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15 April 2015

At hospital, Dad is in a wheelchair and my mother’s on a gurney. Who do I pitch the sitcom to?

“Lord, does it hurt?” a disciple asks the agonised Christ on the cross. “Only when I laugh,” He replies.

By Nicholas Lezard

It’s been a tough week. I got signed up to do a stint on Saturday Review (I secured the gig by going up to the presenter, Tom Sutcliffe, at a party and saying, “Why haven’t you put me on your f***ing show yet?” This is not an approach I would recommend across the board), which meant I had to: go to an exhibition, see a play, read a book, and watch three hours of television. Oh poor you, I hear you saying sarcastically, but all these are things I rarely if ever do, apart from reading books, and I read so many of those already that finding the time for another one isn’t easy. I also had to see the exhibition, play and film all on the same day, which left me quite, quite exhausted, my dears.

And if that wasn’t enough, I had to start going in every day to see my father at the Royal Free, admitted because of acute renal failure; and then, after Sunday, my mother, too – admitted because she slipped and broke a vertebra while getting out of the car to visit him, just before we were to have a meeting (or case conference, as doctors aggrandise it) about whether he should undergo a procedure that would prolong his life, but may be dangerous and may not even work.

It could be worse, I suppose. For one thing, my brother works there, as the hospital’s IT head honcho, as does his wife, as a consultant. So that’s four of them in the building for a large part of the week. I was wondering if I should move in, too, and have them change the name to the Royal Lezard Hospital. For another thing, the break in my mother’s vertebra is not too bad, although I use the word “bad” relatively here. At the time of writing she can’t stand without enormous pain.

To see both your parents in agony is even less endurable than I thought it was going to be, especially if you are used to them as the stoic type. True, I did learn all the English swear words in one go after my dad stuck his spade in his foot while gardening, but to be fair to him I did learn an awful lot of swear words, and it wasn’t as if he’d wanted to do the gardening in the first place.

And what does my turn on Saturday Review have to do with all that? Well, the play I had to see was a rather bad one, in my opinion, which centres upon a disastrous family Christmas lunch. Everyone else on the panel thought the play was the bee’s knees, but I stuck to my guns, with increasing ferocity. (“Most people who come on the show and are outnumbered like that modify their position a bit,” said Tom afterwards. Then a pause. “But not you.”) Anyway, one of my fellow critics, trying to defend the realism of the play, said, “Don’t you have a family?” as if hysterical behaviour, denunciations and food fights were the norm in families.

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“Yes, I do, as it happens,” I said, “and they’re lovely,” but could not elaborate on this, as it was not germane. But I will now. I am trying to think of the last time we had a family argument. I have to go back, what – 30, 40, 45 years? And they weren’t arguments, really, they were usually my bridling at being forced to practise the violin while the Mike Yarwood show was on, as a rebuke for not having practised for the previous week, or my hormones kicking in and me stomping from the room saying something mature along the lines of “Well, I didn’t ask to be born”.

In spite of this my parents seem to love me, despite my being the kind of person who sometimes has to borrow a few quid off his daughter if things are getting sticky at the end of the month (in my own defence, I pay her back ASAP, with considerable interest), and whenever I visit them for Sunday lunch with my own offspring we have a great time. Watching my father’s decline has been distressing, true, but he still has his marbles, even if the words come out more slowly these days.

And now both are immobilised, and one of them is staring down the barrel of the gun that Death is pointing at him. It is heartbreaking; but even then, we are a family that can extract humour from the bitterest lemons. “OK, who do we pitch the sitcom to?” I asked, as I walked into the curtained-off room in A&E, my father in a wheelchair, my mother flat on a gurney, like Beckett characters. A passing stranger might have been surprised to hear our laughter.

“Lord, does it hurt?” a disciple asks the agonised Christ on the cross. “Only when I laugh,” He replies. This was the first joke my mother taught me. It is still funny. 

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