My daily commute follows the River Frome into the centre of Bristol. Or I should say, as close as the modern infrastructure built around the river allows. Every day I pass the same weir, the same log spanning from one bank to another, the same bridge where the river finally disappears below the concrete centre forever from sight.
There is a simple satisfaction in observing how the river responds to the weather and countryside that feeds it. After heavy rains the weir can almost disappear under surging dirty brown water washed from ploughed farmers’ fields. A few days of no rain later, and you will be left with a clear trickle struggling to make it down its shallow path.
On days like today, when the temperature drops below freezing, this slow flowing river begins to freeze over altogether leaving sheets of ice floating in the river’s eddies.
Wrapped in thick coats, scarves and hats, the red flushed faces look out as the dog walkers crunch over the frozen muddy puddles. On one section of path, just south of Broom Hill the puddles perpetually sit never normally fully draining. Today though, they are iced over leaving a crisp brown path slicing through the centre of a frost filled field. The small wooden picnic bench which normally sits opposite a small outcrop of limestone perfect for some climbing in warmer months is today frozen white.
About 2 kilometres north of the city centre the River Frome emerges from the steep valley in which it has been travelling and my commute cuts up through the open expanse of Eastville Park. In these winter months, the sun rises directly to my left, beaming gently through the historic horse chestnut trees that cast long shadows over the frozen ground.
As the river fights its way through the monstrosity of modern out of town shopping my route slips alongside the equally awful piece of urban engineering – the M32, the first real reminder that you’re heading into a major city centre. From here the river dips below concrete in places and the off-road cycle route weaves between skate parks, railway bridges and underpasses.
The embedded heat in the concrete on this stage of the commute means that despite the air temperature being close to minus 4, nothing is frozen. The concrete is grey, the grass green and the sky blue.
Nothing of the surroundings for the last bit of this commute gives any hint of the weather or countryside that surrounds the city. It is then that I feel a huge sense of privilege to have such a commute. Also though, I feel a sadness that for most people, even those whose daily commute is outside of their cars, most people in Bristol would not have seen the frozen field that I cycled through this morning.
As I arrive in the office buoyed by the beauty of the seasons, I can’t help but to wonder what impact it is having on us as a society for most of us to never fully experience or appreciate the changing of the weather, seasons and nature that will always sit beyond our control.
Reflections on my Mum’s advanced dementia
“Death is coming for us all…the day we will have to face the crossing will come sooner than we think. I hope my day is many many years away, but… I don’t want to make the greatest leap in life in a vague dream. I want to have the chance to look it in the eye, to say: ‘You have had me in your sights all your life, but it’s on my terms that I come.’” Hendri Coetzee – Living the Best Day Ever
Sitting across from each other on slightly uncomfortable wooden chairs in the care home I watch my Mum interact with one of the staff. The young girl lays her hand on my mum’s shoulder, raises the volume of her voice slightly and asks if “everything was alright dear” and if my Mum would “like any help?”.
My mum looks up at her and smiles with wide unfocused eyes. The staff member smiles back, hovers awkwardly for a moment trying to decipherer what this blank stare means before finally she walks over to another resident. As she makes her way over to a lady sat hunched in the corner I look back at my Mum and catch just the faintest flicker of a death stare from behind her eyes. It was an unmistakable reflection of something deep within her that these days only occasionally surfaces. Today this was a split second of a “fuck off am I your dear”.
Of course, I could have imagined it, I could have simply wanted to see a bit of her old self and so read too much into a distant stare. But, in that moment I think I saw my Mum: proud, wanting to help others – not wanting to waste people’s time in being helped, and ultimately using anger as a shield to hide away from all the insecurities and uncertainties of her life.
She focuses her eyes back on me, a second of surprise or alarm gives way to a meandering anecdote about the walk she believes she had taken that morning over Dartmoor. I ask if she saw any deer and she responds that she had, but only in the distance. This follows a second of silence and a drop in her eyebrows before she asks if I was OK to count? I promise her that I was more than happy to count to which she scoffs and says she doubts it. I once again miss the nuance of her reality.
Asking questions of dementia patients often only increases distress and confusion and so I try to steer the conversation back onto safe territory and say it was a beautiful crisp winters day outside. Her eyes look at me. One, two, three. Seconds pass with no response. I try a new path. I tell her that I recently spoke with her nephew, my cousin, and that he is happy and doing well. One, two, three. Eyes wide. No response. I try three of four times more and get little in response.
I decide not to push conversation. I sit with her in the weak winter sun surrounded by the stuffy air of the car home. Silence.
In the silence my mind jumps to memories at random. I think back to my mum cutting all the fire wood for the house by hand insisting that she was perfectly happy with her bow saw and no, she didn’t want me to come around with a chainsaw. I think back to her carrying heavy trestle tables out of the local scout hut as all the other mums stood and watched. I think about her slapping down any idea or suggestion that she might in anyway need any help.
With these thoughts in mind I smile at her thinking that I might get going soon. She doesn’t smile back. The staff member approaches and puts her hand on Mum’s shoulder and, just before Mum smiles up at her, she gives her a split second of that recognisable death state. The staff member either doesn’t notice or chooses not to.
The thing I feel saddest about when I leave is that Mum has so little capacity, so little control. Despite both the care home and my family doing all they can, we are no longer able to play by her rules and there is nothing we, or she, can do about it. She is left to be looked after by others. She is clearly being looked after well but they also clearly miss the very essence of her. I don’t think I am sad that she will pass away in the coming, weeks, months, or possibly years. I am just sad that it must be like this, not on her terms.
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Tagged as Advance dementia, Care home, death, Dementia, dying, Hendri Coetzee, Living the best day ever, Living with