Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Architecture of Memory

Hazel Nuts - ironically, considered
to be brain food. If only.

My mother has forgotten me. 

Sure, it hurts to know that you are no longer the apple of your mother's eye; that the one person in the known universe who is utterly certain of how pretty, talented, smart and funny I really truly am, now can't even remember my name or even, indeed, that she is my mother. But I'm pretty sure it hurts her more. I see it every time she asks me who I am. And it hurts her afresh, every time I tell her my name, and that I am her eldest daughter.

She was with me a couple of days ago while Dad went to the doctors. He is her full time minder now. Her progressing dementia means the she now can't be left on her own because she becomes anxious if she doesn't know where he is and like a child, constantly asks what he's doing and when he'll be back. Thankfully, her Super-ego has no evil Id to regulate since she doesn't have a mean bone in her body so, unlike some Alzheimers she is a sweet, amiable, adorable child.

We were singing when Dad came to collect her, old songs from the forties and fifties that I must have learnt from her. How else to explain why there are songs embedded in my brain that I didn't even know I knew. When they moved house a year or so ago, I helped Mum pack up. The disease was a year or so younger and didn't have such a vice grip on her mind, but I could see that she was agitated at the thought of throwing anything out. She kept saying, 'I need it for my memories'.

Amongst the dozens of unfilled doctors scripts (she never trusted doctors or their drugs), aged furry Tupperware and aluminium cookware, I found a list written on stapled together strips of cardboard cut from cornflakes boxes - a list of song titles. At the top, I suppose in case she ever forgot, was written in her chubby curly hand: this list belongs to Hazel. I knew eventually she'd wind up forgetting about it, so I rescued it and brought it out to show her on her recent visit. When I handed it to her there was no recognition at all. The titles meant nothing when she read the words but I persisted, 'Come on mum, you know this one...' and miraculously, the moment I sang the very first phrase, her face lit up as she joined in, word perfect.

'I was dancing, with my darling....' was all it took to sweep her up into the Tennesee Waltz. As soon as she registered the pattern of the intervals she was off, suspended in the architecture of the song. One after another they came, like a flock homing pigeons. That repertoire does belong to Hazel, and me now. I suppose it always did. These were the songs she sang along to on the radio as I sat propped in a high-chair being fed mashed banana, or on her knee, jiggling up and down to the rhythm of Walking My Baby Back Home, or 'Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey / A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?' I sing with her in the hope that perhaps these songs will form a bond between us now that she has no idea who I am.

I realise that I am now a stranger to her and how frightening it must be, as it is for a child, to be left alone with someone unfamiliar. I asked her if she was afraid of being with me, since she clearly had no memory of our intimate relationship. "No, as long as Ray knows, it's alright.' She trusts Dad completely, but we know there will come a time when she'll forget even Dad, the constant tactile presence in her daily experience of reality. The horror of that day, I know, terrifies him. 

Apart from her music, pretty much everything else is gone, all the memories of her past life as the beautiful raven-haired girl who grew up on a bush block on the outskirts of Brisbane who, like her mother, bore three girls under three years of age and raised them to healthy adulthood. But she does still remember that boy she married who still remembers that girl. And while I feel sorry for her loss, I feel most sorry for him, because I know what he faces. I know what it is like to lose the person who holds your fondest most intimate memories in common, and how hard it is to hold on to those memories without the other to reinforce them.

A handful of faded happy-snaps is not enough to keep the past alive in the present. Memories, like cutlery, become tarnished and dull without regular polishing. If there is no one to remind you of them, they gradually but surely slip away. My husband, the birth of my son, a full half of my life is now just a blur. A couple of intense visual images, more like dreams than past reality, are all bundled up and strung from the architecture of a few songs; Let's Stick Together, It's a Shame About Ray, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll...

So, next time Mum comes to visit, I am not going to let on that we share a past. I am her mother now. No more reminding her of what she's forgotten, no more watching the momentary comprehension, shock and pain that she could forget such a thing as having been my mother. Rather, I am going to try to gain her trust by just being a friend who knows knows all her songs, and try to enjoy the great privilege of getting to know the sweet little girl my grandmother knew.


A year later, and she is still holding. She is still at home with dad, still engaged to a degree, in that she knows something is wrong with her memory, but she doesn't know us at sight. Her only anchor is the great love of her life. Dad's  tactile presence grounds her. His touch; his voice.

But something miraculous occurred the last time I saw her. Anzac day this year was a bit of a family reunion for us. My nephew, a corporal in the ADF, was back in town and marched in the local parade with my father on Anzac day. Dad arranged breakfast to follow the dawn service, and I went along.

I loathe Anzac day and everything it represents. Always have.  It never fails to send me into a spluttering, inarticulate rage, and this year's was even worse - I was there, sitting beside my mother at the 9am service. I went because that would normally be my sister's role, minding mum while dad marched. But this year with her son here, I thought she should spend time with her family so I took her place. As usual, I was unable to contain my anger, and as I scowled and expressed my repulsion in less than complimentary terms to anyone within earshot, I could hear my mother in my ear; 'Shh, be quiet, stop it'. 

She is often there in my head - her admonishing voice that has checked my tendency towards extreme behaviour since I was a child. But that morning, there it was in my right ear - no aural hallucination - firm, forthright and insistent. I shut up.

Later, my sister relieved me for a break and when I returned to my post she told me the most extraordinary thing, "Mum just said,"Annette doesn't like these things"'. We were both astonished. Even with prompting she can't recall her children. Seems my voice and the energy of my anger had reminded her of who I am. 

She hasn't forgotten me after all. My soul still lives in her heart.


  1. This is heartbreaking. You are a beautiful writer.

  2. I live in quiet, omnipresent terror of the same.

  3. Terribly sad. I'm sorry.

    I was watching a thing on YT a while ago where they play music to patients with dementia. The music is from their time. It's amazing to watch them basically come back to life. It's incredibly sad to realise that them sitting at their tables, in bed, on their chair, whatever, just staring blankly is because of a lost mind, confusion, and sadness. The music brings them back to life. Just shows how incredibly important and powerful music is to us.

  4. Beautiful post! I know so many going through this right now, and it's terrifying and heartbreaking.

    I fear this for my own parents, good luck.

  5. Wow, Hughesy, that brought me to tears...
    It sounds like such a heartbreaking place for you, your Dad and those around, partly in being forgotten, but mostly seeing your Mum's loss and confusion... And what a terrifying spot for your Mum, losing her memory with no control over it.
    But what stands out in this is your compassion for your Mum and Dad, and your commitment to enjoying and sharing what IS there with your Mum.
    Awesome writing, Hughesy, thanks so much for sharing.

  6. Must say, it was pretty teary going from my end too.

  7. A sad story beautifully told. I'm headed down the same path with my mother although she can still remember us but almost none of her friends. Every conversation I have with her soon turns into a lament about how she wishes she was dead. Everything has unintended consequences and all those diseases that no longer kill you keep you alive for a different sort of death.

  8. Sorry I missed this post. Haven't been on computer much since the iPhone arrived to make computers less necessary for checking emails. Nothing anyone says can really offer consolation but your continued support and love no doubt mean the world to your Dad - and through him, to your Mum also.