Monday, 17 September 2012

Fruit and veg, horses and hospitals

Jenny writes: Outside the hospital a young man with both legs amputated at the knee sits in a wheelchair, smoking. He’s attached to an IV stand and drip bag which teeter behind him like a distracted girlfriend. Next to him
is a stall loaded with fruit: peaches, cherries, kiwis, blueberries and apricots, large oranges and grapes in three colours, strawberries and raspberries.
This is my first visit to see dad in hospital. I buy cherries, bananas and a couple of apples to tempt his appetite. Dad unexpectedly became ill at the start of August and has been in hospital ever since. He is not a young man, but at two in the afternoon, in bed in a hospital gown, he appears 20 years older than the last time I saw him, which was only a month ago. His skin is a peculiar colour. When he smiles at the cherries his teeth look huge in his gaunt face.
The doctors don’t know what’s wrong, so dad’s in hospital for a long while. I make the 200-mile round trip to the hospital several times, and on each occasion he has tubes coming out of different places. Bruises bloom down his arm at entry points for canulas. His skin goes from yellow to a dreadful white with deep grey lines. Dad loses the taste for big oranges, raspberries, and strawberries and can't manage a whole apple. But he starts eating bananas, so I take him some each time I go in, and cherries because they remind him of his boyhood in the orchards of Kent.
Apart from answering constant phone calls from worried relatives and friends, there’s not much to do at mum's. So I go for walks. On my favourite route, there's a locked up pub with dusty windows. A panel is missing from the beer garden fence. And there, to my astonishment, between the old plastic garden furniture, and a rotting children’s climbing frame, is a chestnut coloured pony with a white flash on its forehead. It grazes the tips of the grass. Further in, another one - a fudge-coloured Shetland pony, short and barrel-bodied. I wish my daughter was here. We could climb through the fence, bring the animals handfuls of lush green grass and gallop off on our steeds on adventures only she could dream of. But I am an adult now, burdened with adult responsibilities, and my daughter isn’t here. So I walk on to the shop, for milk and a loaf, and even though I am feeling very grown up – I am looking after my parents now, after all – the sight of the horses transforms the familiar street: it suddenly appears fresh and curious to me, as if I were a child again, and I feel the potential for something magical lurking behind every door and wall.
“The garden is running wild,” my mother says. “I must do some gardening.” She tips bird seed into a metal feeder just outside the kitchen window, but then decides she’s too tired, so retreats into the house to watch Flog It instead. So I tread over the waterlogged lawn with a basket to collect some vegetables. This is my dad’s job, not mine, and it feels weird. I feel so old, a Radio 4 listening cliché of a middle-aged woman who must suddenly care for her own ageing parents – and her two small children at home. The ground is smothered by weeds, so I rip out creeping buttercup and willowherb until I can see the earth again. A mass of green leaves twines up strings attached to a wooden frame, and orange flowers blaze at the top against a grey sky. I pick runner beans as hairy and twisted as an old man’s fingers until the basket is full.
Afterwards, in the kitchen with a cup of tea, I stare out of the window. A small yellow and green bird hops onto the bird feeder and starts extracting a seed from its husk with its beak. Why am I so surprised by my parents getting older? It’s as naive as being surprised by the birth of my first child. This stuff happens all the time. But it’s the first time it’s happened to me. And it feels as astonishing as the birth of a child. It’s just the other end of life, equally messy, not as cute.

What I don’t understand is how the world can go on just the same, when for me, for my parents and my family, and most of all, for my poor dad in hospital, it has altered hugely. Will they need to move to a bungalow, find a care home for my dad, and if so, how much will that cost? A second green and yellow bird joins the first. Green finches. They are joined by sparrows, robins, chaffinches, and nuthatches, until the whole feeder and the great green camellia bush behind it are covered in birds. It’s as if all the small birds of Worcestershire and Warwickshire have flocked to these seeds.
“Oh yes,” says mum when I tell her about it later. “That’s why I feed them every day.”
The next time I stroll down the street past the pub, an old man is peering through the gap in the fence. He wears a tweed jacket and his back is bent in a hump. He is tall and rangy, like my dad. I don’t want to alarm him, so I smile as I stand next to him and ask if the ponies are there.
“I can’t see them,” he says, but he moves over slightly so I can peer through too. We both gaze into the garden, disappointed that there will be no small miracle today. Then the shadows on the far side of the garden move and regroup – it’s the Shetland pony.
“Look there,” I say. And as my eyes become accustomed to the light, I see that beside her, camouflaged in the shade, is the larger one.
“Hello my beauties,” says the man. They walk over to him, out into the sunshine, as if they’ve known him all their lives, and he strokes their soft muzzles.
“I think they’re lonely,” he says. He may have a point.
My brother comes to stay for a week. We set up an email list to distribute news to concerned relatives so the phone rings less. And dad is transferred out of acute care to a hospital nearer home. I went carol singing there once as a teenager: the patients seemed incredibly ancient and decrepit. But now it turns out to be a haven of tranquillity for anyone needing to be nursed back to health.
Dad is dressed and sitting up in an armchair. The tubes have gone. This gives me an idea. I borrow a wheelchair and take him out to the garden. It’s the first time he’s been outside for five weeks. Other families are sitting around chatting and drinking tea.
“Ooh, I fancy a cup of tea,” says dad. So I get him one, and this is also a milestone because he hasn’t requested a drink for weeks and weeks. We drink tea from polystyrene cups and enjoy the warmth of the September sunshine. This is a moment of happiness.
Mum has a cut and a bruise on her forehead. The upright posts on the vegetable bed rotted at the bottom and collapsed; the netting and the beans fell on top of her. I take a basket and salvage all the beans I can, then dismantle the mess of wires and fallen posts and bean vines. I stack the broken bits in a heap, bin the ripped nylon netting, and compost the vines I’ve pulled out. Then I look at the basket I’ve picked: full of climbing French beans, ruby chard, spinach, potatoes, enormous runner beans and a courgette. Not bad for a broken down old vegetable patch. Dad may be ill in hospital, but nature, and life, go on relentlessly.

Before I start the journey back to my kids, I take a couple of carrots from mum's vegetable store, just in case. On my way to the train station, I visit the pub garden to see if the ponies are there. This time, I notice a wrought iron gate I’d not seen before. The ponies are grazing the almost bald grass and trot over to me. They pick the carrots out of my hand delicately with their front teeth, then smash them up in their mouths - crunch, crunch, gone.
I will be back my friends, I tell them, whatever autumn brings.


  1. Wonderful, Ebba. So specific and fresh, and full of life.



  2. Thanks Kaaren, that means a lot coming from you! E x

  3. Really enjoyed reading this Ebs! Felt like I was there with you. I loved the description of the IV like a distracted girlfriend at the start - brilliant image! Sorry to hear about your Dad's illness though and hope he continues to get stronger again now.

    Have you read Kathleen Jamison's Sightlines? There's a piece in there about the nature of nature, contrasting pathologies of disease with other types of nature. It's quite briliant and your piece reminded me of it.

  4. Aw, thanks Barbs! Sightlines looks wonderful -I haven't read it, but it's definitely on my list now: thanks for the recommendation. xx

  5. You touch on some good points in your post here. I think any questions are best discussed with a professional. This care home put some of my worries to bed.