Archive for February, 2021

Driving Home

February 28, 2021

I grew up on the other side of this mountain. I raised my children on this side. It’s punctuated my horizons for years – like an exclamation mark; it says, ‘You’re Home!’

And when I drive home on an evening like last night, when every part of the mountain is revealed, her shoulders quite bare and she’s so clear that I can trace every line and wrinkle and crease of her face, she looks bigger and surer. Her ice cap is snow-white and her foothills lilac against the blue of sky. And the nearer I get to home, the taller she looms, as if rising up protectively to draw me in.

And then in the setting sun she blushes pink.

By the time I swing into the farm, she’s like a ghost and I count 8 owls waiting on fence posts for the mice to turn out, so that they can begin to hunt and a jackel runs across the road and the pewter of his back gleams beneath a softly rising moon which crowns the mountain silver.

And I am home.

Guessing Names

February 25, 2021

When I call mum today, she tells me all about a young person who speaks to her every day.

‘She calls me every single day’, she says, ‘without fail; she’s so good.’

She tries to explain to me who this paragon is.

‘I think she is the daughter. Of somebody. I think she has a brother and a sister. Or maybe two sisters.  I can’t remember.’

I imagine then that she is speaking about one of her granddaughters. One of my girls, who call her sporadically. But I know my own girls are too busy – behind screens, one teaching (in a large London school), one being taught, her Masters – to call every single day.

I offer her their names but no, it’s not them.

And then she reveals other details of this person who calls her every day – ‘we don’t talk for long, just a little chat, but it’s so lovely.’

What she tells me reveals she is talking about my sister. Who is also a busy teacher and who, yesterday, texted to say, ‘haven’t spoken to mum for a few days, I try often but she doesn’t pick up.’

The last time I saw mum, just before this pandemic broke, she forgot who I was. Just like that. One day she was sure, the next she accused me of being a stranger. She had been staying with me for two months.  We had sat opposite each other every single day those two months for every single meal. We had walked together. We had played cards. But that day – I’d vanished.

When my sister arrived to join us several days later, she confided in her, told about this imposter claiming a relationship with her. 

It stung. More than stung. I cried and felt deeply bruised at her sudden distancing and distrust of me, closing me out of her bedroom at night with a ‘no thank you, I don’t need your help with my medication, my daughter will help me’, gesturing my sister.

I am no longer stung. I know that there is nothing personal about mum’s failing memory. It pulls from the wreckage some things, the rest drowns. One day I rise to the surface so she can pluck me from it, the next I sink right out of sight.

I am no longer stung.

And I will keep calling her every day.

The Elephant in the Room

February 19, 2021

I am describing the wildlife on the farm to Mum. I tell her I have had to curtail my walks, I walk less on the wild side now, for fear a buffalo will emerge from the bush.

‘A real buffalo?’ Mum wants to know.

A real one, I confirm.

We have a ton of game on the farm, I tell her – they make a menace of themselves in Ant’s vegetable garden.  The porcupines, the pigs, the dikdik.  Even the elephant – which picked their way surprisingly daintily through rows of beans and across beds of carrots.

‘How do you know you’ve had an elephant in the veg patch?’ I ask mum.

How, she wants to know.

‘Because of the footprints in the dust as big as dinner plates’, and she hoots with laughter.

I tell her I remember a dish towel we had as kids (I don’t say, ‘do you remember that dish towel we had as kids …’) It was lined with crazy riddles and I repeat some of them to mum now.

How do you fit four elephants in a Mini Moke?

How?

Two in the front, two in the back, I say. More laughter.

‘How do you know an elephant has been in your fridge?’

How?

‘By the footprints in the butter!’

More laugher – and ‘oh Anthea, how silly!’

OK Ma, how do you fit four giraffe in a Mini Moke?

Two in the front, two in the back?

Nope – it’s full up with Eles.

And mum laughs a deep rich real belly laugh.

That was a good day. Today’s call was a good call.

When the children were little we often used to escape up into the cool of the forests that cloak Mt Meru’s shoulders.

Up there, arching over the road to the summit, is a huge fig tree with a massive hole through its middle.

Ant used to tell the children it had been made by an elephant who came racing down the hill so fast it couldn’t find its brakes in time.

The kids loved that story.

When we looked at a picture of the tree recently, they were astounded.

‘Oh it’s so much smaller than I remember!’ Said Melie.

And they are all so much bigger.

I place photos of the tree side by side. All that separates the pictures are a few centimeters. 

And decades. 

They grow up so fast. Our children. One minute you look and they’re tiny and clutching at your hand. And they next you can lean into them because you’re the tiniest in the family. 

How did that happen? When?

For the Love of Soysambu, For the Love of Reading.

February 18, 2021

I call mum often.

Sometimes I have to work hard to keep dialogue going, Dementia means we can’t pick up where we left off last time. Mum’s failing memory means there is no receptacle from which to sieve conversation starters.  She can’t remember anybody; often an entire call is spent dissecting family.

How many children do I have have? How many children do you have? How old are your children? Where are they? Who is your sister, again? Where is your sister? How many children does your sister have …

Those days, those calls, must be so frustrating for mum. I watch confusion tangle her expression and knot her brow in frowns as she battles to scale the family tree I’ve sown (it’s all apparently new to her) and keep her balance on top of it.   Those calls make me especially sad.  I try to avoid them – side step her who’s-who questions or scurry quickly by them.

So we talk about the weather instead, an easy one, she has only to look out of her window and she’s got a handle on a conversation starter; she is astounded that I am basking in warmth whilst she is snowbound. Her grasp on geography has loosened. We talk about the pandemic and she politely asks if I have it ‘where you are’. She doesn’t have a clue where I am.

But lately she has begun to devote more time to her reading and that effort always lends hopeful platform; so we talk about books.

At present she is reading For Love of Soysambu. It’s about notorious Kenya settlers, the Delamere’s and their ranch, Soysambu.

She is loving it. She tells me she will read it a second time as soon as she’s finished.

‘Just so I can be sure I’ve understood the story.’

I tell her my husband used to work on the same ranch (she has forgotten his name too though she always politely asks after him when I call, ‘how’s that hubby of yours’, she says, the affectionate composition of her question suggests she knows who she’s talking about even though she doesn’t).

‘Did he really? Work on Soysambu? Gosh, how interesting!’

And I imagine her relishing this funny far off connection that has been presented between one of her own and the book she’s reading.  I imagine it makes the story feel nearer.

Soysambu from Ant’s garden, 1988

Even though it was once much, much nearer: She doesn’t remember that dad used to work for Lady Delamere, on another ranch. She doesn’t remember that she used to feel peeved – and dad highly entertained – that his Christmas bonus was so paltry that the expensive Christmas presents Lady D ordered for us kids, from Hamleys, were worth more.  She does not remember that I used to ride the Delamere’s polo ponies, belting about the farm, reckless, sometimes hatless, until I fell off. She doesn’t remember that we used to giggle at the family’s private cemetary, walled on a hill on the farm, where Lady D buried all her dogs. 

‘Fancy burying your dogs in a graveyard like that’, she said at the time, ‘how pretentious’.

She doesn’t remember the bees in the wooden house we lived in which had my poor little sister wetting her bed at night as she was too afraid to walk the passage to the loo lest she was stung. She doesn’t remember the beautiful house we moved to after that, a stone house perched high on a hill overlooking Lake Naivasha so we could hear the reeling call of fish eagles that hung out in the Fever Trees at the lake’s edge, a house with vast windows so that the sun spilled in and flooded it with light. She doesn’t remember the archway between the dining room and the sitting room, designed like a horseshoe, grey brick work indented with gaps where nails would have been. 

The house above the lake, my little sister and I, 1977

She doesn’t remember saying, ‘that horseshoe is the wrong way up for luck.’

She laughs now, as I describe it to her but her laughter sounds hollow, she’s not really interested. This house, this far away house that she has no recollection of: ‘it sounds lovely’, she says, politely, but I can hear her distancing from the conversation: this house of my memories, where she apparently once lived, it has no place in her here and now.

Reading does though. And that makes my heart sing. Sing

Five years ago her neuro said, ‘she’ll never read again’. But she does. She does. After a fashion and slowly, but she does. She reads well enough to understand the Delamere’s were a colourful bunch, ‘interesting family, that lot, bit odd’ she observes so that I laugh. 

And clawing her words back means she can recast some new world of her own making even as the one she lives in is shrinking.

My heart sings because my broken mother is so startlingly brave at times that I feel winded.

Words and Numbers

February 15, 2021

Mum says, when I call, that the print in her book is too small; it makes it hard to read.  Her eyes are getting tired, she says.

‘I’m sure it’s not because I need new glasses’ and she sounds worried – needing new glasses, now, in the midst of a pandemic, when you’re almost eighty, would layer the obstacles in all this up.

I don’t want anything to challenge mum’s reading – anything else – it’s such a precious occupation and has been so hard fought, a laboured, frustrating clawing back of a skill she learned as a child.  Now, when she reads, it’s as if you’d put all words in the world into a colander and were trying to push them through the holes. They mostly squeeze through in the end, the little ones with greater ease, faster, but it can be arduous and is always slow. Sometimes the effort leaves her head spinning, quite literally: ‘when I look at the words, they all dance about dizzyingly, as if they have a life of their own’, she told me one day.

It means that often the stories are lost on her. By the time she gets to the end of a passage or a page or a chapter, she often doesn’t recall what happened at the beginning, who’s who. It strikes me as odd that she persists with her reading, that she apparently enjoys it, despite this – despite this not always following the thread of things – until I remember that mum’s reading before was often for the love of the words as much as the narrative itself.

‘Listen to this’, she’d say, and she’d read a bit out, ‘hasn’t she said that well?’  She always read with a dictionary at her side; she wasn’t just hungry for language, she was hungry for new language which lent different flavour to her usual tastes.

‘Find another book, ma’ I say, ‘one with bigger, clearer print, one that’s easier to read, and then read the blurb and if you like the sound of it, read the book.’

She is pleased with this suggestion. – ‘oh, that’s a good idea’-  Though I hate that I am having to prioritise the mechanics of reading – the seeing the letters clearly – over language. 

I have learned to try to minimise mum’s handicaps. Partly for her. Partly for me.

‘Oh, I’m always forgetting people’s names’, I’ll say to make her feel better because she often can’t remember mine.

Now I say, ‘I battle with small print too – even with my glasses!’ And I laugh.

‘Do you really?’

She tells me that until recently her vision has been very good. Perfect, she says. Her sight, she tells me, as if it might be news, only deteriorated a couple of years ago, ‘that’s when I started wearing glasses first’.

She has worn glasses for years and years, long before her stroke five years ago which wiped out her right sided vision altogether.   She kept bumping into things then, blindsided, and often this prompted furious, frustrated tears.

‘Her brain will learn to compensate for her loss of sight on that side,’ her doctors in rehab assured me.

They were right, it has, there are less accidents now. And the tide of her memory loss means, mercifully, she does not remember what she cannot see. For the bumping and the banging and the dropping and the side swiping of a dozen mugs left to her right to the floor where they smashed into smithereens made her feel clumsy, stupid, ‘oh bloody hell! Not again. I’m so sorry’ she’d say on the verge of tears as I patted and consoled and went to fetch a dustpan and brush. 

When did you start wearing glasses, she wants to know.

Gosh, I say, years ago – ‘when I was about forty.’

Mum falls silent then and I can her computing our connection. I imagine a counter in her head ticking backwards, too fast, then slurring to exaggerated slowness. Fingers on an abacus, sliding beads left to right and back again. It’s as if the timelines in her head have scrambled the meaningful numbers of her life just as her brain injury has scrambled words on a page. Scrambled them and knotted them and stretched and concertina’d  them into crazy shapes so that all perspective is lost. 

It’s why she thinks she’s only worn glasses for two years. 

It’s why she thinks she is at least ten years younger than she is.

It’s why she often can’t believe I’m her daughter: I’m too old: the maths just doesn’t add up.

Flying Visits, Flown Chicks

February 11, 2021

Eight days went so fast, a blur, it’s almost as if he was never here.

Ben came home for the briefest visit. We had not seen him, our grown up son, for more than a year.

I filled my fridge with foods I knew he’d love, foods he couldn’t have enjoyed where he was in his part of the world, I stocked shelves with beer, that we might crack open cold each evening. 

We ate late leisurely breakfasts in a shaded spot of a sunny garden so that he could enjoy long green views. We drank those cold beers in the same spot where the valley spilled a million miles below us, spun with light and wreathed with dusk and dust, so that he might drink up his Africa.  We ate supper, the three of us, at a table properly laid, not to waste a single precious second of his company or conversation.

And I think now, everything that was ordinary in childhood became an occasion. 

I wrung every drop out of every minute. We walked miles, he and I, plodding our way through fields and up hills and step counting as we put the world to rights. There was so much to say, so much that is stripped of warmth over a screen, so much that becomes real when you can touch an arm or a face or a hand.  I wanted to pinch myself, ‘he’s home’.

And still I worry, did I make the most of it. Could I have milked more of his time in hours that I let slip through my fingers. 

Already he is gone so long it’s as if he was never here. Like a tide that runs across a beach and takes the sandcastle with it so that evidence of fun and games and laughter is gone, levelled to nothing.  You can’t believe you only built it the evening before.

Tomorrow there will be no breakfast in a sun drenched garden; tomorrow I will eat muesli out of a mug at my desk again.

And I wonder, did I dream this?

Except I know that I didn’t for everywhere I look, I can see gaps. And the hole in my heart, the one I fill with jam making, is dug deep and weeps.

So I know he was here. He was home. For a bit.

Out of Africa

February 8, 2021

Image result for out of africa

Mum tells me she is reading a new book.

“What are you reading, Ma?”

And I watch her squinting to study the title:

“Out of … Africa … Oh, that was easy!” And she laughs.

She has, she tells me, been reading since lunch time. Which was four hours ago. 

She has read six pages.

I learned about readability tests when I was teaching Mum to read – the Flesch-Kincaid scores; the higher the number, the easier the read. And easier reading meant a faster speed. But, the experts, warned, at some point Mum would peak – no matter how much she practised; at some point she’d reach a speed that couldn’t be outdone. I thought, then, that if I understood the academics of teaching an adult with brain injury to read, I – we – could prove the experts wrong. But of course we couldn’t. Didn’t. Mum’s reading speed is painfully slow and yet she perseveres and I am always astounded by this : this doggedness, which I thought had been shredded by years of ruminating in Depression’s jaw.  She is determined to enjoy the story.

She tells me she is loving this one.

I tell her there is a film of the book – with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. 

“Is there?” She says – and sounds surprised.

I have watched it a dozen times – and often with her.

We watched it first in London’s Leicester Square – all of us, mum, my siblings, I, an aunt, a couple of cousins. It was months after dad died and I watched Africa rise on the screen, huge and beautiful and grazed with evening light and bruised by storm and I listened to the swell of John Barry’s soundtrack and I imagined I could taste Africa, could smell her rain and dust and woodsmoke.

And I kept watching it, on smaller and smaller screens, in smaller and smaller theatres with smaller and smaller audiences until I could no longer taste Africa, or smell her. I could only taste the cardboard taste of old popcorn and smell the sourness of a theatre poorly ventilated. 

And still she looked huge, Africa, and the music and the light and the snatches of a language I understood carved a deep, deep hole in my heart as I sobbed into the dark. 

In the end, I had to go back.

Mum does not remember any of this. But somewhere, somewhere in there, in her mind which is all tangled and loose and jangling between the gaps cast by lost memories, I know Africa still occupies a huge space. I know because she drops the odd Swahili word into our conversation. I know because she recognises something she loves in the Blixen book she is plodding though with fierce determination. 

I know because sometimes she thinks that’s where she is, in Africa: “I never knew Africa could get this cold: we had frost this morning!”

And I don’t say anything: let her believe she’s where her heart is, I think.

Words 2

February 2, 2021
21 Best Places to Visit in France | PlanetWare

I have begun to retell mum her story. Over Skype. I say, ‘do you remember this?’ and ‘remember when?’ and ‘do you remember that?’.

I try to do it conversationally, as you might with an old friend, who you hadn’t seen for ages, over a drink (as if we could still do that … ‘do you remember when you could meet a friend in the pub without a care in the world …?’)

I try to do it so she does not notice I am forensically mining for what’s still there and what’s not.

She tells me she is reading a book called … and she examines the title closely again, sounding out each letter carefully …. L … A … D … Y

We get there: Lady Icarus.

‘That’s a funny title’, and she laughs.

It is, she tells me, ‘set in France. I think’.

I ask her if she remembers going to school in France.

The brief silence on the other end of the line tells me she does not.

‘Oh you did, Mum! You went to school in France for a year to perfect your French’

And I tell her all the stories she told me – about Town Annique and Country Annique and how Country Annique’s family would bathe once a week, on a Saturday, before they went to play the tables in the local town’s Casino.

‘But there was no bath’, Mum told me at the time, ‘except a rusty old tub full of empty wine bottles; we had to wash at an outside tap.’ And we had both laughed.

If mum is horrified she cannot remember, she masks it well with delight that she had an interesting year abroad before years abroad became fashionable.

Do you remember your French, I ask her.

Oh no, she says, not a word.

I tell her that she used to dream in French.

“Did I really?!” she asks and I can tell she is pleased.

I say then, ‘Bonjour Mama, ça va bien?”

Oui, she says, “oui!”

She didn’t remember a word, she said, of her French, and yet there is was.

I shall continue to pick and pick and excavate a small part of her each time I talk to her.

And I shall try not to fly too close to the sun. For her sake. And for mine.