Faced with the realisation that she can no longer live on her own, the decision to move the old lady in with himself and his wife and teenage children has a seismic impact on their lives, with riotous consequences. Squeezed by the demands of the demographic time bomb and the requirements of the rest of the family, the Man in the Middle is bemused that life has become a hi-wire act, just when he thought it should start getting easier. How can he keep everyone happy and survive with his sanity intact?
No. 1: The Letter
Mother is 94 years old. Her mind is as sharp as ever, as is her tongue.
‘Your stomach is larger than your father’s when he had his stroke. If you don’t do something soon, you’ll go the same way,’ she says.
She reserves her lectures for me. Everyone else gets a grey-age, charm offensive. She knows the birthdays of our friends’ children and what they’re studying at university. She remembers what people were wearing when she last saw them, sometimes decades previously. Everyone agrees she is ‘unbelievable for her age’ and how ‘lucky’ we are she doesn’t have dementia, which is undeniably true.
‘She has the knack of being interested in other people,’ says Wife, ‘You could learn from that.’
Time, however, is beginning to take its toll. Her hip is chronically painful. A short walk to Sainsbury’s is now a marathon. Wet leaves are a bear trap and the stairs of her maisonette a mountain. Streetlights, dimmed to balance the council budget, make her scared of answering the door. The everyday is becoming filled with fear. Recently, she blanked out and I took her to A&E. It was a blip due to low blood pressure and she was home quickly. But it changed everything. Now, we talk about when something ‘bad’ will happen again every week and wonder how she will deal with it if we were not there. I am having dreams in which I am arrested for Dereliction of Duty for going on holiday.
‘Pull yourself together. It’s time to plan for the Future. You must talk to her about it,’ says Wife, who could have organised the D-Day landings without breaking into a sweat.
A shiver of fear passes through me. Talking to Mother is a great idea. But doing it is quite another. It will require diplomacy, patience and impeccable timing. I’m not sure I’m up to it. I regret not having a sister. She would have known what to say. Or would say it better. As self pity and cowardice consume me, I even consider bribing my daughter to talk to Mother for me. Then I have a breakthrough idea. I will write a letter. A letter will avoid confusion and save me from a tricky, face to face first move. I write: ‘Perhaps now is good time to live somewhere better suited to your needs? We will support your decision whatever it is. And if you want to move in with us, we would be delighted. We just want you to feel safe, secure and happy.’
‘What’s this?’ she says, shaking the letter at me, a few days later.
‘It’s like the Irish back-stop,’ I say. ‘It may never happen. But we need to talk about the future, don’t you agree?’
‘I’m not going to a care home. I don’t like old people and I don’t need help. Anyway, who cares if I fall down the stairs? I’m ninety four, that’s par for the course at my age.’
The conversation is over. That night, I tell my wife about our ‘chat’.
‘OK. Now we know where we stand,’ she says.
I am confused. I saw a dead-end. Wife has seen something else. Is this female intuition at work?
‘She’s saying she wants to move in with us, only not yet. Which is fine because we’ll need time to convert your study into her bedroom.’
I reel with shock. In all my scenario planning I hadn’t reckoned on losing my man cave.
Wife sighs: ‘You’ve done well. Your letter did the trick.’
First published in Age Space
Read Man in the Middle No.2 The Bored Meeting here.