IMG_0236You should get your bloods done’ she says to me.
I’m knackered and more than a little haggard I know. There’s been a lot going on. But still. The receptionist telling me to get my bloods done. Just by looking at me. It’s making something boil. I think it’s my blood,
‘Why’ I ask with teenage impertinence.
‘Ah just because it’s cheaper to get it done while you’re in with one of the children. It’s good to get it done.’
After many years as a receptionist I wonder what she’s seen. Why she knows when it’s time to do something. Even if the doctor doesn’t. She’s lovely. Bubbly and warm and kind. She’s thick as thieves with the patients. I take her advice.

I phone a day later for the results. She reads from the computer screen.
‘Your thyroid is very good. Your blood glucose is excellent. Iron levels very good, 12.4. You’re way off the menopause’. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this information or even if it is the receptionist that should be giving it to me. She is unrelenting.
‘Years and years off. My god you’re reading is 5 and it doesn’t even begin to kick off until you’re at 26’.
Great. Or is it? Who knows. She seems to.
‘Let me see now. What else. Your cholesterol. Your cholesterol is actually quite high’.
‘Yes. It’s 6.7’.
‘6.7? That sounds very high. What might cause that?’
Suddenly she is the doctor and I am the vulnerable patient.
‘It could be too much sugar’.
Hang on a second, I thought my blood sugars were excellent. I haven’t a sweet tooth. Never have. Then I remember.
‘The night before the test I ate a load of cheese. Could that have done it?’
The night before we had skipped dinner and opted for a generous wedge of scrumptious Saint Agur with crackers and red wine. I stopped eating at about one o’clock in the morning. I didn’t know I was having my cholesterol checked in a mere eight hours. Silly me. I’ve caused a skewed reading.
‘It won’t have helped. But sure listen, don’t worry about it. You’re young enough and you’re slim. You’ll be able to get it down with a few changes to diet. Cheese is lethal. Drink a few benecol, they’re very good, and come back and have it rechecked in a month’.
‘My mother has high cholesterol’ I volunteer. ‘Since she was very young. An inherited thing’.
‘There you go. I was going to say it’s probably genetic. But sure don’t worry about it at all’.

6.7. I hang up feeling like a fool. All these years and I’ve never even thought to get it checked. I go to the doctors for one reason only. The kids. I don’t go for myself. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ would be my mature attitude. Reckless it seems now all of a sudden. Time to get googling.

It’s funny what a surprise like having high cholesterol can do to a person. In an utterly imperceptible and seamless move the shopping is full of oats, beans, lentils, nuts, spinach, soy and salmon. I am mopping up my cholesterol. I cannot even look at the cheese section. As if it alone is responsible for my poisoned blood. Benecol – which I had always imagined was for people in their seventies – is my new drug of choice. I swig it merrily and picture the plant stanols attacking the fatty blood. Padraig Harrington – whom I ignore on the radio ads wittering on about Flora something or other – suddenly is an ally.  Someone as fit as him. Imagine. Although he never actually says how high his went. 5.1 probably. I buy the product and smear it cheerfully on my baked potato. I manage not to steal a delicious chippy chip from the kids. I am attacking this thing with the zeal of a perfectionist on speed. My husband is dying to know the results after a month of this malarkey. He tells me he bets it’ll be way down. Dangerously low from what he has witnessed.

I get retested and phone the next day for the results. I’ve a pencil in hand ready to write down the 5 point something low that it now will be. She  calls out all the ones that are good again. She is still cheerfully telling me that I’m no where near menopausal.
‘It’s just the cholesterol I’m looking for ‘ I tell her. I don’t want to ruin her buzz but I’m really rather excited.
‘Just a second, hang on there, where is it, here… 6.7’.
‘6.7? But sure it can’t be. I’ve changed my diet completely and…’
The doctor is put on the line.
‘It’s still high. But you’ve no other risk factors. You’re not overweight and you don’t smoke and your blood pressure, did we check your blood pressure?’
‘Come on around and we’ll check it and see what to do from there’.
I’m floored. It’s probably the first time in my life that I’ve thrown myself fully at something and got nowhere. Nowhere at all. My mind fuzzes with words colliding. Plaques. Stroke. Heart attack. Oh well.

Around at the surgery the receptionist is disappointed for me.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask. ‘All the results were the same as the last time. Could there be some…’
‘Hang on a second, what date is it, the 14th, yeah, that’s – oh no wait, it’s the same date today as you had it done last month, you’re right – that’s last month’s results. Hang on and I’ll ring to get this month.’
‘I knew it’ I tell her. ‘Sure how could it be the same after all those changes. All that benecol!’
‘I know, I was very surprised, look here they are now, they’re just coming in’ she says looking at her computer screen.
‘Oh, that’s it there now, what? That can’t be…’
The doctor is hovering close by. He has a look at the screen.
‘6.8’ he says definitively. ‘It’s gone up’. With that he turns up the radio, just a tad, to catch an ad for Callan’s Kicks. He’s chuckling to himself as I stand there gobsmacked. My body is behaving badly, ignoring me and my first class efforts. It’s doing its own thing. Defiantly.

He checks the blood pressure which is behaving itself. He tells me that I have no other risk factors. For what he doesn’t specify. There’s no need to. Then that I have two choices. See how it is in a couple of months. Or go on a low dose statin. The kids faces swarm in front of me. It’s dizzying.
‘I’ll take the drug’ I tell him. And then perhaps I’ll head straight to McDonalds to celebrate my failure with a Big Mac.

The pharmacist looks concerned.
‘Is this the first time you’ve been prescribed these?’
‘Yes. I was hoping to get it down with diet but it went up instead’.
She nods sagely.
‘These can have some unpleasant side effects’.
‘Yes I know. I’ve been looking into it recently for my Dad. He’s coming off his due to the side effects. Memory loss. I don’t need that! Still, I haven’t much choice. I need to get it down’.
Then she tells me about a natural over the counter alternative that has just come out. Reportedly as good as the statins with no side effects. Now that sounds like my cup of tea. She recommends to try the statins first and then to swap when the count has gone down.

The side effects are immediate. Stomach upset. Maybe it’ll settle after a while I think. But it doesn’t. It gets worse. We’re late for school (unusually) one morning and we have to run. I feel nauseous and the muscles in my legs seem to be seizing. On Saturday afternoon I get a whopper of a headache. I never get headaches. I put myself to bed with painkillers and tell him that if it doesn’t shift we’re off to A&E as it could be a stroke. It hadn’t struck me that it could be the meds causing it. I google the side effects and they’re all there. The headache shifts. I’m a wuss. I want to stop taking the statins. So I google alternatives and lo and behold there’s a massive anti-statin brigade chiming a tune that fits my current head space perfectly. It goes along the lines of: Your liver makes cholesterol and it makes exactly what you need. Anything between 2 and 10 is fine. The under 5.0 is a scaremongering money making made up number. There’s billions and billions to be made out of it. So relax. Eat well. Exercise. You are fine.

I choose a non-analytical, non-skeptical approach to this. It feels really good to think that maybe, just maybe, my body is doing what it needs to do. There’s a block of Kilmeaden cheese in the fridge for the kids. I open it, cut a slice, smother it with Coleman’s mustard and sink down on the couch. The pre-occupation with getting the bold number down has left me, for today at least.


Old men and little girls

I’ve had a thing about old men since I was a little girl. It was serious then. Full on heart melting devotion. So much so that I had a sale of work. I gathered all sorts of bits from the house, set up a stall, and flogged them to passers by. There was an old man’s home close by, you see. Walled, tree lined, private and exotic. I fantasised about getting in there some day. I fantasised about helping the dear old treasures out. Somehow. I was six or seven. The jury is out on what propelled me into this cause.

I counted the coins. Six old pounds and forty seven pence. I stacked the coins in a row. Re-counted. Poured them into an envelope and wrote a note. Please do something with this to help the old men. Then I set off. Alone. The big black gates did not intimidate me. I walked up the large drive-way secure in my calling. I popped the envelope through the letter box and went home. Happy. Oh so very happy.

A week later a letter arrived. Blue envelope. Stamped and addressed to me. The Matron had written to thank me on behalf of the old men. With the money that I dropped in she said she had been able to treat them all to an ice-cream. Then she invited me to come in. To be shown around. To meet some of the men. They would very much like, she said, to meet the girl who’d bought them the ice-cream. There it was. Right in front of me. My dream had come true.

I don’t know what I was expecting really. Mischievous fun-loving twinkly men. Boys in older skins who had no-one at home to mind them. Perhaps a couple of them seemed a little like that. But what struck me was the stark decline. The amount of wheelchairs. The lack of a spark of recognition in some when Matron introduced me as the ice-cream girl, raising her voice to deafened ears, gesticulating to cloudy eyes. I didn’t really know anyone very old or incapacitated. I sat in a wheelchair and imagined what it must be like to be one of them. I left with a slightly broken heart but with firm resolve to raise more money for them. Not for ice-cream, though.

Another brush with old man protective devotion came one day when I was knocked off my bicycle. I was cycling along with the tea-bags I’d just bought in my front basket. A car reversed out of its driveway and wham. Everything went into slow motion. I lay on the road frozen as the car continued to reverse towards me. They haven’t seen me, I thought. This is it. I stared at the reg plate as the car inched on. The lip of the boot was over me and I was staring at the killer wheels when it stopped. 
‘I didn’t see you’ the old bespectacled driver said. He was wearing a hat like my grandfather’s. 

‘It was only that I saw your bicycle on the road…’

I got to my feet. There was blood. My head and my leg. But that did not concern me. It was the scattered red and white basket that bothered me. The clearly damaged yellow super-de-lux bike. The tea bags. Where are they?

‘Are you alright?’ the old man asked.

‘Oh yes’ I said. 

‘Can I help you to get home?’

‘No, no’ I said. ‘Thanks’. 

And the old man himself. It bothered me that he was shocked and shaken. The poor old thing. Sure how could he see me, with those great high bushes? He helped me to reassemble the bike. The basket was wrecked, crooked and scratched. The tea-bags had been flung onto the grass verge. My poor mother, I thought, at home waiting for her cup of tea. I put them back into the basket. Then I hobbled, dragging my bike beside me, all the way home. I was nine years old. The doctor was called. There was a lot of hushed talk and whispering in our usually noisy house. Wounds were dressed. Bed rest was ordered. Unless vomit was to follow. Then take her in. My parents sat at my bed and asked me all about him. This driver who had knocked me off my bike and then let me walk home. My mother, especially, was horrified, and tried but failed to temper it. How could he leave you to walk home like that? 

He’s old, I told them. Like Grandpa old. He just didn’t see me. It wasn’t his fault. The quiz went on. Could he have been drinking? Did I know the number of his house? They just wanted to have a little visit and a chat about what had happened, they said. They wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Some other child who may not get up and walk away. 

‘It’s the house with the high bushes and this is his number plate’ I said reaming off the numbers and letters from the picture frozen in my head. My mother laughed saying I couldn’t possibly have got the number plate. That I must be confused. Then she peered worryingly into my eyes for signs of concussion. 

‘Be nice to him’ I called after them, feeling like a traitor. 

‘Yes, we will, just a little chat’. I lay there fretting about the shock the poor old man would get when my parents hammered on his door. He was shocked alright. Not at them calling. He seemed to be expecting that. He invited them in for a whiskey, my mother told me pointedly. Ah god, I thought. How nice of him. 

‘He’s in a terrible state and terribly sorry about what happened’ she said. ‘He’s getting the bushes cut down’. 

Shame, I thought.

‘Oh and you were right about the number plate’ she said. ‘Except for the M. It was a W.’ Silly me.

I was in a shop recently when the old man childhood devotion came flooding back to me. An old man hovered with his trolley at the bread section. I whipped past him grabbing croissants and flying on to pick up the rest of my bits. At the end I realised I needed bundies too and I went back to the breads. He was still there. Carefully selecting the packages with the yellow stickers. The date is up on them and they are reduced to a steal. Ah god. I’m queueing already when he arrives with his trolley behind me. All he has is the bread. Three little wheaten loaves. I offer for him to go ahead of me. Not that he seems to be in a hurry. He accepts. He glances into my trolley.
‘Plenty in there anyway’ he says,

‘Ah sure, lots of hungry kids’ I say.

‘I remember it well’ he says. Ahead of us a grumpy lady is arguing with the checkout assistant. She is trying to buy the Valentine’s meal for two special deal. Only she doesn’t want the chocolates that come with it. And she has chosen two sides instead of a starter and a side. Because she doesn’t like the look of the starters. Her meal deal won’t scan. Her face is screwed up into an unpleasant ball of dissatisfaction. I wonder about the poor person she’s inflicting her Valentine’s wishes on. Still, as she battles on it gives me a chance to chat with the lovely old man.

‘I had five kids myself’ he says, twinkling. ‘All gone now, all different corners of the world’. 

‘Oh dear’ I say, uselessly, wanting to help him, somehow. He looks wistfully into my trolley of plenty and I look dolefully into the careful trolley for one.

‘What can I say?’ he asks, shaking his head.

‘Do you have grandchildren?’ I ask to try to add a bit of cheer.

‘Oh yes, yes’ he says. 

‘Still, what can I tell you?’ he says again. ‘All gone’.

It’s as I’m writing this piece that my phone goes.
‘Dad walked off to the shops and hasn’t come back’ I’m told. My own Dad. Now an old man himself. Re-trace his steps, I say, frantically. Blood is found. The police are called. I phone the hospitals. 

‘What’s his date of birth?’ My mind freezes. I think he’s there. He must be there if she’s asking that. It floods back to me. His lovely date of birth.

’30th of the 4th, 1934′.

‘Yes, he’s here’.

‘Is he ok?’ I warble down the line.

‘Yes’ the receptionist says to my fast hot tears. 

I hear him before I see him. Giving over past medical difficulties. I whip the curtain open.

‘Ah’ he says, smiling at me.

‘How did you know I was here?’

It was Saturday. The day before Valentine’s Day. He had walked to the shops with his stick for The Guardian and some cheese crackers. He was trying to get back in time for the match. France and Ireland. He was nearly home when it happened. He fell, hitting his head off a wall and his arm off the ground. He lay there, he says, perfectly calmly, until someone came along. That someone happened to be a doctor and she told him she was pretty sure something would be broken. She phoned an ambulance. She waited with him until it came. Angel. He had no phone with him and didn’t know our numbers without it. There was no-one for her to call. He’s propped up with his badly fractured arm in a brace. His fingers get stitched. His head gets scanned. Beside him lies his green mesh bag with the newspaper, a pen, crackers, reading glasses and a fiver in it. His bloodied tweed jacket is folded beside it. His stick hangs from a table. We start into the crossword as we wait for the others to arrive. 

Ten days later, after acute medical care in a major hospital, I find myself wheeling my Dad into the lunch room of a convalescent place. For all the world it looks like a retirement home. He’ll think we’ve sold him a pup.
‘I’m not terribly hungry’ he says meekly from the chair. He’s only just arrived and doesn’t even know where his bed is yet. 

‘Make room for the new boy’, a carer shouts out with a broad smile. He is sandwiched between two other men in wheelchairs. His head bows down in mute shyness. I want to run with him. To whip the brakes off the wheelchair and scraper. It cannot have come to this. The room is deafeningly silent as I chop up his fish. Then a twinkly eyed man sitting across from him pipes up.

‘What happened to your Dad?’ 

‘Oh, he just fell’ I say, dismissively. As if a mistake has been made. He shouldn’t be here at all.

‘So did I’ the twinkle says.

‘So did I’ another one says, laughing. Younger than my father. Crisp fresh shirt. A healthy bright glow. Encouraging. Maybe this will be alright. 

‘I was putting water in the tractor’ the twinkle says. 

‘Fell off down onto concrete. Broke the hip’, he chuckles. Dad’s head comes up out of his neck. He’s ready to join in with his fallen comrades. Good on you, twinkle. You’re just what I was hoping to meet as a little girl.

(Addendum: Apologies for the hiatus. This piece was written prior to the unfathomable loss of my father-in-law. Sorely missed by all. A man whose enthusiasm, creativity, fun, strength and love precluded him from ever seeming old to me.)