Falling oak leaves and birthday musings.

Posted: June 17, 2017 in Life
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When my mother, God rest her soul, was in her final years in the nursing home, her ninetieth birthday rolled around. She had retreated, at that stage, into a very small world that seemed inappropriate for such a powerful, independent personality. Most afternoons she would be assailed by “Sundowning”, and frequently in tears.

It is now well understood that people with dementia may become more confused, restless or insecure late in the afternoon or early evening. They may become more demanding, restless, upset, suspicious, disoriented and even see, hear or believe things that aren’t real, especially at night. In Mum’s case, she simply became more lonely, despite the efforts of her care staff,

No one is quite sure what causes sundowning, although it seems to result from changes that are occurring in the brain. A person experiencing sundowning may be hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or needing to use the toilet, all of which they can only express through restlessness. As the dementia progresses and they understand less about what is happening around them, they may become more frantic in trying to restore their sense of familiarity or security. Many families and carers say that the person becomes more anxious about ‘going home’ or ‘finding mother’ late in the day which may indicate a need for security and protection. They may be trying to find an environment that is familiar to them, particularly a place that was familiar to them at an earlier time in their life.

On her 90th birthday, Jenie, Caitlin and I visited with a cake, on top of which were candles in the shape of a nine and a zero, a banner that said Happy Birthday, and various other little celebratory items, and the nursing home kindly let us use one of their side rooms for a bit of privacy.

We sang happy birthday, more than once, and she smiled happily, which was really as much as we wanted by way of reaction. Then her mood swung, suddenly.

She kept staring at the cake, and then looking at me, who by now she thought of more often as my father, than me. In fact, I would frequently get reminded to do odd jobs around the family home in Sketty Green in Swansea, where she hadn’t lived for many decades, while she was temporarily in “hospital”. During two confinements, she was hospitalised for long periods. I believe her fading mind now imagined her back in an earlier era, when she was still married to her beloved Stewart, and still master of her own destiny, as a way of coping with the indignity of extreme age.

She shot me glance after glance, a worried look on her face.

“Ninety?” she asked, querulously. Then with more vigour, “Ninety!” And then finally, with some annoyance, “Ninety?”

The mere fact of her great age clearly disagreed, fundamentally, with her view of herself. She steadfastly refused to accept that she could be ninety, so we simply quietly removed the candles, and carried on celebrating her birthday, giving her some of the cake, and having a famously sweet tooth she quickly calmed down and started relaxing again. Wreathed in smiles, and being hugged by her grand-daughter of whom she was so proud, she was soon once again a contented mixture of coquettish child and venerable sage, living once more in the moment.

As I write, I sit looking at the garden that Jenie and I have planted outside our computer room, in our small back yard. It is, to be sure, a work in progress, and what progresses most successfully is Oxalis, tubular rye grass, and Dandelions. Indeed, we have so many Dandelions that I have taken to researching salads using their leaves.

Dandelions are found on all continents of course, and have been gathered for food since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia.

It’s very reliable: the leaves will grow back if the taproot is left intact, which as they are almost impossible to uproot with the bare hands is “usually”. To make leaves more palatable, they are often blanched to remove bitterness, or sauteed in the same way as spinach. Dandelion leaves and buds have been a part of traditional Kashmiri, Slovenian, Sephardic, Chinese, and Korean cuisines. In Crete, the leaves of a variety called ‘Mari’ (Μαρί), ‘Mariaki’ (Μαριάκι), or ‘Koproradiko’ (Κοπροράδικο) are eaten by locals, either raw or boiled, in salads. Dandelion leaves apparently make good tea.

The pretty yellow flowers, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine, which I recall is excellent, as dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock. Also, dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry, mostly in salads and sandwiches.

Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, and historically dandelion was prized for a variety of medicinal properties, containing a number of pharmacologically active compounds. It has been used in herbal medicine to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic. Indeed, the English folk name “piss-a-bed” (and indeed the equivalent contemporary French pissenlit) which I still remember from my youth  refers to the strong diuretic effect of the plant’s roots. Rather more stomach-turningly, in various northeastern Italian dialects, the plant is known as pisacan (“dog pisses”), because they are found at the side of pavements.

As I look out of the window now, the oak tree which we planted from an acorn is shedding its leaves in the winter sunshine. They fall as if they are gentle tears for the summer just past. Capturing the sun until it browns them from the inside and they sigh and drop.

Winter this year has been very kind, and it has held onto its leaves for as long as it possibly is able, but they are a riot of browns and yellows now, and in increasing numbers they carpet the garden below, providing useful mulch, and smothering, with luck, a few of the weeds. We are frankly not sure what to call this patch of garden. It is, variously, the Paddock. Or the Meadow. There are vague intents to try to create an English cottage garden. But we look away for an instant, and all the delicate hollyhocks and Love-In-A-Mist and Sweet Williams seem to lose out to hardier entrants like Camomile and Verbena and the Italian Parsley that has spread like wildfire, outdoing in its aggression, if such a thing were possible, the Vietnamese Mint. We may have to re-christen it as the herb garden and be done with it.

In front of my eyes, the endless round of birth, death and renewal is happening in real time.

It is my birthday, tomorrow. And having been born, grown, been to Uni, traveled some, raised a family and done a bit of work, I suddenly and without warning find myself staring down the barrel of 60. It has all gone by in a blink. I have no doubt, on my death-bed, I will rail against the dying of the light – convinced beyond reason that there is something I meant to do if I could only remember what it is – I will regret having not done some things, and regret having done others, but I will not, ultimately, regret all that much. In short, I have seen much, enjoyed most of it, known many inspirational and heart-warming people, built a wonderful business with great partners, and been blessed largely with good health – a stout heart and good lungs, strong limbs and clear eyes. I married the kindest person on the planet and then she gave birth to another like her.

I am losing my hair but not my faculties.

It is enough.

Nevertheless, my newfound right to apply for a Seniors Card comes with something of a profound shock. Somebody said to me the other day, “Cheer up, 60 is the new 50, you know!” “Yes,” I replied tersely, “but it’s not the new f****** 25, is it?”

In my head, I think I will always be 25. Being able to get reduced fees on a local tram does not really compensate for being able to smash through a hard 80 minutes of rugby, and then stay up all night drinking pints of Gales 6X and playing 3-card brag, before popping into work still full of ink but essentially functional.

“Sixty?” “Sixty!’ “Sixty?

My leaves are starting to fall, as they must. I will cling onto them for as long as I can, before giving them up with as much good grace as I can muster, which I doubt will be very much. I don’t expect I will make 90, but I know how she felt. I am very like her, in many ways.

And I think I’ll leave the Dandelions where they are. The last thing you need at 60 is to piss more often.

 

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Comments
  1. Paul Brixey says:

    Lovely post and we’re having similar problems with my mum albeit not so bad. I suggest you soak in the thought of looking at the 60 as 61 is just around the corner and time seems to fly by.

    Good luck with the dandelions and don’t lick your fingers.

    Like

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