A long day

Saturday 8 August 2020

See also previous posts The call and The in-laws.

Clara’s Dad died around 2:30 this morning.

Clara was on her way to the hospital to take over the overnight vigil from her brother when her father took his last breath. In a way she was relieved not to be there when it actually happened. She had already spent much of the previous 48 hours with him, witnessing his final lucid moments, and listening to his shallow breathing as he peacefully slipped away.

His death certificate will probably say something like pneumonia (ironic on the hottest day of the year), but the truth is he simply died of old age. He was 94 and it was his time to go. He’d had a good innings as they say. And, mostly thanks to Clara, his last three years living across the road, had been comfortable ones. Clara had visited him nearly every day in that period, and I had periodically taken him for drives round the local area.

When my mother-in-law died two years previously it was sudden, and I felt a surge of emotion at the time. This time, the best word to describe how I feel is probably “content”. I’m happy that this decent, mild-mannered, erudite gentleman of the previous generation passed away gently and mostly painlessly, more or less at a time of his choosing. His children had strived to give him the best possible last few years, and were with him at the end. A fitting end to a worthy life as a college administrator and lecturer in English, but also a husband, father and loyal friend.

There’s not much you can say to your wife when their remaining parent has just died. Throughout the day, I tried to be there if she needed anything, but I also tried to give her space. I avoided talking too much, lest I put my foot in it by saying something unintentionally insensitive.

By 6pm, I suggested we go out for dinner to a local pizza restaurant. Conversation inevitably turned to funerals (how does that work with Covid-19?) and the flurry of other activity that will take over the coming weeks and months, including the grim business of sorting through the deceased’s possessions. Clara is, of course, also starting the process of grieving.

By the time we got home, we were both exhausted. It had certainly been a long day. A sad day, yes, but also a day to reflect on a life well lived, and a family baton handed over smoothly to the next generation. 

The scent of shampoo

Sunday 2 August 2020

See also previous post: Living in an odourless world.

The scent is, for a fleeting moment, intoxicating. It rushes through my brain consuming all my capacity for sentience. It instantly stimulates long buried memories and brings back to life again what it is to smell. It is as if I had never truly lost my sense of smell, just that someone has been holding down the mute button for a long time and has unexpectedly released it.

“I can smell your shampoo,” I tell Clara excitedly as we embrace. I have my face buried in her hair and she has just returned from the stylist for the first time in five months. The aroma evokes various images. Running hands through lathered, foamy hair in the shower. Towelling oneself dry, fresh and clean at the start of the day. A bustling hairdresser’s, alive with chatter, snipping and the occasional whoosh of a hairdryer.

Nearly four years ago, I completely lost all sense of smell, something that happens to about half of people with Parkinson’s. This is not as bad as it sounds. The taste of food and drink is only slightly diminished, so I still enjoy a slice of bacon or a glass of wine. I can’t smell the jasmine in the garden, but I know it’s there because I can feel a slight heaviness in the air.

Occasionally it can be amusing. Like when Rosa and I were in Paxton and Whitfield, one of the oldest, and busiest, cheesemongers in London. “Does it smell of cheese in here?” I asked her, quite genuinely, to which several people turned round to give bemused looks to the person asking the dumbest question possible.

Actually the above is not quite true. Mysteriously, and unpredictably, just occasionally – perhaps two or three times a year – I can smell something. It always happens when I am not expecting it: a rush of sweetness on an over-perfumed woman; the mouth-watering warmth of freshly baked bread as I walk past a bakery; and the acrid stench of urine as I traverse a central London underpass.

Every time it is exciting, a heady sensory overload, a reminder of a forgotten world. A primitive, emotive world that harks back to our oldest single-celled ancestors: blind, deaf and unfeeling but able to sense and react to chemicals around them.

The strangest thing of all is how short-lived the experience is: just five seconds or maybe ten seconds at most.

I continue to hug Clara, inhaling deeply in my hedonistic craving for sensation.

But the faint whiff of the salon disappears as quickly as it arrived, and I am, once again, living in an odourless world.

Winners and losers

Sunday 19 July 2020

As the covid-19 lockdown continues slowly lifting, it is becoming clear there are winners as well as losers.

Obviously for some it has been tragedy. Someone at work died of the virus a few weeks ago. A man in his forties with two young children, he simply got sick one day, was admitted to hospital and died a couple of weeks later. How terribly sad.

Another work colleague asked me to pray for her parents who are both struggling with the disease. She is currently off work keeping a bedside vigil, and I suspect she won’t be back for a while.

Then there are many people who’ve lost their livelihoods. Similarly, quite a few businesses have collapsed. I went shopping in Oxford Street yesterday. Most stores were open, but with perhaps a third of the usual number of customers on a sunny Friday afternoon. A few of the shops were boarded up, permanently in some cases, as the recession looms.

Transportation has similarly suffered. The tube and buses are now wonderfully quiet – and clean – but Transport for London must be haemorrhaging money every day as people continue to shop and work locally, and tourists stay at home. It goes without saying that airlines across the globe are universally in big trouble.

Museums, galleries, theatres, sports stadia, religious venues. They are all gradually reopening but with reduced numbers. And education at all levels has suffered enormously.

But there are winners too. Here a few:

  • Online retailers
  • Pizza delivery drivers
  • Technology companies
  • Gardens and garden centres
  • Families
  • Communities
  • The environment
  • People with Parkinson’s (or other long-term health conditions)

The last one doesn’t seem immediately obvious. Certainly in recent months we Parkies have been low on the priority list of a medical profession that has been fully focussed on dealing with the virus. However, despite the current challenges, I believe there are a few ways that we will come out of this better.

One clear benefit for someone of working age has been the whole working from home thing. I find this so much easier than the daily commute, and now there is broad acceptance that, even in a client facing role, this can be effective. Indeed, over recent weeks I have been closely involved in several international projects without stepping outside the house. So, if as seems likely, I continue to work mostly from home when the office is fully open again, I can still be at the sharp end of the business rather than being forced to take a more internal role.

Secondly, I imagine medical research may improve. If, as has been predicted, a vaccine for covid-19 is developed and brought to market in the next 18 months, it will demonstrate the art of the possible when collective minds and willpower are sufficiently focussed. Research into conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is very well intentioned but continues to move at a snail’s pace. Hopefully the pandemic experience will reinvigorate research into other conditions.

Thirdly there is compassion. People now seem to look out for each other more than ever. I have regular Zoom calls with my family, with my friends and with my local Parkinson’s network. We are all there for one another, ready to help out, or just listen, when needed. The long-term health community that I set up at work also now meets weekly for a virtual coffee break. People seem to really appreciate the opportunity to connect with kindred spirits for half an hour each week. More broadly, there is much more of a sense of community, and compassion, than there was before, especially for those in need of a little support.

In the past few months there have been many people who have suffered, either directly or indirectly, because of the virus. But there is an opportunity for the majority to emerge from this better. Let’s continue all the positives. And make them outweigh the negatives.

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