So, I hope, it is to be with this story, which drags together many things from my conscious and subconscious self over decades. In trying to separate out the components of reality and illusion, I had no intention of focusing so much on my mother’s journey at the end of her life, yet it became so, and we haven’t quite finished with each other yet. I still have things to learn from her as the memories tumble out.
Leave a six gallon can of milk in the dairy fridge, and in the end the cream comes to the top.
I was saying at the end of the last part of this story that I believe the shock of losing one and, as seemed inevitable in her lifetime, two of her children played a large part in making my mother retreat mentally into a happier world, one over which she had control and with no need to try to face more of the pain that living in the present caused her.
Of course, the onset of dementia may well be a characteristic of advancing age in any case, and I have no qualification to speak of it apart from observation. 'Dementia' is a term that used always to have fearsome implications for me, but it no longer has. In fact, I suspect that slipping into this other self-created world is probably more a characteristic of strength of mind rather than weakness; an ability to hold on to and keep a structure for the reality chosen by the person that makes life bearable for them. Maybe even for those around them, as they know with absolute clarity that the time for taking full responsibility for that person has come.
In what was a profoundly painful period for Jan in particular, seeing the transition day by day of our mother from lucidity to this other world, it was obvious that Mum needed admission to a High Care facility where 24 hour monitoring was available. That transition doesn’t confine itself to neat conventional periods of wake and sleep, and the safety of the person and the endurance and sanity of the carer have both to be considered - for the sake of them both.
Miracles are composed mainly of hard work, I have discovered, and it was that sort of 'miracle' that enabled Jan and Ken to find a suitable place for her nearby. At this nursing home, Mum slipped almost completely into her world of the 1930s and 40s, though she was capable of making remarkable concessions to the present day when required. She always recognised Jan and Ken, and Lyn when she came to stay with Jan to share the load. Jan’s children and their children she found a bit confusing but she knew they were kin – her tribe. And quite a tribe in terms of sheer numbers it was!
As it became more and more obvious that the end for her was likely to come sooner rather than later, Tracey and I made plans to visit. This was something I badly wanted to do, but it was also a period where the effects of the brain tumour on me were starting to bite deep into my motor functions. Constant seizures following the suspension of now-redundant chemotherapy were rapidly destroying the connections between my brain and right side.
It wasn’t a great time for me to be on the road, but, because I wanted it to, Tracey would make it happen.
Yet I wondered what the effect of seeing me would be for Mum. I was fairly confident that she would recognise me, though I was not so sure she would know Tracey. I couldn’t guess how that part of her construed reality would work.
There was another point weighing on me. Would the sight of me clearly having gone through radical medical procedures upset her? Would the world she had retreated to have been compromised by seeing me as I was then? I had lost a good deal of my hair, especially from the craniotomy and on the left side of my head where the blasts of radiotherapy had done their job. I am sure I must have looked a good deal older than when I had driven down to see her a year or so before. At that time I was in near-perfect health, or so at least I thought. She then was in hospital and suffering the hallucinations I described in a previous part of this story.
I wasn’t at all sure nor what the consequences would be. There was only one way to find out.
Oddly enough, it was I who barely recognised her. Fortunately, it was one of her 'good' days, when she was feeling happy and animated. They weren’t always like that and Jan bore the brunt of the bad ones.
As we came into the communal area where she was, I saw this tiny old lady with quite long straight flowing grey hair. She was sitting alert and upright in a wheelchair, watching a large TV screen. I don’t think I ever saw her with longish straight hair before, as I was used to its being curled and short.
It took me longer to adjust my perception of her than she did of me.
She greeted Jan and Lyn in a matter of fact way, as if they had been sitting beside her all morning. In fact, that was pretty much how she greeted Tracey and me; the acknowledgement you would give to someone who had been and was around you most of the time. She talked to us both and used our names and was clearly happy to see us, but for her there was absolutely no novelty in our being there. We had never not been there! She was seeing us as she wanted us to be.
Yet she was in her world of her youth; the young teacher at Taragoola being courted by the brother of her landlady (that term ‘landlady’ is so wrong, but what should I call Aunty Daisy at that time?) On the big TV screen in front of her were ads and there were children in the ads. They were her school children. She identified them as they flashed on the screen.
‘Oh look! That’s Norman Jenson! Lovely little fellow. That’s (some other child she was teaching in 1938). Beautiful children.’ Then she would be the teacher, fully in control, and turn around to the other people sitting behind her.
‘You children are making a lot of noise!’ she reprimanded them in a strong teachery voice I had not heard her use for many decades – probably since when I was getting up to mischief as a kid. Some of them looked rather offended at being admonished by this tiny old lady when they were doing no more than eating their lunch, but they didn’t react. That was rather fortunate, as she would have told them sharply who was boss. But then she would carry on talking to us.
A lot of it was confused fragments of memory, not always from quite the same period. ‘Jan, you were a little devil sometimes,’ she rounded with a smile on a very surprised Jan. We all were taken aback by that, as Jan was the one of the four of us least likely to be thus described. Lyn and I looked at Jan and we all grinned.
I’m sure she must have been thinking of me. The description fits me all too well and Jan not at all. She then went on to describe some incident that happened up the paddock on the farm. To illustrate the tale, she gave a thin, piercing whistle that she used to call the cattledogs – a whistle that I hadn’t heard for half a century, and went on with the story, but it became muddled especially when new images appeared on the TV screen.
She then became very tired and almost fell asleep in the chair. We went with her to her room, and she lay down and slept.
In her mind, we were all there, somewhere around, all the time, and probably Kay too. We left quietly. We had done what we set out to do.