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When kindness takes over from love

  • 07 August 2006
  On the day I went to visit my mother in the facility that was to become her home, I found her standing in the corridor alone. She was holding a tea cup half filled with cold water. She looked at me for a moment, and then smiled as she registered who I was. 'I've just found out Harold's left me for another woman,' she said, still smiling.

Harold is my father. Over the last few years, he had gradually transformed from husband to carer. He tended to my mother's ever increasing physical needs 24 hours a day until, at 78, he was worn out and could cope no longer. It was not just the physical demands, but the emotional assault. My mother was oblivious to this.

'Has he?' I said, trying to stay neutral and assessing her mood. 'Yes,' she said, 'but I'm OK because he's coming to take me to church on Sunday.'

My mother's memory, as she said herself in one of her more lucid moments, is like Swiss cheese. But the synapses that hold God in place are still firing on all fours. God remains hardwired, in ways I could never have imagined, and I am, at last, sincerely grateful. Her religion has become her salvation. She has been going to church every Sunday for as long as I can remember. After many years of refusal, my father has started to go with her.

'At his age,' she says, 'and for a younger woman.'

'How do you know?' I ask, aware that I'm straying into dangerous territory.

'She rang him at home once, crying, and asked to speak to him. I wouldn't have thought he'd want to come to church.'

She turns and raises her eyebrows: 'But he does.'

The philandering husband is not entirely lost, it seems. He may yet repent, see the error of his ways, and return like the Prodigal Son. It is my ardent hope for her and for my father that this outlandish fantasy becomes a factual narrative in my mother's mind. Better for my father to be wrongly condemned but forgiven, instead of merely wrongly condemned as he has been, in one way or another, for these last few years.

Every day we must negotiate the twists and turns of reality, fantasy, truth, as well as falsity, hope and despair. Some days you want to weep, on others your stomach lurches with anxiety and on some days you can switch