The Café at Teatime

I’ve started to watch The Café, a gentle new comedy set in Weston-Super-Mare. It’s written and produced by Ralf Little and Craig Cash, both of Royle Family fame, and it’s a pleasure to watch. They understand elderly people, who are treated with love and respect by the youngsters around them. The theme music, ‘Beyond the Sea’, is sung beautifully too.

My parents, who are getting on a bit now, like going to cafes. In recent years they have called me at our Harrogate office and I have joined them for a cup of tea or snack at Bettys or Harlow Carr Gardens. We have had time for a chat and then, for me, it has been back to work. In the mirror, I have watched them smile proudly, as parents do, as they have watched me leave.

In the months leading up to my mother’s recent hospitalisation, my parents were doing their best to cope with the ceaseless impact of her diabetes. It is truly a cruel disease from which there is no respite for the sufferer or the carer. My mum became increasingly dependent on my dad for help; my dad assisted her with all her personal needs as well as running their home, doing their shopping and maintaining a semblance of normal life. He was, as we all recognised, running himself into the ground and desperately in need of help.

Debilitating illness takes its toll on everyone. Ruby, a carer, was finally recruited to assist them – but only after a struggle because my dad, our family’s very own Hercules, was reluctant to accept that he shouldn’t and couldn’t be trying to cope on his own. Ruby is wonderful and, since coming into our family a year ago, she has done her very best. However it has been a difficult year for a couple as fiercely independent as my parents are, especially for my dad who believes that he, and only he, can ever look after my mum properly.

Even so, my parents would not give up their visits to cafes. So two became three and I began meeting my mum, dad and Ruby for tea. For most of us it is a great pleasure: a break in the day to have a cup of tea and relax. For my parents it has become something else: a battle to be won and a symbol of their determination to keep going.

I hated seeing them so different to the strong healthy parents I had known and loved. As autumn drew in, my mum had to be warmly dressed before they could go out to a café. She had to be helped to put on a jacket over her cardigan. She had to wear different shoes. It took ages. They had to go in the lift from their apartment down to the garage, with my mum in her wheelchair. Then the wheelchair had to be collapsed and loaded into the car boot, before they could get in. My dad would drive, with Ruby in the back of the car and my mum in the front.

Five minutes later when they reached their destination, the café at The Mansion in Leeds’ Roundhay Park, they had to find a parking spot nearby. The wheel chair had to be carried from the boot and carefully reassembled, with foot plates, and then wheeled round to my mum’s side of the car. With help, Mum would somehow get into the wheel chair and would then be wheeled to the nearby café. It all took ages. It was a struggle from the moment the decision – a simple one, for most – was made to “go out for a cup of tea”. It usually took an hour or more to get ready.

One day in early autumn I called my parents on my back from the Cheshire office, and learned they were about to go again to the Roundhay Park café for tea. So I arranged to meet them there. I arrived just as my mum was being wheeled inside.  How I wished I could turn back time!  How much would I have given to see them having a cup of tea, with my mum taking charge and pouring tea out of the teapot for me, her daughter? Instead the four of us tried to overlook disabilities, had our tea and laughed together.

For some reason, it all came back to me as I watched The Café yesterday. I was with my mum at Aunty Doo Doo’s , where my parents are now living. Mum was propped up on pillows in bed, all tucked up, pretty in pink and bright as a button. She was telling Ruby and me about her own, special method of pastry-making, which I definitely intend to try one day.

My dad was watching the television, sitting in a chair. As usual, he pretended he wasn’t interested in the conversation – but I noticed him listening to everything I said to my mum, and smiling as she described her pastry-making.

I’d had a hard day at work, and was due to head off for London. It was dark, bitterly cold and snowing. I suddenly thought: what would I give now, just to see my mum being pushed in her wheelchair in an autumnal Roundhay Park?  Could I have imagined ever having such thoughts in autumn, when things were different and instead I longed to see my parents walk into the cafe, and have my mum pour me a cup of tea?

I am learning much from my parents about accepting disability. Every day may be a struggle, but they are living their lives together, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. My parents are still themselves: full of inner strength, and determined to spend all the time they have in one another’s company. Right now they cannot struggle to a café five minutes from home, but I do not doubt that  they intend to do so again in the spring. In the meantime, they don’t complain. They remain together, the bedrock of our family. Long may my dear parents both stay that way.

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