My sister did the last trip to Accident & Emergency, and that was only three days ago. Mum had fallen, again. She spent three hours there until Mum had been tested, found to be mostly undamaged, and was about to be returned to the home. She duly reported to the rest of the family by email and, as always after one of these excursions, spent the next day in bed with a migraine. Yesterday it was my turn to spend the day with Mum, in a different Accident & Emergency some hour and a half’s drive away.
The home had left us a cryptic message. The ambulance was at the door and Mum was just off to Accident & Emergency and given what we think it is she was being taken to a different hospital. No hint as to what ‘what we think it is’ actually was. For about an hour we both, separately, attempted to call the home back. The phone rang and rang (and rang and rang) and eventually, every time, cut off.
In between abortive telephone calls I was trying to simultaneously get dressed, wash my hair, finish feeding the cats, do something about a fortnight’s laundry I had been in the process of sorting and washing by instalments, dry up the washing up I had washed earlier but not dried and pack a bag with things I might need on a hospital visit of unknown length, just in case. Did I need my mobile phone charger? Should I take spare underwear in case this was time would turn out to be the dreaded “it” that the daughters of a frail 87 year old cannot help but anticipate? Would I be required to sit at a hospital bedside all night? What was it, this what we think it is?
Finally it was decided that I would drive to the hospital, and so I set off, leaving the tumble-drier un-emptied, the bed stripped but not re-made, the cats fed once but not left food for later, my hair still damp, cups and plates drying smearily on the drainer, three loads of washing still to do, a mountain of ironing…
I stress about stuff, particularly when my routine is interrupted. Normally I would have been obsessing all the way down about whether I had enough coins of the right denominations for the exorbitant hospital parking machines. Should I assume I would be there all night, empty my purse into the fiendish thing and hope that was enough? But by now I had reached anxiety-overload status, and parking machine charges had paled into insignificance. If this was really my mother’s last day on earth, what would a parking ticket matter? What would it matter if they decided to clamp the car, come to that? I could sit in the car park and cry hysterically later. Eventually someone would come along and help me – or not.
I found her in a corner cubicle attached to all sorts of machines. They had given her painkillers she barely registered my presence. At one point she opened her eyes. “Hello?” I said, experimentally. She looked at me as if I might be a human being or possibly a kangaroo of some sort, but either way she didn’t care, and closed her eyes again. I learned for the first time that she had broken her hip in a fall.
After some hours of me just sitting there, being too hot and developing a headache, a man from Orthopaedics came along and enquired how the fall had happened. I said I didn’t know. Well, he said impatiently, what did you observe when it happened? He was not English but obviously felt he was being called upon to explain my own language to me because I was very stupid. I said I wasn’t there when it happened. I had just driven for an hour and a half to find out what had happened, because my sister and I had been trying to phone the home back who had left a message to say that something had happened, but were getting no reply from the home…
Just answer questions in the order I ask them to you, he snapped. I hate that. Being snapped at just confuses me and makes me even more circuitous. I don’t know what happened, I repeated. My sister got an answerphone message that my mother had been brought to this hospital and I have driven down here to find out what happened.
But you’re the daughter.
But my mother lives in a residential home.
But how am I to decide on treatment if you won’t tell me what happened?
But I don’t know what happened. Look, can I give you the telephone number of the home? Maybe they would pick up the phone to you, since you’re a hospital. Maybe it’s only relatives they’re not picking up the phone to.
I am aware that at this point a normal person would be acting differently. My sister, if (only) she were here, would be coolly, even humorously, in charge of the whole situation. My sister doesn’t merely cope she manages people. I am coping, I suppose, but with difficulty. Why can I never cope elegantly? Accident & Emergency is tropical; even the nurses are sweating and fanning themselves with handfuls of brightly-coloured information leaflets grabbed from the wall displays. It is very, very noisy. Every single piece of monitoring equipment in every cubicle, including Mum’s, is either beeping, whining or whistling and nobody seems to be making any move to silence them. The place seethes with staff in blue scrubs, green scrubs, maroon scrubs, office-wear or ambulance-drivers’ uniforms.
I have been here for ever.
In the next-door cubicle is an old man with a ruptured hernia. He is alternately moaning in dreadful pain and then apologising for being forced to moan. I learn all about his hernia and its side effects. I learn about the TIA he had, only a minor one, back in the eighties. I learn that he had a Zantac injection yesterday and maybe it was that that caused this. I learn that he is on blood-thinners. I learn his army pay number, which he keeps reciting, saying that’s the one number you never ever forget. (Don’t count on it, buster, I think. You can and quite probably will forget everything, not just who you were but what you are, and why you are.)
His whole family seem to be present in that next-door cubicle. Two invisible oldish children, the female of which used to be a nurse, and an invisible, senile Mother who is continually trying to feed Father biscuits and having to be prevented in case he needs surgery. As he will, to judge the moaning.
Invisible, senile Mother has parked herself on the other side of the blue curtain to me and keeps pushing her chair back into my space, crushing me against my mother’s hospital bed. At one point I hear myself quavering Oi, look out! It does no good so I resort to kicking the intruding chair back again every time she sounds as if she may be shifting her considerable weight off it. But she keeps re-encroaching. Soon I will be actually, physically trapped in a corner and will be forced to contravene all the unwritten laws of British politeness, whip back the curtain and confront her. But how can I, when who knows what state of horrid undress the poor old chap may be in? A moment ago he said I bet you never saw your Dad like this before, son!
Once again I pull the thin hospital blanket back over Mum so that the whole of Accident & Emergency cannot see her like this. I want to be somewhere else. Could I just make a run for it? But which way is out? I can see no Exit signs.
What medicines is she on? Asks the foreign interpreter of my own language, who does not seem to have gone away, whilst I was wool-gathering.
I don’t know, I say. There were at least four, but I don’t know what the home gives her now.
You must know. It just says Paracetamol here, is that correct?
It doesn’t sound correct. Unless they have stopped all the others without telling us.
But what are the others?
I don’t know what they are. Once again, if you were able to get through to the home, they could tell you what medicines she’s on.
I am aware that a normal person wouldn’t talk like this to an orthopaedi… atrist… atrician. I refer to my comprehensive set of Mental Notes. Remember the status factor in this situation. The proper thing might be to attempt the submissive female simper or even the more drastic status-poor old female simper. And he’s a man, and foreign. He’ll expect enhanced simpering on account of that.
But how much simpering? What degree of feigned respect might be appropriate in such a case? How to respond to a series of stupid, unanswerable questions when your elderly parent’s treatment, maybe even her life, might depend on what you say now? How do you make someone actually listen, when they are determined not to?
Maybe try and channel my younger sister – attempt “brisk and businesslike”?
If only there was a recipe.