extremely charming, and to my relief, furnished! After I moved in I brought Dad and his dog Cooper up for a visit.
He laughingly called it a ‘hovel’, which was probably a correct impression compared to his lavish, beautiful home in Robin Hill. I don’t suppose he ever understood why I needed to live away from him. Perhaps he felt insulted, although he, a private man himself, of all people should understand a person’s need for their own space. My biggest problem was that even at age 92, Dad rarely sat down for very long. And with my Graves Disease there are times you have no choice but to rest or you’ll end up very ill. Unfortunately, Dad considered illness to be a moral weakness and didn’t understand why I couldn’t just ‘push through’ it.
My mother nicknamed him ‘Hurricane Jim’ after they married because he was always active, flurrying around like an unpredictable storm. Gardening, remodelling, washing cars, walking dogs, repairing and painting … you name it. It was obvious he considered the rest of us lazy good-for-nothings! At his house I got into the habit that any time I heard his footsteps approaching, I’d immediately pretend to be busy. I’d leap to my feet and make it look like I was intent on some task or another. He probably wasn’t fooled at all. When I set up my computer, I made sure to be facing the door so he couldn’t see the screen! It all seems so silly now, but he had a manner about him that made you feel you were ineffectual and slothful.
After I moved into the apartment, we fell into a pleasant routine. I’d come over to Robin Hill mid-morning after doing some work on the computer, just in time to join Dad and Cooper for a walk, invariably in Murlough Nature Reserve, just across the road from Dad’s house. Then I’d make lunch for both of us, and do whatever chores needed doing around the house. At first I stayed every other night in my old bedroom, but once I adopted the two cats, I rarely stayed overnight at Dad’s. I usually made dinner for the both of us, and once I’d cleaned everything up afterwards, I’d either stay and watch television with Dad or head back to Newcastle. Sometimes I’d prepare his dinner and put it in the fridge so he could microwave it later.
It worked very well for a while. But dementia had already begun taking its terrible toll. At this point I wasn’t aware of it; I just thought any changes I noticed were normal signs of aging. I wish I’d been able to recognise the symptoms. But dementia is insidious. It was so gradual I didn’t notice and wasn’t concerned that he no longer took Cooper to any other place to walk, or wanted to go out for lunch anymore. Television programmes ceased to be of interest to him and most of the time he had the BBC news channel on. He spent a lot of time on his computer. One of his hobbies was investing funds. He moved money from account to account, getting the best interest rates, and enjoying playing the stock market. Then it seemed he was always getting locked out of his accounts, mixing up his passwords. If I couldn’t assist, then my brother Ian had to drive the half hour trip from Carryduff.
It didn’t help that Dad’s hearing loss had become extreme. He used ‘bunny ears’ that amplified the television, but it was a constant annoyance to him that the batteries kept running out. He ended up with two amplification sets, so that one could charge while he used the other. Then he constantly mislaid his hearing aids. Several times a day. I learned the most likely places to search ... usually in the bathroom or by his bedside.
The trouble was he had a bit of a temper when it came to inanimate objects, so often the hearing aids were hurled across the room and forgotten out of sight on the floor. Keys on his computer keypad would mysteriously come loose and he tried to stick them back on with Blu-Tack. The bunny ears ended up stuck together with Blu-Tack as well. He used to yell at the top of his voice when he got frustrated. In hindsight I realised I reacted the wrong way. It was his way of asking for help; I was supposed to come running if I heard shouting and clattering. But I reacted the opposite way. I really hated the anger and would stay quiet, waiting for it to blow over.
Later on when I shared this on a dementia carers’ support site, people assured me the anger was just the dementia, but Dad had always had a short fuse. It used to make for hysterically funny tales, like the time he took a pickaxe to a petrol-powered lawnmower that wouldn’t start. Or how at top volume he’d curse a lost sock to hell and back.
I’m going to share some of those hilarious stories as they come to mind. But for today I’ll leave you with this beautiful letter written to a friend by Fra Giovanni on Christmas Eve, 1513 A.D. Even though I’m not religious I have found it to be comforting, something we all need after such a difficult year as 2020.
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it yet, within our reach, is joy.
And so ... I greet you with the prayer that for you,
now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.
My living room when I moved in, October 2017. (Borrowed piece of carpet from Dad's and absolutely not my choice of wallpaper!)
Dad with Cooper at his feet, relaxing in his living room at Robin Hill.