Wednesday, 12 January 2011


“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

It was ten in the morning, and I’d walked uphill along icy roads and pavements to the hospital, hoping to find Mama fresh and alert. Agata said that mornings were better for Mama. I found her lying quietly half asleep. I shook her gently, she opened her eyes to look at me but the most recognition she offered was a nod. She looked away, at the room, at the woman who sat in her chair opposite and one diagonally across from her. She’d had a stroke and hadn’t spoken for at least two weeks. Her family visited her each day and presented her with bills to sort through.

With an irritated smile Mama replied, “Do you think that I’d forget my son?”

She indicated for me to raise the head of the bed. Once she’d settled comfortably she asked me about how I’d slept. It’s cold outside. She nodded at the snowy hill just outside the window where a fresh load had fallen overnight. Had I been warm enough in the upper bedroom of her house? Though they were all familiar questions that I’d heard often, spoken obsessively, I felt that she was concerned for my welfare. As always she asked about the kids. Even about my writing. How was it going? Our conversation lasted about ten minutes before she drifted off again. The fixed look returned. She wasn’t sleeping but she no longer appeared interested in what I was saying. Her eyes followed the morning sunlight, the way it caught on the snow and made it sparkle.

I was left wondering what she is thinking about. What thoughts occupy her while she remains unresponsive to me? Very few, I suspect. Not having Alzheimer’s, I can’t imagine what it must be like not to have the ability to retain short term memories. Does that leave you in a Zen state where you are intensely aware of the present, of everything that is happening now? Each snow hillock, that tree branch bent under a heap of snow? Our normal consciousness involves a constant internal narration, where we go over our thoughts, one after another, each thought awakening new associations and generating the next. Our thoughts are so important to us that we narrate them constantly, either consciously or unconsciously. Watching Mama, I don’t get the sense of internal narration. When she looks at the snow, it’s without any thought filter. She doesn’t wonder about it, associate it with the past. The past doesn’t have the importance it once had. She’s accepted that she doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t ask questions about it. Or about me, just sitting beside her. It’s a peaceful place to be --- the place we all eventually must come to the moment we take our last breath, when we must let go of everything. Including the body.

Is this newfound peace a result of her stroke?

A few months ago, when she lived at home, anxiety was the order of the day. An implacable anxiety that came from nowhere and would not listen to reason. Where are my keys? Who is upstairs? Did anyone bring me Holy Communion today? How long have I been in this house? She repeated the questions, and even when she didn’t, her hollow eyes told us that she was terrified. She knew that she was losing her mind, that her memories were drifting away. There she was, trying to nail them down before they floated away. After enduring her for an hour or so, I’d take a blank paper and write down in large letters answers to all her questions, so she could read them to herself. It usually calmed her down for a while. The anxiety was the most visible sign of her suffering. Driving home, I would ask Amber wearily --- Isn’t there a better way to die than this --- consumed by fear?

I hope that there is. Mama’s anxiety is now gone. She’s been in hospital for over two months, in a strange surrounding, with no clear plan for the future, but it doesn’t bother her. We're probably more worried about her than she is herself. She's happy to have us sitting beside her and the pure white snow sparkles outside the window. She doesn't need the rattle of useless conversation or narration.

Scottish Social Services are putting together a care package --- a plan that would allow her to come home, with a helper to visit her up to four times a day to help Agata take care of her. It’s all funded in full by the Scottish Government. But Mama doesn’t need to know any of that.

It’s time for my train so I get up to leave. The moment I stir she’s right there focused on me. She asks me when I’ll be back. In a few days. We give each other a good-bye kiss. For now.

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