Missing

dementia poem

So – just to bring you up to speed, or remind you, or let you know: my mother died just before Christmas. Don’t worry, you don’t need to feel sorry. She was old and sick and had a poor quality of life despite the best efforts of a number of people; it was her time. She believed in life after death and was ready to go and be with her family again.

I am going to tell you about her dying and her living with dementia Don’t read it if you might get upset.

My mother suffered from advanced dementia, and until last June had been living with us. As her mental condition and physical frailties worsened, it became increasingly apparent she was not safe to stay at home any more so we moved her to a local residential care home where they looked after her far better than I could manage with my intermittent checks between travelling away for work. I took it hard. I felt I failed her because I knew that it would have been the last thing she wanted. Fortunately she didn’t remember that, even though I did, and so she was very happy in her new home. Dementia can have some upsides to it.

When she moved in with us, we built a granny annexe and designed it for wheelchair access. We didn’t make it easy for dementia, for example by making the kitchenette logical. She moved in after Christmas and by Easter we knew something was badly wrong. Finally we had the diagnosis. It was May 2008.

I remember one day, fairly soon after the diagnosis, a mental health worker came to see her, and talked to her in that horrible high-pitched voice about doing some knitting. I had suggested something like that might help her come out of the shell she was constructing.

“Shall we do a little bit of knitting, dear? You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

Well, really! She was suffering from early stages of dementia, not a backwards toddler.

“No,” she said firmly. And set her mouth and turned the television on very loudly.

When the mental health worker told me that my mother was “uncooperative” and “difficult” I laughed at her and said if she had spoken to me in that tone of voice I’d have stuck the knitting needle through her eye. So I got a worse label and we never saw them again because my mother had “chosen not to accept help.” Idiots.

Dementia is a slow disease. We went through phases, and because she had vascular dementia they were often sudden and pronounced. Yesterday she knew how to turn on the television, today she had forgotten. Yesterday she knew all the grandchildren, today perhaps two of them. She wound backwards through her life, shedding people and places as she went; talking about me as a child, then about meeting my father, then about her parents, then settling on a loop asking about the weather every sentence because she remembered nothing more.

“Is it cold out?”

“A bit chilly, nice and sunny though.”

“Oh, that’s nice…is it cold out?”

And so on endlessly. I am not covered in glory here, least of all with my snapping and snarling at her stupid bloody questions.

The December before last she suffered some internal bleeding which wouldn’t stop because she was on warfarin to thin her blood (to reduce further strokes and memory loss). The doctor and I had a long and earnest conversation about which death was worse: bleeding out or stroke. I agreed bleeding out was worse and we took her off the tablets. She declined more rapidly.

Last December she developed problems in her foot associated with her diabetes and poor circulation (no blood thinners!) and eventually had to have a toe amputated. The disruption, operation and subsequent infection all proved too much and her lungs gave out soon after. She had pretty much everything wrong with her: asthma, emphysema, arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, heart arrhythmia, furred arteries, cataracts, deafness, stomach problems (as a side effect of medication) and, of course, vascular dementia. One of them had to get her in the end, although she eluded them nimbly until well into her 88th year.

Then my mother finally died. She didn’t quite want to, but she couldn’t find the strength any more. She wasn’t afraid or worried, because her horizons were too close for that. I sat with her, holding her hand, and Sigoth and various grandchildren waited with us. One moment she rattled a breath. Then nothing came after it.

We scattered her ashes a couple of weeks ago, on the day after her 88th birthday.

My mother’s death was not what I expected. Of course, my actual mother, the one I remember from childhood, vanished years ago, eaten by dementia almost before we even knew it was there. It crept up on us and her from the shadows. My family didn’t get dementia. We have heart attacks and strokes usually, or general immobility and decay from rheumatoid arthritis. We don’t have brains that melt. At least we didn’t until this time round, so I was unprepared for the symptoms and assumed my mother was being bloody-minded when she wanted me to do basic things like turn on the washing machine, because she had “forgotten how”.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” I told her as she sat there with her list of jobs she wanted me and Sigoth to do on our precious Saturday off work, complaining that we never came to see her.

“She’s doing it to get attention,” I thought. Because sadly that was not an unlikely explanation; my mother was a needy individual only too often.

Of course, during this slow evolution into a new person she was aware of the changes and frightened, confused and angry in turns. Thanks to dementia, we were glad when she was finally so ill she didn’t know what was happening at all and so was not afraid of it.

We actually had it easy of course, if this kind of suffering is a competition. She didn’t wander, she didn’t get angry or aggressive, and she didn’t do too many dangerous things (apart from sticking the knife in the toaster and fusing the lights) because she became incredibly passive. As a responsible adult she had always preferred to be looked after, and my father had joyfully accepted the challenge. This attitude became more pronounced over time, so there were few “issues” as her condition worsened. By keeping her at home with us I was the best person to understand her fraying mind and predict what she would expect, so she was comfortable and rarely disoriented enough to become angry. She was described as an “easy” patient, because obviously the most important thing about someone with dementia is how much they disrupt the rest of us. As a result their behaviour garners them blame or praise for being bad or good.

I expected to feel sadness, guilt, relief, regret, possibly anger and even loneliness. I felt comfort and love, both of which were entirely unexpected. I felt that finally she did appreciate me – if only I had known that while she was alive! I didn’t feel as if I had let her down or done the wrong thing, despite the fact that for a number of years she had been letting everyone know my failings. She said some pretty terrible things at times, most of which I ignored as symptoms of mental imbalance, but some hit home and I carried with me. Some of them were deserved.

The final year was hard going, and in the end it was just waiting, some days with more patience than others, for her to die. I had plenty of time to be ready for the actual event. Every day I saw her was a small guilty disappointment; every time the phone rang, I wondered if this was it, the call, until one night at 3am it really was the beginning of the end.

My mother and I were not close. It helped as she declined, so that I did not feel such terrible loss; but it made continuing as her carer harder. Dementia gets you either way.

In contrast my father’s death was sudden and devastating. He died in 1992, just as I was home to tell my parents about the imminent arrival of Offspring Number 4. Dad was really pleased and excited; he liked children. That evening I took my mother out to a concert for her birthday present and when we got home my father was dead. He had had heart failure during the evening, after going to bed.

I was furious with him for leaving me to deal with the family he supported, which included my elderly aunt as well as my mother, to deal with a bankrupt business and a derelict shop property, to re-house my aunt, sell the shop, re-house my mother, sell her house and all while pregnant, working full time and having three other young children. Sigoth got me through it somehow, although we struggled at times under the pressure.

I’m not the kind of person who would do well in one of the caring professions. I get bored with other people’s problems. I get frustrated with slowness. I could be ready to rip the throat out of a doctor who talked down to my mother, but I didn’t want to spend time with her over a cup of tea repeating how warm it was or wasn’t outside. She didn’t remember if I sat with her or not anyway.

Meanwhile, my memories of my father are not sullied by him declining until I no longer wanted to see him. Dementia destroys other people’s memories of the living person and replaces them with doddering, shambling simulacra. It’s the Zombie Apocalypse.

Death isn’t noble, but sometimes it relieves and even pre-empts pain.

The final gift that dementia leaves us is fear. Every time I forget something, every time I have to check if I locked the door or turned off the light, every time I can’t recall a name or a film title or where I left my glasses, on each of those occasions a little voice now pops up and says cheerfully:

“Hi there! Are you getting dementia? Is it all going to happen to you?”

Meaning…

Am I going to drive my family mad and break their hearts and call them names and take so long to die that I turn into a stranger first, like some kind of alien shapeshifter?

Am I going to have carers who make jokes I don’t understand, often about me?

Will I forget to eat or drink and then be hungry and thirsty all the time?

Will I soil the bed and not understand what is happening?

But before I get that bad, will I experience those things anyway and yet still know what they mean and suffer terrible shame and humiliation and confusion?

Thanks for the memories, Dementia.

I want to be clear that every dementia journey, like every human, is unique and special. My mother’s, and my, experiences will have some similarities to others, and some quirks all our very own.

If ever anything taught us the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, this is it. Or as a Christian might put it:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

Never give up, never surrender, and never blame yourself. It is what it is.

Namaste.

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Circle of life

Time to update regular readers on EBL family affairs.

You may recall from earlier posts this month that my mother was not doing too well. Unfortunately she died on 17 December. The chest infection was not a chest infection at all; it was simply lung disease and stress and old age. It was life fading and slipping away. It was, in the raw, the circle of life.

Sigoth, two Offspringses and I were with her for her last hours and watched her through to her last breath on earth. She was not really conscious. We held her hand and smoothed her forehead and moistened her lips. Then we said goodbye.

She believed in life after death and probably reincarnation. Her beliefs were different from mine. Possibly she was right and somewhere a squalling infant is her new home. I’m pretty sure, from a Buddhist perspective, she will make it back as a human. She did little harm overall and meant none at all. She was a nice person.

If that sounds like faint praise I suppose it’s because her ups and downs, her achievements and failures, her light and her darkness are not really for public consumption. Her generation did not live its life publicly, as people do now. Family is family. The rest can mind their own business.

What I felt during those last hours was love around me. I have been humbled by the way people have mourned her loss. Carers at the residential home and nurses on the ward were tearful and genuinely sad at her passing; they had known her only for a few months, or even days. She touched their lives in positive ways, which is a great achievement. Her friends have shared their memories with me, as have my friends, some of whom have known her almost as long as I have.  Universally they remember her as kindly and welcoming and caring. There are worse legacies.

First Christmas

This picture is of her and me around my first Christmas. I apologise for the gratuitous nudity. Obviously in those days colour had not yet been invented although later it transpired the tub was pink, as am I although a slightly different shade.

To life, my dears, and what we make of it, and all we leave behind!

Namaste.

Conversations

baboons

It being that time of year, it felt only right to be thinking about lists. However, the one I am about to present may not be quite as tinsellicious as some of the others floating about the ether over the holiday season. It’s a list of Conversations I Do Not Want To Have (But Sometimes You Have To).

  1. The Father Christmas Conversation

Unlike Greg Lake, I never believed in Father Christmas. I never looked to the skies with excited eyes. That was because my dad was Father Christmas for the local Rotary Club, and everything was clearly an adult agreement to keep children happy and raise much-needed funds to take old people to the seaside in the summer.

Like Greg, I did like the Christmas Tree Smell, which is why to this day I refuse to buy a plastic, no-drop-needles so-called tree. We usually lash out on a Nordmann Fir, which doesn’t drop as much but also smells less. It’s all about compromise.

That conversation with small children may well be fraught. I know someone who is genuinely distressed still (after 30 years) at the discovery that his parents had lied to him without batting an eyelid. In a supportive fashion I tell him to get over it, but he remains traumatised. I suppose there are sometimes key moments when our parents are revealed as merely human and those moments can live on with us beyond all reason. Which I suppose takes us back to poor old Greg Lake seeing through the disguise.

I have never had this exact conversation with the Offspringses. In fact they carried on for years trying to keep Sigoth and me happy until one year we all agreed to stop messing about and just enjoy the game as part of the Spirit of the Season. I’m so glad they learned pragmatism at least.

Status: Successfully Negotiated

2.  The Teenage Sex Conversation

Worst. Case. Scenario. It happened.

Offspring missed school the day of the Class Talk due to a virus. Teacher told me I would have to do the catch up instead.

How does that work? We pay taxes so some other blighter has to explain the birds and the bees to the nation’s giggling pre-adolescents. I’m not qualified for this. It wasn’t in the ante-natal classes, and you don’t get anything else in the way of advice once the sprog has popped. I’m British, for goodness’ sake. We don’t have Sex, although we do have Euphemisms aplenty, along with Carry On… films, which also involve giggling. Euphemisms are often counter-productive in this kind of situation though. So I got a book and we read it together and no more was said, quite rightly.

At least, no more was said until hormones kicked in good and proper at the mid-teen point and I found myself having the follow-up conversation about condoms  and who slept where when they came to stay over and why the law was in fact based on sound biological research and that failure to observe my and Society’s rules would have Dire Consequences including in extremis an introduction to the Paedophile Register.

Status: Negotiated with a some issues on the way

  1. The Buggery Conversation

Of course, this all pales into insignificance when faced with explaining buggery to one’s apple-cheeked parent. As a teenager myself I was up late one night watching a biopic about Oscar Wilde. Mother heard the TV on and wandered down to see if I was watching anything good. She managed to walk in at a crucial point in the film where a judge was shouting at Oscar about buggery.

“What is buggery?” she asked.

Well, I was only 17 or 18 and it was still the 1970s, when society had a different approach. That’s my excuse.

“Look it up in the dictionary!” I hissed, going red.

She huffed at me in irritation and stomped into the next room to do so. I heard her riffling through the pages. Then it went a bit quiet and the book was gently replaced. Her tread could be described as “thoughtful” as she climbed the stairs back to bed. And that was that.

Status: Avoided like the very plague, thank goodness.

  1. The DNR Conversation

Today I had the DNR conversation. DNR, as the NHS likes to call it, stands for “Do Not Resuscitate.” Like buggery they prefer to avoid using words that are difficult, so they hide behind abbreviations.

Mother is still in hospital and not doing too well. She now has 9 toes and a chest infection they can’t shift. The lack of breathing is the biggest problem as far as the medics are concerned, not unreasonably I feel. However, unless they can bring the infection under control, and she has always been very resistant to anti-biotics, things do not bode well.

So we had that conversation and I agreed that yes, it would not be desirable to go to the greatest lengths to resuscitate if it would leave her in a worse state than before. She and I had discussed it merrily some years ago when it was summer and neither of us believed it would come true.

Status: Negotiated with issues.

  1. The Mortality Conversation

As a result of the above I now need to have a further conversation with the Offspringses to prepare them for possible bad news. In a way it’s trickier than the Actual Bad News Conversation. I need to prepare people for the worst but allow for the best and try to manage hopes and fears equally.

Status: TBC

Wishing you happier talks this season.

Namaste.

Cold Logic in the Cold War

It felt like it was time to write a post about peace, there being so little of that precious commodity available, and it being such a Good Thing generally. Sometimes it feels like Peace is the Giant Panda of Life, vanishingly rare, arguably impractical, but nevertheless illogically desirable to keep around.

What particularly sparked me off though was a reminder that it has been a while since the Cold War fizzled out, and that being so, the paranoia and constant gnawing worry of living under the shadow of the Bomb is now a fading memory. Perhaps, I mused, it is something we should remind ourselves about once in a while and try to explain to the young folk who have not experienced it. This is based on the premise that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, so bear with me and prepare to be reminded or educated.

Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies had its perks, certainly. The music was exciting, there were real astronauts walking on the Moon, and a sense of excitement in the air. There were downsides too, and the testosterone-fuelled face-off across the Iron Curtain was a major issue. This was not because I was incredibly politically aware; I was a child, and my parents were not interested in politics themselves, so I only learned about such things through watching the Man from Uncle on television and seeing posters for the latest James Bond film in the cinema.

It wasn’t something you talked about particularly. It was just there, all the time, at the back of your mind, like what to get for tea, or how long it was until the weekend. It wasn’t even a thing, any more than air or water or the bus being late.

As the Seventies drew to a close and I inched towards the precipice of adulthood it became obvious that things were awry and the world seemed to be edging towards its own brink. This post is about how much it preyed on our teenage minds. This is how it felt.

We had been told that the other side of the Iron Curtain was full of bad guys. People got shot trying to escape, and their deaths peppered the news every now and then as a kind of constant background noise. Just about the time I read 1984 and started to be a little more independent of the official line, the Ayatollah Khomeini lead the overthrow of the Shah of Persia, and took control of Iran. I didn’t understand the background and had barely heard of Iran before then – O-Level geography tended to focus on learning which country exported the most timber and how ox-bow lakes were formed. After that I gave geography up as a bad job and still struggle to work out the difference between the Solway Firth and the Solent.

However, his installation seemed to cause a hysterical fluster in the media and political circles and it looked like the Nuclear Option was suddenly on the table. For real.

We had read about Armageddon and we didn’t fancy it but we were powerless to stop the button being pushed. However, we were not deterred. We were resourceful and modern young people. A few of us had recently passed driving tests and a couple of us even had access to dodgy old cars. So we laid our plans.

This is where the age gap may show. Those of you in my generation will probably nod at what we intended and understand our reasoning, even if you don’t agree with it. My children and younger folks tend to just look bemused or even slightly appalled when I talk about it.

We set up routes and a telephone tree. We agreed pick up points. Cars were to be kept fuelled up for a drive of about 20-25 miles. When the four minute warning was given, we would rendezvous at the agreed locations and drive like hell into the centre of London.

We weren’t going to sign up for a cause.

We weren’t going to protest.

We were aiming to be at the centre of the bomb fallout, because none of us wanted to survive a nuclear war. We hadn’t seen The War Game because the BBC banned it (despite having commissioned it in the first place) until 1985. Nevertheless we had read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and seen pictures.

We intended to die as quickly as possible.

And that, my dears, is what at least one group of teenagers in the late 1970s planned to do in the event of the button being pressed.

War and the means for war mess with your brain. Let’s call it out, shall we?

Namaste.

 

A is for Afterwards

This year I have committed to participating in the Quaker Alphabet Blog Project. I have created a separate page with a little more information too. What it means is that I will try to post a blog for each letter of the alphabet thoughout the year, interpreting this theme as it takes my fancy and reading what others write. I must be a glutton for punishment: I barely managed the Bloggers for Peace monthly post in 2013! Still, EBL is always up for a challenge. Either I can feel a great sense of achievement or have fun beating myself up for failing. What’s not to like?

So today I start with A for Afterwards. Because when you start something I find it pays to think a little about what happens afterwards. I am a project manager. I get paid to do this kind of stuff.

I suppose Afterwards is in my mind because in starting this project I am already thinking about what more I will be committing to doing in 2015. That’s the way the EBL brain works I’m afraid. Never focus on today when there is a hypothetical future to take all my attention and energy away from the moment.

“But EBL! This is supposed to be a Quaker Alphabet!” I hear you cry.

Oh, alright. Let’s get down to it.

One of the things that appealed to me about Quakerism when I came across it in the green of my youth was the lack of going-on about an Afterlife and Heaven and Hell and all kinds of similar dubiousness. I liked very much the focus on practical doing and thinking about how to make our current and shared existence a better one. (And yes, I am aware this is in painful contradiction to the earlier paragraph where I confessed to focusing on the future at the expense of the present. I’m only human you know. It’s an ambition to be more present, rather than an actual, you know, achievement.)

Back to the Quakers though. People are what can make a difference. They make it not only in their contribution to community and the wide world, but also in the odd comment or conversation which can affect other lives. I was a member of a particular Quaker Meeting on the outskirts of London where I met a very special Quaker who once spoke about her understanding of the Afterlife.

Have you had the experience of finding someone who articulates for you what you wish or hope were true. Life after death was not a regular feature of the discussion I had been participating in, so I was not entirely clear what other Quakers thought about it. It was therefore with the most wonderful feeling of relief that I heard this learned and respected person tell me what I felt in my heart to be true.

“I don’t care about what comes after I die,” she said. “I’ll find out if and when it happens. Life is more important.”

This for me summed up what I felt to be important in my faith: life, in the here and now, was the most important thing to think about. Not hypothetical future events of a frankly superstitious and unverifiable nature.

And so, my dears, it is. We live this life together, as many times as fits your personal belief framework, and we can but help each other along the way. There is no After that is not Now.

I wish you all a beautiful year, and thank you for keeping with me on the journey so far.

Namaste.

Santa made me cry

Saturday night in front of the telly and my evening’s viewing was disrupted by a noise outside. I put my glass of wine down carefully and tweaked back the curtain. It was the Lions’ Christmas float, cautiously inching past the cars on the bend in the lane and blaring out carols while people in high-vis vests ran about with buckets to collect money. There were lights and music and cheery greetings, and goodness me, there was Father Christmas, taking time out from his busy schedule to parade through our hamlet. The elves must have everything under control back at base while the wily old gent scouts out the terrain ahead of the Big Night. Mind you, the elves are pretty experienced and the wily old gent has been doing the rounds on floats for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes he sub-contracted.

If you are a big devotee of Father Christmas and write him imploring letters every year, do not read further. It may be distressing. If you are not sure what to do, check with your mum or dad and take their advice.

Meanwhile, all I can tell you is one of the sub-contractors was my own dear papa, and in fact this is why as a child I never believed in Father Christmas (although I do believe, perhaps more foolishly and childishly, in peace on earth and that Christmas tree smell; my eyes are still full of tinsel and fire).

Rotary Float in 1967

My Dad was the local Rotary Club’s Santa. His costume would be hanging up to dry in the kitchen throughout December and I knew that Dad was all there was (it was more than enough) and other kids were deluded. I didn’t tell anyone though; it would have been unkind.

So he would go out on the float at night, and when I was a little older I was allowed to go too and help with the collections. I always got a good haul because people were sentimental about a small child lisping her way through the spiel about raising money for the poor and elderly of the locality. It also meant I got to go on the annual coach trip to the seaside with the old dears, who spoilt me thoroughly with toffees and boiled sweets.

me as santaI even wore the costume on Christmas Day to hand out the presents.

It might help to explain what happened when I saw the float on Saturday if I tell you a bit about my week, or rather my Thursday. Recently the nurses found that my mother’s blood tests were indicating a lack of iron. As she has a good and varied diet the doctor decided she was bleeding internally, although he didn’t know why. She seemed well and was eating and drinking without problems. So we stopped her anti-coagulants, which would be exacerbating any bleed, and waited a bit. Her blood results have been improving steadily so she is no longer bleeding. Excellent news.

Except she is no longer taking her anti-coagulants, which means she is at increased risk of stroke and as she has vascular dementia, at increased risk of more vascular incidents which will further melt her brain.

The doctor and I talked it all through on Thursday. The bleed may have been a temporary problem highlighted by the anti-coagulants thinning her blood; it may be caused by some disease of the bowel; or it may be bowel cancer.  To find out would require difficult, uncomfortable and potentially inconclusive investigations, which she would find inexplicable and terrifying because she can’t understand what is going on. Even if they found the cause, which is not guaranteed, we would then be faced with a decision around whether she is strong enough to take any treatment, such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery. She isn’t, and even if she were, the trauma could be either damaging or fatal by stressing her too far.

So I decided we would let her alone. We’ll restart the anti-coagulants when her blood tests indicate she is back to normal, hoping she doesn’t have a stroke or vascular incident in the meantime (it should only be a couple of weeks). If her blood tests then get worse again, we will have to decide whether to risk stopping them or not.

So it had been a stressful Thursday.

There I was 48 hours later looking at a Christmas float pass by and waving to Santa, who waved back and boomed out a “Merry Christmas!” and I fell apart at the gate, in the dark and cold, where no one could see.

Because last year my mother saw the float and we remembered how Dad used to be Santa. She cannot now.

Because I wanted my dad here to help me. He cannot now.

Because whatever the blood tests tell us, nothing will be good or beautiful or gentle. Yet I must choose.

So I cried silent self-pity in the dark and cold where no one could see, then wiped my eyes and went back into the warm house and sat with Sigoth by the fire.

Because I have joy as well as sadness.

On Joy & Sorrow

Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Namaste.

How long we live, how long we take to die

One of my hobbies is researching my family tree. I’ve been at it since I first saw some old sepia photos of forebears when I was a teenager and my Dad was looking for something in a cluttered bureau. For once he was willing to talk about his family history and I scribbled names on the back with a pencil in my flowery teen-girl handwriting.

My family came alive to me. The great-uncles who died in the Somme suddenly became faces of real (albeit antique) people, gazing solemnly into a camera. My own grandmother, wrinkled, toothless, crippled by arthritis, was a beautiful young woman in a lacy Victorian blouse. Her fiancée looked like a film star. My very serious uncle was a tiny baby kicking his feet as he lay on a rug. My Dad’s sister who died when she was seven, and whom my grandmother occasionally mistook me for, stood clutching a teenaged Great Aunt Lettie’s knee and looked like just like me.

Lettie with Alf and Winnie Tricker

In this way my family still lives on. I never really knew them. They are my inherited ghosts. But from then Armistice Day did have meaning.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them

So life goes on, and we all carry our ghosts with us, some more than others, some gladly, some sadly. Yet still they matter.

My dad died very suddenly on 26 September 1992. This week was the 21st anniversary of his death and my mother missed it more utterly than ever before. Even last year she was vaguely aware of it, and I was able to remind her so we had a few moments together remembering that kind and gentle man before her melted brain turned back to the weather as a topic of conversation. Dementia robs the person and their family of memories, including memories of those no longer with us.  In this way it exterminates the sufferer and their family line. There is a Maori concept of whakapapa which relates to the identity of a person as part of a cultural heritage, and I feel that remembering our predecessors is important to us in a similar way.

I remember my Dad. I have stories about him, some buried in this very blog, which I tell my children. He died the weekend I went home to visit and tell him about his latest grandchild, due to be born the following Spring, He was so happy with the news, but still he died a few hours later, after he got home from work and before my mother and I got back from a concert. It was unexpected.

Twenty one years is a long time. The grandchild is now at university. His wife is fading slowly and excruciatingly.  His only daughter is still misses him on a daily basis. It feels like he is in the next room, or about to phone. We were very close, and in a sense still are. He has been dying for twenty one years, in a sense, and will not completely pass away until I, and possibly the children, can no longer remember him.

What will become of more modern generations? How long will my blog be archived after I am no longer around updating it? I’ll be a wispy little ghost in the machineries of the Web. Every now and then my shade will whisper to you…

“Namaste.”