And so a year goes by…
It’s been an age since I’ve written anything. In fact, weirdly, it’s been almost exactly a year since my last entry; I just checked the date. 21st April, 2020. Although by the time I post this it’ll no doubt be a day or two later.
The last time I wrote, New Zealand was still in Covid Lockdown – Day 26. I wonder why I stopped writing? It was most likely a simple case of ‘life out of my comfort zone’, overwhelming me. What a year 2020 was!
Dad and I did take our mini road trip – we drove the 160 km south-west to Te Kuiti to visit my uncle (his younger brother) and my aunt (his wife). It was a very pleasant day, sunny and not too hot. Dad wasn’t that well. Back then he was tiring easily; I really thought he didn’t have long to go. He dozed on and off in the front passenger seat, while I enjoyed the unfamiliar, undulating road through the King Country. I’ve always liked road trips.
We’d wanted the visit to be a surprise (a Percival thing) so didn’t call ahead. Well, not exactly. Before we left, I rang up and pretended to ask for someone else, just to be sure they were home. Wrong number. How embarrassing. As we drew into their driveway I saw the curtains twitch, and then my Auntie (who I’d actually never met) came out. She’d guessed who I was. I’ll have to accept that all Percivals look the same.
Sadly, we didn’t manage a trip home to South Head, although I know Dad would’ve loved it. He didn’t want to travel too far afield while Mum was still alive, and by the time she was no longer here, he wasn’t well enough.
My time with Dad at Mount Maunganui lasted until New Year’s Eve 2020. Up until then I’d spent more than 200 days with him, only taking breaks when I had appointments back home, or on one occasion, when he sent me away. It was a strange time for me. I’m not sure what I was thinking back in February 2020 when he first rang me to tell me he was sick. I just had an overwhelming urge to be with him and to take care of him. So I started ringing him every few days, and it seemed to me that he was becoming increasingly unwell. I kept asking if he wanted me to come and stay, and in the end he agreed. I’m not even sure now, that he was aware of saying this. In my mind, I was ready to stay with him until he died, if necessary, and I said this to him several times when we sat in the evenings, chewing the fat.
What I found initially was that he hadn’t been eating well and was struggling with making his own meals. His hearing had gone and although he had fancy new hearing aids, he didn’t know how to put them in. His sight was deteriorating, particularly in one eye. Because of this, he missed many cues, such as expiry dates on food. I can still remember the evening I arrived. He said he’d just made a scrambled egg, and laughingly told me that the first egg he’d broken was black, and the second one was completely dried up and stuck to the inside of the shell, The third one looked okay so he’d cooked it. I looked at the egg carton – the expiry date was 4 months earlier.
Our days settled into a manageable routine. A cleaner came in to wash the floors, shower and toilet on Monday afternoons, so I tended to disappear when she arrived – I could usually count on an hour’s break and I’d often drive to Bayfair. Living in a town with a mall was a novelty, especially at first.
Each day I’d prepare or cook Dad’s lunch and dinner. Breakfast was under control. For his whole life, he’s eaten four Weet-bix softened with boiling water and finished off with milk and sugar, accompanied by a cup of instant coffee. For lunch I’d usually make tuna or ham sandwiches, or a cup of instant tomato soup and lavishly buttered toast, or something leftover from the previous night’s meal. Dad had his TV programmes he liked to watch (WWE, in particular) and I had my computer upstairs in my room.
I tried to be disciplined and walk for at least 40 minutes each day. At least twice a week, I’d head down to see Mum at her residential home. There she’d be, in her wheelchair, only able to use her left side, doing her crosswords or watching a game show on TV. I think it drove her crazy with boredom. We’d pack away the goodies I’d brought and talk for a bit. Dad was often too tired to go and see Mum, and all Mum wanted was for Dad to visit, so it was difficult. The day she died, February 7th, was their 68th Wedding Anniversary. I usually went away from Mum’s, feeling despondent. How cruel to have a stroke and to be paralysed completely down one side.
As the weeks and then the months went by, I began to get weary. I’d started out so enthusiastically, so filled with purpose and energy. But it’s difficult living with an old dude in his 90s, especially one as independent as my Dad. He still wanted to do everything he’d always done. Take out the rubbish, prune the shrubs, visit the supermarket, pay his own bills, make his own bed, dry the dishes , ride his e-bike. He wanted to maintain his independence and he fought for this. And when I first arrived, Dad actually got better. Initially he was tired and frail, but the regular wholesome meals began to put flesh on his bones, and I think it was a revelation to discover that he didn’t have to iron all his clothes any more. I just folded them and there was NO WAY I was going to iron anything.
About 3/4 through 2020, Dad’s health started to decline again. For starters, he couldn’t ever just relax, he always had to have a project. I spent hours with him trying to fix his stove top, with the damn thing still turned on and Dad blindly waving around a screwdriver near the live wires. I had to help him re-hang a door in the living room, and use his drill press to mend something else that he was working on. There were electrical gadgets in pieces on many of the available surfaces and he did repair them. He was always dismantling his mobility scooter and fine-tuning something or other. And he had his own ways, his own rules… such as not putting out the glass recycling bin unless it was full, and not putting it out if even one bottle was higher than the rim. Not showering until the evening. Putting the mats ‘just so’. Picking up any dot of lint or fluff from the carpet. Turning the internet off at night (to name but a few). I didn’t mind adhering to those things. His house, his rules.
Then around November, he gave himself a hernia by insisting on lifting something that was way too heavy, even for me. This had a huge impact on what he could and couldn’t do.
Meanwhile, I was totally exhausted and my sleep was almost non-existent. I was useful for Dad, could negotiate the trials and tribulations of phone banking when there’s no longer a local bank, no longer cheques. I could sift through the sandy soil of his garden and try to plant flowers that wouldn’t thrive. I could help him sort through his recycling and make small talk with the nurses from the hospice who’d visit occasionally to check on how he was. I could whip up any amount of tender meat casseroles and overcook the broccoli and the cauliflower, reduce the silver beet to a pulp. I was excellent at whipping potato and at serving dinner right on 6 pm, every night without fail, but I just ran out of ‘oomph’. It was time to leave Dad and return home. Task unfulfilled. Job incomplete.
Just today Dad moved into a residential home. That plan I had of caring for him until he died, was a naïve one. It may have been devised with the best of intentions, but was completely unrealistic. If nothing else, 2020 has taught me a hard lesson.