Archive for November, 2021

Losing the Faith

November 22, 2021

I have tried to call my mother every day for the last five.

She does not pick me up.

She is languishing in bed and melancholic.

Though she does not call it this: melancholy. 

She no longer has the words or the imagination or even perhaps the ability to consider herself with such introspection. 

She just says, ‘I’m not feeling very well today’.

She picks up my sister’s calls. Her sister’s.

But not mine.

Sorry, I couldn’t think who Anthea was.

My father’s memory disappeared long ago. Then mine. My brother’s will be next I think as she is sometimes uncertain as to who he is to her, who he is to us. Then my sister, then hers and last of all, her dead parents. For there is still the memory of her mother. And India.

Dementia is a hand on a blackboard eraser, it sweeps back over time so that memories disintegrate and fall, chalky as dust, to the floor where they are swept away to nothingness.

My morning was ridiculously, brutally, beautifully blue.

So that as I stood on the top of the farm and looked west towards Meru the sky was swept entirely clean. Not a cloud. Only the moon, like a disc of communion bread. Papery-white. I remember the sensation of the sacrament dissolving on my tongue until there was nothing left.

My religion has abandoned me.

My mother’s memory has abandoned her.

Once upon a time she’d have urged me to mass. And I’d have gone, out of a sense of duty. More to her than any god. 

Sometimes I stood beside her in quiet churches with vaulted ceilings so that the sounds of a congregation settling or their soaring voices collecting were amplified, drifted outside to wintery streets.

And sometimes I was seized by such a sense of peace. 

Perhaps I should have kept the faith?


Dementia Defined

November 16, 2021

(as observed in a single Skype conversation):

“Where are you these days anyway?”

“I don’t think I have ever visited you there, in Tanzania … have I?”

“Sorry I didn’t answer earlier; I couldn’t think who ‘Anthea’ was.”


She asks, ‘Where are you, anyway’ as you might somebody you’d lost touch with. Or somebody you hadn’t seen in ages. She saw me in August. She spoke to me a couple of days ago.  Geography underpins a lot of our conversations now. As if in locating me, us, she might find her lost self. 

I suggest a change of scene. 

How about you come and spend the winter here, Ma.

Yes, I should like that very much she says.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever been to yours before? Have I?’

I say, ‘you have Ma, a couple of times’.

I don’t say, ‘more times than I can count’.

I am learning: Do not argue unless it really matters. 

Be vague if it’s kinder. 

Never take it personally when they forget who you are.

I consider my experience forewarning. And forewarned is forearmed; everybody knows that.

I say to my children, ‘I will never, ever forget you’.

But I cannot know that. I cannot promise them that. I know better now.

So I add, ‘If I do, know that I love you, have loved you, more than anything in the world’.

Why do I write this down?  Why do I pin such private thoughts so publicly?

Because the private thoughts of others, others who have trodden this path before me, their thoughts have guided me as I shamble through this mess clumsily groping my way.

And because there may be others, others out there in the wilderness that is dementia, who are also feeling their way, who are sad and angry and hurt, who need to know what I have learned: for an illness that affects another so personally in its cruel forgetting, in its mean jabs, (I couldn’t think who Anthea was), it is not personal.

As personal as it might feel.

Dots on Horizons that Disappear

November 4, 2021

Mum asks me what the weather is like, ‘where you are?’

She does not remember where I am.  I could be in the next door county. Or country. Or continent.

I tell her it is very dry.

It is: so dry that the lawn is needle sharp beneath bare soles. When I walk across it I can feel the collapsing crunch of termite tunnels; it’s like walking across meringue. 

‘I think we’re getting all your rain’, she says. 

All my African rain in Ireland.

I tell her the rain is close. I can almost smell it: it is that tantalisingly near: my rain.

I tell her we call this time of year The Short Rains.

I hope this might prompt a memory: of Long Rains and rivers that burst muddy banks and soaked roads so that they were Farm 4WD impassable, of those termites taking to the air, gossamer winged and impatient and blinded by the light so that often they burn to nothing on bulbs.

But no. My nudge does nothing.

I tell her that a storm is circling my mountain, that I can hear it grumbling, can see it black as soot against the foothills.

Do you live on Kilimanjaro, she asks suddenly.


“I do”, I tell her, “I live on it’s lower slopes, it’s very beautiful”

“I used to live in Tanzania, I think,” she says.

So that there is a second reason for small applause: she has remembered where my mountain is.

“You did, Mum”.

She came here at just 9. It was Tanganyika then.   Later, much later, in her story-telling, my grandmother would roll the names of  all the places they lived off her tongue and they sounded hot and exotic:

Kongwa, Natchingwea. Urambo. 

“You’ve been back since” I say, and I know as I say it that I am edging into dangerous territory, “to visit me”.

No, she says, I have never been back again.

And of this she is certain. 

I cannot count the number of times my mum has visited me here. 10? 15? 20? More like twenty.

This is what dementia does: it pushes memories further and further away so that they grow smaller and smaller, they recede to dots on horizons and then they drop clean off the edge of it. Beginning with the most recent. So my mother cannot recall returning to Tanzania with me when my children were babies, she cannot remember the months she spent here supporting me as I recovered from a long, horrible illness, she has no memory of arriving here sick with depression and leaving well. (No memory of depression even, which confirms not all memories are worth it).

I want her to remember, though.

But she is insistent, ‘No, I have never, ever been back’.

And so I leave it. 

We must be happy with small wins with this shitty illness: she remembered she lived here as a child. That has to be enough. 

That she visited my children is too much of a stretch.