The Whittling Away …

When I call Mum, I tell her it was her mother’s birthday yesterday.

I’m immediately sorry.

‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘I quite forgot.’

From the tone of her voice, the way she articulates regret, I know she is not sure, in that moment, where her mother is.  Ought she have sent a card, flowers? 

Quickly I say, ‘She’d have been 105, mum, she died a long time ago’.

And there it is, the prompt mum needs: ‘Yes, she died, about a year after my dad’.

Spot on. 

This is what dementia is like. It’s like lost pins. The are scattered and dull and blunt. Some of them have begun to rust. And then somebody holds a magnet close to them – and one or two of the pins suddenly lift and rise to the surface to meet the magnet’s surface. 

They find themselves those pins, they are still tack sharp and bright. But they are also rare. The memories: they are rare now.

She begins to describe where she lives. On a boat. Again. 

‘I have this nice cabin to myself now; the girl I was sharing with has gone. I don’t know where’.

My brother says the ship theme is increasingly common.

What is this? What is this perception of moving? Does she feel it? Unsteady? Unmoored?

My sister thinks it’s because she can’t remember moving to my brother’s. That she’s only been there a few days.

But that doesn’t explain the constancy of movement, the ship.  I would like to peel back mum’s skull and rearrange all the things that have become dislodged, tighten all the screws and put her back together again.  I would like to gift her back her past. I would like to do that with all my heart. 

She tells me she is very busy. She got it right today: She’s busy with the washing up. 

‘I’m in charge of washing up.  It’s good to feel useful’.

Yesterday she told my sister, ‘I am doing all Rob’s filing. I help him a lot with his business, you know’.

Today she told me she is responsible for selling things. A sales assistant, she said. 

Where do these thoughts come from?  She will have a nap after our call she says, after lunch, ‘providing I’m not needed, of course’.   

Is something she is doing reminiscent of filing, selling? Stacking plates in a dishwasher is not dissimilar to collating pages in a folder. 

Is it the feeling needed or the needing to feel needed that makes her say these things? 

I have learned this: dementia is not about a single change. It is not about who the person was and who they have become. There is no clear cut Then and Now.  No Mum with a Memory and suddenly Mum Without. Dementia whittles, whittles away cruelly. And unevenly. So that one day you are devastated by another lost bit of history, a piece of a puzzle kicked carelessly under the sofa where you can’t reach it.  And the next you are briefly elated because that precious part of her past has been retrieved. Briefly. Because briefly the memory magnet moved close enough to catch it.  

But it’s a whittling away. Always a whittling away.

There is less of mum’s story, less of her past, less of mum since there was this time a year ago. 

It is a heartbreaking, dreadful disease. I hope she does not know that.

Mum, Gran, baby sis and me off frame wrinkling my nose …

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