A Year in Normandy?
Soon after Easter, 2009.
Sandra, my wife, and I are moving to France in three months time in order to look after two geriatric women. One is my mother-in-law and the other is her best friend of nearly sixty years. They have nearly 180 years of life experience between them. They met in Africa where their husbands had been posted in the French colonial service. Sandra was born in Cameroon (Yaonde) and lived there for the first five years of her life. The two women live in a fine apartment near the Champs Elysee in Paris and have two helpers who come in for a couple hours a day to cook and clean. My mother-in-law also has a property an hour from Paris. There are several acres of gardens and grounds, a small wood, and three houses. For many years only the main house has been occupied and that just for a few days a week. The friend's husband died a few years ago and my father-in-law last year. Although they would prefer it, the two women would be unable to live there without live-in care and they would only do it if it was family who looked after them.
A week ago we travelled to Paris with the intention of taking the two women out into the country for a few days while assessing their deteriorating conditions. They were more than willing to go but would 'prefer to go the following day' as they had 'many things to do'. They had not been outside the door of the apartment in many weeks and we had been told that they spent most of their days either sleeping or laying on their beds. They only needed a little encouragement and support from us and when this was forthcoming and firmly given they were ready to leave in less than five minutes. Within hours of arriving at the country house they had lost many of the lines that had creased their faces when we had first arrived. Smiles appeared from nowhere and the conversation became animated. I busied myself in the kitchen preparing the evening meal while Sandra made sure their bedroom was clean. The house had stood empty for many months. A local couple looked after the house when there was nobody there and the woman dusted and cleaned while her husband mowed the lawns and looked after the gardens. The property was in pristine condition when we arrived and looked as though somebody lived there permanently. There was even a fire laid in the grate.
I feel at home there which is not surprising as I lived there, almost thirty years ago, as caretaker and cook for three years with Sandra. Our daughter was only days old when we moved in and spent the first three years of her life in a country idyll where the only sound of cars was that from those who came up the drive to visit the house. Outside the front door there was grass and the whole property was fenced and hedge in and, virtually, child-proof.
I had been a chef for fifteen years and one of my roles was to do the catering on the weekends when the family arrived. From Monday morning to Thursday afternoon it was just the three of us but when the family descended on us we were suddenly between twenty and twenty five people, including many small children and babies. It was a full-time occupation cooking for so many and I spent most of my time in the kitchen. The children ate the same as the adults but they ate first so that the parents could sit comfortably and eat their own meal. I had been given cart blanche to prepare any meals I wished and I should not consider the cost. It was a chef's dream and during our three years there I indulged fully in the opportunity. It is a great pleasure to prepare food for an appreciative audience and they all loved to eat. The kitchen was large and was better equipped than many restaurants. If I needed a utensil or implement it was immediately purchased. I created banquets and feasts which were frequently photographed by family members who wanted a picture of the twenty different hors d'oeuvres to support their memory of the event and prove that they had not imagined it. A naturally garrulous family, especially after a glass or two of fairly decent wine, I valued the minute's silence at the beginning of the meals when the food was being tasted and there was no time to talk. I valued, just as highly, the time spent after the meal exchanging anecdotes, recounting incidents, and catching up on each other's lives. The conversation would be warm and animated and I could tell that they had eaten a good meal and the many hours I had spent in the kitchen had not been wasted.
The two women ate well the first evening at the house and I saw this as a good sign. If they still had an appetite for food then maybe they still had an appetite for life. Sandra had visited them in Paris two months earlier and she had reported back to me that her mum was getting a little 'forgetful'. She was shocked to find that her mother's short-term memory had deteriorated so much. The same question was repeated just a few minutes after it had been posed the first time and the same answer was given as it would be the next time the question was asked.
Sandra's grandmother had lived with us during the last months of her life at the house in the country. She had advanced dementia, was doubly incontinent, and was scared most of the time. She would have been quite happy to sit all day in an armchair but, once an hour, one of us would make her stand up and walk around the living room to keep some circulation in her legs. She was a large woman and if she became unable to walk there was none of us that was strong enough to carry her and so she would have become bed-bound. Effectively she had no short-term memory but remembered her childhood vividly. Five minutes after eating she would ask when the meal would be served as she could not remember the event. I started to avoid being alone in the same room as her as she would ask the same question again and again and I was far too polite to ignore her. It was impossible to read a book when in her company. I saw the same signs in Sandra's mother although not so extreme.
The following lunchtime we ate outside. It was warm and the feeling was cordial. The friend had been an amateur artist all her life and many of her water colours and oil paintings were hung on the walls. In Paris she had been unable to leave the apartment of her own volition but here she had been able to walk, albeit very slowly and with the aid of a Zimmer frame, from her bedroom to the table outside the house on the lawn. It had taken her ten minutes or so because every step required a great effort of body and mind but I made allowances for this when I announced that the meal was ready. During the week she spent hours outdoors reading a book or just looking at the scenery. Frequently she referred to the apartment in Paris as a prison and expressed how happy and grateful she was to be in the country.
Sandra has two brothers and two sisters but none of them ever spent more than a couple hours in their mother's company and would report back that she was a little depressed but fine. Within twenty four hours we were aware that she had been very depressed and was far from fine. She was fast approaching the stage when she would need to be cared for twenty four hours a day.
Sandra and I have made most of the big decisions in life without the need for a lot of discussion and when she suggested that we give up our jobs, our lives in England, and move to France to look after the two women I said, "why not?". There have been many discussions, always amicable, since the decision was made and we are slowly getting to realise the enormity of our venture but we have made up our minds and now have up to three months to finalise the practical details of our move.
During our week at the house we came to witness double incontinency on the part of the friend and Sandra's mother's loss of reality. On our last day there she announced her intention to drive back out in 'a day or two' and stock up the wine cellar. This was just one of her impossible dreams and doomed plans. Everything has to be done for her or it doesn't get done.
It felt cruel to drive them back to Paris and install them once again in the apartment but it had to be done. We have a lot of loose ends to tie up before we will be able to move. There are many practical things to be considered and Sandra has to communicate with her siblings and tell them of our decision. I doubt whether any of them will object to our proposed plan of action and they may be very glad to know that their mother will be very well looked after by people who love her rather than being cared for by people who do it for money.
In the few days since we made the decision we have had moments of trepidation but these have been outweighed by the feeling that we are doing the right thing and, anyway, we don't really have a choice. I try to see it as an adventure and feel very positive, most of the time. I am nearly 63 years old and approaching retirement while Sandra, who is in her mid-fifties, feels confident about finding similar teaching employment when, and if, we return to Plymouth. Financially we are solvent; the mortgage is paid off and we have no debts. Our two children are 'sorted' in happy marriages and gainful, secure, employment. We will, with Eurostar and cheap flights, be not so much further from them than we are here in Plymouth. They both understand that we have no choice.
I am not very gregarious and Sandra and I are happy in each other's company. If we go out in the evening it is usually just the two of us to a local restaurant so we will not miss living in a town very much. I speak French fluently so language is no barrier. We will have a computer and broadband and I will insist on having Sky television in order to have English language programmes. Friends have already promised to visit us. At times I am quite looking forward to it.
Our actions are not truly altruistic but which good deeds are? I feel sure we will derive a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from the endeavour and maybe we will learn something of great value that will help us when we grow old. We are committed to caring for the two women as long as necessary or as long as we are capable, whichever comes first. My mother-in-law comes from a long-lived family and, physically, she is quite robust and, at one point in the week, she climbed on a chair and adjusted the curtains. She is able to walk some distance, albeit it with a shuffle. She does not look like she is close to death.
We promised the two families that we will stay for a year and then review the situation but we don't know who would be capable of taking over after we leave and we would only leave if we were replaced by a similar level of loving, familial care. At the moment it seems quite probable that this will not be forthcoming and we will live there indefinitely. Indefinitely can be a very long time as there are no fixed dates. A year can be placed into context and appreciated fully, for good or bad, because there are firm limits placed on the length of the experience but there are no such cut-off points when dealing with one person's forever. My mother-in-law might outlive me.
(to be continued)
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