Archive for December, 2021

The Mother

December 19, 2021

I feel Hat’s eyes on me as we watch.

Anthony Hopkins shuffles in and out of subtly changing rooms which morph from dark wood sixties decor to bright contemporary sleek. He is mostly bewildered, often belligerent, always paranoid (‘Where is my watch? Who stole my watch?”) and frequently in his pyjamas. Occasionally his words are shot with brilliant, sharp lucidity. Often they are acerbic, even cruel.  Sometimes his observations, his recollections (which baffle his daughter) are funny. 

I am at the tail end of a head cold. When I sniff, Hat’s shoots me a sidelong glance. I am dry eyed. I smile reassuringly.

I watch and I immerse myself in Hopkin’s world, one of disorientation, in this shapeshifting environment where corridors widen and narrow so that doors which are apparently in the same place lead to different rooms in the next scene. And where people are sometimes two-faced: so that his daughter presents as her older then her younger and then again her older self and where he insists a new carer is his other, younger daughter.

“Where is she anyway?”

(“Anyway”: a word I hear my mother use dismissively: a tool to minimise the enormity of all this – as if this question doesn’t really matter – “Who are you anyway?”)

She is dead. But this memory eludes him.

He fills the tragic gap with a stuffing of fabrication that I recognise: she is travelling. Away. She is a painter. She is his favourite. (And I wince).

(And I think of my mother’s words: my husband left me you know?)

How can you forget your child is dead?

But you can.

How can you forget your child?

But you can.

I am struck that art can deliver such a profound portrayal of an illness that is all about forgetting and fraying memories, that a screenplay has sewn all of this so tightly together and has delivered to the cinematic a story I recognise so acutely that I do not cry. I do not cry because in watching Olivia Coleman as Hopkins’ daughter I see myself.  And there is something reassuring in her delivery: the unmooring of my mother is manifest in millions. And so too are my reactions to it: the humour, the frustration, the rage, the deep sadness. I feel less alone as I watch. And I feel vindicated in the messy emotions I try to manage.

I do not shed a single tear until the very end when Hopkins says, as he weeps, “I feel as if I am losing all my leaves.” 

For he has articulated what my mother cannot: that she is shedding parts of herself, all of her selves have come undone and disappeared until all that is left is some unrecognisable skeleton in this dark wintering of her life.

I cry then.

Mum and I, Kima, 1966

The Scent of Satiety

December 11, 2021

I wonder why this happens. This deep, sweet, settling peace that descends when my children begin to fill my home up. Two are here. The third arrives in a week and then we are full fat five for the first time in two years.  

It is a physical, visceral thing: I can feel the pace of my pulse begin to slow, am aware some invisible weight is beginning to shift from my chest. The anxiety that lurks when they are far away is dissipating. There is a quiet warmth blooming within me.  We take ages over breakfast at a table. Gone is the mug of muesli at my keyboard.  I feel as if I have been steeped in some syrupy elixir, a balm. I feel sated.

I was a very young mother to my first. Expectancy unexpected and I was unpicked by uncertainty and impatience and unknowingness. About how to do this job. About the new shape I was trying to fit.  I thought I must conform to routines and rules and I made myself unhappy in the process. And my small son too, I think; I could sense it in his fretful mewling and unsettledness, when he refused to sleep, to feed. 

My youngest is almost the age I was then. I am seasoned and lined now and all the sharp contours of my younger self have gone, softened with age or blunted by experience and something which could sometimes, just sometimes, be loosely tied up as wisdom. 

When I described myself back then, a new wife, a new mother, newly unemployed, I admitted my position like a confession, with something like shame, ‘justamum’, I mumbled. For where was my career? My job spec was defined by the man I lived with and the little boy I was trying, in vain, to settle to sleep. 

I wish I had known then what I know now: that I would ease into it, that it would simultaneously get easier. That there are no rules except your own. And that I would love it. Love being a mother to small people. And later, big people, these big people who are sweetly patient as I cluck and fuss. 

Who obediently bend to fold their mother, smaller than them, in a hug.

Is the intoxication I feel, the headiness, the satiety, is it because my children’s nearness – so near I can indulge in the luxury of an arm draped around a shoulder, a hand to tousle their hair, skin to skin not face to screen – is it because it  swamps my brain with a flood of hormones – oxytocin and dopamine? It is cerebral or primal or is it simply the satisfying fullness that comes with knowing when a gap is filled. A jigsaw done and reassuring in its completeness?  The full picture.

I don’t know. I don’t know what prompts this sensation. But I know I want to bottle it, distil it, keep it carefully stoppered in a glass bottle by my bed so that when they are gone again, my children, and far away, I can steal back this calm in careful drops upon my wrist.

Hobson’s Choice

December 6, 2021

Hat says to me on a walk, a late evening walk, so late I must push my sunglasses to the top of my head for the last of the afternoon is tipping over my western horizon and the sharp edges of daylight are smudged by a buttery gloaming, ‘I hope you don’t get what Gran has’.

And then she asks, ‘What do you do, mum, to make sure you don’t get it?’

(She means Dementia. Not Depression).

What do I do? 

What can I do? 

I notice every article about dementia.  That’s what I do. They leap from the page, or from a screen, like wagging fingers.

5 Ways to Prevent Alzheimer’s, Says Dr. Sanjay Gupta:

Keep moving, eat a healthy diet, avoid sugar, get enough sleep, be social.

I, who sits at my desk for long hours (so long that my Fitbit buzzes and the green man dances an irritating jig). I who sits too long, too often a mug of sweet tea at my side, to give me a boost after a bad night, to sustain me through an afternoon when I’d like to nap but need to write. 

I, the introvert.

Can I strike these habits out with others? Create a mitigating balance? If I walk enough – five miles a day, fast and hard so that my heart pumps and my breath comes short and sharp, so that I can still talk but cannot sing (is that not the mantra – walk fast enough to hold a conversation but too fast to hold a tune) will that temper the dangers of the writer’s necessarily sedentary life? If I rarely eat meat, pile my plate high with organic veg, will that make up for sugar in my tea, frequent squares of chocolate? If I hold conversations in the ether from the position of the magic carpet I balance upon as I interview doctors and scientists all over the world in my job as a journalist will that counteract the lack of face to face exchanges?  Can I make extenuating trades?

Are those plaques and tangles spiderwebbing my grey matter as I sit and write and sip my sugared tea? Are they parasitically tightening a grip, squeezing the life out of healthy cognition?

5 personality traits that may be linked to your risk of dementia

The Times of India, 6 December 2021

Conscientiousness – Agreeableness – Neuroticism – Openness – Extroversion 

People who have a higher degree of neuroticism and lower conscientiousness tend to develop amyloid plaques and insoluble tangles of tau proteins in the brain (both linked to dementia and other disorders).

I meet four out of five.

So does – so did – Mum.

Sometimes, when they were younger, my children used to play a game ‘Would you Rather?’ It involved posing the most appalling choices: Hobson’s. Where there were no easy or right or palatable answers.

Would you rather have Depression or Dementia? If you had to choose one,  just one, as your fate, what would you choose?

My response would come fast and certain. There would be no hesitation, not a moment of doubt:

Depression.

I never thought I’d say that.

But in Depression mum came back to us.

In Dementia, I will never come back to my children.

I think I could not bear that.  I think that now. But in reality, in the descent into dementia, that sense of loss would be transient. For a while – a brief while – I would perceive the very great pain of being lost and disconnected and distrusting and I would rail and cry and slip between confused and lucid. But I would soon pass through the shadowy space between knowing and not knowing and  in its stead would be some sort of muddled oblivion where I would not know. Would not know anything or anybody. Would not know who I had lost or loved or birthed. Would not even know if I had ever eaten – and enjoyed – pizza or yogurt or cashew nuts.

Sometimes I would not know my name.

I would forget.  And in my forgetting I would not care who was there to bathe or feed or dress me.

But they will not: forget; my children will not forget that I have forgotten them. 

And that haunts me. That they might know the pain of all this. You want to protect your children from all the hurt in the world. 

And in the end it is your undoing that is the most hurtful.