Memory Loss is not a Gentle Slope

I takes courage to pick up the phone to mum.

I brace myself for recognition. Or not.

Today she is very confused. And I think of Nicci Gerrard’s words; she believes those who suffer failing memories lose their stories in steps, as they descend into the illness. Dementia is not a gradual slope. It jars. Just when you think you’re safe and the condition has arrested itself, you’re jolted back to reality as another hole is burned through what they remember and what they don’t. It feels like when you’ve misjudged a step, imagined it to be shallower than you thought and you almost buckle for the unexpected depth that you drop.

Today I wonder if we’ve taken a steep step down.

‘Who are you, again?’ Asks Mum

I have been here before but I have not learned – it is a hard lesson to learn, your mother not remembering your place in her history – I am still winded by her words.

I laugh, to disguise the gut punch: “I am your favourite child, ma!”

And she laughs too and I can hear relief: relief that I have unpicked a mystery for her? Relief that I am who she suspects I might be? Relief she has a daughter by my name – especially when she worried I’d dropped off the edge of her disappearing world.

‘Of course, you are’, she chuckles, ‘and where are you?’

Tanzania, I say, ‘I live on a farm on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro; it’s very lovely’.

She agrees it sounds beautiful. 

‘Have you been there … in … that country for long?’

Thirty years, I confirm, ‘a long time.’ And I know that she has already forgotten the name of this place the person that is posing as her daughter apparently lives in.

‘Gosh. And have we been in touch at all in that time?’

What do I say? Do I tell her that there are bundles, bundles, of correspondence as testimony to our being ‘in touch’ – blue airmail forms fading now, written by hand a decade before the internet was a thing. Do I tell her that she accompanied me home from England with all my babies having supported me through their delivery, spent months at a time here? Do I tell her that I have built her not one but two cottages in my various gardens, hoping she might settle, feel ‘at home’ in mine? Do I tell her about the umpteen calls, just like this one – the most recent days ago?

Yes, mum, I promise her, ‘we’ve been in touch.’

And as I drop a step, I notice a photograph of mum – of my beautiful mother a lifetime ago. I think it has faded. As if she is disappearing before my eyes. Her image doing the opposite of what it must have done years ago when it was first exposed in some far away photographic studio; she’s receding into the dark.


Some people keep their stories secret – their battles with grief or loss or dementia or mental illness. Is that because they are private? Because they cannot find the words to articulate them as they want to? Because it doesn’t help them to ‘share’?  Some people have accused me of wearing my heart on my sleeve. But this is how I unknot the pain of all of these things, this is how I forge a path – as I cut my way through a tangle of challenges and emotions – through something that can feel dark and poorly lit. This is how I do it because so many people have done it so perfectly, so gracefully, so courageously before me and in so doing they’ve helped to clear a road pocked with holes, rocked with mines so that my own passage might be a tiny bit easier.

So I suppose I write this out to help me make sense of it all and because I hope that somebody who reads my words might feel less alone. 

8 Responses to “Memory Loss is not a Gentle Slope”

  1. haitiruth Says:

    ❤ I don't know if I've ever commented here before but I've been reading your blog for years. Thank you for what you write. It matters. Ruth,

  2. Addy Says:

    So sorry. X

  3. Clare Taylor Says:

    Dementia is so cruel. I remember, 7 years ago, talking to my father in law and suddenly realising he had no idea who I was. Not because he admitted it, but because of his careful questioning to help him work out why I was staying in his house, sitting in his living room. Sending love x

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      thank you Clare. oh that sad careful questioning trying to work out who you are – heartbreaking X

  4. Leilani Weatherington Says:

    Having watched several dear friends die of dementia, my mother was terrified that she would get dementia; thus, when she learned she would die instead of pancreatic cancer she was very relieved.

  5. Ambo Says:

    Thank you for writing from the heart. After an unintended hiatus in reading, I have been catching up and have been pulled in by your stories. I shared with my beloved young one the story of Hat and OCD as they share this and work to get us to understand. Your honesty, your heart … thank you thank you thank you!

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Ambo, thank you for reading. I’m really glad the OCD piece was helpful. I am so thankful Hat could articulate and help me understand a little bit better. Sometimes if feels very scary to write this stuff down, so It means a great deal when people reach out to say it’s made a small difference somewhere. Keep safe x

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