Saturday, 1 January 2011


Communication. Crossing the Tay by train and heading back north toward Cottarton, I find myself asking whether we understand what the word means. I’ve spent a couple of hours by mama’s bed and we hardly exchanged a word. Certainly there’s been no exchange of what would pass as information. Neither was there any activity that you’d normally associate with thinking, or the activity of thought. Yet we communicated.

From a few feet away, she greets me with a broad smile, but no words. She knows who I am and my name. To speak it requires energy, something that she doesn’t have much of. She’s conserving it. I start to talk, telling her about our house, what we’re doing, about the children --- all the stuff that I feel she wants to know about. She listens politely but I have the impression that my talking tires her. It takes effort to pay attention to words and to parse them. She doesn’t mind me talking; it’s okay with her, but it’s not strictly necessary. In any case, she can’t reply using words. For two months now she hasn’t had that ability. She can’t tell us what she’s been thinking of during that time but I suspect that she’s come to a new understanding, that words and language are overrated. She’s just as happy with Amber and I sitting close by and saying nothing.

For several minutes we sit in silence. It’s more difficult for me than for her, as my mind whirls with countless thoughts. Should I ask her this? What might I say that would elicit more response than my previous conversation? I tell her of a recent dream I had of Tata. She smiles hearing his name. In the dream he was back in Old Scone Nursery with me, ploughing a field and then marking it out for a new sowing. I ask her if she misses him. She nods.

We’ve visited on other days when she has been even less responsive. One evening after such a visit, Amber asked me, “What touchstone does she have with reality?” "Only us," I say. Lying in a hospital ward, she’s not sure why she’s there; how long she's been there, or what is home. She points at other patients; her eyes appear to ask who they are. People she ought to know? At times her memories may be so jumbled up that she doesn't know who she is.

The following morning we brought her several photographs. Mama lit up like a candle seeing the picture of her husband and of her parents. As if they were all paying her a personal visit. A veil had drawn aside to reveal her as she once was. She started to talk, not too clearly, but using two or three words. “Are you cold?” she asked. “How is the house?” Again I was tempted to talk, tell her everything while the going was good. About how we spent Christmas, but I realized that my conversation tired her.

I'd brought with me a volume of Czeslav Milosz’s poems,so I read her one of my favourites, in Polish. My translation follows:


Hope exists when you believe
That Earth is not a dream but a living body
That your sight, touch and ear don’t lie
And all things that you’ve known
Are but a garden in whose gate you stand.

You cannot enter, but it is surely there.
If we could see clearer and more wisely
We'd find many a new flower and star
In the garden of the world.

Some say that the eye deceives us,
That there’s nothing there; we only think there is.
But those people don’t have hope.
They think that when their back is turned
The entire world will vanish
As if abducted by the hands of a thief.

While I read the poem she smiled, nodding when I spoke a line that meant something to her. After I’d finished she looked away.

“Are you tired?” I said.

She shook her head, and replied, clearer than she'd spoken yet, “I’m thinking.”

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