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Friday, 27 April 2018

Respite

“I’m going to get a jug of cold custard and pour it down the front of those ridiculous trousers!”
Lin, who usually handles our travel documents, gave me my passport and boarding card at the departure gate in Birmingham Airport. She was embarrassed to be seen with me in my comfortable overlarge jeans, held up by braces, which nearly fell down, when security told me to check them separate through the metal detector.
“I’ve bought priority boarding”
“So you won’t have to be seen in my company?”
“Exactly” ... though I knew she wanted to ensure her hand luggage with our picnic for the journey stayed with her, rather than going with mine in the hold.
Once aboard, before heading for a seat rows away from me – she will not pay Ryanair to choose seats - Linda handed me the prosciutto and cream cheese sandwiches she’d made in the night. I’d enjoy them with a paper mug of coffee drunk through a mesh fed with plastic sachets of milk, ten miles over the Dolomites, peaks laced with snow.
Almost midday, our flight landed - oops - with a bang before swiftly settling. My guess - a Boeing pilot new to Kapodistria not wanting to use up its short runway. At Corfu, surrounded by hazy mountains, I placed my hand flat on the apron’s hot concrete. We collected the car from Yianni, drove over to shop at Lidl by the airport, parking under one of their shades. With essentials - milk, butter, fresh veg - we drove familiarly north.
“Easter’s early. The Kokykias are still coming into blossom. Last year it was near 1st May. They’d almost finished”
Lin dropped into Kaizanis supermart at Tzavros for feta. We stopped at Emeral to have ice creams in cones. Bitter choc for me. Pomegranate and melon for Lin.
In the village, mid-afternoon, none but the cats saw us descend the shallow steps from Democracy Street, bumping and carrying our luggage. Into the cool dry house. Switch on electricity, turn on water faucets – one behind the apothiki under a metal cover, the other under the veranda with a pressure gauge.
“Cup of coffee?”
“Yes” and a cup of tea for me.
Beds all made; all as we left things last year, but for a little more winter growth of weeds in the garden, and the lower path to the bus stop filled with greenery awaiting my sickle. Despite the rainy winter there was the tiniest amount of leak-water in the plastic tray we’d left in our bedroom.
A few days later. Easter Saturday. in the crowded forecourt of Ag Georgios for midnight rejoicing, Lin and I stood with candles lit from the altar’s candle held by Papa Evthokimos. Minutes later, fireworks and shots.
“Xristos Anesti” “Alethos Anesti!”
“Kronia Polla” “Kronia Polla”
Η Ανάσταση ~ Resurrection

Following the village band playing happy tunes, we strolled home down the steep slope from the church. I marked a new candle-flame cross above our other porch, the first one, after ten Easters, having no more room for them.
We sat together upstairs. Lin jumped up on hearing sounds outside
“That’s them!”
The family had stopped their car to off-load children and baggage at the top of the steps. Down came Oliver and Hannah holding their own small suitcases, descending slightly edgeways, one foot ahead of the other.
“Careful on the steps, you two” I call from the balcony.
Their beds are made up. The stair gate in place.  Pajamas, loo, wash, teeth...
“Just one story!” and so to bed
The Sea of Corfu from Ano Korakiana 

Two years ago - February 2016 - we were enjoying a weekend at Rock Cottage when, early in the morning, we still in bed, Linda got a phone call from her mum.
“I’ve fallen over in the kitchen. Think I’ve broken my wrist. I can’t wake Arthur”
From a 100 miles away Lin phoned Staffordshire ambulance service. Dot was taken to Staffordshire General. We returned to Birmingham. Lin visited her dad at home in Cannock, took him to see Dot and brought him home to live with us. Arthur has never owned nor driven a car so Lin, as she has whenever in recent years her parents have been ill - Dot with a cancer in her cheek and Arthur in his eye - both brilliantly cured by the NHS -  ensured her parent’s transport to and fro between hospitals in Staffordshire and South Yorkshire, consultations, shopping and home.
This time, with her bad wrist, Dot should have been out of hospital in under a week, but norovirus struck - not her, but many other patients. We could neither collect Dot nor visit her. She was, through this ill-chance, unnecessarily bed-ridden for 3 weeks, as the infection played cat-and-mouse in her ward, recurring over and over just as an imminent ‘all clear’ was reported by phone. Dot at 93, unexercised, became unable to walk. I now know, with hindsight and the experience as a subject for research into sarcopenia in humans over 65, the swiftness with which lack of exercise lessens muscle strength.
Lin got her mum to a care home not far from us in the Black Country ‘to get her back on her feet’. This brief rehab was working. Lin visiting every day with Arthur and sometimes the grandchildren. Then Dot came down with pneumonia - rife in institutions. She was moved by ambulance to Sandwell General. Arthur, stoic and mostly silent, would have a stilted phone conversations between chauffeured visits by Lin to see his partner of 70 years. One early morning, at our house, he fell over trying to get to the commode in his bedroom - having refused his daughter’s help; his wish for independence, and keenness not ‘to be a bother’ amplifying his dependency. I heard him groaning through his door. Commode tipped on the floor. An ambulance took him to the same hospital as Dot, where, in days, he had a hip replacement, but, after three more days, descended into an amnesiac mist, brought on in part by pain and perhaps anaesthetic, and came down with hospital pneumonia. A day later, Lin had an early morning phone call
“Come quick”
When we arrived at the hospital Arthur was dead. Lin and I saw him, kissed his brow where his body lay still on his bed curtains around, then, with the duty doctor, went to break the news to Dot on the same open ward corridor.
Throughout the time - 45 years I’ve known them – my in-laws have been inseparable; dependent on each other; proudly independent as a couple, grandparents to Richard and Amy. Dot, stoic as her husband, released two tears at the news. Still ill, she could not be at Arthur's funeral - short and truly sweet, just ten close relatives at a 15 minute ceremony in Perry Barr Crem followed by a lunch at Toby’s Inn; flowers from our garden, picked at the last minute, placed on Arthur’s simple coffin. He was 98.
Lin found a care home in the north of the city, smart and efficient at over £1000 a week, paid for by the NHS. Dot, from hospital, arrived at Aston Court the day after her husband’s cremation. After this second stay in a hospital bed, she was again unable to walk, though just able to stand.
She was visited daily by different members of her family, but despite Lin’s best efforts at pressing the care home, especially the visiting physio, her mum remained confined to her bed with, now and then, time in a wheelchair in the lounge or dining room. She’d forgotten how walking worked. Her mind intact - she read, sang, did puzzles, watched TV and chatted to her nurses and visitors, planning, she’d repeat, to get back home which she believed was just outside her bedroom window. The home allowed Oscar dog to visit. He would jump on her bed and lick Dot’s face. As well as Lin and Amy and Richard and the great grandchildren, Dot’s niece Barbara with daughter Janice were regular visitors. I less so. Climate controlled, expensive, spotlessly clean, salubrious, quiet even muffled, with lot-bought neo-impressionist French landscape prints – poppies, contoured fields of perfect blue – hung along tope carpeted corridors lined with uncontroversial wallpaper, the place wreaked of my civilised abandonment, oozed rebuke for my selfishness.
At Sandwell General Dorothy had been catheterised - probably more to ease the work of her carers, than essential. Walking patients are at risk and hospitals fear litigation. At Lin’s request the catheter was removed, but Dot remained incontinent, her carers tending to her needs in bed. It was now that Dot began to speak of wanting not to have to wake up every morning. Prescribed antibiotics for a chest infection, she would appear to swallow her pills. Lin would find tablets secreted among her mum’s sheets.
“I don’t need them” Dot would repeat.
Lin and I brought her to our daughter’s home over Christmas. Asked after lunch what she wanted for a present Dot muttered, with a wan smile, “Knock me off”.
Dot and her great grand-daughter out for a meal

In November 2017, after she had been there 17 months, a meeting was held at the care home. Linda and I were in Ano Korakiana. As anticipated, the review was to decide whether Staffordshire NHS Trust could continue to pay for care, or whether this should be handled by Staffordshire County Council’s Social Services, who would seek funding from the family. Our daughter, was at the meeting, attended by an NHS manager and nurses who looked after Dot. Later Amy phoned her mum. The NHS, as Lin expected, would no longer pay for Dot’s care. The decision would be rubber-stamped in January 2018. Dot’s future care could be paid out of her inheritance, such as it is, or Lin, on her mum’s behalf, must make ‘alternative arrangements’.
“I can build ramps” I said
“Yes” said Lin “and we can clear the sitting room at our house, put in a bed and all that’s needed, and have a visiting and occasional llve-in carer service.”
Dot can hardly stand, let alone get about, but she could at first be gently moved from bed to wheelchair and from wheelchair to car and back.

She could feed herself but her care must involve washing and therapy to deal with the risk of sores from spending so much time lying down, as well as 'going to the loo and all that'.
“But we would be handling the finance not a local authority”
Now should be payback for all the National Insurance Dot has paid through her long life, but what’s been paid out so far for her care in old age and disability, can no longer be paid, and the state wants to draw on her savings.
Dot seemed to be on the edge of a twilight zone; coming and going, rallying into occasional cheerfulness, collapsing into waxen grief. Arthur had now been gone over a year and a half. At the time she first went there, staff had her down in the admission paperwork for ‘End of Life Care’. Lin pointed out that that was not the case, that her mum might yet recover mobility and we could bring her to our house.
“I knew the NHS wouldn’t continue funding” said Lin, “Mum’s situation didn’t meet their criteria”
On 17th January our drawing room had become a bedroom for Dot with extra heating, a commode, TV and remote, a patient turner – a gadget that helps the bedridden to stand and transfer from bed to wheelchair and back, books. bedside light and over-bed table and a button that rings a buzzer in the kitchen next door. I had made a wooden porch ramp, enhanced by a short aluminium extension bought on eBay. I hung a ribbon notice over the front door ‘Welcome home, Dot'
Then Lin collected her mum, the care home nurses helping Dot from bed to car. Once home I helped lift her from the car, Dot reaching up to grip the top rim of the car door, then turning ever so carefully – "I’m worried I’ll take a tumble” -  until she could sit again in her unfolded wheelchair. The ramp was imperfect, but after testing with help from children, seemed good enough to wheel Dot into our house and up to our kitchen table.
“Cup of tea?”
"Yes please"

Over several weeks we formed a routine of movement between kitchen table – where we always eat and talk and work – and the sitting room made into a bedroom. Dot made small sighs, mumbling unconsciously and repeatedly to herself, which, when she dozed, became an iteration of the phrase “Help me, mummy. Help me, mummy. Help me, mummy...”
We would chat with her. I sat beside her recalling times around family photos in a pile of albums and from the computer.
“That was when we were on the beach in Brittany. Remember that time we lost Amy? She wasn’t lost, it was us losing her. There’s you and Arthur on a bench on a sunny day. Who’s that?”
Anse de Guillet, Brittany - June 2007

Dot was forgetting names, even mine. Later we got to joke about her absent mindedness.
“She’s always been daft” says Lin
“Who’s that Dot. That’s me! What’s my name?”
“Charlie” she says with a cheeky grin
“Who’s that then?” I ask, pointing at Richard who was visiting as he often does
“Don’t be silly, I know who that is. He’s my favourite”
“So what’s his name?”
“I know who he is”
“Tell us his name or I get out the electric cattle prod”
“Not telling you”
Later in the albums and on the computer I name people and places, hoping to help her fading memory. I think she knows, but she can’t always summon a name.
I read avidly 'Our Island Story' when I was 10. Now Dot enjoys reading it at our kitchen table

Irritated with her daughter for insisting she go out of the house to spend a couple of hours on two or three days a week at community centres Lin had found at Oscott and Great Barr, Dot, truculent, said she would be reporting her daughter to her “doctor friend”… “He used to be an ombudsman”
“What are you talking about, Mum?”
“Yes. He’s my friend. I’ll tell him”
We were looking at ramps on the internet. Discussing different types.
“You don’t need to bother with them” says Dot “I’ll be out of here next week. I’m going home”
“How, mum?”
“I’ll be off”
Every morning when Lin tends to her, assisted once a week by a visiting carer for a bed wash Dot says sorry for “being such a bother”... “I wish I wouldn’t wake up in the morning”
Registered with our local GP, her doctor said to Lin not to force Dot’s medicines on her – prescriptions for another chest infection.
“If she won’t take them, she won’t”
I was thinking of the Hippocratic oath; the part where a doctor swears they will ‘not strive officiously’ to keep a patient alive. Lin solves the problem of Dot disappearing her tablets by getting liquid antibiotics. I get a sense that such subterfuge would not be approved by the doctor, though the law and current rules forbid thinking, let along practising this way. Lin and I discuss this.
“Mum said to me this  morning, ‘I want to die. I want to be with my Arthur’ ”
“It’s no surprise, Lin. They were together for 70 years.”
Dot helps prepare Sunday lunch
When we do get Dot, laboriously, to one of the day care centres – at St Mark’s Community Hall, Oscott Community Centre - she enjoys herself. Eating at a shared table, having cups of tea, with others of the same age also disabled, doing light exercises in a circle of chairs, playing games including Bingo. The people there are kind and outgoing, both the carers and other old people. The cost is minuscule.
But our hopes of getting Dot on her feet again, with just the scrap of independence that would allow her to make it on her own between bedroom and kitchen to, perhaps, make a cup of tea or a sandwich, have dwindled. As she’s brought, laboriously, from car to chair and back, her legs have a life of their own, just functioning, with her grip on the car door to stand for a second as she turns from one seat to the other”
“I’d never have believed she could be so heavy” I said to Lin
“I know”
“She’s a beloved sack of potatoes. God help me from becoming like this’”
 “Top me if I do” says Lin “Mum wants to die. Nothing we do to entertain her is sufficient consolation to raise the will to walk. We’ve been to the markets, to the Chinese New Year Festival, out for meals…she almost begrudges our care, as I probably would.”
Oliver shows Dot pictures on the computer

When we take her out she can enjoy herself

Lin had worked to surround us with other help, two neighbours, one himself a carer for his brother with progressive MS, said they’d be happy to drop in to do errands if we should be away. The caring group Helping Hands sends the pleasantest young woman, who lives near us, to wash Dot and help Lin turn her in her bed. The district nurses visit – briskly. Once a GP came, when Dot was coughing badly. Paramedics followed at his request and whisked Dot to hospital in their ambulance. The paperwork that came back with her the next day defined her as being ‘unwell’.
“I’m not sure what that was about” said Lin.
If we were to be away she and a colleague will come in the morning and evening to get Dot up and put her to bed, wash and handle her incontinence, changing nappies, emptying the commode if it were used. We explored having a two-way camera at Dot’s bedside to have talk and vision from anywhere in the world.
When Dot developed a more serious chest infection we could no longer get her out of bed. Almost continuous the quiet chanting of ‘help me, mummy…let me go” and groans, almost of irritation, as though we are interfering, when we turn her to change a bed pad or draw her helpless body back up to her pillows.
The children visit as do Barbara and Janice. Oliver, nearly 6, came on Dot’s 94th birthday to present his great grandmother with a card he’d written himself. He made Dot laugh aloud, playing with a silly monkey programmed to chatter and, now and then, emit a mechanical raspberry.
Oliver brings a card for his great grandmother's 94th birthday

“She looks now and then at the tele’” said Lin “but it’s no more than moving wallpaper. She’s not reading now or doing puzzles, yet every now and then she’ll sing a song like she used to with the children, and she can still recite the ‘Wreck of the Hesperus’"

It was the schooner Hesperus, 
      That sailed the wintry sea; 
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr, 
      To bear him company. 

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, 
      Her cheeks like the dawn of day, 
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds, 
      That ope in the month of May....

With Lin and I she runs through the story of young what’s his name - Albert - and the lion at Blackpool zoo ...
They didn’t think much to the Ocean:
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small,
There was no wrecks and nobody drownded,
Fact, nothing to laugh at at all.

 “the stick with the horse’s head handle…and poked it in Wallace’s ear…you could tell lion didn’t like it, cos giving kind of a roll he pulled ... dum de dum …. and swallowed the little lad whole!’”
“I’ve made up my mind” says Lin one morning, a few days before the flight still not cancelled “I’m putting mum back in the care home. They’ve got a room. Three weeks respite. We’ll be in Greece when the family’s there over Easter. I’ve got a flight back on Ryanair for £14. You can stay on.”

After three weeks Lin flew back to England; a flight from Corfu at six in the morning.  We were at the airport at 4.30am. I waited a moment to check the flight was on time, then drove to the hire car compound, unloaded my folding bike and pedalled via back lanes, lit by my torch, towards the city.
Email 24th April: Dear Lin. Heard your plane arriving and I think I heard you leaving. I guess you’ll be touching down any moment in Birmingham
After dropping you off I couldn’t resist a cycle tour of the empty city. I left the car at the deserted compound and headed for SaRocco Square via dark back lanes, dogs barking now and then. Then along the Liston, down Theotoki to the harbour where a ferry was disgorging trucks - still dark. Then back up Theotoki to the bus station for coffee and croissant and wait for my bus. Two people - me and another - all the way to the village.
The 08.30 bus from the Green Bus terminal stays on the Paleo Road instead of turning right at Tsavros. Then opposite the Casa Lucia turn at Sgombu, it turns right and heads up past many narrows and tight squeezes past vans and trucks, past the Strapunto turn, past Luna D’Argento, into the village on the lower road before coming to our stop from the west. At 9.00 (timetabled arrival in AK) my bus was just passing Technomart at Gouvia! I walked in the morning heat up the path to 208. Cup of tea and sending this from Piatsa then a list of things to do….spray trees, prepare shutters for touching up, plant your cuttings….XXXXXXXXXXXXX  S
Our emails crossed on the day Lin arrived in Birmingham:
Lots to do here too. Sorted the post. I've won £25 on the premium bonds. I opened one of yours marked 'Important', but it was just a Temple Bar dividend notice (£5.25), so I need it for your tax return. The only interesting mail you've got is a largish, gold envelope - maybe a late birthday card? Just washed and disinfected the cat litter tray and swept up the litter round it. Shan't do much more today, 'cause I'm shattered. And cold! L x
On my own in the village
I have a list of jobs, starting with painting the shutters on three windows...the first batch have been sanded, filled where the sun's dried cracks, treated with preservative primer, undercoated and finished with Corfu green gloss.

While the family were here Oliver and I walked up one of the rough tracks from the sea to Ano Korakiana
Thanks to neighbour Thanassis Spingos, who runs the village website, for a photo of Oliver, holding my hand, as we walk behind Mayor Fokion during the Easter Monday procession around Ano Korakiana.

*** *** ***
Back to the future - July 2018 As the weather grew warmer and the days longer it seemed that Dorothy rallied, became less morose, seemed to take more pleasure from life
Great granddaughter, born 2014, and great grandmother, born 1924 in our kitchen in Handsworth this July

How I hope it may be for me was captured in a lithograph by the Spanish artist Goya. He writes beside his self-portrait as an old man, rheumy-eyed, walking with the help of two sticks 'Always Learning'

'Aún aprendo' Francisco Goya aged 80 in 1826

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