The Whittling Away …

April 15, 2021

When I call Mum, I tell her it was her mother’s birthday yesterday.

I’m immediately sorry.

‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘I quite forgot.’

From the tone of her voice, the way she articulates regret, I know she is not sure, in that moment, where her mother is.  Ought she have sent a card, flowers? 

Quickly I say, ‘She’d have been 105, mum, she died a long time ago’.

And there it is, the prompt mum needs: ‘Yes, she died, about a year after my dad’.

Spot on. 

This is what dementia is like. It’s like lost pins. The are scattered and dull and blunt. Some of them have begun to rust. And then somebody holds a magnet close to them – and one or two of the pins suddenly lift and rise to the surface to meet the magnet’s surface. 

They find themselves those pins, they are still tack sharp and bright. But they are also rare. The memories: they are rare now.

She begins to describe where she lives. On a boat. Again. 

‘I have this nice cabin to myself now; the girl I was sharing with has gone. I don’t know where’.

My brother says the ship theme is increasingly common.

What is this? What is this perception of moving? Does she feel it? Unsteady? Unmoored?

My sister thinks it’s because she can’t remember moving to my brother’s. That she’s only been there a few days.

But that doesn’t explain the constancy of movement, the ship.  I would like to peel back mum’s skull and rearrange all the things that have become dislodged, tighten all the screws and put her back together again.  I would like to gift her back her past. I would like to do that with all my heart. 

She tells me she is very busy. She got it right today: She’s busy with the washing up. 

‘I’m in charge of washing up.  It’s good to feel useful’.

Yesterday she told my sister, ‘I am doing all Rob’s filing. I help him a lot with his business, you know’.

Today she told me she is responsible for selling things. A sales assistant, she said. 

Where do these thoughts come from?  She will have a nap after our call she says, after lunch, ‘providing I’m not needed, of course’.   

Is something she is doing reminiscent of filing, selling? Stacking plates in a dishwasher is not dissimilar to collating pages in a folder. 

Is it the feeling needed or the needing to feel needed that makes her say these things? 

I have learned this: dementia is not about a single change. It is not about who the person was and who they have become. There is no clear cut Then and Now.  No Mum with a Memory and suddenly Mum Without. Dementia whittles, whittles away cruelly. And unevenly. So that one day you are devastated by another lost bit of history, a piece of a puzzle kicked carelessly under the sofa where you can’t reach it.  And the next you are briefly elated because that precious part of her past has been retrieved. Briefly. Because briefly the memory magnet moved close enough to catch it.  

But it’s a whittling away. Always a whittling away.

There is less of mum’s story, less of her past, less of mum since there was this time a year ago. 

It is a heartbreaking, dreadful disease. I hope she does not know that.

Mum, Gran, baby sis and me off frame wrinkling my nose …

Keep Digging for Gold …

April 12, 2021

I feel as if I’ve been bowled out. I am hollow. As if some giant hand has scraped me inside out.   A windsock. Except one that hangs limply on a stagnant, listless day. I have lost direction.

These are hard days. When you need to keep pedalling. But it’s all uphill. No writing commissions to gear me up, speed me along. I write into a void.  Another personal essay. Which I will heft over my shoulder and solider on into the ether, touting my wares, talking myself up. 

Writing is a hard craft. And a lonely one.

I plod around the farm. Long, long walks. Jim and I. My earphones dug deep into my ear.

I listen to Elizabeth Wurtzel – she of Prozac Nation – she says writing is hard. Harder than doing law at Harvard, like she did, ‘any fool can be a lawyer’, she said, ‘but it takes real work to write’.

And I feel a bit better. For a bit. But it’s easy for her to say: she has both, a career at the bar and a book. 

I am on my fourth or 5th manuscript. My sixth attempt at NYT Modern Love. 

I’ll stand up in my seat and bear down harder.

What else is there?

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

I miss my children deeply. An ache. I touch my fingers to their faces in photograph frames and I wish, as I have wished a million times before, that I could have bottled the best of their early years so that I could splash the memories on my wrist as scent.  And then I could have inhaled deeply and felt the essence of them, been soaked by it. 

I tentatively make summer plans, scheme escapes, plot quarantine conduits so that I might get to them. I feel like I’m hatching some covert mission.

It shouldn’t be like this: seeing your kids shouldn’t be this hard.

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

Today when I called mum she told me again, ‘I am certain we live on a boat; we go from place to place every few days’.

My heart cracked loudly. So I disguised the sound with laughter, ‘oh mum, that’s funny: at least it’s never boring – you’re on the move during the time of Corona when nobody else is?’

Except then she said, a little sadly, ‘the view never changes’.

What dreadful unmooring must be happening in her head. 

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason I’m feeling empty: mum is moving further and further away.

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

My early morning walk and a perfect, perfect rainbow. As if it had been cast by some celestial civil engineer, a bridge across the sky.


And I looked up and I caught it, caught it before it faded with the sun and was snagged by the wind to nothing.


Whatever it is I’m after, perhaps it’s in one of those pots of gold?

Have to keep digging …

Dad’s Tree

April 7, 2021

When I sit beneath the acacia, which shades the cottage verandah and frames distant Kilimanjaro and which is bedecked with weavers’ nests which hang bauble like from branches, I wonder if dad sat beneath the same tree.

‘How old do you think it is?’ I ask Ant.

‘Oh’, he says, ‘at least fifty years, probably more.’

And I am satisfied. I am sitting where Dad has sat.

We are in sprawling Tsavo West with its long tipping views that stretch to wrap huge mountains and greedily gather up great handfuls of spilling plains. We are staying the same bandas I stayed in as a child.

I sit now, beneath Dad’s acacia, watching my mountain view – back to front here for I live on Kili’s Western edge and so my perspective on it is slewed from this position. And  I chuck bread crumbs at the starlings and sparrow weavers and hornbills which cheekily beg. They come close and nag loudly, ‘more, more!’ They shout. 

As a child I sat motionless on the steps of the same verandah, a Hansel and Gretel trail of crumbs carefully and temptingly and strategically placed in the hope I’d draw a squirrel in – for they scuttle  about here too, skittering nervously looking for scraps which they dainty raise to their mouths to nibble with two front paws. I wanted one as a pet. I wanted one so badly. When finally, after patient hours, one grew so tame it took crusts from my fingers, I imagined myself as some Dr Doolittle protege, conjuring conversations with wild animals.

When I get back home, to the right side of the mountain, I write a letter to mum. I describe the views, the camp, the squirrels and birds. I describe the elephants, the leopard we saw, the storms that rolled in and charcoaled the heavens black and then rolled out taking the rain so that they left the sky watercolour blue and the road wet – so wet we watched cheetah drink from puddles and whole herds of elephant wallow in them.

I paint as vivid a picture as I can. Huge, Technicolor brush-strokes; I hope my words will colour in the blanks. 

I hope she will remember something. Something of those precious, faraway long gone days. Of my back-to-front mountain view. Of the nighttime whoop-whoop of hyenas. Of the greedy, chattering birds. Of hurricane lamps and camp fires. Of dad taking us on safari to exactly the same place when we were little.

But it does not. She remembers nothing.

By lunchtime, when I speak to her, she has even forgotten the letter I’d written her which she read with her morning tea. She could recall no part of it.

So she did then what she has begun to do when gaps present; she changed the subject: ‘Will we see you when you are over here?’ She asks, politely.

‘I’m not over there, ma’ I say, ‘I’m still Covid-captive over here.  But as soon as I can get over, I’ll come and stay and we’ll go away somewhere. In the summer.’

But will we? Will we really?

There are so many variables. So many marbles beneath my feet.  I don’t know when I’ll get over there, to see mum. 

I don’t know if she’ll know me when I do.

When the Rain Came …

March 27, 2021

When the storm presses its thumb print heavy on the sky it bruises it fifty shades of grey, finger paints it in careless daubs, from smoke to deep black.

Clouds belly so low they almost touch the earth, pregnant with promise and rain which will fall heavy, heavy onto red earth so that it bleeds into puddles the will lie for days, shrinking slowly shallower.  

Jip will race through them, her head low and happy and her tongue lolling pink as she smiles a broad dog smile.  She’ll tread ochre prints all over the floor when we get home. Sometimes I must take a towel to her and she wriggles with pleasure as I rub her dry.

Nature feels so near then. I feel her breath on my face. I am thrillingly exposed, a frisson I feel on my skin and which tickles my nose, the perfume of approaching rain. Like a dangerous lady who has sprayed too liberally from a bottle of scent.

I love walking as a storm rattles in. The heavens feel so close, all the celestial bodies leaning in and complaining in thunder that grumbles round the mountain. I can hear only that and the wind as it races through trees so that whole chorus lines of leaves pirouette to the ground, spinning, spinning until they collapse and curtsey in the dust.  

The house will shout out a warning, ‘it’s coming, a storm, it’s coming’ and windows will clatter and doors slam shut. Later rain will slap the glass and I will watch the ceiling for the brown tea stain of leaks.

I got in just in time.  I don’t always.

Digging for Diamond-Days

March 24, 2021

Two days ago, when I called, mid afternoon, mum was still in bed.

She feels unwell, she says, her back is sore, her tummy is sore, she is tired, she did not sleep well.

She lists complaints that alarm me. I am distressed to think she might be in pain. That there might be some hidden condition that is veiled by her confusion and her inability to articulate as clearly as she once could.

 I start punching the list of symptoms she describes into Google. Diagnosing. Catastrophizing.

My measured brother sensibly mostly ignores the frenzied texts I bat off to him.

‘I’ll keep an eye’ he says. The silence that ensues shuts me up. 

He is always sparing of words. He once asked me, ‘why do you use 20 words when two will do?’

I have met enough editors to know that he has a point.

When I call the next day though, Mum is in high spirits. There is no talk of pain or tiredness today.  My brother, who looks after her with a gentle, humoured solicitousness, knows her much better than I do now.

‘I am tidying my room’, she tells me and her tone sings, ’I am so busy.’

I check in again today – and feel my heart bumping up against my throat, as I dial, anxious as to how today is – but she is still at it. Still busy.  Still cheerfully engaged.   My brother has indicated a pile of trousers in her room and suggests she sort through them – which ones she’d like to keep, which to ditch. 

She wonders who left them there, ‘they aren’t mine; they belonged to somebody much fatter than me’ so that I have to smile.

‘I have only just finished unloading the dishwasher, it’s good exercise. And for my brain too as I have to remember where everything goes’.

And my heart gives a small squeeze.

‘I like being busy’, she says. ’It’s good to be busy – there’s no time to worry if you’re busy; it makes me happy.’

And I remember the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times my siblings and I tried to impress this upon her when she was sick with Depression. 

Be not idle. Be not idle.

Get busy, ma, it’ll help, it’ll take your mind off things, we said.

But she’d just regard us miserably from her bed or from the chair where she’d wound herself like a comma, an hiatus on life. It said: wait.

‘Do you have any worries, ma?’ I ask her now.

She pauses and then, ‘no, no I don’t think so’.

I need to hold onto the good days. Depression meant days and days, weeks, months of bad days.  In mum’s experience of dementia, so far, I have learned that a bad day, can morph as just that, A bad day.  

We never got that with Depression. A Bad Day. 

And so I understand one more small blessing that I must pick, gingerly, from the fallout of all this and blow upon it gently, rub it on the hem of my t’shirt and hold it up to the light to admire.

Wiping away the Dust

March 13, 2021

Mum says, ‘I am reading your book.’

And I cringe.

‘It’s very good’, she says kindly, ‘I am loving it; I am already on page 12!’

Ten years ago I attempted a memoir on my African childhood. It was redrafted several times, it was even submitted to publishers. It never found a home and I shelved it, to gather dust. Which was fitting given its title: The Settling of Dust.  My brother – because mum kept scouring his bookshelves and then rejecting whatever she found as too dull or too involved or because the print was too small, has printed out a fresh copy of dusty Dust for mum to read.  At least, I think, we can manage line spacing and font size.

I unearth the editorial feedback I received now and am reminded that whilst the book lacked publishing merit, my memories of childhood and my evocation of Africa rang true. 

I never imagined my mother would read my manuscript for this reason, to conjure her old life so that she could re-remember it,  so that she could recall a forgotten life on a farm and my father’s night time sojourns to cull lions that were killing his dairy herd.  I never imagined I could – would have to – introduce her to a cast of characters that populated all our lives, especial hers; I never imagined I would need to introduce her to her history, even her own parents via the conduit of my own recollections. I never imagined this manuscript would bear any value. 

‘Thanks, mum’, I say.

‘It is helping me to remember my life’, she says, ‘and so I persevere with my reading.’

And I especially never imagined it would one day be read by a mother I’d had to teach to read all over again.

I am glad now of the childish language. I’m glad it was dismissed as undemanding; it will be an easy read for her, I think.

But I am also glad I redacted the chapter on Depression. 

Mum does not need all her memories.

Then and Now: learning how

March 10, 2021

Sometimes Mum does not remember her Grandchildren’s names.

Or if she does, they are muddled and mismatched; she attaches the wrong grandchildren to the wrong child. Or the wrong name to the wrong person. There are no neat lines anymore. Just a messy cat’s cradle  tangled with crossed lines which we gently, sensitively, try to unpick or avoid.

I don’t say, ‘Remember Amelia?’

Because Mum might not – not in that instant, she needs time and prompts – and without them I see confusion cloud her face, and something like irritation or humiliation. She can tell by my tone that she ought to know an Amelia but she can’t find her right now, in this moment, she can’t place her so she clumsily sifts her memories for the name. For the connection. And she will be left feeling inept and stupid.

‘I am so bloody stupid’ she will say sadly, ‘why can’t I remember anybody?’

So instead I say, ‘My daughter, Amelia, the one who teaches in London …’

And Mum’s in the frame, then. We have placed her, we have placed the characters that will populate this little story I am about to narrate. We have reminded her of the cast.

In some ways, this losing of her grandchildren saddens me most. She was such a present grandmother. So full on. Engaged. Perhaps my trio, joined by my brother’s two and my sister’s three, perhaps those small people grew a team where a big gap had been gouged when Dad died. Perhaps they reminded her of continuity, even when somebody has gone. Perhaps they lent new interest – for she was, interested: in their friends, in where they went to school, in what they read so that parcels full of books would often arrive. 

Perhaps she just needed to feel needed as her own children grew up?

And because I witnessed the forging of those strong bonds, I feel such a loss at their coming adrift.

I urge my girls, ‘call gran’. And they do. And she loves their calls. She will tell me all about them and there will be no confusion as to who is who and who called when for my girls will have primed me, so subtly and sensitively we have separated the strands of the cat’s cradle before we even begin so I’m not tied into knots trying to unpick who called mum when I call her.  And nor is she.

My great grandniece is two now and I watch astonished, Mum almost unchanged with her, almost as engaged as she was with my son nearly three decades ago. She isn’t strong enough to heft her to a hip, can’t chase her around a garden but she can slot pieces into a puzzle, laugh at the things she says, let her clamber into bed with her great grandmother so that she can look at books with her.

And I consider this small, uncomplicated tableau of the very old and the very young and I see in this single picture a forging of What Was and What Is, a straddling of Then and Now.

These things are hard, this letting go as mum loses bits of herself. But I know this is right, this is the right way to do it: to use her past to anchor us in her present.

That’s the only way I know how to do this.

Driving Home

February 28, 2021

I grew up on the other side of this mountain. I raised my children on this side. It’s punctuated my horizons for years – like an exclamation mark; it says, ‘You’re Home!’

And when I drive home on an evening like last night, when every part of the mountain is revealed, her shoulders quite bare and she’s so clear that I can trace every line and wrinkle and crease of her face, she looks bigger and surer. Her ice cap is snow-white and her foothills lilac against the blue of sky. And the nearer I get to home, the taller she looms, as if rising up protectively to draw me in.

And then in the setting sun she blushes pink.

By the time I swing into the farm, she’s like a ghost and I count 8 owls waiting on fence posts for the mice to turn out, so that they can begin to hunt and a jackel runs across the road and the pewter of his back gleams beneath a softly rising moon which crowns the mountain silver.

And I am home.

Guessing Names

February 25, 2021

When I call mum today, she tells me all about a young person who speaks to her every day.

‘She calls me every single day’, she says, ‘without fail; she’s so good.’

She tries to explain to me who this paragon is.

‘I think she is the daughter. Of somebody. I think she has a brother and a sister. Or maybe two sisters.  I can’t remember.’

I imagine then that she is speaking about one of her granddaughters. One of my girls, who call her sporadically. But I know my own girls are too busy – behind screens, one teaching (in a large London school), one being taught, her Masters – to call every single day.

I offer her their names but no, it’s not them.

And then she reveals other details of this person who calls her every day – ‘we don’t talk for long, just a little chat, but it’s so lovely.’

What she tells me reveals she is talking about my sister. Who is also a busy teacher and who, yesterday, texted to say, ‘haven’t spoken to mum for a few days, I try often but she doesn’t pick up.’

The last time I saw mum, just before this pandemic broke, she forgot who I was. Just like that. One day she was sure, the next she accused me of being a stranger. She had been staying with me for two months.  We had sat opposite each other every single day those two months for every single meal. We had walked together. We had played cards. But that day – I’d vanished.

When my sister arrived to join us several days later, she confided in her, told about this imposter claiming a relationship with her. 

It stung. More than stung. I cried and felt deeply bruised at her sudden distancing and distrust of me, closing me out of her bedroom at night with a ‘no thank you, I don’t need your help with my medication, my daughter will help me’, gesturing my sister.

I am no longer stung. I know that there is nothing personal about mum’s failing memory. It pulls from the wreckage some things, the rest drowns. One day I rise to the surface so she can pluck me from it, the next I sink right out of sight.

I am no longer stung.

And I will keep calling her every day.

The Elephant in the Room

February 19, 2021

I am describing the wildlife on the farm to Mum. I tell her I have had to curtail my walks, I walk less on the wild side now, for fear a buffalo will emerge from the bush.

‘A real buffalo?’ Mum wants to know.

A real one, I confirm.

We have a ton of game on the farm, I tell her – they make a menace of themselves in Ant’s vegetable garden.  The porcupines, the pigs, the dikdik.  Even the elephant – which picked their way surprisingly daintily through rows of beans and across beds of carrots.

‘How do you know you’ve had an elephant in the veg patch?’ I ask mum.

How, she wants to know.

‘Because of the footprints in the dust as big as dinner plates’, and she hoots with laughter.

I tell her I remember a dish towel we had as kids (I don’t say, ‘do you remember that dish towel we had as kids …’) It was lined with crazy riddles and I repeat some of them to mum now.

How do you fit four elephants in a Mini Moke?

How?

Two in the front, two in the back, I say. More laughter.

‘How do you know an elephant has been in your fridge?’

How?

‘By the footprints in the butter!’

More laugher – and ‘oh Anthea, how silly!’

OK Ma, how do you fit four giraffe in a Mini Moke?

Two in the front, two in the back?

Nope – it’s full up with Eles.

And mum laughs a deep rich real belly laugh.

That was a good day. Today’s call was a good call.

When the children were little we often used to escape up into the cool of the forests that cloak Mt Meru’s shoulders.

Up there, arching over the road to the summit, is a huge fig tree with a massive hole through its middle.

Ant used to tell the children it had been made by an elephant who came racing down the hill so fast it couldn’t find its brakes in time.

The kids loved that story.

When we looked at a picture of the tree recently, they were astounded.

‘Oh it’s so much smaller than I remember!’ Said Melie.

And they are all so much bigger.

I place photos of the tree side by side. All that separates the pictures are a few centimeters. 

And decades. 

They grow up so fast. Our children. One minute you look and they’re tiny and clutching at your hand. And they next you can lean into them because you’re the tiniest in the family. 

How did that happen? When?