​What Would You Do With Your Years?

The lane outside my house

The lane outside my house

I had to scrape the ice off my windscreen in the pitch black, because it was still ridiculously early and the sun wasn’t even thinking of getting up yet. When I got in the car the display told me that it was minus six degrees centigrade. I drove up the narrow lane outside my house to turn around and that’s when my headlights illuminated what I first thought was a pile of old clothes. Maybe a bin bag had split when the dustmen were collecting the rubbish, or maybe the foxes had been dragging stuff around again.

And then, as I squinted through the frosty glass of my windscreen, I saw a hand appear from the pile of clothes. It was a person.

Picking the old lady up from the ditch where she had fallen was difficult because of the way she was lying and because she didn’t have the strength to help. God only knows how long she’d been lying there, but in this part of the countryside she might easily have remained there unnoticed for a couple more hours had I not seen her. And in these freezing cold temperatures… I didn’t want to think about it.

She was a dead weight, and with nothing more than a nighty to protect her she was showing signs of hypothermia. Her lips were blue and she didn’t know where she was, or why she was there. She asked me my name as I struggled to keep her upright.

“I’m Chris,” I told her.

“Christine,” she replied, introducing herself. “I’ve got a Chris”

She lived just a few metres further up the lane in a bungalow that I hadn’t noticed before, hidden by bushes and trees. But getting her from here to there was going to take some time. She couldn’t support herself, and her legs had seized up. I took her weight and we walked an inch at a time, as I struggled to keep her from toppling over and taking me with her.

She asked me my name.

“I’m Chris,” I told her.

“Christine,” she replied. “I’ve got a Chris.”

It went on like this for a forty minutes, until I managed to get her into her house. Then I put her into her bed and took off the the freezing cold, soaking wet socks from her feet. I went outside to move my car and pick up the clothes that Christine had left in the ditch while I called for an ambulance. It was clear that she was had been intending to go somewhere, and she’d grabbed a change of clothes on her way out.

When I went back in to check on her she was distressed, not because of how cold she was, but because she couldn’t remember why she’d left the house. I sat and held her hands, blowing on them until they started to warm up. She asked me my name.

She kept asking my name, and I kept telling her.  I was Chris, and she was Christine, and she had two sons, one also called Chris. They would visit her at the weekends. She’d lived in that bungalow for a long time – she moved into it with her husband when it was first built. It was just her living there now.

And then the ambulance arrived. The paramedics went straight to the fridge.

Apparently it’s common practice for vulnerable people to keep a tin in the fridge for situations just like this. They would put details of their medication in it, information about any conditions they might have, and what treatments they were undergoing, and a sticker on the fridge door would let the medics know it was there. I waited in the kitchen while one paramedic took care of Christine, and the other went through her paperwork. He discovered that she had a nurse pay her a visit three times a day, and among her medical conditions was early signs of dementia. The paramedic read out her name from one of the documents. It was Margaret.

My mother’s name is Margaret.

A week later I went back and knocked on the door to see if she was ok, but there was no answer. I later learned that her sons had found her a friendly care home where she would be well looked after, but where she could still have some independence. It sounded lovely. I wouldn’t mind living there myself, but I’m not sure I meet the entry requirements.

I think about Margaret from time to time. I wonder what kind of life she’s lived, what she’s achieved in all her years. But I also wonder if there was anything she would have done differently had she known that one night at 5am, wearing just her nighty and clutching a change of clothes, she would step into the freezing darkness only to tumble helplessly into a wet ditch. If she knew that one day in the future she would be found freezing cold, unable to remember her name, unable to tell the complete stranger who picked her up how she got there, would she change anything?

And then I wonder what I would do with my years if I knew that it might be me in that ditch one day. What about you?