Even when my dad’s Alzheimer’s was progressing like a boss, he continued to prepare a breakfast tray for his ‘wife’ and deliver it to her in bed, each morning around eight. I put wife in inverted commas because they never actually got married but they referred to each other in the correct spousal terms. This was my dad’s third wife. All three had sing-song, three-syllabled names ending in a cheerful ee. My mum was the first wife. And the best. Felicity.
The breakfast tray continued as did many daily habits, but it was always going to be a tricky game of remember-what’s-on-the-tray. In time, the boiled egg came without a spoon. Or with the spoon came and without the egg. Only the egg cup. As far as I know, the egg was always cooked. But one thing remained a stalwart, the mini Bodum of coffee, freshly brewed, piping hot.
Everyone loves their morning cuppa, eh? The H was reading an article out to me the other day. “The Top Reasons For Divorce”. The info was drawn from a bunch of divorce lawyers. Where are you reading that?! I asked (and why, more to the point.) One dude’s reason for divorcing his wife was that she asked him each morning how he took his coffee. For a long, no doubt crap-morning-cuppa-filled, seven years. I know there’s a minefield of milks around these days but it can’t be that hard. Bovine. Almond. Oat. Soy. Coconut. Rice. Macadamia. Warmed. A splash. Half and half. Black.
One time, I went to look after dad while his ‘wife’ (we’ll call her Verity) went away for a well-earned holiday. Dad still prepared her elaborate breakfast tray by 8 am. Each morning as I appeared in their sunny kitchen, Dad looked at me with curious eyes, as though freshly arrived. Verity’s away I reminded him. I’m here looking after you, Dad.
Oh yes, so you are, he’d say.
After breakfast, I go with him on his first walk of the day. We’d ambled east along the Pohutukawa-edged clifftop with the sea green-blue and glistening in the background. Then inland passed houses and back home via Penguin Place. Dad’s cat came with us. We walked as slowly as a three-legged tortoise. Stopping to listen to Tuis or if a car approached to herd SmudgeBum the cat into the safety of the gutter until it had passed. Miraculously that cat was never run over.
But not long after my stay, dad fell off the cliff in front of his house. How he didn’t die instantly is a miracle. He was throwing over some leaf litter he’d collected. Being a gardener from way back there were probably a couple of weeds in his clutch too. He managed to slip down a wide clay crack, between tree roots and land on a rock ledge above the tide. He knocked himself unconscious, didn’t remember a thing, and never once complained of the pain of his injuries. He dragged the local volunteer fire brigade from their dinner, won a ride in a Westpac rescue helicopter, and had his escapade noted in the New Zealand Herald. He also won a seven week stay in North Shore hospital's geriatric ward. And a one-way ticket to a rest home.
I ate expensive deli sandwiches with dad in the ward’s day room, telling him we were in a café. Are we the only table? he’d asked. Fraught family meetings were held in that room when deciding on Dad’s next move, once his ribs, neck vertebra, concussion, and lacerations had healed sufficiently. At the first meeting, I suggested he and Verity move into a villa in an aged care residential whatnot, so they could stay living together. That went down like a tonne of ammonium nitrate under the sky tower. He had become a liability. Verity could no longer cope. No extra carers had ever been employed to take the load off. Most of his wanderings off up to the village to check the post box at the store several times a day were safe. Until they weren’t. He was a familiar sight. His white hair, browning above his ears because he refused to shower. His corduroys smelling of urine and losing their pile around his fly because of it. Try telling any old dude he needs Poise-for-boys or adult diapers then ensure he wears them. It’s a fragile line between dignity and loss of freedoms. Independence.
The hospital aged care facilitator did some basic life-skills-test with dad in that room. What the fuck they were supposed to achieve I do not know. Dexterity: 8/10. Dad’s results basically dictated that he’d never set foot in his seaside home again. One test was making coffee. Dad failed. The facilitator told me, he put a heaped dessert spoonful of coffee into the mug! She scoffed as though he was clearly deranged. I told her right back, that’s because he and Verity don’t drink instant coffee. He thought he was making real coffee, with fresh grounds. In a mini Bodum. He just got the vessel mixed up. She was not impressed. Her Moccona clearly had lost its Mmmmm.
Dad was always a creature of habit. In his working life in London, he wore Church’s brown brogues. He had two pairs which he wore on alternate days. I was never quite sure why he didn’t just wear one pair out and then buy a new pair. It’s like driving a car way below the empty mark to save petrol. Many of his shoe rituals probably started when he was a naval officer in New Zealand. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was dad sitting on the edge of the parental bed tugging on his long white naval socks. Firstly, he would pepper in between his toes with athlete’s foot powder. Next, came these white, inside-out sock snakes. He would peel them on over his feet and up his calves. Tanned despite the sock-wearing. A thick rubber band, hidden by a wide turndown, held the socks in place just under the knee. The shoes were white also. Sort of white-washed leather. Strange that my father wore white shoes without realising their possible nuances; he was a major homophobe. At the same age, my future husband’s mother was warning him to never trust men in white shoes. We grew up with a lot of ignorant schizz in the 70s.
I saw my dad in the nude once. I was both mortified and impressed by the size of his (what I later found out when mum read my sister and me a small green book titled Where Do Babies Come From) was his penis. I think at the time I thought it was some form of mini elephant trunk. A trouser snake. I might have smiled.
Once we were playing tennis in Malaysia, back when my dad had a job at the New Zealand High Commission in Singapore. Dad was a wasp magnet and highly allergic to them. He was getting hassled by a thirsty bunch of vespas. He hopped about the court, waving his tennis racket in defense. I helpfully yelled out, Dad, Dad you look like a fairy! He blew his top. I was hurt and confused, only thinking that what looked like playful antics required a compliment. His outburst probably coincided with the exact time that he was stung. Several times. Right above his eye, which blew up like a prize fighter’s post pummelling. My mother had to administer whiskies and water back in their hotel room. Later the kitchen provided a raw steak to draw out the sting. Not long after that, my parents divorced. It was nothing to do with coffee. Or milk. But another woman. My godmother.
But that’s another story.
If there is a moral to this tale it would be – learn how to make your partner’s morning brew. Make it with love. Make it good.