Short Story


I pulled on the handbrake, turned off the engine and closed my eyes.  It had arrived at last.  The day I had been dreading for years…

It started slowly, we would get just the briefest of glimpses of the woman my mum would become, then glimpses became glances, became gazes, became gawps. But slowly.  So slowly that it took us too long to realise what was happening and get the professionals involved. Not that there is much they can do: My mum has Alzheimer’s disease.

It started with memory lapses – no surprises there, that’s what everyone expects – but you can’t make a diagnosis just from forgetfulness. I forget things all the time. Put too much strain on an ageing machine and it’s bound to malfunction occasionally.  No, it wasn’t the memory problems that alerted us, it was the confusion that came with them, seeing mum disappear to be replaced by a bewildered stranger visiting from a far away place or time.

When I was young Great Auntie Alice would come to stay two or three times a year.  At first she was accompanied by her manfriend, Horace.  She joked that he was her toyboy, being a mere 74 to her 78. Horace’s false teeth held a grim fascination for me, as he talked they would slip down and he would have to suck them back into position which he did with great aplomb without pausing for breath; mealtimes added a an interesting new dimension to this skill.  After the sad demise of Horace and his teeth, each time we saw Auntie Alice she would bring the same tin of old photos, relate the same anecdotes and tell mum that she had never had jacket potatoes before.  I remember clearly one occasion when mum, in a moment of uncharacteristic frustration and impatience, said to me “Oh! If I ever get like that please just shoot me.”  Her words have haunted me over the last few years.  She would have hated to see the self she has become. And there lies the cruellest irony of Alzheimer’s – you fade away so slowly that at the point your ‘real’ self would have bowed out gracefully with a bottle of booze and a packet of pills or a one way trip to Switzerland, its too late: If you hang around to find out what happens next eventually your mind becomes so cloudy you can’t find the exit…or forget that you were looking for it.

Of course, if mum had taken control of her destiny and chosen to kill herself before the disease progressed too far, I would have been totally devastated, tortured by thoughts of how much good time we had missed out on by pre-empting that cut off point.  Would I have forgiven her? Without the benefit of seeing what would have been, I don’t know.  I hope so. At least the bereavement would have been quick, clean.  Not this endless drip, drip, drip of loss. Visiting from some distance, I see mum differently from my dad and my sister who are with her so much of the time.  For them the changes are almost imperceptible, for me it’s like another page has been erased from the mum that I love and another bite has been taken from my heart.  Every time I leave I do so knowing that I won’t see this woman again, next time will be someone else.  Someone who may not know who I am.

One thing that I have learnt about caring for Alzheimer’s sufferers is that a sense of humour is essential.  To those on the outside this can seem quite callous, but old adage is so true – you have to laugh or you cry. Luckily laughing is something we have always done well as a family.  One afternoon mum went for a lie down.  She woke at half past three convinced that it was morning and nothing dad could say or do would convince her otherwise.  Out came the cornflakes and dad had toast and cereal at four o’clock for dinner that night. On another occasion, dad came in from the garden to be presented with a huge plate of cat food sandwiches “for the people who were coming to tea.” Recently mum has turned into the Andrex puppy, unravelling toilet rolls and draping them around the furniture, the banisters, herself…Then dad had a fall.

We had been worrying about dad’s health for a while.  My sister does a lot and mum goes to day care centres four days a week but the bulk of the responsibility for her care falls to dad and it has been taking its toll. She very rarely sits down and settles which means dad has to be constantly alert to where she is and what she’s up to. We’ve talked about residential care, of course, but dad has been adamant that he can cope.  Then two days ago he fell over and broke his hip and the decision was taken out of his hands.

So here I am. I’ve seen dad in hospital and he seems to be doing as well as can be expected, and now I’ve come to see mum in the nursing home arranged for her by social services. Much as I’ve wanted dad to at least consider respite stays for mum, at the same time I fear the implications of residential care.  It marks the next level of loss, and I dread seeing what’s left of my mum sitting in some depressing institutional lounge that smells of wee and decay and despair. Still, I have to face it sometime, so here goes.

I get out of the car and cross to the entrance.
“Are you here to see Thelma? Your sister’s just left but she said you’d be here soon. We have some wanderers, I’m afraid, so we can’t be too careful with the door.”  She drops her voice to a whisper, “The keypad code’s Christmas Day in numbers for next time. I think Fred must be related to Houdini so just check he’s not looking over your shoulder. I’m Michelle, by the way.”

Michelle is ushering me down a hallway as she talks and I begin to smile. The hall is bright and cheery with occasional alcoves to the left furnished with comfy looking settees, occasional tables and bookcases with books, jigsaws and games.  On the right are residents’ rooms, some with the doors open.  I can’t resist peeking in as we pass and they are spacious, bright and comfy looking. An elderly woman is coming towards with her arms full of clothes.
“Are you all right Elsie?” Michelle asks with a big smile.
“I’ve just been shopping,” Elsie replies with pride.
“I can see, my love, you’ve got some beautiful things there, haven’t you.”

As Elsie shuffles on Michelle confides, “I’m afraid Elsie will go into other residents’ rooms and take their things so if you want we can lock your mum’s room once she’s up and out in the morning.  We did try to stop Elsie but in the end it was easier on everybody to let her ‘go shopping’ and then go through everything and put it back later. We try to make allowances for everyone’s quirks if we can.”

Michelle shows me the sensory room, full of sparkling, twinkling colours, light and motion. I wouldn’t mind an hour in there myself.  She points out the rabbit hutch in the garden (which is, by the way, beautifully kept, and liberally sprinkled with seats of all shapes and sizes) Michelle tells me that contact with animals can be a very effective way of calming agitated residents. I see how seriously they take this as we pass a tropical fish tank before arriving at the lounge where mum is talking earnestly with a budgie, and a small black cat monopolises a large armchair.

“Look who’s come to see you, Thelma,” says Michelle. “Come and find me before you leave.  I won’t be far away,” she adds to me. I perch on the arm of the chair and stroke the cat, who instantly rolls over for a tummy rub.
“Hi mum,” I say, “Wow.  This is like a 5 star hotel.”
“Yes,” she says, her focus not moving from the budgie, “and I sleep here. Dad’s in the garden. This is Billy.  Hello Billy.  Hello Billy. Hello Billy. Hello Billy”
“Hello Billy” replies the bird. Mum turns to me with the most radiant smile I have seen for years and for a moment she loses the haunted, vacant look of Alzheimer’s and I glimpse the mum I miss so much.

“Hello Billy” mum’s new friend says again. Mum laughs in glee. And I laugh in love as a tear tickles its way down my face.