The Mother

December 19, 2021

I feel Hat’s eyes on me as we watch.

Anthony Hopkins shuffles in and out of subtly changing rooms which morph from dark wood sixties decor to bright contemporary sleek. He is mostly bewildered, often belligerent, always paranoid (‘Where is my watch? Who stole my watch?”) and frequently in his pyjamas. Occasionally his words are shot with brilliant, sharp lucidity. Often they are acerbic, even cruel.  Sometimes his observations, his recollections (which baffle his daughter) are funny. 

I am at the tail end of a head cold. When I sniff, Hat’s shoots me a sidelong glance. I am dry eyed. I smile reassuringly.

I watch and I immerse myself in Hopkin’s world, one of disorientation, in this shapeshifting environment where corridors widen and narrow so that doors which are apparently in the same place lead to different rooms in the next scene. And where people are sometimes two-faced: so that his daughter presents as her older then her younger and then again her older self and where he insists a new carer is his other, younger daughter.

“Where is she anyway?”

(“Anyway”: a word I hear my mother use dismissively: a tool to minimise the enormity of all this – as if this question doesn’t really matter – “Who are you anyway?”)

She is dead. But this memory eludes him.

He fills the tragic gap with a stuffing of fabrication that I recognise: she is travelling. Away. She is a painter. She is his favourite. (And I wince).

(And I think of my mother’s words: my husband left me you know?)

How can you forget your child is dead?

But you can.

How can you forget your child?

But you can.

I am struck that art can deliver such a profound portrayal of an illness that is all about forgetting and fraying memories, that a screenplay has sewn all of this so tightly together and has delivered to the cinematic a story I recognise so acutely that I do not cry. I do not cry because in watching Olivia Coleman as Hopkins’ daughter I see myself.  And there is something reassuring in her delivery: the unmooring of my mother is manifest in millions. And so too are my reactions to it: the humour, the frustration, the rage, the deep sadness. I feel less alone as I watch. And I feel vindicated in the messy emotions I try to manage.

I do not shed a single tear until the very end when Hopkins says, as he weeps, “I feel as if I am losing all my leaves.” 

For he has articulated what my mother cannot: that she is shedding parts of herself, all of her selves have come undone and disappeared until all that is left is some unrecognisable skeleton in this dark wintering of her life.

I cry then.

Mum and I, Kima, 1966

The Scent of Satiety

December 11, 2021

I wonder why this happens. This deep, sweet, settling peace that descends when my children begin to fill my home up. Two are here. The third arrives in a week and then we are full fat five for the first time in two years.  

It is a physical, visceral thing: I can feel the pace of my pulse begin to slow, am aware some invisible weight is beginning to shift from my chest. The anxiety that lurks when they are far away is dissipating. There is a quiet warmth blooming within me.  We take ages over breakfast at a table. Gone is the mug of muesli at my keyboard.  I feel as if I have been steeped in some syrupy elixir, a balm. I feel sated.

I was a very young mother to my first. Expectancy unexpected and I was unpicked by uncertainty and impatience and unknowingness. About how to do this job. About the new shape I was trying to fit.  I thought I must conform to routines and rules and I made myself unhappy in the process. And my small son too, I think; I could sense it in his fretful mewling and unsettledness, when he refused to sleep, to feed. 

My youngest is almost the age I was then. I am seasoned and lined now and all the sharp contours of my younger self have gone, softened with age or blunted by experience and something which could sometimes, just sometimes, be loosely tied up as wisdom. 

When I described myself back then, a new wife, a new mother, newly unemployed, I admitted my position like a confession, with something like shame, ‘justamum’, I mumbled. For where was my career? My job spec was defined by the man I lived with and the little boy I was trying, in vain, to settle to sleep. 

I wish I had known then what I know now: that I would ease into it, that it would simultaneously get easier. That there are no rules except your own. And that I would love it. Love being a mother to small people. And later, big people, these big people who are sweetly patient as I cluck and fuss. 

Who obediently bend to fold their mother, smaller than them, in a hug.

Is the intoxication I feel, the headiness, the satiety, is it because my children’s nearness – so near I can indulge in the luxury of an arm draped around a shoulder, a hand to tousle their hair, skin to skin not face to screen – is it because it  swamps my brain with a flood of hormones – oxytocin and dopamine? It is cerebral or primal or is it simply the satisfying fullness that comes with knowing when a gap is filled. A jigsaw done and reassuring in its completeness?  The full picture.

I don’t know. I don’t know what prompts this sensation. But I know I want to bottle it, distil it, keep it carefully stoppered in a glass bottle by my bed so that when they are gone again, my children, and far away, I can steal back this calm in careful drops upon my wrist.

Hobson’s Choice

December 6, 2021

Hat says to me on a walk, a late evening walk, so late I must push my sunglasses to the top of my head for the last of the afternoon is tipping over my western horizon and the sharp edges of daylight are smudged by a buttery gloaming, ‘I hope you don’t get what Gran has’.

And then she asks, ‘What do you do, mum, to make sure you don’t get it?’

(She means Dementia. Not Depression).

What do I do? 

What can I do? 

I notice every article about dementia.  That’s what I do. They leap from the page, or from a screen, like wagging fingers.

5 Ways to Prevent Alzheimer’s, Says Dr. Sanjay Gupta:

Keep moving, eat a healthy diet, avoid sugar, get enough sleep, be social.

I, who sits at my desk for long hours (so long that my Fitbit buzzes and the green man dances an irritating jig). I who sits too long, too often a mug of sweet tea at my side, to give me a boost after a bad night, to sustain me through an afternoon when I’d like to nap but need to write. 

I, the introvert.

Can I strike these habits out with others? Create a mitigating balance? If I walk enough – five miles a day, fast and hard so that my heart pumps and my breath comes short and sharp, so that I can still talk but cannot sing (is that not the mantra – walk fast enough to hold a conversation but too fast to hold a tune) will that temper the dangers of the writer’s necessarily sedentary life? If I rarely eat meat, pile my plate high with organic veg, will that make up for sugar in my tea, frequent squares of chocolate? If I hold conversations in the ether from the position of the magic carpet I balance upon as I interview doctors and scientists all over the world in my job as a journalist will that counteract the lack of face to face exchanges?  Can I make extenuating trades?

Are those plaques and tangles spiderwebbing my grey matter as I sit and write and sip my sugared tea? Are they parasitically tightening a grip, squeezing the life out of healthy cognition?

5 personality traits that may be linked to your risk of dementia

The Times of India, 6 December 2021

Conscientiousness – Agreeableness – Neuroticism – Openness – Extroversion 

People who have a higher degree of neuroticism and lower conscientiousness tend to develop amyloid plaques and insoluble tangles of tau proteins in the brain (both linked to dementia and other disorders).

I meet four out of five.

So does – so did – Mum.

Sometimes, when they were younger, my children used to play a game ‘Would you Rather?’ It involved posing the most appalling choices: Hobson’s. Where there were no easy or right or palatable answers.

Would you rather have Depression or Dementia? If you had to choose one,  just one, as your fate, what would you choose?

My response would come fast and certain. There would be no hesitation, not a moment of doubt:

Depression.

I never thought I’d say that.

But in Depression mum came back to us.

In Dementia, I will never come back to my children.

I think I could not bear that.  I think that now. But in reality, in the descent into dementia, that sense of loss would be transient. For a while – a brief while – I would perceive the very great pain of being lost and disconnected and distrusting and I would rail and cry and slip between confused and lucid. But I would soon pass through the shadowy space between knowing and not knowing and  in its stead would be some sort of muddled oblivion where I would not know. Would not know anything or anybody. Would not know who I had lost or loved or birthed. Would not even know if I had ever eaten – and enjoyed – pizza or yogurt or cashew nuts.

Sometimes I would not know my name.

I would forget.  And in my forgetting I would not care who was there to bathe or feed or dress me.

But they will not: forget; my children will not forget that I have forgotten them. 

And that haunts me. That they might know the pain of all this. You want to protect your children from all the hurt in the world. 

And in the end it is your undoing that is the most hurtful. 

Losing the Faith

November 22, 2021

I have tried to call my mother every day for the last five.

She does not pick me up.

She is languishing in bed and melancholic.

Though she does not call it this: melancholy. 

She no longer has the words or the imagination or even perhaps the ability to consider herself with such introspection. 

She just says, ‘I’m not feeling very well today’.

She picks up my sister’s calls. Her sister’s.

But not mine.

Sorry, I couldn’t think who Anthea was.

My father’s memory disappeared long ago. Then mine. My brother’s will be next I think as she is sometimes uncertain as to who he is to her, who he is to us. Then my sister, then hers and last of all, her dead parents. For there is still the memory of her mother. And India.

Dementia is a hand on a blackboard eraser, it sweeps back over time so that memories disintegrate and fall, chalky as dust, to the floor where they are swept away to nothingness.

My morning was ridiculously, brutally, beautifully blue.

So that as I stood on the top of the farm and looked west towards Meru the sky was swept entirely clean. Not a cloud. Only the moon, like a disc of communion bread. Papery-white. I remember the sensation of the sacrament dissolving on my tongue until there was nothing left.

My religion has abandoned me.

My mother’s memory has abandoned her.

Once upon a time she’d have urged me to mass. And I’d have gone, out of a sense of duty. More to her than any god. 

Sometimes I stood beside her in quiet churches with vaulted ceilings so that the sounds of a congregation settling or their soaring voices collecting were amplified, drifted outside to wintery streets.

And sometimes I was seized by such a sense of peace. 

Perhaps I should have kept the faith?

Dementia Defined

November 16, 2021


(as observed in a single Skype conversation):


“Where are you these days anyway?”


“I don’t think I have ever visited you there, in Tanzania … have I?”


“Sorry I didn’t answer earlier; I couldn’t think who ‘Anthea’ was.”

*********************************

She asks, ‘Where are you, anyway’ as you might somebody you’d lost touch with. Or somebody you hadn’t seen in ages. She saw me in August. She spoke to me a couple of days ago.  Geography underpins a lot of our conversations now. As if in locating me, us, she might find her lost self. 

I suggest a change of scene. 

How about you come and spend the winter here, Ma.

Yes, I should like that very much she says.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever been to yours before? Have I?’

I say, ‘you have Ma, a couple of times’.

I don’t say, ‘more times than I can count’.

I am learning: Do not argue unless it really matters. 

Be vague if it’s kinder. 

Never take it personally when they forget who you are.

I consider my experience forewarning. And forewarned is forearmed; everybody knows that.

I say to my children, ‘I will never, ever forget you’.

But I cannot know that. I cannot promise them that. I know better now.

So I add, ‘If I do, know that I love you, have loved you, more than anything in the world’.

Why do I write this down?  Why do I pin such private thoughts so publicly?

Because the private thoughts of others, others who have trodden this path before me, their thoughts have guided me as I shamble through this mess clumsily groping my way.

And because there may be others, others out there in the wilderness that is dementia, who are also feeling their way, who are sad and angry and hurt, who need to know what I have learned: for an illness that affects another so personally in its cruel forgetting, in its mean jabs, (I couldn’t think who Anthea was), it is not personal.

As personal as it might feel.

Dots on Horizons that Disappear

November 4, 2021

Mum asks me what the weather is like, ‘where you are?’

She does not remember where I am.  I could be in the next door county. Or country. Or continent.

I tell her it is very dry.

It is: so dry that the lawn is needle sharp beneath bare soles. When I walk across it I can feel the collapsing crunch of termite tunnels; it’s like walking across meringue. 

‘I think we’re getting all your rain’, she says. 

All my African rain in Ireland.

I tell her the rain is close. I can almost smell it: it is that tantalisingly near: my rain.

I tell her we call this time of year The Short Rains.

I hope this might prompt a memory: of Long Rains and rivers that burst muddy banks and soaked roads so that they were Farm 4WD impassable, of those termites taking to the air, gossamer winged and impatient and blinded by the light so that often they burn to nothing on bulbs.

But no. My nudge does nothing.

I tell her that a storm is circling my mountain, that I can hear it grumbling, can see it black as soot against the foothills.

Do you live on Kilimanjaro, she asks suddenly.

Hooray. 

“I do”, I tell her, “I live on it’s lower slopes, it’s very beautiful”

“I used to live in Tanzania, I think,” she says.

So that there is a second reason for small applause: she has remembered where my mountain is.

“You did, Mum”.

She came here at just 9. It was Tanganyika then.   Later, much later, in her story-telling, my grandmother would roll the names of  all the places they lived off her tongue and they sounded hot and exotic:

Kongwa, Natchingwea. Urambo. 

“You’ve been back since” I say, and I know as I say it that I am edging into dangerous territory, “to visit me”.

No, she says, I have never been back again.

And of this she is certain. 

I cannot count the number of times my mum has visited me here. 10? 15? 20? More like twenty.

This is what dementia does: it pushes memories further and further away so that they grow smaller and smaller, they recede to dots on horizons and then they drop clean off the edge of it. Beginning with the most recent. So my mother cannot recall returning to Tanzania with me when my children were babies, she cannot remember the months she spent here supporting me as I recovered from a long, horrible illness, she has no memory of arriving here sick with depression and leaving well. (No memory of depression even, which confirms not all memories are worth it).

I want her to remember, though.

But she is insistent, ‘No, I have never, ever been back’.

And so I leave it. 

We must be happy with small wins with this shitty illness: she remembered she lived here as a child. That has to be enough. 

That she visited my children is too much of a stretch.

How Long is the Short-term? How Short the Long?

October 1, 2021

I call Mum.

This time last year I’d have kept my camera turned firmly off – afraid she would not recognise me, afraid she’d muddle up the Abstract Daughter with the One in Real Life. She was always confident she had a daughter by my name. She just didn’t always equate my face with that name.

Not now, not anymore; now I keep it on. So that she laughs at the dog that’s climbed onto my lap mid conversation.

I don’t do it – keep my camera on – because I think she’ll remember me – this face – simply because we spent a month together a month ago. But because I have reconciled myself to her forgetting who I am. I am no longer offended when she regards me quizzically and says, ‘are you sure you’re my daughter?’ It’s not personal – which is a bit of a paradox, an anomaly when i consider the word – person – but it’s really not. It’s just what happens. So I say variously, ‘Yes, worst luck: I am sure, definitely your daughter ma!’ or I say, ‘Oh certainly – what’s more I’m your favourite daughter!’ She smiles then, a little doubtfully, but a smile all the same.

How are you Ma?

Oh, I’m very well?

How was your trip yesterday?

(Yesterday my brother picked her up from where she’d spent a brief holiday – respite for him, a change of scene for her).

Oh, it was very easy, much quicker than I thought.

And then she says, ‘I think this new home will be ok. I think I shall quite like it here. There are a few other occupants. I am just unpacking all my things and putting them away. It’s very different to where I was before – this house is in the middle of a town. I think that will make it more interesting’.

This is where I come unstuck. I try so hard to navigate my mother’s ever changing map without tripping up, without falling into traps that will unleash distress or fury. Do I challenge this? Do I set her straight? As if realigning a compass so that she may be briefly anchored, might see, recognise, the shore? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I say, ‘No mum, it wasn’t like that’ or ‘I’m your DAUGHTER, ma!’ But it’s easier to do those things, to correct her, to redirect her, when I can put a steadying, reassuring hand on her shoulder or touch her arm. Or hug her even. To coldly point out she’s gone wrong through glass from the other side of the world, where I cannot steady her when she reels, as she always does, even imperceptibly, from the shock she’s so lost? That seems too cruel.

Sometimes I do it just because it’s easier and I don’t have the energy to try to untangle this mess.

And so, instead, I ask: where were you before?

Oh – in the countryside, middle of nowhere really. And there were far fewer of us.

‘Nicer to be closer to shops!’ I say and I laugh. (Humour, I find is the Elastoplast we apply for much of this; a bandaid. Utterly inadequate, of course, to do anything for a big seeping sore other than stem a bleed briefly).

Yesterday my brother picked mum up from my uncle’s beautiful Wexford home. She’d spent a fortnight there with him and her sister.

And then my brother brought her back to the his, the house that has been her home – his family’s home – for most of the past ten years.

So now I know: her memories last for less than two weeks. 

Even the ones that are a decade old.

Last of the Light

September 24, 2021

Mum keeps asking, during our conversation, ‘Where’s my soup?’

I have timed this call badly – in the middle of her lunch.

She is staying with her brother and sister.

She keeps calling my uncle by my brother’s name. She is astounded they share a mother. 

‘Horrified’, says my uncle, ‘horrified we share a mother’, and he laughs. So that mum does too – uncertainly, but a laugh, nonetheless.

‘Where’s my soup?’ She asks again, and then, for about the 3rd time during this brief and fractured conversation, ‘How are you, love?’

I tell her: ‘I am fine. Busy. It is dry’.

The rains are a long way off and as I talk I look out on a lawn which is torched yellow by wind and sun; when I walk across it, with bare feet, I curl my soles upwards to avoid the sharpness of desiccated grass: a bed of nails.

But she’s not interested. She’s not listening. She is buttering bread. She keeps stretching across the screen to reach for things. She knocks the device sideways so I end up staring at the ceiling.

My aunt helpfully sets me upright.

‘Anyway’, says mum finally, ‘I think you sound very busy, I think I better leave you to it’.

I smile, ‘Sure ma, chat in a day or so’.

And as I hang up I hear her again, ‘where’s my soup?’

I tell my sister later – I say, in a text, ‘very dissatisfactory conversation with mum, she was more interested in her food than me!’

My sister sends me a chuckling emoji: ‘me too, yesterday she kept asking when supper was, she wouldn’t shut up even when she was reminded that she’d just had two enormous bits of cake.  At least she’s enjoying her food’.

At least she’s enjoying her food. 

Her view on the world is getting narrower and narrower, there’s just a little chink of light now: as if a door has been left ajar and a shaft of brightness splinters a dark room hopefully and illuminates a slender slice of it. 

What when a gust of wind blows and slams that door shut, what then?

The Story of a House

September 19, 2021

I have done this untold times.

And here I need to stop and count how many, on my fingers: twice before the Outpost, twice there, once then, and again then, oh, and then, and up here, now. Ten times. Could I really have done this ten times: taken an old home and made it new.  Pulled down walls, put up new ones, ripped out plumbing, installed electrics (for none of the original inhabitants of these houses could ever have imagined the need for so many sockets – to charge all the devices that keep us tethered to our worlds, even as we float about them in the ether). 

There is a sort of reverence every time I consider a new-old place where somebody once lived. Once loved. Lived in. Loved in.  Did they decorate a Christmas tree in this room, I think, as I consider a wide, light sitting room, bowed windows so that the day streams in? Were there children? Did they hang stockings above that mantelpiece. Was this wooden floor, unpolished and scuffed now, like a mirror then, was is strewn with warm rugs? Did the wind whistle through its roof as insistently as it does now?

I always consider the people that came before. Why were they here? What did they do? How long was this their home? Did they love it? Where are they now? I know that sometimes I step from one room to another in the company of ghosts. I feel a chill, and I smell bats. Always bats.

When I polish this floor, for I will, will it gleam, admire its reflection in newly washed windows?  Will it?  Can I feel its soul now, this house, which has stood abandoned, often for years, if I stand still and silent and listen, will I respond with heart. Will I blow the life back into it?

And then I laugh, ‘a single bathroom in a three bedroom house!’ Ant laughs too – was ‘en suite’ even a thing back then, back whenever it was that somebody with hope and vision and exactly the right feel for a place so that they built this house perched where its occupants might drink in the view with sundowners, whiskey light with whiskey and soda. Did that happen here? Was there laughter? Or were there tears?

It feels like a gift, this being granted the time and space to step back into a dusty old life, look at some other family’s yesterdays through the prism of old-fashioned taps (glorious) and window winders which I want to steal and secret away like talismans. 

When I walk through the garden I will find there testament to every gardener that has ever dug green fingers into bloodred soil. So that their nails will be blackened with the cleanest dirt. I find bounganvilleas with trunks as thick as a man’s thigh, knotted, gnarled, aged, but whose blossom is still vibrant and hot so that it litters a desiccated lawn like confetti. I find lavender strung with blueness and bees. And a hidden orchard where a crop of loquats are fattening and tiny peaches hard as stones.  And pepper trees, always pepper trees under whose puddled shade a baby might have slept in a pram, or lain and watched the sky through a latticework of leaves.

When I leave, lock the door, will the house resume its voice – for all houses have one I have found, in the window rattles and sticky door clicks, in faucets that squeak and floorboards that creak. And every person whose ever lived in them has grown to be comforted by the familiarity of a home’s language.  

Once they understand it, can interpret it.

I always try to listen carefully.

Mountains. A Metaphor for the Invisible Woman

September 18, 2021

Sometimes my mountains retreat. Like ghosts. They melt to nothingness on hot horizons. Are burned clean away by the glare of sun. Or shrouded in mist or haze or dust so dense they blur as invisible. 

I put my flattened palm to my brow then and scan the line where heaven and earth meet, where I know my mountains stand, where, if I squint, I tell myself I must be able to see them. I must.

But they are gone. Bashful as brides, they have retreated behind some obscuring veil.  

I feel untethered then, without them, my north and south, those necessary guiding points of a compass. As if some anchor has come loose and drifted off.  Sometimes you know where you are. And sometimes you do not.

But some days when I walk, in the soft pearl of dawn when the world is cupped neat and ordered and sharpened with a chill, my mountains are razor cut against the ceiling of sky that the sun is just peeling back. As it slides in on the east and long fingers of light grope and feel their way towards the dark western edge, the top of Meru is pinked, a blush against the palest, palest blue. A kiss, I think.

Or in the evening, when the day has settled into itself and leans long and languorous as shadows are stretched thin and taller, no longer that shuffling squat of noon, I see them then, standing tall, heads thrown back, their profiles pencilled dramatically and black and bold. 

They are beautiful.

Sometimes I see my mountains and sometimes I do not.   But I need to remember, they are always there. Tall and strong and solid and sure. 

Even when they are not.