The March on Washington

About 250,000 people were there that day in 1963, and I was one of them.MLK crop

I didn’t actually march. I skipped because I was a child at the time, excited to see what was happening just a few hundred yards from where we lived in Washington, DC.  So, holding my mother’s hand, my blonde pigtails flying, we went down 23rd Street.

As we neared the Lincoln Memorial, we heard Mahalia Jackson sing.  She was very big in those days.  I may have whispered to my mother just how big I thought she was.

August is invariably muggy and close in DC.  But the atmosphere was terrific.  Though inter-racial tensions may have been high, not for a moment did we feel out of place, let alone intimidated, and I’m sure other white people there didn’t either.  Even my mother, who’s known for being chicken, never thought to turn back.

Curiosity took us there.  Respect and awe kept us there.  Yes, I heard Reverend Martin Luther King Jr make that speech.  It is with me still.

My memories of the day are neither profound nor erudite.  How could they be, when I was so young?  Yet even now I remember it.  That’s why MLK has a place on my wall and most of all in my heart.

How are you today, Granny?

old persons crossingNo matter how good a doctor you are, if you don’t look after your own, you’re right at the bottom of the class. That’s the opinion of Geoff, a 30-something general practitioner from the pages of my novel One Night at the Jacaranda.

Granny shuffles to the door in furry Elmo slippers. ‘I haven’t been for three days,’ she says, adding, ‘I’m 92 you know.’  Geoff is pretty sure she’s only 90 but Granny often adds a year or more for effect.

She doesn’t see her friends anymore.  Yet today she insists she sees them daily and plays bridge.  ‘Elsie even brought me chocolates this morning.’  When Geoff looks at the box, he sees the sell-by date is 2011.

Apart from her bowels, Granny’s life now revolves around food and meal times, but she only picks.  Geoff checks her fridge and throws out rotten pears and expired cheese.

Today she demands a haircut.  ‘You were going to be surgeon,’ she reminds him.  He’s not sure he was training to cut the three strands of white hair left on the old girl’s head, but he gives it a go.  She stands in the bathroom, clutching the sink and bending down so he can reach even though he’s no longer the small boy she read stories to.  He’s 5’11” and she’s shrunk to about 4’10”, so he practically has to kneel.

Although it’s August, there are Christmas decorations all over the bathroom, or rather the bits she can reach.  Granny has never before celebrated Christmas.  Now she reaches out with a sinewy hand to adjust the tinsel on the towel rail then looks at him proudly. ‘I’m 93, you know.’

Today is a good day because it’s only her shoulder and her constipation.  Last week it was her knee and a rash.  The week before, it was her ankle, which she sprained on VE Day 1945.   He said it was just wear and tear, so she poked him with her walking stick and called him stupid. Geoff can’t understand why her mental state fluctuates so much.  Obviously dementia has a vascular component, but how can it possibly change to that degree?

‘I’m going to do Big Poo,’ she announces.  This reminds Geoff of his son.  The difference is that five-year old Davey’s brain is still making new connections between cells.  In Granny’s case, the opposite is happening.  He imagines her brain full of holes, like Emmental cheese.  He’s glad his mother died before she got like this, even though it meant Granny lost a daughter.

She installs herself in the toilet, legs not touching the ground.  Geoff knows this because she won’t let him shut the door.

So he waits in the darkened living room, where there’s a pile of plastic bags, all neatly folded on the sideboard, a stack of old envelopes which could be useful for making lists, and electricity receipts going back to 1988.

Alte kakers.  Only Granny makes Geoff want to break into Yiddish.  She makes him want to break into the Bristol Cream sherry too.  There must be an unopened bottle in the sideboard.

Geoff remembers that alte kaker means ‘old shitter’.  As he waits for Granny, he thinks of the words patients use.  Faeces.  Number Two.  Dump.  Crap.  Ploppies.

He’s sure an hour has passed, but when he checks Granny is still on the throne, with her legs sticking straight out.

‘You know I love you, Bubala,‘ she calls out from the toilet, voice still strong.

‘I love you too, Granny.’

elderly hands


Related posts: 

An Evening at the Proms

Hospital Tests: Has the Doctor Got it Right?

Germs and Geriatrics

Six Characters in Search of a New Year’s Resolution

Life is like a new bathroom

I had a dream.

No, not that one.  I dreamed of a nice new bathroom, one where the tiles weren’t lifting off the wall, the toilet didn’t run all night, and the taps coCP Hart cropuld be turned on (and, just as crucially, off again).

I found a good plumber and it was all planned out.  What could possibly go wrong?

On the first day, the supplier slightly screws up the order.  We drink tea and shake our heads over a shipment of the wrong tiles and twice as many toilet seats as ordered.  But hey, they might be handy when I’m older and incontinent (it’s always sooner than one thinks).

The water supply can’t be turned off and the plumber can’t access the pump. A lot more tea.  Another day gone.

The old tiles won’t budge.  So yer man tiles over them.  That makes four layers of tiles.  In truth, the wrong tiles look great, but the room is going to be much smaller than we thought.

‘Size isn’t everything’ points out the plumber.

I make him a tiny cup of tea.

Towards the end of the first week, it dawns on me.  Bathroom renovation is a microcosm of life.  Timing is up the spout, everything costs twice as much as planned, and it doesn’t look as intended.  Because of drainage issues, the tub has to be raised.  A frame is made for it. This takes more time.  Fingers crossed the work is done before I get too old to climb into the tub.  Now I’m not sure about white grout on the floor.  In fact I’m no longer sure about anything.  Maybe white grout doesn’t matter.  Really, what does?

By this time there are lots more people in my life.  For a start, I’ve got remarried and acquired three more offspring.  There’s also a new trio of builders.  Gary, Barry and Harry are on a break again, slurping strong tea as they pore over a copy of the Daily Star.  Barry adjusts his Chelsea hat and says ‘Cor, look at the jugs on that one’.

The shelves won’t fit by the raised tub. I forget now why we wanted them.  Oh.  For hair products.  Well, soon won’t have any hair left.

As time passes, I agonise over details like taps and mirrors.  The mirror is not a magnifying mirror.  So I will probably emerge thinking I look OK, and friends will wonder why I’ve put eyeliner on my ears.

The soil pipe isn’t quite where it should be and we can’t get a seal.  Now I’m obsessing over waste matter.  Call it a rehearsal for the twilight years.

At 3am I realise that we’re running out of Yorkshire tea, the fuel that keeps the plumber going.

The next day the plumber arrives with an apprentice.  She wears hot pants and fiddles with her iPhone like any 19-year old.  Petite and from the Far East, she turns out to be stronger and more willing than any number of male oiks from South London.  The only downside is that she believes she was a singer in a previous life.  I’ve heard her.  She really wasn’t.

Her voice comes through loud and clear since the bathroom door was taken off.  After a few weeks, I’m wondering: why bother putting it back?  If people had beaded fly curtains instead, then kids wouldn’t get locked in the bathroom. And you’d know right away when your other half passes out in the tub and needs CPR.

Progress is slow but Rome wasn’t built, etc. I survey the scene. It doesn’t look like Rome. It doesn’t even look like a bathroom.  With boxes of stuff and stacks of newspaper, all it needs is a beaded curtain and it could be a corner shop.

bathroom cropLast week the builder brought his dog, but said it would be OK in the van.

This horrified me.  So in came Buster for a bowl of water.  He saw the cat and chased it round the house, scattering tiles and papers everywhere.  Buster had to go back to the van, leaving the cat with a tail like a toilet brush.

I still don’t have a bathroom door or a tub that can actually take in water. The cat litter tray is still in the bedroom, and I’ve no idea where to put all the half-used tubes of toothpaste.  So I throw them out, along with the bottles of nail polish. It’s not like I have any nails left.

On the plus side, I have a lot of new friends, some of whom have two legs.