Ever Decreasing Islands

June 24, 2022

Mum wakes in a foul mood. Drinks tea. Climbs back into bed so that she is a mound under blankets heaped over her. She looks like something in hibernation. She tells me she is too cold to get up. It isn’t cold.  This is either a marker of mood. Or a marker of a metabolism that is slowing to the point of stillness. When she walks now she is breathless.

I urge her up. Get up. Get dressed. Get something into you. Cereal. Toast.  More hot sweet (sometimes three heaped teaspoons) tea.

I have said these things to her many times, many years ago.

But it’s easier now, to coax her up. It’s not her worries and fathomless fears that stop her getting up. She doesn’t get up because she doesn’t know what to do once she has. 

The ill humour sustains over breakfast. Nobody has mastered the art of looking disgruntled the way my mother has. The milk in her cereal bowl threatens to curdle.

To her blind right side I furiously text my siblings for moral support. We share a WhatsApp chat and it is dominated by conversation about our mother.

She’s in a furious mood this morning.

My sister commiserates.

My brother sends me a video of his adorable five year old granddaughter singing a song.

The same little girl used to pile into mum’s bed when she lived with my brother during the pandemic, they’d hunker down and look at books. My mum would know when Roybn was on her way down to see her by the urgent patter of small feet along a corridor, sometimes tailed by a heavier tread: her mother, ‘leave Granny rest’.

She loved her.

Here Mum, I say, and stick my phone under her nose, ‘isn’t she sweet?’

Mum watches with something like boredom.  She is more interested in what to put on her toast.

‘Who is she?’

“That’s Robyn. That’s Rob’s Grand-daughter. Your great granddaughter”. 

And I deliver the punchline with emphasis: Fancy that: you’re a great grandmother.

Who is Rob?

Robert, I saw, “your son, Robert”.

She scowls: “oh right. Well he might have told me he had a family!”

Sometimes, often, I tell myself, I will not argue a point – the fact of a thing or the existence of a person – my mother’s great granddaughter, and that she spent most of her first five years with her. 

And today, I don’t. Today I opt for peace.

But every time I buy into the fiction of dementia, the denouncing of people and a past because of it, I slice off another chunk of my mother’s life and the thinner her memories and recollections grow, the less there is for us to hang onto. Like a lifeboat growing deflated on a huge, open sea where there isn’t a single hopeful islet of land to swim to.

We Made it Our Home

June 22, 2022

“I don’ know the answers”, says Mum. She looks crestfallen.

I tell her, ‘it’s not a test, ma, it was just in case you were interested’.

I have flagged the pages of a book with post-it notes and on each note I have scratched a comment, in an effort to guide her reading, lend context. Make it, I hoped, more interesting.

The book I’ve leafed with notes so that the pages are feathered yellow is an old blue hardback that has been in my library for years – and before that, hers. It’s called They Made it Their Home and it describes, in dated lexicon – it was, after all, published in 1962 – the homesteads settled by Kenya’s earliest pioneers. I am hit by the scent of aged paper when I flick it open: something musty and comforting. 

I have flagged the chapter Mombasa with the words: ‘You lived here as a child. Your dad was a doctor here’.   Mum does not remember Mombasa. She does not remember the enormous baobabs that lurched ancient and wide girthed from hot sandy soil, all gone now to make way for spilling urban sprawl. She does not remember a city that 70 years ago was so gentle she and her little sister cycled between home and my grandfather’s hospital. Now it squeals in the heat and bleats with the complaining horns of strangled traffic.

She has no recollection of Machakos and Ulu which share a page because their geography is in proximity. ‘You lived here too’ I write and then boldly elaborate, ‘My dad farmed here’.  The ranch I grew up on was hugged between Ulu’s hills which rolled fat and green in the rains and grew skinny ribbed as the vegetation desiccated in times of drought. My uncle fell into a cess pit as a child in Machakos and my grandparents tended him urgently all night; my mother almost didn’t have a little brother.  The same little brother whom she doted on and of whom last week she said indignantly, ‘Brother? I don’t have a brother!”

Of Nairobi I wrote, ‘You worked here for East African Airways’. Later we shopped there, visited our grandparents in a small suburban house with a garden that smelled of damp earth and woodsmoke which ours on the ranch never did. Mum dragged us to a Nairobi dentist, shopped for fabric in its Bazaar Street and bought us potato crisps with a twist of salt to eat on the way home in the car.   My mother does not remember I am her daughter, why should she have borne any responsibility to my oral hygiene. I will not mention it.

Of Londiani I scribble, ‘My dad’s parents settled here 100 years ago’. My grandmother arrived on the back of a donkey apparently, with her trousseau and minus the barrels of fish she had brined in the eastern highlands of Scotland. Those had been dropped quay side in Mombasa (see above) as they were unloaded and split and the catch slithered saltily back into the ocean. Her first home had an earthen floor and a charcoal and chickenwire refrigerator.

Of Gilgil I write three words, ‘We lived here’. I do not tell her that this is where she first succumbed to Depression, where it stuck out a leg meanly and tripped her up and she fell headfirst into an abyss where it was hard to reach her and harder to understand her. We lived there for six years. She was sick for most of those. I do not remind her, ‘This is where dad went the weekend he died’: driving home he had a car crash. He wouldn’t have felt a thing people told us afterward, as if that were supposed to help. I do not remind her because she does not remember my father or where he is or when he died. ‘He left me, you know,’ she has confided, ‘my husband just upped and left’.

Sotik: we lived her too. Dad was returning there when he died. Mum wasn’t there because she was in Ireland being treated for the Depression which was never treated and which had moved home with us – Gilgil to Sotik. It followed us to England after that. I hoped we had managed to leave it behind with dog eared furniture. We should have locked it firmly into a cupboard – perhaps the one where mum locked all the booze. We only discovered it on loading it into a truck when the tip and rattle of bottles alerted us.

Naivasha was happier for mum. On a farm overlooking a lake. ‘Dad worked for Lady Delamere’ I print on my post-it. My maternal grandmother had a lot to say about that. But I could never tell if the glint in her eye was on account of the delicious recounting of Happy Valley gossip or because she disapproved of the lot of them. Which my paternal grandmother, who shared our home briefly here, certainly did.  My opinion of Lady D was informed by the fact she let me ride her wild polo ponies across the farm and because each Christmas she dispatched a gift for my siblings and I from Hamleys in London. Dad was insulted by this. He got 200 bob.

And finally I have stuck a resistant post-it note into the Kinangop, resistant because the glue is drying and post-its flutter like leaves to the floor unless I press with determination and weight, the tip of my thumb white with the effort of it. ‘MY dad grew up here’ for often Dad confuses her: mine? hers? Ours? Are we sisters?  My father learned to drive here when he was still so small he used to beg some amenable other to sit in the foot well of the truck and work the pedals for him. My uncle at 14 shot a lion to save an Italian prisoner of war from the jaws of fate; the lion had him up a tree and was pawing at his backside to try to retrieve his quarry from the branches. And here my grandfather died of oral cancer, nil by mouth at the end except for the nip of whiskey he sucked through a straw.

“I don’t know any of the answers”, mum says again, waving her hand at me in a gesture of despair.

It’s not a test, I repeat. And then I see, it probably was. Unwittingly, in trying to unearth her roots, I was challenging her memory.

And I am sorry. 

It’s There. And Then it’s Gone.

June 20, 2022

We drive around the mountain to the other farm. The sky is duck egg blue and smeared with a haze which knocks all the sharp corners off the mountains so our views are soft, profiles powder puffed. When it rains and the air is cut glass clear and clean, I can see every crevice of distant hills. Not today. Today, with mounting drought, the dust smudges everything. 

Mum watches the road unfurl, a ball of yarn coming undone. At the wheel I steal sidelong glances. She stares ahead intently. 

Have I ever come this way, she wants to know.

Not this way, I say. It must be a relief – when I tell her what she wants to hear: she has not forgotten this route. She will. It will go the lost way of every other trip we make.

The road whips round bends and rises and falls. It’s empty. A grey ribbon of asphalt sliced by a line of white. I drive fast and hope mum can feel this faint thrill of movement. Her life is so slow and sedentary now.

At the farm I point out new developments. Take her arm as I inspect a build. Guide her vision to the mountain which looks quite different from this position, a different cold shoulder turned to us. 

See it, I ask?

Yes she says. Her gaze is directed in entirely the wrong direction.

Does she say yes to please me? To hide her disabilities and failing vision and incomprehension.

Not that way Ma, I say and I gently tilt her head and raise my arm to guide it as I point a finger.

“Over there. See?”

And then she does and I can tell because her whole expression changes:

Oh yes!

And we turn around and we drive home. More slowly this time. We drive back down the road, elevation falling as the valley spills away below us: huge, sprawling Africa views, fields of stunted wheat like an oaten sea wave in the evening breeze, mountains that shimmy, herds of sticking rib skinny cattle that crowd the road on their way back to safety of nighttime ‘bomas’.

Mum’s face is full of curiosity and her questions come thick and fast.

Who lived here before

What are they growing

Which country are we in now?

And again as last time and the time before that, I am reminded: because she has no answers as to who she is and where she’s from and who I am, it does not mean she has no questions. She has lots; she still has lots.

And when we get home and I help her out of the car and she leans against it to get her balance, something which I notice she must do more often now as her gait is unsteady and tottering, she says, ‘that was lovely, that was so lovely, thank you’.

An hour out in the car. That’s all it was. That is all it took: A new view. A different speed. I must remember this, I think.

The next day I casually drop the herds of wasting cattle into a conversation, the ones whose boney rumps bumped up against the front of my car as I edged my way carefully though them.

‘What cattle? Was I with you?’

It’s there and then it’s gone. So fast. Stuff slips through so quickly now. Even the things that you think really counted. 

Even the things that really did.

Dementia as Metaphor

June 17, 2022

There is a pile of books in front of mum. At her side. Her feet. She’s forested by them. She picks up one and shortly afterwards abandons it for another.

I sense her frail grasp of reading is loosening. The words which we painstakingly rebuilt after her stroke are disintegrating as the alphabet comes undone in her head. 

“This book is a load of old rubbish”, she announces.

Load of Old Rubbish.

She says that a lot now.

About the book she has tried to read, the television show she has watched and not understood.

That was a Load of Old Rubbish.

I let the criticism slide. Even of the best movies. The Oscar winners. Mum cans them all.

Oh I’m sorry, Ma, I say, ‘let’s try something different’.

I am reading about dementia as metaphor. Dementia is a paper boat. Dementia is ships adrift. Lost anchors. Dementia, says the writer Suzanne Finnamore, is a place.  My own figurative descriptor? Dementia is the negative of a photograph, something reverting to a state of undevelopedness. I imagine a dark room and the cinematic rewinding of an image revealed in a basin of water. From technicolour back to black and white as it fades to barely discernible spectral shapes. Then there is nothing.

My mother’s Other Country Dementia is a jumble of all of the countries all over the world. A confusion further muddled by the library of books she has optimistically collected about her chair so that they teeter precariously. Books on Kenya-the-colony, books by writers she once loved – Anita Shreve, books by Roald Dahl because the print is helpfully large and clear.

Is there a Chocolate Factory in Kenya, she wants to know?

I feel the corners of my mouth twitch, the tug of a smile.

There probably is, I say, ‘but not this one – not Charlie’s; that’s a magical factory of imagination and storytelling. It’s not real’

Oh, says Mum.

And I’m sorry I laid bare the boring facts of life.

What if we could recast dementia as a place of make believe and make up? Would that be a happy place to escape to, to run way from confusion and incontinence and lost words and dropped ones? Couldn’t we conjure it as a golden hour in her twilight ones?

I wish I could do that. Whisk her off to make minute long memories that delivered a fizz of fun and joy, a match to a candle. A quickening strike to let in the light. I wish I could do that. But our pasts prop us up and define us and give shape to today and tomorrow and the day after that and after the next one and on and on. And when you cannot remember the happy family lunch you all shared yesterday, when there is no recall at all of anybody who sat at the table, of even the tiniest snatch of a corner of the conversation that was had, the candle is snuffed out as quickly as its lit, as if between spit-on-finger-tips. A deadening sizzle and it’s all gone. 

There is no magic here.

Tsavo

May 7, 2022

This is where Africa sprawls carelessly; as if there is still so much wild space, she can afford to throw herself with abandon from horizon to horizon. She fills my lens, the tip and spill of her, hills and valleys and a scrambling blur of sage bush threaded with the red ribbon of a road.

My home now is to the west, the other side of Kilimanjaro – it’s as if I am looking at the mountain the wrong way around. But the home where I grew up is just north of here, close enough for a day out when I was little. And sometimes we did just that. 

But more often we packed a coolbox and a bag and we came here, to where I am now, the same camp, almost unchanged except for big box mozzie nets – to replace the tight little tuck around your bed tent type I grew up with. And the kitchens – now I must suffice with a tiny galley and a two ring burner where once we had the use of the now locked outside kitchens complete with Dover stove.

Whenever I come here I feel nostalgia tug at my heart and memories overflow. The cottages bear a reassuring pared back austerity, just like when I was little (those nets aside) so that I can briefly imagine nothing has changed. I sit and look at a view dad would have watched, binoculars to hand, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth dropping ash. Mum fed us a supper of Rice Crispies as the western sky pinked and pencilled my mountain’s profile blacker. I open my beer now and raise a silent toast to dad. Is he here? Do I drink amongst ghosts? 

When I go home mum will not understand where I have been.

Tsavo, I will say.

Tsavo – whose name is synonymous with big tuskers and Finch Hatton’s affair with Karen Blixen. Tsavo where man-eating lions terrorised the labour building the railway line, the one that ran through the farm I grew up on just north of here. They were particularly ferocious, those lions, on exactly our bit of line, picking off the haughty Englishman who’d been dispatched to dispatch them. So that forever we could refer to our man-eating lions even if they came decades before we did. Once, game driving in this park, not far from where I sit now, we came upon a lioness on an anthill keening.

“Why is she making that noise, Dad?” I wanted to know.

Perhaps she has lost her cubs, said Dad.

The lioness fixed an amber stare upon my little brother sitting on mum’s knee, wearing a lion-cub coloured sweater.

“Perhaps she thinks Robert is her baby,” said Dad.

“Perhaps she might eat him,” I suggested gleefully. And mum spun round to give me a stern look.

Mum will say, when I relate my Tsavo stories, ‘The name sounds familiar’. 

But she will not remember dad here. Or the spare little cottages and the flocks of greedy, beady eyed superb starlings who hopped – still hop – about the verandah for crumbs, or the patient vigil I embarked on aged five to feed a squirrel with my hands and which I finally succeeded in doing, many patient, sitting-still hours later – an encounter dad caught on Cine so that forever afterwards I could watch myself, gappy toothed with pig tails, still as a statue, a smile splitting my face as finally that tiny animal took a corner of bread from my small fingers. I could watch it all the way to the end and then watch the blister and scorch of it as the film skittered in the reel and stained the white wall sepia and black.

I try it this time, a steady hand held out to a squirrel and she inches forward and rises to take the slice of banana I hold out to her. Either the squirrels are tamer or I have learnt to sit still (“See that, Dad?” I want to smile).

I want to take the picture home, show Mum, remind her of the last time. But she will look blankly at me and shake her head.

No. I do not remember.

And I think: that’s what has happened to this memory for mum. It’s scorched to white-nothingness. 

Like all her memories.

The Diary

April 21, 2022

When Alan Bennet wrote about his mother in his Untold Stories, he described her hanging onto her handbag – clutching it even as an inpatient in hospital, stuffing it under her pillow for safekeeping ‘as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel’.

Her bag is an anchor. It tethers her to her old self. Something pitiful and patent grounding her.

I think of this every morning when I see my mother, her diary firmly in hand.

Since the beginning of the year, when the diary was new, an optimistic gift from my brother, she has announced, ‘I must write in my diary today’. She says it every day. Sometimes she checks the date with me. Or the day of the week. Even the month.

“Gosh. Are you sure? April already?”

We identify the right date and mum smoothes the pages with a flattened palm so that a pale hopefulness looks up at us, ready to be filled with words.

“I’ll write in it today.”

There is a single entry in the diary. Scored through.

In it, beneath the lines, I read this: I am in Ireland, with Anthea.

We are in Africa.

Mum used to keep a diary. Long ago she shared entries with me, entries that described her collapse into melancholy, her soaring flights from the depths of depression. Her sickness. Her wellness. The advice of doctors, the encouragement of Catholic nuns. Lists of resolutions.

Get up early
Walk every day
Learn to say No

If only she had.

Her diary now, the one she never writes in despite telling me – and herself – every morning at breakfast time that she is going to do just that, is neither a place of wellness or sickness.

It is simply a marker of time.

A place to count off the days.

There are no memories; not even a religiously written diary would catch what is in free fall now.

All of the pages are virtually empty.

All I can see written in their blankness is my mother.

I write this in my own diary. And then I pin it here. As if to stuff all the space I can with my own memories. In case they desert me.

House? Home?

March 26, 2022

I have thought of the word a lot lately: Home.

I count the number of houses I’ve lived in. I start: two at Kima; two in Naivasha and then later, much later, a young girl in London … Elizabeth Close; Upper Brooke Street; Finlay Street (seven in the end, in 3 years). I partied too hard in some, spent too much in most and had my heart broken in one.

And since I’ve been married – how many since I’ve been married? I run out of fingers. Fifteen. Sixteen. Nineteen? And almost half of those in six years.

House.

Home.

Even onomatopoeically they are different. The words. House speaks to me of straight lines and sharp corners, of bricks and mortar. Of functionality. 

Home is entirely different; I can sink into it. Snug. It fits. Home speaks to me of belonging.

I lived in a House in Lusaka. Ant knew it was the wrong one when he saw my face. Newly arrived from the airport, I didn’t mean to look crestfallen. I certainly didn’t mean to cry. I knew how hard all of this had been for him: change and separation and new jobs and finding a home for us both in my necessary absence: he woking in one country, me in another.

‘I can’t live here, Ant’, I said.

All glass and chrome and drawers that slid shut silently, doors that closed with polite little clicks.  No draughty corridors that made every portal slam when the wind got up so I knew a storm was on its way. 

It was a beautifully built house. 

I tried to make it home for the briefest six weeks. 

Until I found something that fit our shape better: a little dog-eared, mostly badly planned, plenty of slamming doors and sticky drawers but a garden that spilled chaotically and a kitchen that looked out onto it so that sunshine poured in. 

I have an urgency to nest as soon as I arrive somewhere new. To put down little roots that might worm their way deeper and ground me even when everything else feels upended. As it often did in those six years.  I have arrived in new places long in advance of containers full of furniture with two dogs, a cat, (twenty quails once, cheeping and crapping anxiously in a box) and always, always dozens of framed photographs. So that I can populate my space with the people that make me feel anchored.

I have stood with Ant in derelict houses and said, ‘this will do’. And then we relish the resurrection of what was once somebody else’s home and I wonder about them then as I run my hand down aged wood or unearth a garden planted with such love so long ago which has been swallowed by a scramble of hungry weeds.  Did they love it here too, I wonder? Raise families here? Fight, love, laugh?   Did they sit in the garden – which spot in the garden? – and watch clouds bump up against Kilimanjaro’s crown as mum does now, remarking every few minutes on how fast they move or change shape?

There is something necessary, of course, in renovating a house as home. But some I have rebuilt have not lasted. I look miserably upon a tangle of bush where a beautiful home once stood, reduced now as rubble and dust and a stubborn foundation. I only know it was mine for the flare of a bougainvillea I planted.

Who planted the avenue of Bird of Paradise in the home I love now? Great clumps of them down the drive that have burgeoned over the decades so that I could greedily pull them up and transplant them. 

There is generosity in planting a garden and belief that something at least will last: no matter what happens to the house, those little bulbs, those determined, resistant roots, will spawn year after year after year; you will always leave something for the next person if you plant a garden I have found …

Dot to Dot

January 27, 2022

Mum is curled into a chair, legs up, a comma, an hiatus in her day. Her form is shaped around a huge red photograph album. It is hers. From another time. Another home.  She does not remember the album or the home. Nor many of the faces.

I recognise some of them, she says, but I can’t put names to them.

Here, I say, and I twist the album so that we can both see.

She is astonished at her young, beautiful self.

“But who is this beside me?” And she looks quizzically from a photo to me and back again.

“Guess”, I say, “have a go, Ma”

From the picture to me again.

“Is it you?”

It is – “and what am I to you?” I press.

My cousin, she says confidently.

Nooooo, I laugh. “Try again”

“My sister?”

Mum, I admonish. (How does she not know it’s her daughter – not because we have had this conversation a dozen times already today but because I am calling her ‘Ma, Mum’)

Are you my daughter? (uncertainly)

Yes, I laugh.

Oh ok, she says, she does not sound convinced, she sounds as if she’s acquiescing for the sake of peace.

She will check our relationship before we have finished flicking through the album. She will check again this evening. And again tomorrow. Like she did yesterday.

“How could I forget such a thing?” She asks me.

“I’m sorry” I say, like I always do when she reflects on lost memories.  And then I say, “I never know, ma, is it better to live in oblivion of lost memories, or better that I remind you and remind you and remind you”.

I want, I tell her, to make her feel safe, even amongst those of us she perceives as strangers or – at best – recent acquaintances.

I don’t think she is sure how to answer for she doesn’t.

She can always pick herself out of a line up. A photograph of a school reunion: she finds her face in the back row of a dozen middle aged women. She cannot name a single one of the other ladies but, she says, immediately, her finger on a short lady at the front, “She was the cleverest girl in our class”.  I sense something delicious, like rivalry. And I laugh.

This was your home, ma and I trace the image of an old school house with a lawn spiked white by frost, its slate roof dredged with a sifting of white powder: Winter, February 1994.

“Was it?” Mum says, surprised, ‘but it’s beautiful’

She bought it in the months after dad died. A generous endowment from my father’s employers meant she could gift us a home within six months of his going.

It was beautiful Mum, I say, you made a wonderful home there for us when dad died.

And I guide her around the proportions of a warm family kitchen where we gathered for every meal, the huge high lead paned windows in the sitting room where light spilled in and which we shuttered on winter nights to keep the place snug, unfolding the wooden panels which so charmed us, ‘how old fashioned!’ we said.

Her fingers caress every page, as if trying to reach back and find something of substance there, something more than images decades old. 

“Was my memory this bad then?”

No ma, your memory was perfect, tack sharp.  You remembered everything. 

And she did: the foods we liked to eat when we came home, all our birthdays, Christmas stockings.  And later – she remembered my children’s brithdays, the authors and illustrators they loved so that our bookshelves grew bowed with the weight of books from her. They arrived, great bundles, whole series, in the post to exuberant reception from her grandchildren.

I have reached into a past to try to reinforce connections. And now I reach for a future by showing her pictures of those same children.

“I came to England to have them; I spent weeks with you before delivery. And weeks afterwards”.

She reaches out and strokes my back, “Did you? Did you really? But that’s wonderful”. 

There you are, I say, and I point out a picture of her cradling my son, her first grandchild, so new the space between his eyes – which are screwed shut tight – is still nipped pink by stork bite.

I turned the album to my gaze out of guilt, because I knew, behind me where I tapped my on laptop, she was puzzling over all these people and trying to place them.  I impatiently spun it around. 

So I am surprised then, when I find the time has slipped by for I have been as lost in this reverie as she.

And whilst she has briefly, for today, for now, connected the dots of her parents to me, to my children via the conduit of herself as daughter, mother, grandmother, so I have remembered something. In all these hundreds of photos, she is there, smiling and central and strong.

She was not always ill with dementia.

She was not always ill with Depression. There were many, many happy moments. Hundreds. 

And here there are, caught beneath cellphone to remind me.

Now as an Anchor

January 24, 2022

I think it as a walk across the lawn to pop the SD card out of the spy cam we have secured to the thin thigh of a sapling in the garden, “Shall I bother?”

When I slide the card into my laptop’s hard drive, I’ll bear witness to the wildlife that tripped and ran and scuttled across the lawn late at night. I will see the silver stripes that Nike-tick jackal’s sides, the pewter backs of badgers which gleam in the glow of the moon, the chalk white lines that mark a male bushbuck.  I’ll see what time they were all there, to sip a drink from a tank set into baked ground, a lick of salt from a rust coloured tablet that hangs from a post: 01.54 am. I have watched the quiver of porcupine quills rattle past the lens, the duck and dive of bats. One night the camera even caught the stealthy tiptoe of a beautiful serval who stopped to listen to the night exactly where I needed him to pose: directly in front of the frame: click. 

Shall I bother to show mum the images on my screen as I download them? Will she make sense of this complicated story of my night camera and the game it tracks? Will she understand why it’s there? 

Yes.

Will she remember tomorrow?

No.

I slot the card into my laptop and click through the images as I sit beside her and a shadowy night of black and white reveals the clear profile of four legged traffic.

I stop at the honey badgers, a large pair who circle the salt to lick. I tell her how they will clear the stage of any other animals for their ill humour, their habit of biting attacks. I describe how I have borne sleeping witness to their clearing the garden when they wanted the salt to the themselves, how they circled on bush buck ten, twenty, times their size and how the antelope fled with a kick of dainty heels. 

I do this because I have promised myself: I must try to remember to make her Now count. It can be hard to do this: to remember.  To bother. To have the patience to slow down to explain. Sometimes it takes her time to grasp a thing, sometimes she must ask questions to understand, sometimes the same questions over and over and I must steel myself: don’t snap the answer: spell it out patiently and with interest, as if it is the first time you have been asked this question. Do not make her feel stupid for though her intellect is in tatters, there are still bright ribbons of it there in the dark. 

Why do I bother though? Apart from the fact that kindliness may make me feel almost as good as it does her. Aside from the fleeting rush of seeing her face light in amusement or interest or bright engagement which might even be sharpened by some deeply buried memory: I know my father will have described the bad tempered badgers to her decades ago. I know he will have made her laugh when he did. 

I do it because she has no Past. I do it because it is simpler than it may at first sound: I have to make her Now count. As brief as that Now is. As fleeting and thin so that by tomorrow it will be frayed and fuzzy and by the day after that it will vanished altogether and if I remember to be patient, I will be showing her the images from my spy cam again and I will be describing what the camera does and where it is and why we choose to have it in the garden. And understanding the by now regular habits of my nocturnal visitors, I’ll probably be describing the badgers bad manners all over again.

But without her Now what is she? Where is she? And in the absence of cementing, however briefly, the fact of her Now, what am I? She is lost and I am devoid of empathy: this could be you, I keep telling myself worriedly. One day my children may need to gift me my Nows day after day after day, over and over and over as some thin substitute for a Past that no longer exists. A curious fact of time: I must take time to build what is to make up for what has gone.

I have said to my husband, ‘imagine not having a past, how would you feel?’ I do it party because I cannot imagine what that must be like and wonder if he can. I do it partly because in elucidating this awfulness, of a vanished history, I want him to try to understand how unmoored my mother must feel.  I need him to empathize with me as I must with her.

Without a past we bear no ballast. We must always wonder who am I? Who are you? Where am I? Why am I here? What am I to you? My mother asks me these questions all the time. And then she says, ‘Did we come here on a boat? Have we docked in the harbour yet?’ 

I try to pin her down with Now: I try to lend weight to her thin ethereal disappearing present in the hope of making it stay.  Drop an anchor. But the slip and slide of dementia is too heavy and too fast and no matter the gravitas of that Now, I am your daughter, it always becomes part of an invisible past.

Mum laughs when I describe the animals antics of our nocturnal visitors – the sharp toothed, short tempered badgers, the jackals and the dens they dig on the farm where I have found pups staring at up at me, the porcupines who raid the vegetable garden at night and leave an unholy mess of chewed stalks and ransacked maize and my delight is soured not only because I know I almost didn’t bother but because I remember, just because there is no memory, it does not mean there is no sense of humour.

In all of this, she can still see the funny side of things. 

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