Many activities involving mum are beginning to feel a little burdensome to say the least and this becomes more obvious at Christmas where ‘HAVING FUN!’ is the order of the day along with ‘SPENDING TIME WITH FAMILY!’ I’m a big fan of both of these activities and they usually coexist – but enforced fun, when you feel you ought to be enjoying yourself just because it’s the festive period, can be exhausting. Christmas is a crappy time for many as a result of this assumed festive joy – those who are bereaved, depressed or just lonely will often feel more bereaved, depressed and lonely whilst everyone else gets hammered on eggnog and parades about in their comedy Christmas jumpers (these surely have become post-ironic now? Just stop it please.)
One of the key moments in our family build up to Christmas that has suffered (or, shall we say ‘had to be adapted’) directly as a result of the dementia is The Girls’ Christmas Shopping Trip. Once an annual highlight, from the time my sister and I started at our respective universities we alternated venues for our girls’ weekend. One sister would host (often in appallingly cramped and hazardous student accommodation) whilst mum and the other sister would travel down to enjoy a weekend of budget retail therapy. This weekend was both practical (purchases made for others) and informative (allowing us to alert sibling and parent to gifts we may like to receive ourselves). It was a chance for us to have a few drinks and a good meal in a restaurant on the bank of mum and dad. It was also a chance to duck out of the ‘Drink the bar dry you crazy students with your as yet cirrhosis-free livers and unquenchable thirst for cheap white-cider based beverages!!’ carnage that would inevitably be taking place in the student union. We shopped, we ate, we had a relatively early night and woke up to prepare a Sunday lunch that did not involve Beanfeast or Pot Noodle in our unspeakably minging kitchens.
When we left University and began our proper grown-up jobs the weekend remained set in stone as a regular fixture. We had a little more cash to spend and a slightly more salubrious venue to sleep in but the format remained the same. We have continued to run the Christmas shopping trip, making adaptations to account for pregnancies and small babies, recently reducing it to a single day of shopping followed by dinner (telling ourselves that this was because we all now lived near each other so didn’t need to spend the entire weekend together). However, last year things had to change. We had abandoned the idea of an evening meal because monitoring mum’s alcohol intake was just too stressful (one glass of wine often meant the difference between limited coherent conversation and complete nonsense) and just focussed on a day of shopping in a local city. All was well until WE LOST MUM outside Boots chemist. Needless to say, we found her again but we couldn’t take our eyes off her after that. We couldn’t browse. We couldn’t wander. We couldn’t say “You go on ahead whilst I try on these shoes that I really don’t need to buy”. And suddenly getting round the shops was a chore. It was damage limitation. It was trying not to lose sight of her, trying to get her to appreciate the urgency of catching the bus on time, making sure she didn’t leave her bags anywhere, helping her pay for things with her credit card by actually typing in her PIN number without looking like a predatory criminal. We collapsed on the bus in a state of near exhaustion and only later realised that several presents purchased had gone missing.
This year we lowered our expectations further. We went to a nearby shopping centre which felt safer. We had no intention of buying anything for ourselves and no expectation that we would make any headway into our own monstrous lists of gifts to be purchased for husbands and children. We went purely with the notion that we could get a gift for dad from mum so that he would have something to open on Christmas day and out of a misguided sense that we had to keep up the semblance of a girls’ Christmas shopping trip, however mutated that notion had become. We were there for four hours including lunch and in that time there were a few mishaps, the most notable of which was the escalator refusal. In a manner not dissimilar to horses racing in The Grand National faced with Beecher’s Brook, mum hesitated at the top of the descending escalator for just long enough to allow my sister and I to get on whilst she remained paralysed at the step-off point. We realised halfway down that she was not with us and looked round to see a queue of people forming in the bottle neck behind her. My sister then legged it as fast as she could down the escalator and back up the neighbouring one. She was not fast enough however to intervene in the unfolding drama involving a well-meaning fellow escalator-passenger who had noticed mum’s plight. This lovely woman, also in her sixties, tried to go back up the descending escalator (no mean feat) and fell up the stairs in her rescue attempt. I had reached the bottom by this point and just gazed on as the catastrophe unfolded. Thankfully nobody was hurt, mum (completely unperturbed and oblivious to the chaos) remained on the first floor until my sister reached her and accompanied her to the lift and we made a mental note to stick to traditional stairwells in future.
Another less obvious but somehow more distressing consequence of the dementia became increasingly apparent during the remainder of the trip. Mum’s complete disinterest in the opinions or feelings of others. As I have said in previous posts, mum was a very considerate person. She was genuinely interested in other people and genuinely interested in shopping. As a result she was brilliant at purchasing gifts, particularly for her daughters. Many was the Boxing day that cousins gazed in awe at our especially fashionable seasonal attire and friends often lamented the sensible woolens they had received from their own mothers. We had high street brands, we had cullottes and puff-ball skirts and reversible jumpers, all at the right time (one does not wish to be too far ahead of the fashion curve when still at school). Mum loved buying pretty things and having two daughters gave her ample reason to indulge her retail urges (even if we didn’t really realise how lucky we were because actually I wanted to wear a dutch airman’s trench-coat from the charity shop). Over the years the interest in shopping has waned but so has the interest in buying for others. I thought that the trump card of this shopping trip might be looking at clothes for her granddaughters. I understood that she wasn’t fussed about what she was buying dad for Christmas – it is hard to be enthused about tweed jackets and over-trousers to wear when watching the rugby – but I did think that looking at pretty little dresses and tutus might provoke a spark of interest. I was wrong. She no longer has any interest in buying presents, no interest in clothes and no interest in the joy of giving. What was especially frustrating (and what, with hindsight we should have dealt with at the start) was the obsession with getting herself a pair of jeans. She hadn’t grasped that this trip was about her buying presents for others (a deliberately limited number of others) and every shop, every rail we looked at provoked a querulous “jeans?” followed by a cross expression. As I say, with hindsight we should have tackled the jeans issue when it became apparent that this was her focus but we had to make sure that certain purchases were made – dad had to have a present from mum and the grandchildren needed presents. Dad really did not want to have to take mum shopping a second time so these things had to be bought today. We forced her round the shops. We made lightening quick purchasing decisions “Does it look OK? Is it the right size? Is it something that this person may vaguely appreciate? Yes? Then lets buy it immediately”. We then faced a near-mutiny when we realised we were out of time and had still not made it to the denim section of any shop. I apologetically explained that we had to get back to the car park in order to get home in time to pick the kids up from school and that maybe the jeans would have to wait until one of her shopping trips with her lovely and long-suffering friend Mary. She was incensed. She was really, really upset and quickly adopted the pose of a truculent child who had no intention of going anywhere. We had to look at jeans NOW. Thankfully, still in M+S despite the escalator debacle we raced to the jeans section, grabbed the first pair we could find and proceeded to the check out. A quick discussion regarding the problem posed by paying using one of our debit cards if the jeans did not actually fit and needed to be returned ensued. My sister queued up, in the rush mum left her handbag behind….but we found it again…. and we sprinted (an approximation of sprinting you understand) to the car.
All was well. We got back in time to collect the children and I did not have the burden of being a terrible mother in addition to being a terrible daughter. No presents went missing and on Christmas day everyone was fairly happy with their gifts. Mum has still not tried on the all important jeans (indeed she appears to have forgotten all about them) and my sister and I are recovering from the combined trauma of escalator armageddon and denim-based tantrums. Next year for the girls’ Christmas weekend we’ll go for a single shop, a single storey, perhaps even a single rail of garments. We will buy mum something she wants and then go home for a lie down.