Then and Now: learning how

Sometimes Mum does not remember her Grandchildren’s names.

Or if she does, they are muddled and mismatched; she attaches the wrong grandchildren to the wrong child. Or the wrong name to the wrong person. There are no neat lines anymore. Just a messy cat’s cradle  tangled with crossed lines which we gently, sensitively, try to unpick or avoid.

I don’t say, ‘Remember Amelia?’

Because Mum might not – not in that instant, she needs time and prompts – and without them I see confusion cloud her face, and something like irritation or humiliation. She can tell by my tone that she ought to know an Amelia but she can’t find her right now, in this moment, she can’t place her so she clumsily sifts her memories for the name. For the connection. And she will be left feeling inept and stupid.

‘I am so bloody stupid’ she will say sadly, ‘why can’t I remember anybody?’

So instead I say, ‘My daughter, Amelia, the one who teaches in London …’

And Mum’s in the frame, then. We have placed her, we have placed the characters that will populate this little story I am about to narrate. We have reminded her of the cast.

In some ways, this losing of her grandchildren saddens me most. She was such a present grandmother. So full on. Engaged. Perhaps my trio, joined by my brother’s two and my sister’s three, perhaps those small people grew a team where a big gap had been gouged when Dad died. Perhaps they reminded her of continuity, even when somebody has gone. Perhaps they lent new interest – for she was, interested: in their friends, in where they went to school, in what they read so that parcels full of books would often arrive. 

Perhaps she just needed to feel needed as her own children grew up?

And because I witnessed the forging of those strong bonds, I feel such a loss at their coming adrift.

I urge my girls, ‘call gran’. And they do. And she loves their calls. She will tell me all about them and there will be no confusion as to who is who and who called when for my girls will have primed me, so subtly and sensitively we have separated the strands of the cat’s cradle before we even begin so I’m not tied into knots trying to unpick who called mum when I call her.  And nor is she.

My great grandniece is two now and I watch astonished, Mum almost unchanged with her, almost as engaged as she was with my son nearly three decades ago. She isn’t strong enough to heft her to a hip, can’t chase her around a garden but she can slot pieces into a puzzle, laugh at the things she says, let her clamber into bed with her great grandmother so that she can look at books with her.

And I consider this small, uncomplicated tableau of the very old and the very young and I see in this single picture a forging of What Was and What Is, a straddling of Then and Now.

These things are hard, this letting go as mum loses bits of herself. But I know this is right, this is the right way to do it: to use her past to anchor us in her present.

That’s the only way I know how to do this.

One Response to “Then and Now: learning how”

  1. Tamsin Hickson Says:

    This really resonates for me – my 94 year old father has dementia and I too have found it hard watching him drift away from us all. I’m currently working on a series of drawings of him and wondering about expanding them into something bigger – I’m not sure if this comment will give you access to my FB page, but if it does, and you’d be interested in talking, do get in touch!

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