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Health & wellbeing

Midsummer madness: The question I avoided asking myself

27 May 2023 | Written by By Geraldine Durrant

Geraldine Durrant dares to answer the dreaded question, “are you okay?” and steals a precious 99 minutes for herself…

You can find the previous instalment of Geraldine’s column here.


One morning a friend – a very dear friend – asked me how I was.

I started to blurt out the acceptable line “Oh I’m fine – I could just do with a bit more sleep”, but he knew me too well to be fobbed off with a glib lie and just said gently “No. I mean really…

“How ARE you?”

It was a question he had once asked me many years before, after my mother died, and frankly I thought he’d have learned his lesson that time around.

Then too I could bear anything but kindness.

I had been perfectly composed working with him on a magazine feature all day but his unexpected concern sent me from an emotionally numb nought to a sobbing 60 in seconds.

I’m not sure who was more shocked – me, him or the people sitting all around us in the motorway restaurant, who suddenly had infinitely more pressing appointments elsewhere.

I had never realised before how socially unacceptable it is to cry in public, but gesturing towards the hastily retreating backs of our fellow customers, my friend teased sternly: “You do realise Geraldine, that all these people think I have just announced that I am leaving you and going back to my wife…”

And we both laughed.

Generally, it was a question I avoided pondering, preferring to busy myself with the dreary and inescapable chores which were now my daily lot.

There was always another pile of laundry to be done, an anxious and confused husband to talk down, a pile of what we coyly refer to as ‘medical waste’ to be bagged up, a catheter bag to be emptied.

And the moment I did sit down for a cup of tea, or five minutes with the newspaper, Patrick would pipe up helpfully and ask “Is someone going to load the dishwasher?”

Or tidy the kitchen… 

Or empty the bins…

But someone was just me. I felt stretched and transparent, as if there were a layer or two less skin between me and the world.

Meanwhile, the death of a close friend had left me feeling particularly raw and I could feel the piano-wire inside me twist tighter.

There was a time when, had you asked friends to describe me in three words, I am fairly sure they would have said I was ‘funny, clever and kind’ (if not unfailingly modest…) 

But now there were days when I hardly recognised myself.

My inner Pollyanna had morphed into a tired and tetchy old woman, my default mode of cheerful optimism a mere memory.

A fellow carer had said to me that “dementia is like the Titanic – there may be small acts of heroism along the way, but the ship always goes down…”

So all I could hope was that, when ours finally sank, I would have a few flags still flying…

***

One night, as I heard the familiar shout “Geraldine. GERALDINE’ I reacted instantly like Pavlov’s well-trained dog, flinging the covers wide and leaping from bed in one much-practised movement.

In my haste I forgot to cancel the alarm on Patrick’s bedroom door, and as I threw it wide, the alert blared out, adding a sense of drama to my sudden entrance.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, but Patrick was cross, and in an ironic reversal of our usual roles, he indignantly accused me of “waking me up in the middle of the night…”

As Oscar Wilde so famously said of the death of Little Nell, it would have required a heart of stone not to laugh…

But always on the alert for nocturnal adventures it seemed, on that occasion, I had merely dreamed his urgent summons…

I switched off the screeching alarm and returned with a thumping heart to my own room.

It was nine minutes to six and already I was faced with the most important decision of the day: did I squander the next 99 minutes on much-needed sleep before the 7.30 alarm – or did I relish 99 minutes all to myself…

In the end the decision was made for me – it was already light outside and the birds noisily awake, so I reached for my iPad and found the day’s Wordle.

It was a small daily ritual but as long as I could do it I knew that, despite occasionally doubting my own sanity, I at least was still firing on all cylinders.

Probably.

I completed it in a commendable three moves, robbed of my first dunnit-in-two only by choosing the wrong one of the mystery’s two options – so I chalked it up to a moral victory and with only 93 minutes left to myself, I tackled the Telegraph’s online Codewords.

My thrilling best time for this daily conundrum, achieved only a week before, was one minute 11 seconds but that morning I barely scraped home in three minutes.

Disappointing…

Then I checked the clock, and like a miser apportioning his gold, I decided to spend 25 of the remaining precious minutes on the newspaper, and then devote an hour – an hour! – to my book club read which, three days before the next meeting, was barely touched and sitting reproachfully on my bedside table.

There were days when, constantly assailed by Patrick’s unassuageable anxieties, there was no room in my head for any thoughts of my own.

But just then – for another 62 minutes and counting – I could, fingers crossed – be myself…


Geraldine Durrant is a retired journalist, feature writer and children’s author who – since her husband was diagnosed with dementia a year ago – has kept a diary about her experiences as his carer. We have the privilege of publishing Geraldine’s incredibly personal story on our blog every Saturday, so keep your eye out for more on this series next Saturday.

If Geraldine’s writing resonates with you in some way, please do leave a comment to let her know.

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