Thursday 19 April 2018

Catherine O'Mahony remembers her late father: There's so much I should be doing... but it seems there isn't, any more

Dementia can be devastating in its impact on ­families, ­especially when its effects appear to come and go

John O'Mahony
John O'Mahony

They are trying to stabilise him. They are talking about him out in the hall. They whisper theatrically and he only catches snippets. He is not so bad, considering. He had a difficult night. He was agitated. There were some problems getting him dressed. They have changed his medication again. The same old talk over and over.

He wishes they could truly stabilise him. So he can stand like he used to. It's been months since he could stand steady on his feet. Years maybe. Still, he has his walker. Six months ago he was able to manage a couple of turns around the grounds. Three months ago he could walk the corridors outside his room twice without trouble. The trouble is that now he struggles to lift himself out of his chair at all. Even his en-suite bathroom, which is five steps from his chair, is starting to look like a destination too far.

If he could only think straight. He shakes his head to try and make it work like it did before. His brain once brimmed with learning, he loved words; he taught himself several languages for fun. He wants it all back but it comes only in the briefest of flashes and then it's gone again. How to remember what is what and who is who? He does not recognise this addled version of himself. And now his body is betraying him as well.

He is angry, often. Once he found it easy to be tolerant, but now he is impatient. Once he was grateful, now he is petulant. The staff are starting to grate on his nerves. What are they saying now? Always with the biscuits and the tea. He has a reputation for being a civilised gentleman - he knows this - but he's at risk of ruining it.

No appetite

Here's that nice young nurse again with her soft country accent. He won't swear at her today he promises himself. He forces a smile as she approaches, her expression uncertain. How are we today? He feels himself bristle but he says he is alright. He hasn't finished his lunch - as far as he remembers - and they don't like that. But he has no appetite. He never does anything to give himself an appetite. She shakes crumbs off him, asks if he wants to change his trousers. He brushes her off. He is not a child. He is glad when she leaves.

If they would just let him get back out in the garden and do some digging. When he retired, he was out there all the time. His wife would be fussing over the raspberries at the back of the garden and he'd be up a ladder, cutting the hedge. Hours they spent, silently cutting and pruning and raking. Neighbours used to lean over the wall and exclaim over the job they'd done. Strangers would call in to ask for names of shrubs.

He even made the little patio in the back himself, right in the spot where the sun hit longest. He poured cement into a mould to make the flagstones. Small hexagons. It took him weeks. He laid them carefully and then set out folding chairs for the kids or his wife to use. That was a decent bit of work. That was what he called satisfaction. Not this endless, pointless waiting for food and tea and visitors. Where is the use in that?

There is a tree outside his window. On a good day, he takes joy in it. But today is not a good day.

Movement in the corridor. Urgent whispering. Had he a good night? How's his mood? Has the doctor been. He sighs impatiently at the fuss… That woman arrives, anxious and hopeful, her neediness enervating him afresh. Is this really his daughter? This middle-aged woman? Dad, she says. Dad. Should he put a brave face on things for his daughter, he wonders. Weren't his girls eight or nine just last week, with those small faces looking to him for guidance and information, for entertainment? He never disappointed them, he thinks.

But today he doesn't gild the lily. He feels rotten and he tells her so. He hasn't slept well in days. He is exhausted. He can't think. His head doesn't work. He can't see properly, he can't read and he can't hear properly. He is guessing what people are saying to him half the time. It all pours out.

She tells him she is sorry. His frustration bubbles over. I can't go on like this, he says. I want it to be over. He is very clear in that moment.

And then the fog comes over him and he looks, bewildered, at his daughter. Why is she here? What he really wants is to help her out. Give her a lift somewhere. Shove a few bob into her coat pocket. She might want sweets.

There's so much I should be doing, he starts and then falls silent, because it seems there isn't, any more.

He wonders where his wife has gone. His wife always knows what's what. She'd know how to fix things. He looks around for her. She should be with the child shouldn't she, surely? His daughter is only little, she needs her mother, what is she doing here in this place all by herself? There's a picture of his wife on the wall, in a college gown carrying a diploma, looking delighted with herself. He smiles at it. She went to college as an adult. But where is she now? Did she go upstairs for something? He thinks of asking his daughter but something tells him he must not. He tried that before, he remembers now, and she reacted badly, why did she do that? He furrows his brow to recall.

And then he does remember with a horrible jolt. His wife is dead. He is sure of it now. But how is she dead? He doesn't remember her dying. He remembers she was weak and sick. He used to make her breakfast. Was he with her when she died? He has no clue. But there was a funeral (he thinks) and people he barely knew talking to him and trying to get him to remember things he had long forgotten. She wasn't supposed to go before him but she did and now it seems he has nobody to ask about things and he can't understand how life ended up this way. His head hurts with the effort of remembering.

Taking hands

His daughter takes his hand. He is befuddled and quiet. His hand used to be so much bigger than hers. Now they look the same size. What he used to regard as her narrow wrist, he realises, is now wider than his. They look in silence at their joined hands. His skin is translucent and dry, like rice paper. Dark veins stand out. His knuckles are swollen with arthritis.

She goes to get cream for his hands and spends a while applying it. He starts to relax. Now they both sit facing the television … It is on but he can't hear anything. Time passes. At some point he is dimly aware of her settling a blanket on him. He starts to drift in and out of sleep. She sits beside him reading. He closes his eyes and there is peace.

RIP John O'Mahony 1927-2017

Alzheimer's affects around 48,000 people in Ireland. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, which offers support for carers and those with dementia, is at

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