Over the past couple of weeks my father and I have made several trips out to some of his favourite watery places – though, to be honest, any place with water is a favourite with dad. And, it being the time of year it is, we had some wonderful encounters with birds and their offspring.
During a visit to Attenborough Nature Reserve Dad managed a long slow walk along the lake edge. He was rewarded for his efforts while we rested on a bench and watched a family of mallards with no less that eleven ducklings meandering and re-grouping in eddies behind their parents. ‘It’s nice here,’ he said, and indeed it was.
Another day we drove out to Trent Lock. Here you will find the blessed confluence of many of Dad’s favourite things. Firstly there is water in several forms: the River Trent, the Erewash Canal and the Cranfleet Cut, and, disappearing off towards the power station, the River Soar. In addition to these joys there are also trains! The main line from London splits here with arms disappearing towards both Derby and Nottingham. Not only that, but the trains travel on bridges over the water.
Here, though, is the sad part. My father’s eyesight is getting so poor that even when a train went over the bridge ahead of us he could hear it but not see it at all.
We took ourselves off for consolation at the teashop where they were serving the most delicious home-made ice cream. It was one of those 30 degrees plus days and I had even managed to persuade Dad to come out without his full vest and jacket regalia. Further, I’d managed to do an application of sun-cream without so much as a grumpy word in response! Clearly the omens of the day were good. Dad, to my surprise, chose pineapple and coconut flavour – even after a taste test – and I had lemon cheesecake (ice cream that is, with the biscuit bits mixed in. Yum!).
We sat there, licking happily. The elderly couple at the next table started up a conversation and Dad was able to compare careers with another man who was an engineer who had worked in the civil service. They had both also worked for the Ministry of Defence. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist revealing my Quakerly and pacifist tendencies at the end of our companion’s proud assertions about his work with Trident. I once experienced a very profound Meeting for Worship outside the Faslane Naval Base on the Clyde – the home of the submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. ‘We used to have a lot of problems with you lot,’ our companion told me. I’m sad to say that I simply thought: Yes!!!
Once we’d said our goodbyes, Dad and I wandered on down the canal where we encounted a family of swans. It must have been a productive and predator-light year because there were no less that eight already well-grown cygnets. My father was interested and tried to phrase his ideas but was clearly stuck for the relevant words.
‘The swans and their’ – big pause – ‘babies,’ he said. ‘When they give birth…’ he said. His mind was moving almost visibly. ‘When the babies come out.’
He stopped, flummoxed.
‘The cygnets hatch from eggs,’ I offered. ‘The mother bird sits on a nest with the eggs in to keep them warm until they crack open and the baby birds come out.’
‘Eggs!!’ said my father, happily, as he listened to my explanation. Then: ‘They’re very clever things.’
It occurred to me once again as we had this conversation, how the most effective and reassuring way to deal with someone with dementia is often the same way you might deal with a young child: by offering clarity and simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ choices, one at a time; by explaining about things that they are curious about; by never reacting in a way that implies they are stupid.
But there was a difference between Dad forgetting that eggs were the way birds hatched their young and the way a young child might learn about them. He clearly required the explanation of how eggs worked in addition to a reminder of the actual word, but once he had grasped what I was describing his face lit up and there was this huge joy at realizing what an interesting and wonderful thing eggs are.
If we are ever tempted to worry about what dementia might mean if it ever happened to us (something I am regularly guilty of), it is perhaps worth remembering that there are a million things about nature and this wonderful world just ready for us to rediscover all over again.
Finally finishing the final final edit of my novel with the support and guidance of a real life – and very excellent – agent. And, to top it all, the manuscript being sent out this week to a round of editors/publishers. I feel like a proper novelist at last! (Please, please give me a publishing deal…)
How my front garden has blossomed into this…
© Anne de Gruchy