I’m not sure whether my Mum is losing me, or whether I am losing my Mum. We’ve never been close. We’ve always been complicated. But in some ways I defined myself as much by that complication as anything else. I became a set of “I will never”s as much as a set of “I will be”s.
Now dementia is rewriting that fraught relationship every day. There are upsides. Screaming paranoias that would have lasted weeks or even years now only last a few minutes. Memory loss has its charms, as it turns out.
Sadly there are hidden razor blades, too. My Mum no longer knows how many kids I have, or whether they are boys or girls. That’s not particularly new, but on Monday she went from one sentence berating me for working too hard to asking how the job hunting was going. When I told her I was happy in my job she was puzzled – how long had I been out of work? When I gently suggested she was confusing me with somebody else, she agreed that this might be so, and then, in a small voice, asked me “What do you do, again?”
That small question hit me like an out of control freight train. Being a teacher is a fundamental cornerstone of my soul. It’s who I am. So I am forced to face the fact that my Mum doesn’t know me anymore.
Whoa-oh-oh slipping away from me
And it’s breaking me in two
Watching you slipping away
Slipping Away. Max Merritt and the Meteors.
It feels like a short step from here to her not recognising me at all, but the heartbreaking part is that we still know her. We still possess within us all the complexities, the hurts, and the misunderstandings of our lives together. For her they are washed mercifully clean, but for us they churn away in our every response to her. We remain angry and confused about things she has no memory of doing. We are still frustrated and hurt by a history she can’t even imagine.
You may argue that it’s time to let go. To dispense with emotions that are years out of date. But those experiences made us who we are, and they are not lightly or easily discarded.
My grandfather forgot us all, in the end. My personal version of that history is that he remembered me long after he forgot everyone else, but I suspect that’s a story my 13 year old self desperately wanted to believe. It’s far more likely that we all disappeared for him, much the way we are disappearing for Mum, now.
Sometimes Mum calls 6 times an hour, asking the same question, accepting the answer, and forgetting it within moments. Sometimes she doesn’t call for days. She doesn’t remember this afternoon that I saw her this morning, but she can hold onto strange things – like wondering what I have done with her bathroom mirror? (I never had it.) We’re used to the conversation repeating. We’re used to things being forgotten, and her getting muddled. But this loss of identity: this is a fresh shock.
Mum’s young for dementia. At 76 it’s unusual to be this far from your former self. At 43 it seems unusual to be facing the slow, shattering demise of the very essence of your Mum. But this is our world now. This is the future that looms, the grief that stalks us.