All the very best of the season to you! You haven’t heard from me for several weeks and in today’s newsletter I will explain why: my life has cranked up a few notches!
For a few years now I’ve continued my musical career while looking after my elderly parents, one of whom has Alzheimer’s and the other advanced Alzheimer’s. Back in November, due to a change in circumstances, I had to take on their care by myself while keeping some semblance of a musical career intact.
When Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former US President Jimmy Carter, died this year, aged 96, The New York Times said that she and Jimmy forged a long post-presidential life together: devoted to promoting peace, protecting human rights and championing caregivers.
Positioning the importance of caregiving right up alongside world peace and human rights now makes perfect sense in a way it would not have done before I took it on. We don’t necessarily realize that many performers, women especially, must manage their careers while keeping kids and other dependents fed, watered, safe and happy. It’s hard to imagine what that is like until you have to do it yourself.
Overnight I went from being someone who does a share of the chores to someone who does them all. I’ve never had to do the daily cooking for a family, for example, but soon I discovered that the daily puzzle of what to cook and buy had left me quite unhinged. No sooner was one day behind me when another day was suddenly bearing down with a whole new set of meals to concoct. I didn’t have recipes or a plan – I was figuring it all out from scratch and it did my head in.
My daughter suggested I sign up to get meal kits delivered. The ingredients arrive in a box along with recipe cards to work from. We get four main meals for four people every week and, with only three of us, we have nice leftovers too. Planning and cooking meals has given me a new empathy for people who take up a musical instrument in later years. Old dogs can learn new tricks but it’s not easy. Even with the meal kit laid out in front of me I still manage to skip a line in the recipe so I forget to add the tomatoes to the pasta sauce. Duh. I could never work in a professional kitchen. Even on my best day I would screw up so often I would be fired within an hour.
With caregiving it seems that as soon as you find a routine and hit your stride a crisis comes along and ruins it all. The other Friday, dad wasn’t eating his food. When I asked why, he said, “My foot hurts”.
He had all the signs of a foot infection. And, of course, it would happen on a Friday evening when doctors and pharmacists close their shops and you can’t get a prescription for an entire weekend. I’d kept some antibiotics for just such an eventuality but they were 1 week out of date. I decided to risk giving him one and next morning I called 111, a phone number that the British can call to get official medical advice. Apparently, I could get fresh medications that way. It sounded easy and wasn’t. I was on the phone for an hour and a half: either on-hold or talking to one “box-ticker” after another who all asked me detailed questions before transferring me to do exactly the same with someone else.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had a rat problem in the chicken run. It’s a small run which I walk past all the time. As soon as I see signs of a rat tunnel, I know to get out the spade, wire cutters and chicken wire so as to make life as tedious as possible for the unwelcome visitor. Eventually he will go online to give my place such a terrible review on Rat Advisor that no other rodents will venture near: Giving this chicken run one whole star is generous. It may be fine for chickens but is completely unsuitable for rats. And the host human is a complete rotter.
You can’t let it wait. You have to deal with the burrowing beastie right away or there will soon be more of the voracious varmints to vie with. I was still on the phone with 111 using one hand; while digging up the tunnel and putting down a layer of chicken wire with the other; while also remembering to check in on the elders now and then too. After 90 minutes of answering questions and being on hold I heard the box-ticker on the other end of the phone telling me a doctor would call me later.
I got the chicken run done: if he tries that tunnel again old ratty will come up against an underground fence of chicken wire. I went indoors and made lunch and eventually got a call from a doctor: “Hi. I know you’ve spent a long time on the phone this morning and you’ve answered a lot of questions. And I have your answers all written down in front of me but rather than reading it all I find it’s quicker if you just tell me what’s going on.”
By now my story was well honed from several retellings. I told him I was using some out-of-date antibiotics to get dad through a weekend of foot infection.
The doctor said, “Well, they’ve put you down as accidental poisoning, which shows you what we’re up against. But you did the right thing. The only problem with the medication could be a slight loss of potency. But I would bet two of my guitars there would be no discernible difference between what you’re giving your dad and what I will prescribe for you. They do this to cover themselves as well as keeping the money rolling in for the drug companies.”
The doctor was the first reasonable and coherent person I’d spoken with all day. Maybe because he’s also a musician.
The antibiotics went to my local chemist and I picked them up an hour later. It was now blowing an absolute gale. I got back home and administered the bona fide tablets before cooking the evening meal: an Indian-style Biryani dish.
One thing with the meal kits is they describe the food in all its deliciousness but they don’t tell you the recipe until you’ve paid for it. This makes it hard to gauge how much time you’ll be in the kitchen. If they say: Cooking time 50 minutes it could mean 35 of those minutes are in the oven or it could be 50 minutes of full-on chopping, slicing, boiling, pan-reserving and snipping open all the little packages of spices. In that case if they say 50 minutes it’s more like 75 unless you’re a trained chef with Rat-a-tat-tat chopping technique (pun intended – especially good for Ratatouille) and all your mise-en-place in place. This Biryani recipe was the latter. It took FOR-EV-ER. While the storm raged away outside, I chopped, fried and stirred and when it was all done it was actually a pretty good meal.
Back in the early 1970s my dad loved to experiment with cooking. He made Indian and Chinese recipes at a time when exotic ingredients were impossible to come by without going into Sheffield or Manchester to source bean sprouts, soy sauce and garam masala. Due to dementia, he remembers none of it now but it’s still nice to return the favour. He doesn’t know what he’s eating but he says thank you and shows a kind of appreciation for any unfamiliar flavour combinations (whether intended or not).
There were lots of dishes to wash and they all needed to be done and put away because, if not, someone else (my mum) will do the job and I’ll never find anything ever again. By the time I traipsed, exhausted, down the steps to my place the storm had been raging for hours. My heart sank. The accumulated water outside my door was nearly up to the top of the doorstep and flooding was imminent. Not another emergency!
I got out the electric pump, unrolled the hose and turned the pump on. Water shot away to the far end of the garden. As the water level went down, I could see dozens of floating leaves heading slowly towards the pump’s inlet pipe like zombies moving in on a youth camp. I remembered the salesman’s words: Leaves are your enemy. They will clog the pump.
I grabbed a rake but the effect was pitiful; the leaves twirled and dodged through the tines. An idea!! I grabbed some left-over chicken wire and fashioned it into a basket for the pump to sit in: a leaf filter!
It had been a long Saturday. A day that had begun with plans to do all sorts of pressing musical work. None of that got done. But, somehow, it had still been a good day. My place didn’t flood, we ate well, dad’s foot was going to get better and as for the rat, well that remained to be seen. It was all satisfying, necessary and relevant and I had made it to the end of the day fully intact. The musical work would get done soon enough, as it always does, in flurries of activity during moments of necessity or inventive inspiration. It was fine.
These days when a new acquaintance asks me, “What do you do?” I answer that, “At the moment, I split my time between music and caregiving.”
It’s a job that I’m proud to do. For, as Rosalynn Carter liked to note, there are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.
I love the music and I have plenty of plans and ideas. When time allows, I will do more, but until then the activities in this particular period of my life are informing me, teaching me and hopefully guiding me towards becoming a better and more well-rounded human being.