A Face to a Name

July 1, 2021

I am in the hiatus between Africa and Ireland – in Eastern Europe, where time seems oddly stilled, ducking mandatory hotel imposed quarantines and keeping clean as I go with masks and PCR tests. 

I tell mum I am on my way. She does not know from where to where or which country I am presently in. She asks every time we speak, ‘are you still stuck in that country’.

It’s easier to just say yes. 

I speak to her of visits to mountains and walks around glassy lakes and swims in seas so silky I can barely feel the water against my skin. I tell her about roads that twist tortuous up and down mountains so that my heart is in my mouth and I can’t look down and she will not remember that I share my dead father’s fear of heights, one that made his feet tingle, a burn I can feel in my own soles. 

I tell her about a monastery we visit, built into the sheerest rock face so that it seemed to stand with its back pressed against the mountain too, as if braced for a fall, like me, afraid to cast my eyes downwards. The monastery was bathed in sunshine and peace and the silence so surround-sound I could feel it. The pilgrims that come here are fewer in number now, with our pandemic of biblical proportions still plague-raging, but I watch those that do cross themselves and touch the stone walls with lips as they stand close to it for several minutes collecting their thoughts and saying silent prayers, and I feel deeply moved by their reverence. 

Mum is not happy. There is confusion or boredom or I don’t know what. I can see her casting about the screen, for me, for something to say and my heart always breaks a bit but I don’t let that show, I keep that hidden along with my face, I crack on with, ‘did you walk?’ No, not today. She does not feel like it today.

I ask ‘what are you reading?’ Nothing apparently – nothing appeals. 

We will find you something when I am there, I say.

She tells me my stories will be enough when I am there and I know that I must gather them to me then, that I must make sure I have all the words to stop all the gaps that will present.

I know that I must know what to say when she says, ‘who are you? How do I know you?’

Will you remember me? I ask 

She promises me yes, ‘of course I will’, she laughs.

‘I look older’ I warn her.

I will still know you, she says.

She might not. 

She certainly won’t recall this particular conversation.

I don’t know which is harder: that she once forgot me out of the blue. Or that I must prepare myself for her not knowing me now.

I think out of the blue was worse, it felt like a slap.

My sister says, when she calls, ‘I spoke to mum. I asked her if she had spoken to Anthea. She said no. She told me she has spoken to somebody whose name begins with A though. I told her that was you.’

Thing is, will she believe that when she sees me. 

Will she put this face with that name?

When we left the monastery and swung back down the mountain with the valley spilling deep below us, I was astonished at how quickly its imposing dimensions receded to nearly nothing, a white smudge framed by a granite wall and blue skies.

As if it were disappearing.

Wild Swimming

June 25, 2021

The water was like silk.

And so cool. I thought it would be colder. Even at eight in the morning it was an easy blood-warm swim and by evening I had to dive deep to feel even the faintest chill.  I saw the anchor roots of lilies then, which bloomed as sunshine on the surface.

When I looked, at noon, across the lake, the white heat of the day had scorched my horizons clean away, so that it looked as if the edge of the world had melted, as if you might tip right over it if you kept going – is that why the early explorers thought the world was flat. 

I wondered if, during the winter,  when the world is cold and cut crystal and brittle, I might see the furthest shores – where the water ends and Albania begins; somewhere in the glassy depths, which were mirror smooth when we were there, not even the faintest breeze to ruffle their surface, lies the line that separates Montenegro from its neighbour.

The beach at Godinje, Lake Skadar

I remember learning to swim. Mum taught me. In a frosty, older lady’s pool. She didn’t swim often; I knew that by the green slime and the frogs which, at six, gave me the creeps.  Here, on the lake, the frogs were the loudest I’ve ever heard; they struck up an evening chorus and at first I wondered at what they were: ducks, I thought.

It’s odd that mum taught me – she hated swimming, was afraid of the water, never put her head beneath it. And yet I love to, in the sea I love to hear the clicking conversation of coral, in a pool, the sound of my breath, on this lake the intermittent quarrel of herons, the lazy drone of dragon flies. 

I taught my own children. Except for my middle one, who learned simply by observation: watching carefully as I instructed her older brother. At 3 she nagged, ‘watch me, mama, watch me’ and I did and I was astounded as this small person doggy paddled her way across a whole width, her armbands abandoned. 

When I’ve swum, when I’ve ploughed my way through water, I feel stronger. And I feel more at peace, it’s as if my swim has drowned the noise of clamouring thoughts out.

And the world, when I get out and rub a rough towel against goose flesh skin, feels stilled.

Father’s Day

June 20, 2021

I think I remember buying the card. It seems both so long ago and so recent that the past and present bump up against one another as strangers and acquaintances simultaneously: ‘Hey! Don’t I know you?’

It was long before phone calls were a thing of such nondescript ordinariness that it meant nothing to chat for hours to somebody whose daytime meant you were in the middle of your night. No, when I bought that card, a generation ago, phone calls meant – usually – terrible news, for it is true: it does always travel fast: Bad news.

My news came a week after Father’s Day. Which is why, when we got home afterwards, the card I’d bought lay there, on dad’s desk, the envelope slit open and weighted by the paper knife that had slit it, the card propped up against a jam jar of pens. 

And it came, that news, perhaps two weeks after I’d browsed the aisles at WH Smith and bought my card and inscribed it and licked the envelope and sealed it and purchased a stamp in the post office in Fenchurch Street and dropped it into the red lipped mouth of the post box. Hoping as I did so, that it’d arrive in time. It mattered so much, later, that it had.

Your dad’s had an accident, said the voice at the other end of the line when I picked up the call at work that day.

It never occurred to me it might be that sort of accident. Never. Not for a moment. I think now it would; I think that occasion, that single experience, is what prompted my habit now to catastrophize. Now I understand the possibility for tragedy is everywhere.

No, he is dead.

And then you know life will never be the same again. There will be gaps and holes and you will always know after that that life has the propensity to gouge new ones. That plans will be tripped up. That you will never share your 21st birthday with your father’s 50th because he never made it that far: he was 47.

I remember saying to somebody at the time, I will never survive losing my mother. There will never be a father like mine.

But I am losing my mother. By painful degree.  And I am surviving it.

And there is another father both like mine and unlike him. I love him just as hard. He is just as important presence in my children’s lives as dad was in mine. The only difference, thankfully, oh so thankfully, is that he has stuck around for longer.  He is almost 62.

So sometimes, even when you think you’re unlucky, you’re also lucky.  

Very.

The Long Way Round

June 13, 2021

I’m in Eastern Europe.

This is what Lord Byron said about where I am, ‘At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea must have happened at the coast of Montenegro. When the pearls of nature were sown, handfuls of them were cast on this soil.’

This is where mountains soar and then dive into icy waters that are inky for their depth.

When I swim, now, here, mid June, before the summer has begun to take winter’s brittle edge off, I must swim fast, grazing the surface as lightly as I can. I picture a lily trotter and laugh. If my limbs dip too low, they are pinched by cold. But the glow that warms my body when I step to the shore to wrap myself in a sun-warmed towel is addictive; I go back for more.

I’m on my way to spend time with mum. But I must dance through Covid hoops, skirting hotel imposed quarantine, wearing my mask and brandishing my Negative-for-Corona certificate as I go: Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, Istanbul, Podgorica … some airports are eerily empty and planes full of space.

I feel a long way from my own mountains, here. And so close to these. I watch an evening stripe of sun slide up sheer sides even as it sinks low over some unseen western horizons. And then I watch city lights sputter to life and gleam across black waters towards me.

I catch my breath and collect my thoughts. If I line them up, neatly, rank and file, will it make the future seem less uncertain, will it tidy my head in readiness for the making of decisions. About mum. Will it?

Hooray for Siblings

June 3, 2021

Mum has been low these last few days.

An awareness I think of both her body and her brain letting her down. 

She proclaims with such indignation, ‘well I wish somebody had bothered to tell me’ that you briefly question whether you ever actually did: tell her whatever it was she has apparently never been told. 

The slow slide of dementia’s distrustful hand is in evidence everywhere: ‘I think you are lying/I think he is cross with me/nobody bothered to tell me.’

But the paranoia that is attendant to forgetting is forgivable isn’t it: when your mind is a quagmire and all the facts are bogged down and stuck.  Muddied by a mind scribbled all over by plaques and tangles and proteins gone awry.

My siblings and I are a tight and united little force and I give thanks for that always. For their patience with my flapping and bossing and distress. For my brother’s astonishing and unstinting stamina and kindness even when Mum’s messy mind has him and his good intentions all wrong.   Because they both make me laugh – that dark humour that can only be shared by those in similarly tragicomic circumstances. 

Woe betide my husband if he makes light of my mum’s illness.

But when my brother says mum is tired after doing the ‘filing’ that morning (and she means the loading of  the dishwasher), we share a quiet smile.

And my sister and I laugh out loud when we compare the reasons mum did not get out of bed that day.

To me she says, ‘I am perfectly well. I am just very tired. I am having a day off. I think I have been working (filing?) too hard’.

To my sister she says, ‘Rob told me I had to stay in bed all day!’

As mum’s communication with us becomes ever more frayed, so mine and my siblings seems tighter and neater as we pick up the threads of one another’s thoughts.

And that’s lucky.

Know my Name

May 25, 2021

The first thing mum says to me when she picks up my call today is, ‘I have been having an argument with Sam, I hope you will be able to clear things up for me’.

Sam is my twenty something nephew. He lives with my brother – and so, by extension, with mum, his grandmother.   The argument erupted over lunch which mum has just had.  I can hear residual kitchen conversation in the background.

Sure mum, I say. I imagine the disagreement will have been about coronavirus or perhaps something topical, something about geography or religion or even politics.  All things mum once took an energetic interest in. The things she’d still like to take an interest in if only she could remember the names of all the players, of all the places.

‘Sam says I have a daughter called Anthea. I don’t.’

For a second, a single second, I think my heart stops, and then I say, ‘You do, mum: that’s me; I’m Anthea’ and then, ‘to make myself feel better, to take the sting out of all this, to make Mum laugh, I say, ‘I’m your favourite child, remember.’

Mum would have laughed once.  Not that long ago she laughed loud at exactly those words:

‘I’m your favourite child!’

I dont have favourites, she said that day, ‘I love you all the same’.

Now she just says, ‘oh’ in a very small voice. And I dont know if the ‘oh’ is because Sam was right. 

Or because she has a daughter called Anthea.

I dont feel the sadness until later. Somehow the shock dulls the soreness; like a slap on the cheek, you don’t feel the burn for a bit. There is a brief spell of nothing. You are numb.  I dont’ feel it until I confess the incident to my sister. I tell her in a voice note. In a tone of humour and levity. She is not fooled, ‘my heart breaks for you’, she says and I can hear tears on her words.   

Why does it feel like a confession – this owning up to mum not remembering me?  Like something I am ashamed of. That my mother has forgotten she has a daughter by my name. This is not personal. I know this. I tell myself this often. But have I failed her in some way that she is erasing me first?

I do what I have done before. I tell my children:  Remember this. If I ever ever, ever forget you, know I have loved my children more than anything in the world. I do it via the internet; if I tack those words safely to the ether, I reason, they will always be able to find them, even if I cannot find myself.

My youngest messages back: And so has Gran.

And it is only then that I cry.

How to Make Soup

May 22, 2021

My sister says, on the phone, ‘sometimes when I talk to mum, it’s hard – you know – to keep the conversation moving forward’.

I know what she means. And I’m relieved it’s not just me who feels this.  I am especially relieved because it is me who mum forgot, not my sister.  

When I talk to mum, blindly, on Skype, our conversations don’t just feel disconnected because of distance and the disconcerting fracture that comes as the internet swoops in and out. Our conversations feel disconnected because mum is.

‘Do you think she could pick us out of a lineup?’ I ask my sister.  My sister isn’t sure. But she reveals a clever trick she employed during a recent call.

‘I propped my phone up on my kitchen counter and made soup as I talked to mum last night, that way I could talk her through the recipe and hold ingredients up to the lens for her to see’.

Sweet potato, butternut and turmeric, she tells me.

‘And then I held the camera to the pan so mum could see it all bubbling.’

I imagine mum’s face as she watched my little sister’s soup, breathy and hot in the pot. I imagine her smiling.  I imagine she might have said she has never eaten a sweet potato before. Like she has said of other very ordinary foods. 

‘Gosh, this is delicious! What is it?’

‘Yogurt, ma.’

‘Well, it’s lovely; I don’t think I’ve ever had it before … have I?’

‘Possibly, mum’.

Mum’s memory is shot, but her interest remains intact. She is always a delighted and engaged listener, even if the stories we tell her slip through almost as soon as we’ve related them, like fine grained rice through the too big holes of a colander.

My sister’s soup-making-on-the-screen wouldn’t work for me though.

I don’t turn my camera on, remember.

Because I am certain my mum couldn’t pick me out of a line up.

Kind Light

May 20, 2021

The last leg of my walk yesterday and suddenly the sun, caught in the crack afforded by a break in a blanket of cloud and my western horizons, flooded my world.

As if whiskey light were being poured over me; the earth was tiger striped orange and black, and I imagined the sun hanging onto the last of the daylight for dear life: these last long fingers of brightness. I stopped still and drank in that golden hour. It was brief and beautiful.

It made me think of mum. She used to call this the Kind End of the Day. I was never sure if that was because of the light, or the sudden cool that descends on Africa, in that short hiatus between too hot, too bright afternoon and the cool gloom of dusk. I think perhaps both.  All of Africa’s sharp edges are knocked off then: it’s still just bright enough to notice her beautiful bits, but dwindling light has softened corners. We are all prettier in the absence of harsh light; younger and less tired. 

We would often sit on a verandah together then, share a beer and watch the light go, quietly, elegantly, aflame. Until suddenly it was gone and the bats and frogs and bushbabies had begun to sing and chirp and argue and shout.

‘Fancy another?’ I’d say lifting the empty bottle and Mum would smile, ‘Oh yes.’

Mum talks about the weather often when I call. But the conversations are muddled. My seasons are opposite to hers but she cannot grasp this fact: ‘Where are you again?’

She tells me about the weather forecast as if we share one, as if her rain will be mine, my sunshine brighten her day. As if I might even have had snow. Sometimes as she speaks she gazes quizzically out of a window. I watch her on my screen. Her head is tilted. I see the soft underneath of her chin, notice her hair is ever longer, even whiter.

‘It’s a funny old day today’, she says, ‘the sky is covered in cloud. And yet I can still see the sun. I wonder where it’s coming from’, and she laughs. 

It’s called optimism. That sunshine she sees. The same sunshine that rolled behind rocks, went underground, when she was sick with Depression.

I am astonished – grateful – it’s rolled back out again, that I can see this crack of it now before it vanishes behind scudding clouds that I know gather and bank.

I can see their blackness out of the corner of my eye.

The Shapeless Unease

May 19, 2021

I hate the plodding of time when I can’t sleep.

Like now.

Weeks of it. Of insomnia. Plucking at me. Pinching.

Just as I slide towards sweet oblivion, there it is. And I am tugged wide awake again and fretful and furious.

I lie into the small hours and read Samantha Harvey’s Shapeless Unease and I think hers is a perfect descriptor of this malady: Shapeless Unease: this unmoulding of me, in the dark. Where no form is distinct and where I feel, at my worst, as if I’m coming undone.

Sleeplessness is unravelling my sleave of care.

It makes for rows. My husband cannot understand that I do not sleep. Cannot empathise with my midnight wandering, the musical beds I play, dragging pillow, water, phone (for the sound not the screen: NO BLUE LIGHT!) as I trail miserably about the house hearing only the soft, enviable snores of others – him, the dog. I want to be able to sleep like the cat: anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The Martini ads of champion nappers; I feel his hot heft upon me. I listen to the rumble of his purr. It does not help.

I have done what the doctor said. No coffee. A light supper. Exercise (5 hard miles a day, up and down hills).  And no, definitely no screens. 

I push my earphones  deep into my ear and try to blindly scroll for a podcast to help me drop off. But my needing-to-sleep-self is fussy about its listening: no music, no high voices, no commercials. I need a low monotone. A lecture on physics would be good. One that runs for hours. 

Still nothing. 

I scroll some more, trying not to look at the screen, hunting the white noise app I downloaded. I listen to Rain on a Tent.

I give up. Reach for the light. Pick up Harvey, speed read as I flick through pages too fast. Looking for a solution. A cure. She has none. Time. 

In time this will burn out. 

If I don’t first.

I am trying to understand why. Why does sleep elude me.

Am I worried?

I am not sick. Or in pain.

Are there anxieties that broil below the surface of day that I can feel but not see, do I only feel their presence in the still silence of dark?

Is that the Shapeless Unease?

Blue for Devils

May 10, 2021

When I speak to mum today she is confused.  A medical complaint which has been addressed is causing her concern.  She does not remember the names of the relevant bits of her anatomy. She does not understand why the doctor has done what he has done, prescribed what he has prescribed. She does not remember there was ever a complaint. 

‘I had no problem until now.’

But she did. For months. 

I touch only lightly on that; nobody wants to be made to feel they are so forgetful they forgot why they went to the doctor.

Instead I labour next steps.

‘If this doesn’t help, mum, they’ll do that’, I try to reassure.

And, I continue, if that doesn’t work, there’s surgery, ‘but that’s a last resort, ma, nobody wants an operation if they can avoid it.’

No, she agrees, and then, indignantly, sounding hurt: ‘Thank you very much for explaining all that to me, that’s very helpful. Nobody has bothered to explain any of that before. Nobody is listening to me’.

Oh but we are, mum.

We have explained. And we are listening.

But you don’t hear. Because you can’t remember.

And all I can think today is that Dementia is a bitch.

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

Last night I watched What They Had on Netflix.

I sometimes think I can learn something from these sorts of things: book and films that depict other people’s experience of all this. 

Blythe Danner’s interpretation of a woman succumbing to what mum is succumbing to made me weep. The same sweetly, softly, fraying falling apart. 

So I learned Dementia is a bitch for everybody.

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

When I walk this evening the sky comes out in sympathy with my mood. Sinking and stormy.

And I wonder then: why is gloom called Blue. 

Because, I discover later, it is named for the 17th-century expression ‘blue devils’ after the hallucinations that come with severe alcohol withdrawal.  With time the reference was blurred, the devils disappeared and in their stead Blues morphed as depression.

Demens, for dementia, and devils for depression.

All I hear is demons.