First of all, the heart attack.
My sister and I are having one of our rare conversations. Our mother (natural for my sister and adoptive for me) is in hospital after a suspected heart attack at her day centre. She’s been living with my sister for about six years and Sister is showing the strain.
It turns out that it isn’t so much a heart attack as a consequence of the extreme levels of calcification of her already battered heart valves. They can put in stents or replacements but there may be side effects for someone of her age (89 next week – as usual, I’ve forgotten her imminent birthday) and poor health.
“What kind of side effects?” I ask.
“Oh, you know. A stroke. Death. That kind of side effect.”
From anyone else, that would be a joke. It’s possible Sister’s developing a black sense of humour. She once answered the door to a man who asked her what her crutches were for (no longer needed, thankfully). He had a broad Liverpool accent so the conversation went something like this.
“Are you alright, love? What are the crutches for, la?”
“I have chronic continuous pain syndrome.”
“That’s too bad, chick – what does that mean, then?”
My sister fixes the man with a dead-eyed glare worthy of Charles Bronson in his prime.
“It means I’m in continuous pain.”
(Two beat pause.)
“That sounds really bad, love – can you sign here?”
“That was funny,” I said when the man had departed, quite quickly. She looked at me blankly.
“But I am in chronic continuous pain?”
Anyway. She isn’t now. She is, however, an Anglican deacon studying for the priesthood and is professionally determined that our mother is going to a better place. We agree that I’ll take a day trip up North and see our mother with Sister as an escort. For my sake, not our mother’s.
Our mother is upright and perky.
“There was a lovely chaplain. He came in during rest time and sat with me for ages.”
“That’s nice.,” says Sister.
“The heart man was very good. He says they could give me an operation that’ll give me years more life.”
Sister rolls her eyes.
“But the other two consultants both say that the risks are two high and that your quality of life afterwards wouldn’t be very good.”
“But why shouldn’t I live a little longer if I can?”
“But aren’t you going to heaven?”
“Well, yes. I hope so.
“So does it matter when you go, then?”
“But if I could have a bit more…?”
It’s uncomfortably like a patient mother remonstrating with a young child about the dangers of too much cake. Mum changes the subject.
“There was a lovely chaplain. He came in during rest time and sat with me for ages…”
“Yes, mum,” my sister says. “You’ve told us that.”
“”The heart man was very nice. But I think he’s too old to do the operation.”
Unwisely, I try and explain that there’s a whole team that makes the decision. It gets complicated. We hear about the chaplain again. A nurse provides us with a fistful of booklets about the particular technique this consultant has been trying to sell our mother.
“I suspect an enthusiast,” I tell my sister, and she agrees. The stats suggest an 80% survival rate after one year. They don’t tell us a) how ancient or otherwise these survivors are and b) how likely they were to carry on living anyway. We aren’t encouraged. We try to explain the stats and procedures we’ve just learned about to our mother and decide to leave it till the full patient conference next week which Sister will make sure she attends.
Then I prattle bravely about my children (whom mum barely remembers) and my job for an hour. At one point, she points behind us.
“Do you think those things on that trolley are for sale? They look very nice.”
We both swivel in our seats. She’s pointing at the coronary emergency ward crash wagon. It does have quite an attractive set of little IKEA-style red drawers.
Later, I reach St Pancras and buy a bottle of moderately posh red wine. That would be the ‘vine’ bit.