Archive for June, 2022

Ever Decreasing Islands

June 24, 2022

Mum wakes in a foul mood. Drinks tea. Climbs back into bed so that she is a mound under blankets heaped over her. She looks like something in hibernation. She tells me she is too cold to get up. It isn’t cold.  This is either a marker of mood. Or a marker of a metabolism that is slowing to the point of stillness. When she walks now she is breathless.

I urge her up. Get up. Get dressed. Get something into you. Cereal. Toast.  More hot sweet (sometimes three heaped teaspoons) tea.

I have said these things to her many times, many years ago.

But it’s easier now, to coax her up. It’s not her worries and fathomless fears that stop her getting up. She doesn’t get up because she doesn’t know what to do once she has. 

The ill humour sustains over breakfast. Nobody has mastered the art of looking disgruntled the way my mother has. The milk in her cereal bowl threatens to curdle.

To her blind right side I furiously text my siblings for moral support. We share a WhatsApp chat and it is dominated by conversation about our mother.

She’s in a furious mood this morning.

My sister commiserates.

My brother sends me a video of his adorable five year old granddaughter singing a song.

The same little girl used to pile into mum’s bed when she lived with my brother during the pandemic, they’d hunker down and look at books. My mum would know when Roybn was on her way down to see her by the urgent patter of small feet along a corridor, sometimes tailed by a heavier tread: her mother, ‘leave Granny rest’.

She loved her.

Here Mum, I say, and stick my phone under her nose, ‘isn’t she sweet?’

Mum watches with something like boredom.  She is more interested in what to put on her toast.

‘Who is she?’

“That’s Robyn. That’s Rob’s Grand-daughter. Your great granddaughter”. 

And I deliver the punchline with emphasis: Fancy that: you’re a great grandmother.

Who is Rob?

Robert, I say, “your son, Robert”.

She scowls: “oh right. Well he might have told me he had a family!”

Sometimes, often, I tell myself, I will not argue a point – the fact of a thing or the existence of a person – my mother’s great granddaughter, and that she spent most of her first five years with her. 

And today, I don’t. Today I opt for peace.

But every time I buy into the fiction of dementia, the denouncing of people and a past because of it, I slice off another chunk of my mother’s life and the thinner her memories and recollections grow, the less there is for us to hang onto. Like a lifeboat growing deflated on a huge, open sea where there isn’t a single hopeful islet of land to swim to.


We Made it Our Home

June 22, 2022

“I don’ know the answers”, says Mum. She looks crestfallen.

I tell her, ‘it’s not a test, ma, it was just in case you were interested’.

I have flagged the pages of a book with post-it notes and on each note I have scratched a comment, in an effort to guide her reading, lend context. Make it, I hoped, more interesting.

The book I’ve leafed with notes so that the pages are feathered yellow is an old blue hardback that has been in my library for years – and before that, hers. It’s called They Made it Their Home and it describes, in dated lexicon – it was, after all, published in 1962 – the homesteads settled by Kenya’s earliest pioneers. I am hit by the scent of aged paper when I flick it open: something musty and comforting. 

I have flagged the chapter Mombasa with the words: ‘You lived here as a child. Your dad was a doctor here’.   Mum does not remember Mombasa. She does not remember the enormous baobabs that lurched ancient and wide girthed from hot sandy soil, all gone now to make way for spilling urban sprawl. She does not remember a city that 70 years ago was so gentle she and her little sister cycled between home and my grandfather’s hospital. Now it squeals in the heat and bleats with the complaining horns of strangled traffic.

She has no recollection of Machakos and Ulu which share a page because their geography is in proximity. ‘You lived here too’ I write and then boldly elaborate, ‘My dad farmed here’.  The ranch I grew up on was hugged between Ulu’s hills which rolled fat and green in the rains and grew skinny ribbed as the vegetation desiccated in times of drought. My uncle fell into a cess pit as a child in Machakos and my grandparents tended him urgently all night; my mother almost didn’t have a little brother.  The same little brother whom she doted on and of whom last week she said indignantly, ‘Brother? I don’t have a brother!”

Of Nairobi I wrote, ‘You worked here for East African Airways’. Later we shopped there, visited our grandparents in a small suburban house with a garden that smelled of damp earth and woodsmoke which ours on the ranch never did. Mum dragged us to a Nairobi dentist, shopped for fabric in its Bazaar Street and bought us potato crisps with a twist of salt to eat on the way home in the car.   My mother does not remember I am her daughter, why should she have borne any responsibility to my oral hygiene. I will not mention it.

Of Londiani I scribble, ‘My dad’s parents settled here 100 years ago’. My grandmother arrived on the back of a donkey apparently, with her trousseau and minus the barrels of fish she had brined in the eastern highlands of Scotland. Those had been dropped quay side in Mombasa (see above) as they were unloaded and split and the catch slithered saltily back into the ocean. Her first home had an earthen floor and a charcoal and chickenwire refrigerator.

Of Gilgil I write three words, ‘We lived here’. I do not tell her that this is where she first succumbed to Depression, where it stuck out a leg meanly and tripped her up and she fell headfirst into an abyss where it was hard to reach her and harder to understand her. We lived there for six years. She was sick for most of those. I do not remind her, ‘This is where dad went the weekend he died’: driving home he had a car crash. He wouldn’t have felt a thing people told us afterward, as if that were supposed to help. I do not remind her because she does not remember my father or where he is or when he died. ‘He left me, you know,’ she has confided, ‘my husband just upped and left’.

Sotik: we lived her too. Dad was returning there when he died. Mum wasn’t there because she was in Ireland being treated for the Depression which was never treated and which had moved home with us – Gilgil to Sotik. It followed us to England after that. I hoped we had managed to leave it behind with dog eared furniture. We should have locked it firmly into a cupboard – perhaps the one where mum locked all the booze. We only discovered it on loading it into a truck when the tip and rattle of bottles alerted us.

Naivasha was happier for mum. On a farm overlooking a lake. ‘Dad worked for Lady Delamere’ I print on my post-it. My maternal grandmother had a lot to say about that. But I could never tell if the glint in her eye was on account of the delicious recounting of Happy Valley gossip or because she disapproved of the lot of them. Which my paternal grandmother, who shared our home briefly here, certainly did.  My opinion of Lady D was informed by the fact she let me ride her wild polo ponies across the farm and because each Christmas she dispatched a gift for my siblings and I from Hamleys in London. Dad was insulted by this. He got 200 bob.

And finally I have stuck a resistant post-it note into the Kinangop, resistant because the glue is drying and post-its flutter like leaves to the floor unless I press with determination and weight, the tip of my thumb white with the effort of it. ‘MY dad grew up here’ for often Dad confuses her: mine? hers? Ours? Are we sisters?  My father learned to drive here when he was still so small he used to beg some amenable other to sit in the foot well of the truck and work the pedals for him. My uncle at 14 shot a lion to save an Italian prisoner of war from the jaws of fate; the lion had him up a tree and was pawing at his backside to try to retrieve his quarry from the branches. And here my grandfather died of oral cancer, nil by mouth at the end except for the nip of whiskey he sucked through a straw.

“I don’t know any of the answers”, mum says again, waving her hand at me in a gesture of despair.

It’s not a test, I repeat. And then I see, it probably was. Unwittingly, in trying to unearth her roots, I was challenging her memory.

And I am sorry. 

It’s There. And Then it’s Gone.

June 20, 2022

We drive around the mountain to the other farm. The sky is duck egg blue and smeared with a haze which knocks all the sharp corners off the mountains so our views are soft, profiles powder puffed. When it rains and the air is cut glass clear and clean, I can see every crevice of distant hills. Not today. Today, with mounting drought, the dust smudges everything. 

Mum watches the road unfurl, a ball of yarn coming undone. At the wheel I steal sidelong glances. She stares ahead intently. 

Have I ever come this way, she wants to know.

Not this way, I say. It must be a relief – when I tell her what she wants to hear: she has not forgotten this route. She will. It will go the lost way of every other trip we make.

The road whips round bends and rises and falls. It’s empty. A grey ribbon of asphalt sliced by a line of white. I drive fast and hope mum can feel this faint thrill of movement. Her life is so slow and sedentary now.

At the farm I point out new developments. Take her arm as I inspect a build. Guide her vision to the mountain which looks quite different from this position, a different cold shoulder turned to us. 

See it, I ask?

Yes she says. Her gaze is directed in entirely the wrong direction.

Does she say yes to please me? To hide her disabilities and failing vision and incomprehension.

Not that way Ma, I say and I gently tilt her head and raise my arm to guide it as I point a finger.

“Over there. See?”

And then she does and I can tell because her whole expression changes:

Oh yes!

And we turn around and we drive home. More slowly this time. We drive back down the road, elevation falling as the valley spills away below us: huge, sprawling Africa views, fields of stunted wheat like an oaten sea wave in the evening breeze, mountains that shimmy, herds of sticking rib skinny cattle that crowd the road on their way back to safety of nighttime ‘bomas’.

Mum’s face is full of curiosity and her questions come thick and fast.

Who lived here before

What are they growing

Which country are we in now?

And again as last time and the time before that, I am reminded: because she has no answers as to who she is and where she’s from and who I am, it does not mean she has no questions. She has lots; she still has lots.

And when we get home and I help her out of the car and she leans against it to get her balance, something which I notice she must do more often now as her gait is unsteady and tottering, she says, ‘that was lovely, that was so lovely, thank you’.

An hour out in the car. That’s all it was. That is all it took: A new view. A different speed. I must remember this, I think.

The next day I casually drop the herds of wasting cattle into a conversation, the ones whose boney rumps bumped up against the front of my car as I edged my way carefully though them.

‘What cattle? Was I with you?’

It’s there and then it’s gone. So fast. Stuff slips through so quickly now. Even the things that you think really counted. 

Especially the things that really did.

Dementia as Metaphor

June 17, 2022

There is a pile of books in front of mum. At her side. Her feet. She’s forested by them. She picks up one and shortly afterwards abandons it for another.

I sense her frail grasp of reading is loosening. The words which we painstakingly rebuilt after her stroke are disintegrating as the alphabet comes undone in her head. 

“This book is a load of old rubbish”, she announces.

Load of Old Rubbish.

She says that a lot now.

About the book she has tried to read, the television show she has watched and not understood.

That was a Load of Old Rubbish.

I let the criticism slide. Even of the best movies. The Oscar winners. Mum cans them all.

Oh I’m sorry, Ma, I say, ‘let’s try something different’.

I am reading about dementia as metaphor. Dementia is a paper boat. Dementia is ships adrift. Lost anchors. Dementia, says the writer Suzanne Finnamore, is a place.  My own figurative descriptor? Dementia is the negative of a photograph, something reverting to a state of undevelopedness. I imagine a dark room and the cinematic rewinding of an image revealed in a basin of water. From technicolour back to black and white as it fades to barely discernible spectral shapes. Then there is nothing.

My mother’s Other Country Dementia is a jumble of all of the countries all over the world. A confusion further muddled by the library of books she has optimistically collected about her chair so that they teeter precariously. Books on Kenya-the-colony, books by writers she once loved – Anita Shreve, books by Roald Dahl because the print is helpfully large and clear.

Is there a Chocolate Factory in Kenya, she wants to know?

I feel the corners of my mouth twitch, the tug of a smile.

There probably is, I say, ‘but not this one – not Charlie’s; that’s a magical factory of imagination and storytelling. It’s not real’

Oh, says Mum.

And I’m sorry I laid bare the boring facts of life.

What if we could recast dementia as a place of make believe and make up? Would that be a happy place to escape to, to run way from confusion and incontinence and lost words and dropped ones? Couldn’t we conjure it as a golden hour in her twilight ones?

I wish I could do that. Whisk her off to make minute long memories that delivered a fizz of fun and joy, a match to a candle. A quickening strike to let in the light. I wish I could do that. But our pasts prop us up and define us and give shape to today and tomorrow and the day after that and after the next one and on and on. And when you cannot remember the happy family lunch you all shared yesterday, when there is no recall at all of anybody who sat at the table, of even the tiniest snatch of a corner of the conversation that was had, the candle is snuffed out as quickly as its lit, as if between spit-on-finger-tips. A deadening sizzle and it’s all gone. 

There is no magic here.