"I do my best" she cried as she retreated to her room at the end of the corridor.
It started years ago, when her sister died, leaving John alone. He was distraught, no question, he loved her dearly. Also no question that he was happy to be waited on hand and foot by her. This was odd in some ways. His wife was a small woman but a force to be reckoned with; when she spoke people, even he, listened. She scared people a bit. But somehow she was happy to fit the role of 'wee housewife' to his 'the big man'. She didn't stay at home, she got a job which she enjoyed and came home in the evenings to cook and clean. How does that fit in the picture I'm painting? Well possibly John was happy for her to work as it meant he could save more of 'his' money. And she was still responsible for all the cooking, cleaning and tidying. He occasionally did the washing up until they bought a dishwasher. People rarely fit into neat concise pigeon holes.
So when she died it left a hole; he loved her, it left a hole; he was used to being spoilt, it left a hole. Where one finished and the other started is impossible to say.
Edie came to stay for 'a week or two' while he got himself together. The family rallied round, bringing food and suggesting things he could do. Edie bustled around being 'indispensable' and ignoring suggestions that she should encourage him to help himself. I mean okay, he was nearing 80 (but of course so was she), it would take a while to get used to having (finally) to look after himself. Two weeks stretched to two months and he showed no interest in getting up and looking after himself. Comments such as "oh, I suppose I could; I'm sure I could, how hard could it be to cook? But I've no real interest in food" put some peripheral family members off after a time because it was both denigrating the people who did cook for him and was entirely untrue. He was very, very interested in his food; he just wanted someone else to cook it for him ... free. This was a man who was known to sigh loudly if his tea wasn't ready at 6pm (this being the hour that apparently God had decreed the evening meal should be eaten). Suggestions that he could call down to the local café occasionally were similarly gratefully accepted and stored under 'never, never, never'. "Do you know how much cafés charge?" he would say, though of course he had little idea himself, and anyway that would mean shifting for himself, and he didn't like the 'Meals on Wheels' when that was arranged for him, no-one had the temerity to say "beggars can't be choosers". He was far happier saying over the phone "I've just had slice of toast all day, I don't like going to the kitchen, it reminds me of her." Well maybe people believed that at first, but really his wife was in every room, the décor, the pictures, all was down to her. He showed no sign of not being able to sit on his bum in the Lounge and do nothing because she was there as well!
His daughter would call in and take Edie out for coffee, his daughter-in-law would call in with suggestions for a course in history, poetry, writing, theology; anything to get him out of the house. His grandchildren would suggest he walked down with them to get his paper – he had it delivered – to buy his chocolate – Edie bought it – to the library for a book – he stopped reading books. Whilst people pushed he would do these things, and seemingly enjoyed them; when people left him to coast along he just stopped again; like a rusty old car with sticking brakes. He was old, it didn't take long for his sedentary lifestyle to give him the diseases of age; swelling ankles, out of breath, unsteady on his feet. His muscles followed his lead and atrophied.
Edie stayed on, the visits of other family members started to drop off. They had children and jobs and lives and did not see why everything should be made to revolve round a man who thought he deserved praise for making himself a cup of tea once in a blue moon.
Gently, but firmly it was suggested that Edie should scale back her visits, make him start to stand on his own feet. She had her own life (and she wasn't young), she had friends and church and other groups she attended, she helped at the hospice (at which John had tutted and rolled his eyes, the most he had ever done for anyone outside the family was to take the collection at his church); but she liked being indispensable and allowed her few friendships to lapse as she stayed on helping him and hindering his recuperation. Indeed she was worse than her sister had been as his wife. She would work harder, longer, to prove how essential she was; needlessly ironing his socks, moving furniture to vacuum underneath, struggling to hang the sheets and remake the bed and cook the dinners and beat the curtains and mow the lawn and weed the garden ... And he watched and offered helpful advice.
Every few months there would be a blow-up. He would not be suitably grateful (and, in truth, he wasn't; but even if he had been, his gratitude wouldn't have been the right kind), or would tighten his grip on his wallet, making her ask for money that, after all, she used to buy the shopping to feed him. He would make some comment like "well she eats the food as well" and someone would read him the riot act for being so stupid (though they would never say stupid). But, really, the blow-up would have occurred anyway. Something would have been wrong. Edie needed to feel needed, and the amount of needed-ness increased the more people supplied it. So no matter what was done for or with her would never be enough.
She wanted help so she could get home more; but when the help was hired to clean, she had to be there to supervise. And okay it was true really the cleaning lady wasn't much good, but she was company for him, or could have been, when Edie wasn't there. But of course that didn't happen. She regularly decided she couldn't drive anymore and arrangements would be made to collect her and bring her (the suggestion that he pay for a taxi being a non-starter as he was too mean), but they wouldn't turn up at precisely the time arranged (5 minutes late and she'd be ringing someone to complain, not ringing the person coming, but ringing someone else to drip the poison that increasingly became her lifestyle choice); there was no leeway due to traffic or work or family commitments, and it would fail and she would drive once again. Even when people said they would look in and she could stay at home, that wasn't the object of the exercise. The object was to have someone she could tell what to do and have visitors for her as well as him, the object was to be told how wonderful she was, the object was to be centre of attention. The trouble was people had grown to dislike her wheedling, complaining, whining voice and no-one wanted to visit when she was there. And she could never compete with John's ability to make himself the centre of attention; Edie simply didn't have the character to be central to people's lives, John, it seemed did not have the sense to realise he had to stop always being central. Edie resented that.
So, every now and then something would trigger a blow up and she would bring up all she did and how no-one cared and ... and it was true! No-one cared about what she did, but they did care that he wouldn't be put into a home (which was the only alternative since he had given up trying to do anything for himself) and so the emotion, the tears would bring about a brief respite as people took her out for coffee, for lunch, for shopping. But she could never see that they did it under duress. She and he were alike in always seeing the faults of others and never seeing how they had created this disaster themselves.
Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee they bickered and argued like an old married couple (which their children hated – "they are like an old married couple, AND THEY AREN'T" the daughters would shout; it didn't help when John would occasionally forget and refer to 'your mammy' by accident) and felt sorry for themselves and made people feel guilty for having a life beyond the emotional prison they had created.
It's fair to say that the in-laws pulled away first. If they never said it, they wished it would end; and it could only end one way. Death would solve one problem at least, the constant drip, drip of the weakening of their own relationships as this old man and old woman sucked all the joy out of the free time people had.
.... There is more of this story ...