I got home tonight to messages on my answering machine. Sad, tearful messages. She had left the hose on. She thought it might have been on for days. She hoped it wouldn’t cost too much. She was so sorry for causing trouble. She really didn’t know how it had happened. She never meant to cause any trouble. She would pay for it, it was all her fault. She never meant for it to happen. She was utterly distraught. We listened to the message, open mouthed at the confused and distressed child in her 70s, for whom the world was just too much. Whose tsunami of confusion and horror was breaking over her head every moment of the day. It shattered my heart into a thousand pieces.
The next message was calmer, matter of factly saying that the hose had been left on, she was very sorry, and there might be a large bill, because she thought it had been on for a few days.
By the time I called her back, only a couple of hours after the messages, the whole thing was forgotten, but she was lonely and tearful. We had the same conversation we have every time, where she told me I work too hard, and I need to cut down. Where she told me she wanted to see me but didn’t want to be a nuisance. Where she said she wanted to go to the beach, because she hadn’t been for ages, although she was there only a week or so ago. Where she asked when she would see me, and when I told her Monday, said it had been ages since she had seen me – when could we get together?
When I suggest she see a doctor, her fear and confusion turn to intense aggression. She is so afraid of doctors, of finding out that there is something wrong with her, that it turns her confusion into anger that can cause volcanic scale eruptions for days, so I don’t suggest that anymore.
Her fear and sadness clutch at my heart and make me breathless and tearful. I hold her and tell her it will be ok, but I know it won’t. I know that there will be ups and downs, but that the inexorable downward slide is gathering speed, dragging us all down into a morass of grief and trauma, with no way out, no escape for any of us in any direction I can see.
I want to tell my kids that it will be fine, but I can’t explain away the evil claws that clutch my heart when the phone rings. I protect her as best I can, but I have to protect myself and my family too. I distance myself to stay sane and functional, and I try to pretend that my foundations are not being eaten away by the corrosive demon that is dementia.
I forget things and ice stabs into my brain, whispering “it’s inherited, you know.” At 43 I know that changes may already be visible in my brain, and I don’t look for fear of what I might find. The research suggests staying mentally active is the best defence, so I push myself to the limit every day, desperate to build a seawall between myself and the imaginary rising tide that threatens to sweep my family away.
I want to protect her. I want to escape her. I want to help her. And I am as helpless as that confused and ageing child.