By David Evans Bailey
My mother had dementia. That’s a hard thing to face for most people. The toughest part of it was the gradual loss of memory that she endured. If you think about it, memories are, for the most part, all we’ve really got. Once we’ve achieved something, got somewhere, grown-up and gone our separate ways, everything we do is held together by the glue of mutual recollection. These come in so many forms, like photographs, letters, mementoes and more. They’re little triggers that remind us of events, happenings and relationships and they allow our minds to explore the infinite universe of a life lived. We are connected by our shared experiences, emotional bonds and our ties, but the mutual recall of our former life is what ultimately binds us.
What happens when the glue unsticks, the ties begin to unravel and we cease to remember? My mother reached a stage where she only vaguely recognised us, her children. She wasn’t able to recall us once we were no longer in front of her. Conversations became one-sided and consisted of trying to think of things to say or repeating the same thing over and over again, because she had already forgotten what we’d said. But this was a long way down the track.
Memory loss came for her gradually and over a long period of time. It crept up on her like a thief and stole said memories from her mind. It began with not being able to remember where things were, or who had said what. Since this is a normal part of ageing for most people, we paid it no attention. But there’s another side which comes out: aggression and anger. The losing of control over emotions which, under normal circumstances, would have been held in. I know how much my mother hated the fact that she was losing her faculties. She would cry for hours over simple things like not being able to find her glasses. Her memory would be a complete blank, an impenetrable fog. I know a little of how this feels when I can’t remember something myself. It’s unbelievably frustrating. Multiply this a thousand-fold and that is what dementia is like.
After the loss of memory comes the replacement of memory, with mixed up hodgepodges of events. My mother would begin to insist on her version of events and there was no opposing her. Any naysaying would be met with violent emotional consequences. If you can imagine being accused by your own mother of kidnapping her, trying to murder her, stealing her money and all manner of nefarious deeds, then you might begin to see how this might make you feel. At first, it’s like a stab in the heart, a rejection of this unreality being thrust upon you. The person you loved for all those years becomes a stranger. The memories you shared become only yours, rejected by the other party and finally appear to become erased altogether. You learn to just agree with everything that is said to you, no matter how outrageous it is.
My effort to maintain that status quo lead me to search for other ways of dealing with the situation. I felt that whilst I still had the emotional attachment to her and my own memories to fall back on, it was hard to accept the ‘stranger’ in front of me was actually my mother. The only thing I felt that we shared, is that to her, I was a stranger too. Deep down, I knew that some part of her was still there and still loved me. That is what I held on to. My mother though, would sometimes still surprise me by recalling things from long ago, which I had forgotten. And when she passed, I had my son put together a commemorative video of photos, which in themselves would trigger memories for all of us, finally completing the circle of remembrance for us all.