Archive for January, 2022

Dot to Dot

January 27, 2022

Mum is curled into a chair, legs up, a comma, an hiatus in her day. Her form is shaped around a huge red photograph album. It is hers. From another time. Another home.  She does not remember the album or the home. Nor many of the faces.

I recognise some of them, she says, but I can’t put names to them.

Here, I say, and I twist the album so that we can both see.

She is astonished at her young, beautiful self.

“But who is this beside me?” And she looks quizzically from a photo to me and back again.

“Guess”, I say, “have a go, Ma”

From the picture to me again.

“Is it you?”

It is – “and what am I to you?” I press.

My cousin, she says confidently.

Nooooo, I laugh. “Try again”

“My sister?”

Mum, I admonish. (How does she not know it’s her daughter – not because we have had this conversation a dozen times already today but because I am calling her ‘Ma, Mum’)

Are you my daughter? (uncertainly)

Yes, I laugh.

Oh ok, she says, she does not sound convinced, she sounds as if she’s acquiescing for the sake of peace.

She will check our relationship before we have finished flicking through the album. She will check again this evening. And again tomorrow. Like she did yesterday.

“How could I forget such a thing?” She asks me.

“I’m sorry” I say, like I always do when she reflects on lost memories.  And then I say, “I never know, ma, is it better to live in oblivion of lost memories, or better that I remind you and remind you and remind you”.

I want, I tell her, to make her feel safe, even amongst those of us she perceives as strangers or – at best – recent acquaintances.

I don’t think she is sure how to answer for she doesn’t.

She can always pick herself out of a line up. A photograph of a school reunion: she finds her face in the back row of a dozen middle aged women. She cannot name a single one of the other ladies but, she says, immediately, her finger on a short lady at the front, “She was the cleverest girl in our class”.  I sense something delicious, like rivalry. And I laugh.

This was your home, ma and I trace the image of an old school house with a lawn spiked white by frost, its slate roof dredged with a sifting of white powder: Winter, February 1994.

“Was it?” Mum says, surprised, ‘but it’s beautiful’

She bought it in the months after dad died. A generous endowment from my father’s employers meant she could gift us a home within six months of his going.

It was beautiful Mum, I say, you made a wonderful home there for us when dad died.

And I guide her around the proportions of a warm family kitchen where we gathered for every meal, the huge high lead paned windows in the sitting room where light spilled in and which we shuttered on winter nights to keep the place snug, unfolding the wooden panels which so charmed us, ‘how old fashioned!’ we said.

Her fingers caress every page, as if trying to reach back and find something of substance there, something more than images decades old. 

“Was my memory this bad then?”

No ma, your memory was perfect, tack sharp.  You remembered everything. 

And she did: the foods we liked to eat when we came home, all our birthdays, Christmas stockings.  And later – she remembered my children’s brithdays, the authors and illustrators they loved so that our bookshelves grew bowed with the weight of books from her. They arrived, great bundles, whole series, in the post to exuberant reception from her grandchildren.

I have reached into a past to try to reinforce connections. And now I reach for a future by showing her pictures of those same children.

“I came to England to have them; I spent weeks with you before delivery. And weeks afterwards”.

She reaches out and strokes my back, “Did you? Did you really? But that’s wonderful”. 

There you are, I say, and I point out a picture of her cradling my son, her first grandchild, so new the space between his eyes – which are screwed shut tight – is still nipped pink by stork bite.

I turned the album to my gaze out of guilt, because I knew, behind me where I tapped my on laptop, she was puzzling over all these people and trying to place them.  I impatiently spun it around. 

So I am surprised then, when I find the time has slipped by for I have been as lost in this reverie as she.

And whilst she has briefly, for today, for now, connected the dots of her parents to me, to my children via the conduit of herself as daughter, mother, grandmother, so I have remembered something. In all these hundreds of photos, she is there, smiling and central and strong.

She was not always ill with dementia.

She was not always ill with Depression. There were many, many happy moments. Hundreds. 

And here there are, caught beneath cellphone to remind me.

Now as an Anchor

January 24, 2022

I think it as a walk across the lawn to pop the SD card out of the spy cam we have secured to the thin thigh of a sapling in the garden, “Shall I bother?”

When I slide the card into my laptop’s hard drive, I’ll bear witness to the wildlife that tripped and ran and scuttled across the lawn late at night. I will see the silver stripes that Nike-tick jackal’s sides, the pewter backs of badgers which gleam in the glow of the moon, the chalk white lines that mark a male bushbuck.  I’ll see what time they were all there, to sip a drink from a tank set into baked ground, a lick of salt from a rust coloured tablet that hangs from a post: 01.54 am. I have watched the quiver of porcupine quills rattle past the lens, the duck and dive of bats. One night the camera even caught the stealthy tiptoe of a beautiful serval who stopped to listen to the night exactly where I needed him to pose: directly in front of the frame: click. 

Shall I bother to show mum the images on my screen as I download them? Will she make sense of this complicated story of my night camera and the game it tracks? Will she understand why it’s there? 

Yes.

Will she remember tomorrow?

No.

I slot the card into my laptop and click through the images as I sit beside her and a shadowy night of black and white reveals the clear profile of four legged traffic.

I stop at the honey badgers, a large pair who circle the salt to lick. I tell her how they will clear the stage of any other animals for their ill humour, their habit of biting attacks. I describe how I have borne sleeping witness to their clearing the garden when they wanted the salt to the themselves, how they circled on bush buck ten, twenty, times their size and how the antelope fled with a kick of dainty heels. 

I do this because I have promised myself: I must try to remember to make her Now count. It can be hard to do this: to remember.  To bother. To have the patience to slow down to explain. Sometimes it takes her time to grasp a thing, sometimes she must ask questions to understand, sometimes the same questions over and over and I must steel myself: don’t snap the answer: spell it out patiently and with interest, as if it is the first time you have been asked this question. Do not make her feel stupid for though her intellect is in tatters, there are still bright ribbons of it there in the dark. 

Why do I bother though? Apart from the fact that kindliness may make me feel almost as good as it does her. Aside from the fleeting rush of seeing her face light in amusement or interest or bright engagement which might even be sharpened by some deeply buried memory: I know my father will have described the bad tempered badgers to her decades ago. I know he will have made her laugh when he did. 

I do it because she has no Past. I do it because it is simpler than it may at first sound: I have to make her Now count. As brief as that Now is. As fleeting and thin so that by tomorrow it will be frayed and fuzzy and by the day after that it will vanished altogether and if I remember to be patient, I will be showing her the images from my spy cam again and I will be describing what the camera does and where it is and why we choose to have it in the garden. And understanding the by now regular habits of my nocturnal visitors, I’ll probably be describing the badgers bad manners all over again.

But without her Now what is she? Where is she? And in the absence of cementing, however briefly, the fact of her Now, what am I? She is lost and I am devoid of empathy: this could be you, I keep telling myself worriedly. One day my children may need to gift me my Nows day after day after day, over and over and over as some thin substitute for a Past that no longer exists. A curious fact of time: I must take time to build what is to make up for what has gone.

I have said to my husband, ‘imagine not having a past, how would you feel?’ I do it party because I cannot imagine what that must be like and wonder if he can. I do it partly because in elucidating this awfulness, of a vanished history, I want him to try to understand how unmoored my mother must feel.  I need him to empathize with me as I must with her.

Without a past we bear no ballast. We must always wonder who am I? Who are you? Where am I? Why am I here? What am I to you? My mother asks me these questions all the time. And then she says, ‘Did we come here on a boat? Have we docked in the harbour yet?’ 

I try to pin her down with Now: I try to lend weight to her thin ethereal disappearing present in the hope of making it stay.  Drop an anchor. But the slip and slide of dementia is too heavy and too fast and no matter the gravitas of that Now, I am your daughter, it always becomes part of an invisible past.

Mum laughs when I describe the animals antics of our nocturnal visitors – the sharp toothed, short tempered badgers, the jackals and the dens they dig on the farm where I have found pups staring at up at me, the porcupines who raid the vegetable garden at night and leave an unholy mess of chewed stalks and ransacked maize and my delight is soured not only because I know I almost didn’t bother but because I remember, just because there is no memory, it does not mean there is no sense of humour.

In all of this, she can still see the funny side of things.