MOMENTS IN TIME, BUT NO LONGER IN MEMORY
Pop psychologists are always urging us to ‘Live in the moment’. I do try to do this, especially when it comes to enjoying my garden and the wonderful bird life around me. However, as a writer on social history and nostalgia I also spend a lot of time thinking of the past. As I grow older, childhood memories become increasingly precious. Sixty years on, the joy of Christmas and all those other seasonal celebrations at home and school remain clear, and yes….comforting. They form a special bond between my relatives (especially siblings) and childhood friends.
To a large extent, memories form our identity. But what happens when the loss of long term memory creeps up to meet short term memory loss? My mother-in law Jeannie now lives in this dreadful void. She is painfully aware of her deficits. She regularly complains that she has lived too long. ‘There is just nothing left for me now’, she says, and it is difficult to argue with her. Her days are filled with confusion and anxiety. Sometimes she ring me up and asks……’Pauline, what should I do now.’ If it’s after dinner and her carers have made their last visit I tell her she can go to sleep. I wonder if she remembers the past in her dreams?
She does enjoy the weekly concerts at her residential home, but once heard, the music is instantly forgotten. Nor does she have the capacity for anticipatory pleasure.
Since a recent hip fracture she can barely walk, and the physio sessions are painful and frustrating. She snaps at her carers, then apologies and feels terrible. We (and they) comfort her and tell her it’s OK, but I know how much it upsets her. The only good thing about memory loss is that she is not troubled for more than few minutes.
Thankfully, she can still enjoy the pleasure of a loving touch. And her eyes continue to light up at the sight of me, and especially of her son Rob (yes… she still knows us and remembers our names). There is pleasure still in a puff of perfume, and the sight and scent of a flower. But they are such fleeting moments in her world of confusion and anxiety. She has lost the art of conversation, although innate politeness sort of gets her through. ‘And how are you both?’ she asks constantly. After eighteen months residence in her care home she introduces us repeatedly to every member of staff; ‘Have you met my two darlings?’
All her life she was a home maker and provider. She was still cooking for us when she was in her late eighties. Now she desperately wants to share her food with us, even when she is in hospital. We end up eating the ice-cream served with her dinner, and taking home bananas and little sachets of honey she squirrels away for us.
I try to find Jeannie Christmas flowers that will survive the long journey from our home in the Blue mountains, to Sydney…where she lives. Buds are good, because she can watch them open. Asiatic lilies are festive and she enjoys the different containers I use.
On Christmas day itself she wasn’t at her best. I’m not sure she realized quite what and why we were celebrating.
It is difficult to find suitable gifts for a 93 year old. Even the old standby of confectionery is out. For years Jeannie has eaten very little chocolate.. This is partly because she is convinced it’s unhealthy and partly because she likes to keep and treasure anything we give her. When she moved into care we found chocolate novelties she had been keeping for nearly twenty years. But bizarrely, she ate an entire plate of chocolates at Christmas lunch, and scarcely a mouthful of the beautifully presented traditional meal. Of course nobody cared…she was content and temporarily free from anxiety.
Her greatest joy of the day came from my little bear, Editor Des. He has been part of my life for so long that Jeannie has him in her tiny memory bank along with us.
JEANNIE AND THE LAMP
Soon after Christmas I celebrated my birthday, and Rob took me to see the musical Aladdin. After the performance I bought a souvenir ‘gold’ magic lamp.
Next morning I took it around to Jeannie. Did she remember the story of Aladdin and the lamp? Yes, she did…. vaguely, when I reminded her, ‘OK, there are three wishes, and you can have one. Keep it secret and make sure it’s a very important wish.’
At first she simply kissed it and clutched it close, eyes closed with the intensity of her longing.
‘You really need to rub the lamp to make it come true, Jeannie.’ I said gently, which she did, most reverently.
I know what her wish was, even though she didn’t tell me. I do hope it comes true soon.
This is the second article I have written about Jeannie and her journey. My own darling mother died before memory loss became an issue, although I suspect it was waiting in the wings. My sadness at her passing is mixed with relief that she escaped this horrible affliction. Here is the first part of Jeannie’s story.
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