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My Mother the Accidental Tyrant

September 10, 2022

There is this hideous anomaly. With dementia. At their most vulnerable, sufferers, when they need you the most – when they cannot get up and down steps alone or walk safely unaided because their shuffling gait predisposes them to trips and falls, when they are incontinent, cannot use a phone or a tv remote or a shower without help for fear of scalding. When they would not eat if you did not prepare their meals for them, put food in front of them. When you do all these things because they are your mother or your father and this is your duty. Then, because their allegiance to you, their connection or relationship or kinship or even affection towards you, is fading or forgotten – or has diminished to the point of non existence – they can be bloody.

They can be really shitty.

Today is one of those days.

Today my mother told me, accusingly, when I put my head around her door to check she was awake and had tea, “there was no hot water for me, so I only have half a cold cup’. She said it imperiously and with a voice that dripped accusation: This was obviously my fault.

I leave a full flask of hot water ready for mum’s morning tea in her room each night. I am trying to extend what little autonomy there is left – she can make a mug of tea but she cannot be trusted with an electric kettle.

‘You must have finished all the water during the night, mum”, I say – even though I urge her, every night, when I put her to bed, motioning the clock beside it, ‘Don’t get up until the big hand is on the 12 and little one on the six’.

Sundowning: Alzheimer’s disease causes circadian rhythms to trip and short circuit and spark when they shouldn’t. It explains mum’s nocturnal roaming and her confused body temperature so that on waking she is freezing. Icebox cold despite blankets which would drown me in a puddle of perspiration.

Ok, she might say, smiling, obedient. And then forgets and is up at midnight, 2am, Again at 4.  Drinking tea, cup after cup.

Finishing the water in the flask.

“I did NOT finish the water. There was none.”

I don’t mean to raise my voice but I do, I don’t shout, but I elevate the pitch, insistent, ‘Mum, I promise there was water there’.

Don’t shout at me, she wails and instantly I feel mortified and mean.

I refill the flask with freshly boiled water, I make her tea, she greedily accepts a mug, demands to know whether I’ve sugared it with two spoons and grins triumphantly when I confirm I have. I tell I will be back in an hour to help her dress for breakfast. I depart to my study to try to work.

An hour later, I return. She is buried beneath bed covers.

Mum, I shake her gently, ‘you need to get up for breakfast’.

She comes to: scowling, complaining: “I feel sick. I feel tired. I feel faint.”

I tell her I’m not surprised: she hasn’t eaten for hours and and it’s time for breakfast and anyway I add, “you probably have indigestion after all that tea”.

She make a face at me and growls.

I bribe her up to sit in front of her TV (this morning her rising will happen by infinitesimal, painful, selfishly time-consuming, degrees). I count to ten and slow my breathing. I do that a lot now.

“I will bring you a marmalade sandwich”, I say. 

The day plods on. Her mostly sleeping in a chair, surfacing only at noon, demanding, ‘When is it lunchtime, where is my lunch?”

She will not walk with me later. 

I feel sick, I feel tired, I feel faint.

Sometimes she says, ‘My head feels all mad’

I often attempt levity. 

“Let’s walk, if we walk fast and get your heart pumping, we’ll get blood up to your brain. Let’s let the wind blow the cobwebs away, you will feel better’.

Sometimes she concedes and as we walk, her hand clutching the crook of my elbow, her mood falls away. So that on good days, we walk further than she meant to. Not today. Today she rounds her shoulders so her curled-over spine is more curled, something folding into itself, away from the world and from me.

‘I don’t want to walk’

I give up. Give in. I lead her to her room. I pour her a Coke.  

Coke Cola adds life.

‘It will give you a lift’, I say; today is shower day (we need all the lift/life we can get).

Oh no, not a shower, she moans.

Yes, I say resolutely. And I put the television on.

Attenborough. Ordinarily she loves wildlife, there is movement and colour and stirring music and marvellous magical nature and she doesn’t have to keep a track of key players or struggle to follow a story line.

‘Here, something nice about animals’.

She grimaces, ‘I’d rather people’.

Oh. Ok.

I put on a documentary about the royal family, another tried and tested and almost always a success, a series she never tires of because she cannot remember she watched it yesterday and the day before that and they day before that.

I return ten minutes later.

How’s this, I ask, ‘Are you enjoying this?’

Well it’s alright she says and wrinkles her nose

Ma, if you’re not enjoying it, I say, I can change it.

“Well they are rather horrid Germans”, she says and I feel amused – bemused by – and ashamed of – her all at the same time.

I pick up the remote control with an even, calm gesture, the tiniest sigh, trying not to look as cross. I navigate to Anne with an E. Mum watches it on a loop, she watches it almost every day, she never remembers what has happened but she describes it as ‘cheerful’,

Then I whistle up Jip and I walk. I walk hard and fast and furiously for an hour. I walk so fast that the anger and the frustration and the sadness can’t keep up with me.

Somebody asked me not long ago, ‘don’t you resent her? Your mother? You have had to look after her your whole life?’

No. No, I don’t resent her. 

But I have had to consider why days like this are so hard. So horrid. Why do I instantly spin frustrated, impatient. And I know why.

They remind me of Depression. This is precisely the way she behaved when she was depressed. She would vacillate between miserable and tearful and angry complaints of I feel sick/I feel tired/I feel faint. She didn’t feel any of these things. She felt nothing so she made excuses to do nothing. No offer was good enough, no attempt at humour or kindness or patience or the suggestion of a walk was accepted with a smile or grace or even the slenderest effort to try. She could be unkind. Self-centred. 

When she behaves like this now, something about it feels like picking at a scab.  Pressing a bruise I sometimes forget I have.

When I get home an hour later, the Coke is drunk, she is calm.

‘Shower?’

Yes, I’ll get ready.

I go through the usual motions. I try to afford her some privacy, try to preserve a modicum of her dignity as I watch my naked, frail mother step into a shower. I soap the flannel, remind her to stand on the non-slip mat, urge her to grip the handholds and I stand on the other side of the shower curtain and wait until she says, ‘I’m done now’.

Sometimes people say, ‘You are so good to look after your mum; I could never do it, I wouldn’t have the patience’. But what if there are no choices? What if this is what you promised? Promised her, yourself, your siblings, your promise-me-to-look-after-mum dead dad in a long ago dream?  I don’t always have the patience either. And that’s when I I walk away, pull on my shoes and I walk further and faster and faster away.

But I always go back.

When Mum is done, I turn off the tap, I open the curtain, bath sheet in hand, I instruct her to raise her arms and I wrap her in the towel as she use to me when I was a child, the towel too long for my little-girl body so that I had to hitch it up like a skirt as I walked. 

Later, dressed in her night clothes, as she combs her damp hair, she will tel me how much she enjoyed it, her shower.

Oh good, is all I say. Remonstration is pointless. She will not remember. She does not understand.

I pour us both a beer, I find something to watch on the telly. The same documentary on the royal family that she dismissed as Horrid Germans earlier. She is glued to it for hours.

“This is so good”, she says, “I had no idea, I must watch it again”.

My mother is sometimes beastly to me because her head feels all mad, because her world is tangled and untidy, because she has no idea which end of her story is which and where the middle bits have gone. Because she is exhausted by the constant trying to gather flailing threads of life. And who am I anyway?

Who are you, anyway?

My mother cannot love me anymore; how could she – she does not know me well enough to: most days, I am not her daughter. And oddly it is this fact that makes it easier to forgive her the unkindnesses.

She cannot remember the bruisings her illness delivers. She does not feel any residual ache. Not like me. I keep feeling them long after the blows. 

When I finally collapse into bed, having tucked her in, happy now, full of sweet chat and goodnights, I tell myself what I tell myself most days. 

This is not her, this is not mum, this is her disease. Repeat it like a mantra.

And I remember: I used to do this with Depression too; I used to say: This is not Mum, this is Depression.

She was not there then. She is not here now.

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My Mother the Film-Maker …?

September 5, 2022

We are sitting in the garden, wrapped up warm against a nipping evening wind, watching the sun sink in the West; it settles itself low in the saddle strung between mountains, cushioned in dust and veiled by a haze so that the twilight is smoked pink. 

Mum observes it intently. She no longer understands the complicated relationship between sun and moon and earth and which revolves around which or whether one or the other revolves around its own axis and how long those revolutions take. She might as well be a sixteenth century explorer wondering at the sun falling off the edge of the earth.

Is it falling into the sea, she wants to know?

Sea?

We are apparently ocean wrapped here. Aboard a ship and bound for some uncertain, unmapped destination.

Yes, the sea.

No Mum, I say, as the last long rays cling to the end of the day as if for dear life, fingerlings of light broad-spread across the far horizon, “we’re a long way from the sea”.

With practise, I am less likely to startle at the things mum says. With practise I am learning to keep up with dementia, which is a curious anomaly given that dementia is all about slowing down and going backwards.

We have a visitor. Mum has explained our relationship to her. 

“I was here for a film”, she says confidently, raising her glass of beer to her mouth to sip and padding her conversation with fiction as has become her habit, ‘And I bumped into Anthea quite by chance. It was very fortunate because then she invited me to come and live with her’.

The friend looks nonplussed.  She has met my mother before – even if my mother fails to recall this – but even understanding my mother’s memory is prone to holes, she has not yet witnessed this new habit of crudely stitching them up with fiction; fabrications which will come undone, of course, and next time the story will be threaded with some new colourful invention.  She is constantly spinning yarns.

Even I am still often astonished at to where these tales come from: A film?!

In fact, I scooped my mother up out of a cold and wintery Ireland in January. I raced there for four days, packed her up and brought her back before she had time to collect herself and resist. 

Then, back then, she mostly (sometimes grudgingly) accepted I was her daughter, she understood her place in this – in this jigsaw of family and fragmented geography – but too many of the bits have been lost since then, kicked beneath the unmade beds and dropped down the back of sofas in my mother’s unravelling mind so that none of them have a hope of ever being found again.  Then, back then, if we flicked open a photograph album, she could still easily identify my brother, whom she lived with for years and years and all through the close-knit lockups of lockdown, my brother and his family.  Now? Now nine months later there is nothing. 

Who’s that?

That’s Rob?

Who’s Rob?

Your son. My brother (always, always; I am always building links, stuffing blocks into the structure of mother’s collapsing cognitive architecture, propping it up).

My son?! (askance)

His children, their children, all of whom she know well, they are gone.

Who’s that?

Sam.

Who’s Sam?

Your grandson; Rob’s eldest (more building blocks, but they are floury with age and crumble in the passing, from me to mum and they’re already undone).

Who’s Rob?

There’s a hole in my bucket and I give up.

A few months ago, Anthony and I went away for a couple of nights. The escape a necessary luxury. We left mum in the care of a minder.

When we got home she asked me where the couple who had lived here before had gone?

What couple?

Well, the ones who lived here before you, she said, impatiently, ‘You know: Them?’

Them?

Us, Ma, you mean us; we’re the only ones who lived here – live here – we’re back now.

She refused to accept we were the same Nice Couple who’d lived here until the weekend. It served as brutal yardstick: Two days, I thought, two days is all it takes for her to forget whole lives.

In the end – her feverish with frustration at where ‘they’ had gone and I exasperated by the relentless argument of it – we agreed to disagree (we do this a lot now). 

And the next day, she has forgotten entirely about any of it.

‘How was your weekend?’ She enquires with a smile.

And then you must just swallow hard, hold your tongue, gloss over it all and tell her: “It was great, Mum, thank you”. 

Sometimes my mother’s explanation as to why we share a home is apparently because she has been generous enough to open hers up to me. 

She has been here for years and years, she announces, and then, “When did you get here?” She wants to know.  She will pose the question politely. Framing it as if she is asking somebody who is not related to her: certainly not her daughter; her stance and expression and tone will speak to formality not familiarity. As if she is holding me at arm’s length. I used to mind. I don’t anymore. It is what it is: dementia. It is not her, it is the distancing by disease.

And so when some sort of exoticism is introduced to our puzzling equation – my mother the film-maker? (“Producer or director, do you think”, my sister asked, giggling, later) Film-goer? – I came here for a film – it lends odd, comic relief.

Yes, I was here for a film, my mother repeats, taking our visitor’s astonished expression as invitation to elucidate, not utter, utter speechless confusion.

Oh, says our guest: ‘How lovely’. For there is nothing else to say.

And it is; this evening, it is.

Dried Leaves and Dried Tears

September 3, 2022

Every night, when I put Mum’s television on for her, I say, ‘Not sure if you’ve seen this one, Ma, it’s part of a series; I think you might have watched some of the episodes before and enjoyed them’.

Oh OK, she says, settling down.

She’s watched them all. Several times. Some many times. Over and over and over (Anne with an E a case in point). I am learning to stick with what she likes. I remember even if she doesn’t.

A documentary about the Windsors is a current favourite.

Is that the Queen?

Where’s the Queen?

Is she still alive?

Is she married?

Last night: Didn’t we watch this on the ship?

I look at her blankly: “Your know – on the Ship? Didn’t we watch this,” gesturing with a hand flapping in the direction of the television, “this film – on the ship?”

Princess Elizabeth. 1953. Kenya – where she was when she received news of her father’s death and her imminent ascension to the thrown.

Mum. 1953. Kenya – recently relocated there from what-was Tanganyika, what-is Tanzania.

I wonder if Mum watched a newsreel about this. On a ship?  But I think I’m just optimistically clutching at straws: my mother is often adrift at sea now.

*****************************************

In the afternoon, a walk round and round the garden. The sun and the wind have conspired to desiccating effect, the wind huffs and puffs and blows all the leaves out of trees which litter the lawn inches deep and which crunch like cold toast as we walk across them. This thrills mum, who clings to my elbow for balance, she is childlike in her appreciation of the sound. Occasionally she gives a small kick and leaves like popadoms spin upwards.

Every time we round the same bend again, mum comments on the same view, again: the valley spills away from us and we can see for dust-dredged miles, Mt Meru a ghost on our horizons.

Which mountain is that, mum asks.

Meru, I tell her.

I tell her that every day. Sometimes several times a day.

**********************************

In the evening Hat calls. She is so distressed she can barely get her words out, her speech wobbly with tears, whatever she is saying is lost to weeping.

I have to keep repeating myself: ‘I’m so sorry, Hat, I didn’t hear that.’

I am always keenly attuned to Hat’s calls and can tell within microseconds, from her first ‘hello’, how she is.  I have answered calls at all times of day and night.  I have blearily stared at my screen, as it casts my complexion yellow, at 3 in the morning and worried that I missed her call at 2.

At the height of the pandemic, when Hat’s crippling OCD spiralled almost out of control, when fathomless anxiety nagged and gnawed as she chewed over and over and over a single incomprehensible but apparently swallowing worry, I kept my phone on me all the time, ringer at full volume. Just in case. Just in case she called.  I have never felt so necessary as a mother. Nor so useless: so far away, unable to get to her or she to me.

And yet she managed, she waded through difficult days, she got the right help, she limped on and has stepped out the other side with her condition better understood and much better under control. 

Yesterday’s tears were not OCD tears. They were ordinary tears. Everyday heartbreak. They reminded me again: there is a difference, between unhappiness and illness.

You can be well and still be sad.

The Conversations You Don’t Have Pt1

September 1, 2022

Mum used to say, ‘Never put me in a place like this’.

She said it as we stepped over the threshold and through a tall, imposing door into a nursing home – once a stately home, now a facility to care for those in a state of decrepitude. 

The first thing you noticed was the smell; it assailed you as you closed the door, sanitised your hands before sanitizer was a thing. The air was saturated with the scent of whatever was for lunch – which always involved a boiled vegetable, boiled so that it was soft enough to be chewed between gums which meant it was so soft there was no discerning by the palate what vegetable it was in the first place. Cabbage often, judging by the stink.  And then there was the smell of Dettol. Or Bleach. To mask the faint smell of urine.  

Years later somebody would remark to me, ‘I could never have somebody old living with me, somebody old and incontinent: my house would forever be doused with the stink of Old Ladies Pee’ (as if it were a cheap perfume); ‘I’d never get it out of the carpets’. 

The most infirm occupants lived on the ground floor; doors ajar to rooms where they lay prone, expressionless, sometimes their mouths had fallen open so that they reflected the wide O’s of staring eyes. Sometimes they sat slumped in wheelchairs, ranks of them, parked in front of a television raucous with day time television, all augmentative audience and pretending to be pacifist host.

Did they understand a word of it, I wondered, as I walked by, smiling at anybody who looked at me, no matter how vacantly?

‘Never put me in a place like this’, mum hissed again as we climbed the stairs to the first floor where private sun drenched rooms spilled noise and voices into the corridor.

The incumbent we were here to visit had all her faculties, was engaged, engaging. She was just old. Old and broken and mostly immobile.  Mum made a point to visit her as often as she could. To sit for an hour or so. To bring a little of the outside world in which she did with characteristic kindness and grace; she always bore such patience towards the old and the slow. The hour dragged. If I were with her, I’d surreptitiously steal glances at my watch, willing the minute hand a move on.   

And then, when we left, carefully closing the big door behind us as the notice beside it instructed us to (in case one of the inmates makes a break for it do you think, I asked mum once and she laughed, ‘Maybe’) she says it again, “Please: Promise me you’ll never put me in a place like this”.

And yet, on balance The Place was comfortable, pretty, an old vicarage, the staff friendly and kind, the food – vegetables aside – apparently reasonable, the gardens accessible and well tended, the camaraderie amongst the occupants – those who could communicate with one another – evident: a bucolic, gentle place.

Did Mum say it because she thought we might: put her in a home? Did she say it because she thought in preempting the eventuality, she was knocking on wood. Did she really mean: Please never let me be like this: dependent, decrepit? 

There are so many important conversations my mother and I never had. Like what to do when she dies. We didn’t have that one either and now, cognition knotty and so much either impossible to comprehend or forgotten or – usually – both, it’s a very difficult concept for her to grasp and for me to spell out sensitively.

And we never talked about this. We never actually sat down and considered what we might do if mum succumbed to something like dementia, something so life-stealing that you don’t know who ought to look after you and who the people that end up doing so actually are. I just said, in response to her, ‘Never put me in A Place like this’, “Of course not, Mum, we wouldn’t dream of it”.

But we never looked at options, alternatives, never did the sums, never, once, considered the fragmented geography of the family she would come to forget but who would be responsible for her.  Partly because – like cancer and mental illness and any other disease – you don’t think about dementia until it’s a fact of life in your life. Partly because talking about it, if you’re not Touching Wood, is tempting Fate.

I wonder now what she might have said. 

I think – for fear of being a burden – she’d have said, ‘Stick me in a home’.

Mkomazi

July 19, 2022

When I brought the binoculars to my face and the elephants swam into near view, I imagined I could hear the sounds of slaking a thirst, a firehose gush, a filling of bucket-empty-bellies.  The smaller of the herd – and half were young – marked the depth of the dam; they waded out and used their trunks as snorkels, disappearing clean beneath the surface.

But when I lowered the glasses to my lap, the sound was silenced as the view filled my vision.

The valley spills away beneath me, tips towards the savannah which is scorched by drought; I can see the ribbon trails of the tread of game. Sometimes they fray with dust behind the weary walk of a herd of zebra, a trio of eland who hang their heads and whose haunches are growing sharp. 

The blur of hills that cup this valley, like a hand to an ear, funnel the sounds, an amphitheatre cast to amplify acoustics. I hear birds and the boil of cicadas whose buzz simmers through the bush.

Later, when the day tips to evening in the galloping way it does in Africa so that you must locate a torch earlier than you think for you’ll need it; when that curtain drops, there is just a blackness punctuated by moth-holes of brightness punctured by a trillion stars. If only cloud would extinguish their light, you think. If only there could be rain.

The near grunt of a lion makes me jump. Later it will be joined in argument by the the rest of the pride so that I know they are fighting over the best place at a kill. Soon stereo sound is all around and will roar into my sleep and prey on my dreams and I will wake thankful that my tent is firmly secured and not flapping open to the black (and big cats) as I dozed.

And in the morning, in the valley, where the water is a looking glass to the sky, there will be a fresh litter of bones picked bright white and clean. The lions are done with whatever remains of a buffalo. And the vultures almost are.

And as we drive home, threading our way through the bush on ochre-roads whose edges are laced with thorn frilled in bridal white I think that in this secret, still place, where the shrill sound of the ether can’t penetrate, I think that in that brief silence I could collect thoughts?

Walk, Anyone?

July 5, 2022

Come. Come for a walk.

We’ll go across the vlei and up to the reservoir and down the hill where they’re harvesting avocado so that Jip can pinch one for a snack.

Jip begins nudging me out from lunchtime onwards. Tails me around the house. To my office, the kitchen, the loo. Watches hopefully for signs of shoes instead of slippers which I am forced to wear at this time of the year – in the south – for the chilly pinch of cement floors.

Kilimanjaro looms into view as I walk up the small bluff behind the house. This is the best view of her. Today, this evening, when the air is cut glass clear, she seems taller. Stretching on tiptoes up into the blue. Her southern side is swept with snow; that’s where the nipping wind is coming from. I can see every crevice in her side. I imagine, if I strain hard enough, I might even see climbers bent over poles facing into a challenging ascent.

A huge field of stubble is spread before me, bordered to one side by an avenue of trees. Sometimes, when I walk beneath them, the boughs creak like old knees and I pick up my pace in case a branch comes down. Hay was cut here not long ago. Before that I liked to watch the sun rise over it, the first bright fingerlings of light tickled their way over Kilimanjaro’s summit and spun the grass to gold like the Brother Grimms’ Rumpelstiltskin. 

The other morning I saw two zebra here, grazing. They stood still as statues and stared at me as I stared back at them and then with a haughty flick of maned heads and derisive snort, they turned their tails and trotted off, their fat bottoms – which always makes me think of Brian May’s words – undulating voluptuous across the field.

I listen to stories as I walk. Just one earbud in. Circumspect, straining for a crashing through bushes. Buffalo. I often see their droppings here. Ominous splats which dry as pats and flat as plates. I could pick one up and hurl it like a frisbee then. Now I pick my way cautiously. Head up. Watching. Tipped for the slightest sound.

I listen to Annie Dillard On Writing and her words are like a song, so deftly drawn, each syllable perfectly placed: a musical score. Or Didion in Redgrave’s tones describing her Year of Magical Thinking. My best friend’s husband died. I need to understand grief again to understand hers. My own is a distant memory.

I ask mum, ‘What can I say, to comfort her?”

Mum looks devastated at the best friend’s loss. She knew her as intimately as one of her own once. Not anymore. 

‘What can one say?’ She says with such touching sadness I almost weep.

She does not remember she lost her own husband suddenly too.

Didion helps to remind me of the nearness of death and the morphing shape of grief.

Kilimanjaro follows my route. Like an eye in the sky. Mona Lisa’s gaze; I am held within her sights all the way. I feel anchored with this mountain in my own. I was born just the other side of it. When I witness her on my horizons I know I am Home. 

Meru glares at us from across the reservoir.  The sun burnishes the water bronze. On cool days, when the clouds crowd the sky and sieve drizzle to my skin, the water looks steely and bruised, as if emerged from a recent fight. Some days I can barely see Meru through the cloud or the haze or – especially – the dust which rises in the valley on the hooves of a million Masai cattle. But today she is crystal cut, a wisp of cloud about her middle. Like a tutu.  A tutu pulled too wide and too short for her girth. I cannot tell if she looks magnificent today. Or ridiculous: like a stout ballerina.

My breath has quickened from my climb and I gather it here, surveying the spill of the hills below me. There is an urban sprawl down there, corrugated iron roofs wink malevolently. But there is no sound. Just the wind. And – occasionally, especially early in the morning, the throaty rattle of colobus monkeys. I love their call. I always stop to eavesdrop on their chatter. 

I walk fast downhill and turn to catch Kilimanjaro watching me. It’s as if she moves as I do so that she is always just there, just over my shoulder. I walk through rows and rows of avocado trees which are strung with a lacy veil of flowers. More than a million to each tree, to tempt the bees in. Eve and her apple, I think. Most will fall. Like Eve. The rest will end up as hipster breakfast. The odd one a snack for Jip. 

At the bottom of the hill I turn right and walk beneath thick shade.  I have seen huge white tailed mongoose here. Jip too. If she sees them first, before she can escape my clutches, she charges after them. She was stung here. I did not know by what but her distress was instant and evident and I feared at first that maybe it was a quicksilver snake. I watched her carefully for the rest of the walk. A bee, I concluded. Just a bee.

Sometimes I listen to my favourite essayists – David Sedaris, or writers at the Dublin Review as I walk and hope some of their literary magic will percolate into my own language, as if by osmosis. My best words come to me as I walk and have mostly vanished by the time I get home. Unless I capture them quickly in a voice note to self.

I turn and begin to plod back up the hill and the temperature has dropped, the wind at my back nudges me along in gently encouraging gusts. Even Jip is beginning to lag. I keep losing her to the avenues of avos. She knows we’re on the homeward run and time to find exactly the right piece of fruit is running out.   Jackal live here. I have found their den dug into a culvert. I have looked down into the startled eyes of a pup. Jip has chased their parents and I have roared her to heel until I am blue in the face. She come back, outrun, outdone, tongue lolling and pink and I fancy I see a naughty smile about her face.

The light is softening and distilled whiskey gold. In the west, at Meru’s feet the sun is sinking fast, a giant tangerine tipping off the edge of the world but making a holy show of its rolling exit, streaking the sky pink and lilac and orange.

And Kilimanjaro blushes at all the drama.

We’re home.  

Beer, anyone?

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.