Dressing His Former Self…

A couple of times a year, usually in summer and in the lead up to Christmas, I replenish my father’s wardrobe with the essentials – vests, jumpers, shirts, trousers and socks. I won’t, and don’t expect to get any thanks for it. He doesn’t know me anymore. He will talk to me as he would a stranger, if he’s in the mood. Pleasant and vacant – the ‘spick and span’ Da in his suit and tie that I grew up fearing cocooned now in mysterious, cruel layers that are painstakingly consuming his former self.

I have this ritual of ironing his name onto everything, an important task as otherwise, it will all get lost in the wash of the care home laundry process. Even his socks will be labelled before I place all of it in his wardrobe, in the bright and clean en suite room that the independent rebel still fighting inside him propels him to spend as little time in as he can possibly get away with. He paces the corridors most of the time. Going somewhere inside his head. Going nowhere outside it.

This ritual, I’ll put off for days, even weeks, the new clothes, still bagged and tagged in the corner as each time I find it harder to psych myself up for it. And even when his name is carefully placed securely on each item, I know full sure that the next time I venture in to visit him, another ritual that grows more difficult with time, some of the clothes will still be hanging, unworn in the wardrobe, and I’ll be frustrated when I see him wearing someone else’s jumper, or track suit bottoms – the latter an item of clothing his former self would, I know for sure, prefer not to be caught dead in.

Such is the experience of living with Alzheimer’s, my father’s personality, his style, his essence, his basic autonomy, slowly devoured by this cruel disease.

I didn’t always see eye to eye with his former self – anyone who has watched my film IN RIBBONS may begin to understand why – but the man I knew then is not the man I know now. The process of watching him disappear to a state of mind that only he will experience but will never be able to communicate to another human being is a dismal, morbid process to witness.

And the rituals hurt like fuck.

Spilling personal

I guess I’ve been a bit quiet for a time. It’s been a relentlessly difficult month, battered with grief of many shades, and though it’s rare for me to get personal on here, sometimes, as a writer, you have to spill in the way of words to deal with the pent-up emotions that hurt your throat in the anticipation of those dreaded explosions. The ones akin to those David Ferguson speaks of in his heartfelt piece in the Guardian, ‘We don’t ‘lose’ our mothers – the reality is more violent than that.’

For want of a better expression, I ‘lost’ my mother last month. Lost her presence, the sound of her voice, her wit, her humour, her shuffled gait, her complaining, her phone calls, her wants, her needs; her smile. She was eighty years of age, and you think you’ll be ready when they survive the battering of life to such an age, and many a personal battle she fought, but you are never ready, especially when they are still of mind as sharp and clever of those half her age, and with an equally strong willpower to stick around.

Detta 1

Not that I didn’t have enough test runs. Dashes to hospital for falls, broken hips, accidents, breathing problems, the list goes on – and yet, the endgame was sudden; no time. No time to say It will all be okay, like all those other times, Sure you can’t kill a bad thing – and she’d give me That Look. Ya cheeky pup! That look, always followed with a smirk and the page would turn as she did, doing a Lazarus in health and resilience and all was calm again.

Apparently, I have inherited That Look. Or so I am told.

Reduced to just the items in the pockets of the cardigan she was wearing in the moment of her death, from the second I kissed her cold forehead, I lost my peripheral vision. I could do what I needed to, I would, for her. I would have it all sorted, just as how she would want it to be. But I would only see straight ahead, whoever, whatever was in front of me and nothing else. That was how to get it done. That was how I wouldn’t crumble.

Mam and Dad 1

And now there is my father. In dementia; that fucking frightening and cruel place of Alzheimer’s, and she is gone, and there is stuff to do. And it will be done. I grieve for him also. Fit as a fiddle in everything but mind and memory.

I see shadows now. Ethereal shapes in my returning peripheral vision. Nothing there; and there they are. It is the essence – the only thing that can never be lost. My mother, the beautiful, complicated woman she was. Fragile yet fierce. My mother, the woman she became. Fragile and frail. My father, the meticulous, temperamental, well-groomed man he was, distant and fierce. My father, the man he has become, distant and fragile. And the memory wandering. Reduced of his innate independence. Reduced to helplessness, to the present ten minutes of his life. Reduced to the man who someone else must wash, who someone else must groom. Reduced to the man in the clothes that someone else must launder, that someone else must dress upon him.

Oblivious to what the short-term future held, at the end of last year, I read, on the recommendation of John Lonergan, a small, yet magical chronicle, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. I kept the book, mostly because John had signed it for me. Meant to be. And no doubt I’ll be dipping into it again over time. No lessons on living from me to end this spilling though, just my own hard-learned observation. We crumble. We move on. We reduce. But in between, the light gets in.

Detta

Rest easy, Ma. Or race on, graceful as a gazelle.