Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The ghosts of Christmas past

Good things happen at Christmas. Sadly bad things also happen at Christmas. Yesterday, we were due to have a visit from friends, but one of them couldn't make it because their mother had been taken ill. It reminded me of a familiar refrain of my mother "Someone always gets ill at Christmas". When I say ill, I don't mean a bit ill. I mean a lot ill. Usually it was my Dad or my Mum. In the end they gave up on Christmas and used to go to Florida (my big sister lives there). When my Dad died in 1987, my mum carried on the tradition. She'd always be away for Christmas. She'd go off on a  cruise, off to America or to Austrailia. This changed in around 1996 when she met a new partner. They'd be around for Christmas and we'd have big family christmas meals, our parents, my sister & her children, my in laws, our children. Happily no one got ill. In 2000 we had a great meal. I remember thinking that we'd put the curse of Christmas behind us.We had a party for the millenium. It was a happy event, sadly I had to leave at 10pm as I was working, but the house was packed with family and friends.

Sadly that was the last happy Christmas. Out of the blue in December 2000, my mother had a stroke. She spent Christmas in the geriatric ward, unable to speak, unable to walk and twenty years older than she'd beeen the week before. We faced the awful truth that she may not be able to live independently again. My mother was a fighter.She didn't want to live her days out in a geriatric ward. She learned to walk, she did her best to communicate. Within three months, she was back at home. Sadly her relationship didn't survive. Her partner was a diabetic and she couldn't cope with the problems this caused. She lived on her own and was quite happy living quietly and reading. Her one big pleasure was a trip to the library.

Eventually she was confident enough to walk down to the shops. She would go every day to Marks and Spencers or Costcutter. I'd visit every night and share a couple of Guinness. For a few years, she was slowly climbing the ladder back to normality. Then a series of events undermined her and broke her will to live. The first of these was when a drunk assaulted her in Costcutter, grabbing her behind and making lewd suggestions. Bear in mind my mother was 80 years old and very frail.It undermind her confidence. The trips down the road stopped. She felt vulnerable. Then she broke her hip. Although she survived, she again had a lengthy period of recuperation. In her fraility, she couldn't even cook. As we live down the road, we would supply evening meals. My sister would visit from Northampton and stay for two nights. We also arranged for meals on wheels for lunches. Again my mother started to rally. She enjoyed the meals on wheels and had a good rapport with the delivery lady. Then in April 2007, she was informed that the "service was changing". It was "being improved" and she would get "more choice". She was sent a full pack of details, including an order sheet. This confused her. Whilst she had no problem reading, filling in forms and making decisions was a diificult process. "What if I order a salad and it's a cold day?". Under the old system, you got what you were given and it was delivered. As she became so anxious about the change (an anxiety I felt was ridiculous at the time) my sister agreed to visit from Florida and stay with her. This was fortuitous. The new service was a shambles. On the day of the change, no food arrived. The next day it arrived at 5pm. As my sister was there she could cook, but my mother was bereft. She didn't want uncertainty. She didn't want "new people" delivering the dinner. I wrote my first ever email to a Barnet Councillor. It turned out that Sodexho, the new supplier, had put in a totally unrealistic proposal. Each delivery driver had to deliver 40 meals in three hours. That is less than three minutes per meal. Some old ladies take three minutes to answer the door. The quality of the new meals was far inferior. My mother realised that her independence was an illusion. She took to her bed and became depressed. She also suffered from Osteoperosis and had stress fractures in her back. To deal with these she had to take opiates. She was losing the will to live. Then we found out that there was a new treatment. They can be filled with cement. The only snag was the operation cost £3,000. There was a question mark over whether she would survive the anaesthetic. She insisted and signed a disclaimer. The operation was a success. In November 2007, she suffered another stress fratcure. Her doctor informed her that she should be entitled to the operation on the NHS as her need was acute. She was booked in for February 2008. Christmas 2007 was a bit stressful. My Father in law was suffering from dementia, my mother was in severe pain. It was a difficult afternoon, although everyone enjoyed the meal. The one hope my mother had was that she new her back would be fixed in february.

Arrangements were made, my sister came from Florida to stay with her for the op. Two days before, she was informed it was cancelled. A private patient had bumped her. I was not prepared to stand by and see this happen. My sister couldn't rearrange her holiday. I got hold of the CEO of the hospital trusts email and we made a massive fuss. My mother was distraught. Although the procedure was done a week later and went well, her spirit was broken. In May, my father in law passed away. My wife was distraught. Although he'd had demential, it is a shock to lose a parent. My mother had started lose her eyesight. She could no longer read. She was losing the will to live. In July, I took her to Lourdes with HCPT. This had been a her regular summer holiday following her stroke. She had previously enjoyed it. in 2008, she was different. She complained the whole time. She said that this would "be the last time".

She was right. I returned and went to San Francisco with my wife and children. On the 7th August, I was awoken to the news, she'd had a stroke and had died. I was completely numbed. The year got worse. In November, my mother in law (who was 14 years younger than my father in law) had a heart attack. Fortunately, it wasn't serious. She also had a bad cough. She was worried, but the hospital informed her it was nothing serious. She came out in time for Christmas. She had decided to give up smoking and was in good spirits. We were hoping we'd  put a bad year behind us. Christmas was tinged with sadness, butw e had hopes for the future. My mother in law had had a bad time caring for her husband. We hoped she'd have a bit of a life. Sadly in January, the cough, which she'd been told not to worry about, was diagnosed as stage 4 lung cancer. She lasted until March.

In amongst all of that, in May 2008, I started writing a blog on the Hendon Times. In August 2008, I wrote a tribute to my mother following her death. Two days later, Mike Freer MP, who was then Leader of Barnet Council, wrote a blog on the Hendon Times, where he criticised "armchair critics, cossetted by inherited family wealth". At the time, there was only my blog and that of David Miller (who's mother, Baroness Miller of Hendon) is a Tory peer and happily very much alive, that covered Barnet Council. I was incensed. I wrote to Freer demanding an explaination. His excuse? He wasn't referring to anyone in particular.

In actual fact, my mother left all of her considerable personal wealth to charities. She didn't specify which ones. She left instructions that her six children should decide between us who got the dosh. We decided that we'd allocate 1/6th each and give it accordingly. I gave my slice to the following charities

Noah's Ark Childrens Hospice (it was the Mayor of Barnet's charity that year)
HCPT - (Charity which takes disabled people to Lourdes - my mother visited with them four times)
SHARE foundation - Charity running community nursing projects in Sri Lanka
Mill Hill Missionary Society - My cousin is a priest working in the Congo with them, setting up a school
The Sacred Heart Parish - Our local Church that my mum attended for 40 years

I chose small charities where I felt there were specific projects. We all chose different things, close to our own interests. For instance, my brother chose a cystic fibrosis charity as his wifes niece had passed away from this horrible disease.

Christmas is a time of giving. The point I sought to make was that hopefully out of all the horrible things that happened to our family, maybe some chink of good came. I applaud my mother for her decision to give the money away.  It is funny, some people have said "oh, it's terrible when they do that". Actually I think it is life affirming. Tomorrow, I'll go down to do my shift at "The Passage", a homeless day centre. I have to get up at 6am, which never sits well. Thing is, if I decide to lie in bed, then someone may not get a breakfast who needs it.

If you have a friend who is having a hard time this year, don't forget them. Christmas can be a sad and lonely time. If nothing else, pick up the phone. Last night, I was dwelling on all of this when I went to bed. I awoke at about 4pm and thought about it all again. I am lucky, we have a strong family bond and good friends. It doesn't take the pain away, but it helps. Who helps the people who don't have that support network?

That was what was troubling me last night. It still is.

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