December 27, 2009

UK: My dad is for life - now he's made it past Christmas

. LONDON, England / The Times / Columnists / Guest Contributors / December 27, 2009 From The Sunday Times December 27, 2009 My dad is for life - now he's made it past Christmas By Cosmo Landesman Last week a young lady behind the counter at a sandwich shop asked me what I was doing for Christmas and I told her the truth: “I’m waiting for my dad to die.” “Merry Christmas,” she said and handed me my latte. This will probably be my father’s last Christmas. He’s 90 years old and has a disease that is incurable and deadly: old age. Any day now I expect to bring him his morning tea and find a cold corpse. It’s possible that he may live a few more years. But lately there’s been a new look in his eyes. That bright twinkle of old has been replaced by dark distress signals that read: SOS. His dementia is getting worse, his health is in decline, he finds it hard to get out of a chair and he just wants to sleep all day. This man who was — just a year ago — the soul and life of the party looks like he’s ready to turn out the lights. I’ve been thinking about his final Christmas and the Christmas that millions of old people in Britain will have had. Last week, I read that one in three of those over the age of 60 does not speak to a friend or a family member for as long as a week. And according to Help the Aged, more than 1m elderly people will have been alone this Christmas. This is the time we are all meant to do our bit for the old — make a call, make a donation, make a visit, do something. But the old, like puppies, are not just for Christmas. Too often we give them this annual treat to make up for ignoring them the rest of the year. So what are we to do with our ageing parents? About a year and a half ago, I moved back to my parents’ house as a temporary measure after my divorce. I planned to stay for a few months until I found a new flat. Cosmo Landesman with his parents Jay and Fran. Photo: The Sunday Times Then my dad got sick and needed care. I knew my 80-year-old mother (who is almost blind) needed help when I found her at the breakfast table stroking a dead mouse — she thought it was a child’s toy. So I decided I would look after them, because they looked after me. We are like one of those extended, multi-generation families that were once the norm before the nuclear family came along and ruined everything. Politicians and pundits talk about the support and care that only the family can provide and how we must act now to save the family. The family is the pillar of civilisation — or so it’s claimed. Yes, the family is a wonderful institution; too bad its members make it seem like an insane asylum. I’d like to give you all a heart-warming story of a family who, facing a crisis, came together. I’d like to say that looking after my parents has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and that I would recommend it to anyone. Actually, it’s been a bloody nightmare. Unless you live with old people, you have no idea how annoying they can be. My nerves are shot, my hair has gone totally grey and my sex life is ruined. My point is that my dad, despite all his troubles, is one of the lucky ones — he is surrounded by children and grandchildren who are there to help, yet he too suffers from a terrible loneliness. It goes with the territory of age. There are times when he spends a large part of the day alone. He sits and smokes and sleeps . . . sits and smokes and sleeps and stares out of a fog of forgetfulness like a man in solitary confinement. So if this is going to be his last Christmas, I’ve been wondering: what do you give a dying dad for Christmas? If I know my dad, he’d like a very cold martini and a very hot hooker. What I’d like to give him is the one thing money can’t buy: the validation that every dad secretly craves. I want to say something like: even though when I was young you embarrassed me beyond belief, you made things fun for your family and you were always supportive of your kids. You were a great dad. Thanks. Nobody wants a big therapeutic Daddy-I-love-you Christmas full of hugs and tears. Yet I didn’t want this Christmas to be the usual presents-food-television-row affair. Our parents give us the gift of life; don’t we owe them something more than a pair of warm socks and a nice meal? We don’t mean to turn our backs on the old; we’re just all so busy. We’re short of time and the terrible irony is, so are they. When I was in the middle of writing this piece, my dad was taken to hospital — the old heart was playing him up. So I think I will have that hug-a-dad Christmas after all. Plain speaking All week I’ve been thinking about that strange comment by Adrian Chiles, the presenter of The One Show. Chiles, who has laughed off reports of a relationship with Christine Bleakley, his co-presenter, claimed he had given up pursuing “beautiful women” because they were “too complicated”. What the hell does that mean? Beauty equals complexity? What about Kelly Brook or BeyoncĂ© — great beauties, but not known for being complex? Men often think beautiful women are complicated because they can’t figure out why the women won’t sleep with them. So they must be complex, neurotic or a lesbian. Such women are none of the above — they are sensible. They should never sleep with a man who is so simple-minded. You've all been very Noughty I hated everything about the Noughties, especially that name. You can’t even say it without sounding like Kenneth Williams. Ooooooh, the Noughties! How will anyone have a Noughties revival in years to come? It was a decade full of trends but it had no personality. If you are invited to a Fifties, Sixties or Seventies party, you know what to wear and what kind of music you will hear. But the Noughties? And I can’t remember a decade so full of irritants. For me, the most irritating of all was the phrase “No problem”, used by people in shops after you had thanked them. “No problem” makes the speaker sound as if they’ve coolly pulled you out of a burning building, when in fact they’ve handed you a cup of tea. What really drives me nuts is when you’ve spent an hour on the phone sorting out a problem and the other person ends the conversation with “No problem”. Is it any wonder I end up screaming: “Yes, moron, there was a problem — you!”? — I keep reading about national treasures — everyone from Cheryl Cole to Tom Stoppard seems to be one. I’d like to nominate Peter Tatchell for national-treasure status. In an age when so many of us are content to defend human rights from our armchairs, Tatchell has confronted every kind of bully, from Robert Mugabe’s thugs to Russian nationalists. Now he’s stepping down as a Green candidate because he has mild brain damage, suffered in some 300 physical attacks. You may not like his politics but you have to admire a man who will pay such a price for his — and our — principles. [rc] Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.