‘…a beautifully written memoir … a brave and original book filled with all kinds of glittering fragments ― personal, literary and political … It is not a how-to manual, but a powerful exploration of loving and giving’ The Times
‘Mills takes you into the human heart at its most broken and its most hopeful in this brilliant book that will make you laugh and cry. It is a passionate cry for the millions of carers across the world, unpaid, unthanked, fighting every day out of love’ Kate Williams, author of Rival Queens
‘A powerful and tender book. It shows us, through a fearless account of personal experience and an erudite study of the lives and letters of Leonard Woolf and F Scott Fitzgerald, the dark intimacies and the unspeakable costs of care. It reminds us, most of all, that to care is to labour as well as to love’ Jenn Ashworth, author of Fell
‘Sam Mills presents her story with unflinching honesty, as delicate as her father’s health, as brave as her mother’s example. A book about what it means to be a carer, what it takes from you and, finally, what it gives’ Will Ashon, author of Chamber Music
‘Mills’s interweaving of stories, both historical and contemporary, displays the complexity of the bonds of familial and romantic love and how they can enrich one’s life and work if we allow them to … beautifully exposes the grains of an author’s life through the exploration of their place in a family. It show us there are many ways to move towards our unknowable futures via the stories of our past’ Spectator
‘… a poignant memoir about being a carer for a father who suffered from mental illness. Mills melds her own touching story with reflections on the literary figures – including Zelda Fitzgerald – who have been through similar struggles’ Independent
‘A beautiful book, written with rare honesty and emotional complexity, as well as a lively and amusing one. It will provide comfort to anyone who’s done the debilitating work of caring for a loved one, and insight to anyone who hasn’t’ Edmund Gordon, author of The Invention of Angela Carter
‘Beautifully written, lyrical and so, so moving – read in one sitting’ Kate Mosse (on Twitter)
‘A generous, honest, fearless and humane memoir that left me grateful, shaken, and humbled.’ David Collard
It’s a Friday night in early 2016 and I am staring at the streaky paintwork of a toilet door. It is locked. It has been locked for the past two hours. The skin on my knuckles is pink from repeated banging.
I call out, ‘Dad, are you okay?’
There is a long silence.
Then, eventually, comes a reply:
‘I’m … okay … I’ll come out … in … a …’
I go downstairs, but the moment I reach the hallway, I feel I should venture back up, though it will only lead to a dead-end: the blank face of the toilet door again. By now, I have become familiar with its streaky whiteness, the thick and fine delineations of brushwork preserved in the white gloss, my brother’s DIY job. Through the hall window the sky is filled with the blue smoke of twilight. There is that sparkle in the air as people leave work and head for the pub or home.
If they saw our house, what assumptions would they make?
It’s a semi-detached in a little cul-de-sac, with a neat garden: I would have assumed it was a house where conventional people lived out happy, boring lives.
I suffer the vertigo of uncertainty. Over the past six months, I’ve spoken to several people on the phone for advice about my father. They’ve all asked the same question: ‘Are you his carer?’ And I’ve always replied: ‘No, I’m his daughter.’ The term ‘carer’ feels too clinical. I help my dad because he is my dad. But I’m also nervous of the term because it implies I am in possession of wisdom and medical knowledge and that I know what I am doing.
On the table in the living room is a card with ‘Emergency Mental Health Support Line’ printed on it in red letters. I dial the number. The man at the end of the line introduces himself as Joe. It isn’t until I tell him that my dad has been locked in a toilet for two hours that I realise how panicked I am; I hear it lacerate my voice. Often, in the present tense of a shocking situation, we can only feel numbness; it is in the aftermath that emotions take shape.
Joe is clearly a little confused by what I am telling him. In his line of work, the story of a man who is ill and locked in a toilet nearly always follows the same plot arc: he is making a threat; he intends to take his life. But my father’s condition is so odd and rare and complex – one that doctors have not come across in decades – that I’m not able to explain it on the phone.
I just want someone to tell me what to do, even if they are ignorant of the context. I want instruction; I want a friend.
Joe tells me: stay on the phone, go back upstairs and speak to him. ‘Tell your dad he has to come out.’
Even though I’ve already tried this, I obey.
‘Dad, you have to come out,’ I recite.
‘You have to put some force into the words,’ Joe tells me, and I suppress an urge to laugh hysterically; I feel as though I am auditioning for a part. ‘You need to say it with authority.’
I bellow the words. No reply. My dad has stopped speaking altogether: this is a bad sign. The echo of my voice makes it seem as though the tiny room has expanded into a vast space.
I picture my dad sitting on the toilet in a state of zombie suspension. Or, perhaps he is standing on the seat, wobbling precariously – a rotund seventy two-year-old, trying to escape through the toilet window.
‘I don’t think he can help it,’ I say. ‘I think it’s probably got out of control now.’
‘You’re doing very well,’ says Joe.
Joe tells me to ring for an ambulance. And then he tells me he is sitting in his office and he’ll be there all night. I can phone him any time. I can update him and let him know my dad is safe. And, if I feel afraid, I can just call and talk to him. In that instant, I fall in love with Joe. It is something that has happened a few times over the past six months.
Someone shines a light into the dark storm of crisis and we bond in the intimacy of that moment; it feels as though we have known each other all our lives, even though we are strangers.
Why did Edward choose the toilet? Does he have a weapon? Do you think he is suicidal? These were the questions the woman fired at me when I called 999.
I answered: don’t know, no, and no.
They wanted his rejection of life to be defined as an absolute; but it was far more shadowy and ambiguous. The woman
told me that the ambulance would take an hour to come.
They were having a busy evening. I sensed a subtext in her tone: austerity and cuts were the cause. I switched off the phone. The streaky white door stared
back at me. I called out to my dad once more. Once more, there was no reply.
For the third time that day I telephoned my younger brother Stefan. He worked long hours in the City, but I figured he’d be home by now; his flat was just a few streets away from Dad’s. When he appeared on the doorstep ten minutes later, he was carrying a half-drunk bottle of beer. Stefan was in his mid-thirties. Our interactions usually followed the same pattern: we took the piss out of each other as though we were kids again. But this time we were both panicked.
The hour stretched out before us. We argued about solutions. In the end, we surfed the net and picked out a locksmith.
Not available, we kept being told. It’s a Friday night, we don’t have anyone …
While I kept calling out to Dad, Stefan found a screwdriver in a toolbox under the stairs and slotted it between door and lock, trying to force it open. A presence by my legs made me jump: my cat Leo was purring and gazing up at me quizzically.
Most of the time, she possessed the haughty, wilful air of a cat who regarded her owners as her butlers. In a crisis, however, she seemed to soften and do her best to offer purry support, to play her role as part of the family. I knelt down and stroked her, watching anxiously as my brother jiggled, flecks of white paint flying to the floor. The lock, which my father had screwed on himself, began to rattle as it bent away from the door. And then – snap! – the door swung open and I saw a look of shock on my brother’s face.
Dad was wearing his pyjamas. He was standing upright, facing us, but he couldn’t see us. His body was locked into a strange repetitive loop, like a machine programmed to do an assembly-line task: his left arm would raise, jerk above his head, and then his right foot would lift. His scarlet face was screwed into a fist of agony.
I flew to him. Negotiating past the jerks, I gave him a hug.
I whispered in his ear that he would be alright. He was unable to reply. It was as though his mind and body had said goodbye to each other. His body was doing its own strange thing and he was trapped in it, helpless. I tried to take his arm and smooth out the spasms, but it ignored me and carried on.
Stepping back, I thought I should let him be: to interfere any more might hurt him.
The doorbell shrilled. The ambulance – early? But when I hurtled down to open the door, I found a locksmith waiting, ready to assist. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, giving him the bundle of notes my brother had passed me.
When the ambulance did arrive, the crew were wonderful. Like Joe, they exuded warmth; they genuinely cared. My father’s state baffled them. They fired questions at us, and we did our best to explain his tendency to slip into catatonia. In the end they moved Dad into a wheelchair and wrapped him
in a blanket. Then they eyed the stairs nervously. My father is five feet-five and weighs sixteen stone. One of my friends once remarked to me that he looked like Father Christmas, with white hair and a benign, round face that people found instantly endearing. How to carry him? They hummed and hawed. They brought up a transfer chair, a bit like a sack barrow, and strapped him in. The final turn of the stairs was tricky. Eventually, they got him to the bottom. They looked as though they wanted to cheer.
The house felt lonely and empty after they had gone; night rain was freckling the windows. I pictured my dad and Stefan at the hospital, stuck in some side room in A&E. My brother would be there until at least two or three in the morning, whilst nurses spirited in and out doing tests, asking questions.
In the living room, I gazed over at Dad’s armchair, tucked away in the corner. The seat was hollowed from use and the arm on which he rested his head to nap, curled up like a big cat, was frayed to strings of cloth. Next to the chair was a wooden cabinet on which he’d placed a pair of chunky black reading glasses, his newspaper tokens, his Bible, a list of things to do and to remember, and his pocket diary. I picked it up and opened the front page. It contained that line that all diaries have and few people ever bother to fill out: who to contact in the event of an emergency. Perhaps those who do are the ones who are vulnerable, aware of the hairline cracks in their lives, the threat of fracture. I was touched to see my name and number written on this line, and then felt shadowed by fear: I thought of my father in the toilet and imagined what might have been if I hadn’t been there.
I wandered into the spare bedroom. Once this room had belonged to my mother. Her presence was there still, in the pleats and shadows. A basket of make-up at the back of the desk gathering a thick layer of dust. Her dressing gown, a long leopard-print affair, hung on the back of the door. On her bookshelf sat a row of spine cracked favourites: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a textbook about Freud, Herman Hesse’s Siddartha. Today, 19 February – the day Dad had spent locked in the toilet – was her birthday. She would have been seventy.