Mother is sitting at a table by herself. Her fingers rest on the edge of a cup and saucer half full of spilt tea. Her eyes are open, and her head is tilted backwards, perhaps thirty degrees. I can’t tell if she is gazing up a slight incline towards Heaven or is asleep.
Whichever it is, she seems calm. Until that is, she sees my son and I waving at her through the glass panel, which runs around the dining area. Then, like a dimmer switch yanked to the max with a sudden twist of the wrist, she starts whining like a wounded animal in a trap.
‘Take me home,’ she cries. ‘Take me home.’
My heart slinks away. It can’t cope with the painful truth that the one thing she really craves is the one thing I can’t give her – hope that one day she might leave this place.
Two of the carers walk towards her.
‘Don’t let them near me. They want to hurt me,’ she cries and points at them.
The carers look at me. They’re thinking: does he think that’s true? That we’re going to hurt her. Or does he realise it’s the dementia talking? As it happens, I don’t think they’re cruel. But that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that she has created a stand-off. They’ve stopped doing what they were going to do, and she is upset, fearful.
I hate asserting myself in the care home
‘Let me deal with this,’ I say, reluctantly asserting myself.
I put my hand under her left elbow and help her up.
‘Shall we go to your room, mum?’
‘No. I just want to die,’ she replies.
In her room she wipes away her tears and pulls her dressing gown around her bony shoulders.
‘So cold in here,’ she says.
I close the window on the summer sun.
‘Unwrap the chocolate,’ I say to my son.
‘Would you like some chocolate, Granny?’ he says, handing her three squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.
‘Thank you, darling.’
Chocolate is the opiate of old age and I am Mother’s Pusher. I never come without a bag the choicest chocolate bars to calm her nerves or distract her. Nothing bitter or fancy. I can’t remember how many times a Cadbury’s chocolate bar has turned the tide on a depressing conversation and saved me for screaming.
Her wheelchair is folded
She points at her wheelchair, which is folded up in a corner.
‘That’s where he keeps his bike when he comes and spends the night. We had a fight so when he comes now, I move out.’
‘Who keeps his bike there?’ asks my son.
‘I don’t know,’ she shrugs her shoulders. ‘The man who collects the pips, I don’t know?’
I point at my son and say loudly.
‘He’s going back to university tomorrow. He’s here to say goodbye.’
‘I keep his postcards in the cupboard,’ she says.
He sends her postcards to remind her that although she is out of sight she is not out of mind.
‘I’ve got exams when I go back,’ says my son, gamely trying to involve her in a new line of chat.
‘Do you have any friends?’ she asks earnestly.
Anxieties are like old relics
Sometimes Mother’s dementia driven conversations reveal an anxiety or an attitude towards someone (or something) which she has never shared before. Talking to her is like finding a new relic on a well dug archaeological site. In vino veritas, drunks reveal truth unwittingly. The same is true of dementia.
‘I have lots of friends,’ he replies a little too sternly.
‘But what’s the matter with your voice?’ she asks.
‘My voice? Nothing.’
‘It’s got nuts in it,’ she says decidedly.
‘His voice has got nuts in it?’ I ask, confused.
She points at her bar of Cadburys Fruit & Nut chocolate.
Somewhere down the corridor, a door is open, and a resident is calling ‘help’, ‘help’, ‘help’.
Dementia has no translator
‘They’ve been stealing things from me. This blouse, for example. One night, we had an auction to see who should win the blouse and they had to toss for it and the one who tossed the coin right was the girl who got the blouse. And I had to give it to her. I had to give a speech, too, and say how terribly sad I was that only one of them could have it. But she deserved it. She’s done a lot of work for me, washing and manicuring and everything like that. But it set up a terrible anger on the opposite side, with the girl who does all of those intricate things like giving you your medicine at certain times. Well, at least, that’s what I’m told by the scruffy little man who puts everything in his pocket.’
‘Oh,’ I say.
Sometimes conversation is impossible. Dementia has no translator.
‘You can make wonderful soup with rotten vegetables if you have an imagination,’ she says. ‘When you were a child, I often made you soup out of rotten old vegetables and water.’
‘I don’t remember,’ I say. ‘I do remember eating snails, though.’
‘It was good soup,’ she says.
‘I guess. After all, I’m still alive,’ I say.
‘That was very ‘Green’ of you Granny,’ says my son impressed she was such an early convert to the food waste movement.
‘Sometimes it came out green, sometimes it came out red, depended if I poured in a tin of tomatoes or not,’ she replies .
‘Speaking of which it’s time for us to go shopping for dinner,’ I say. ‘I’ll come see you tomorrow.’
‘Don’t bother,’ she says and starts waving. ‘Nothing will have changed.’