Tuesday 20 August 2019

Life is all about the memories that we make along the way

Gabrielle Cummins reflects on the dementia that robbed her of her mother, long before she passed away

All about family: Gabrielle's parents on their wedding day
All about family: Gabrielle's parents on their wedding day

'Will you be my bridesmaid?" she asked, exhilarated at the prospect of her impending wedding day. Before I opened my mouth to respond, she started chattering about how she and her sister would make the dress, how beautiful the flowers would be and exactly how her cake would look.

A sad smile was all that I could muster in reply, and I inwardly prayed she didn't notice.

Her perfect wedding day that she had described to me, had actually taken place 53 years ago and her husband with whom she'd shared a long life, was now sound asleep. I, on the other hand, lay on the ground in a makeshift bed beside my mother, giving my father a much-needed break from the world he now tentatively inhabited with the love of his life.

Gabrielle on her own wedding day wearing the red velvet cape her mother made for her
Gabrielle on her own wedding day wearing the red velvet cape her mother made for her

The days were tough but the nights were dark and frightening. My mother would frequently wake, get up to wander and end up somewhere in the house, on the flat of her back.

On this particular night, at about 3am, she woke suddenly and in a state of excitement. My own wedding had taken place only a couple of years before, so I quite happily indulged her in the joy of wedding planning. After a while, I could see she was getting tired so I reminded her that beauty sleep was essential for budding brides. She acquiesced, lay down and settled into a deep slumber.

I didn't. I watched her and cried raw, painful tears because I missed my mam.

Being the youngest of 12 children and with a five-year gap between my brother and me, I had spent most of my teenage years at home with just my parents. It was the 1980s so, like thousands of other Irish families, many of my siblings had been forced or had chosen to build a different life for themselves in the US. Despite the fact that my mother and I clashed often as I struggled to find my sense of self, I always admired her.

As I lay on the ground that night, struggling to sleep, I suddenly fully understood the importance of memories and I let my mind wander to my own past.

I was 18 and awaiting my Leaving Cert results. I was quietly confident I had secured enough points for my dream course: primary teaching at Mary Immaculate College.

I hadn't. I missed out by 10 points and was inconsolable. But she and my father were right there. I remember the worry lines etched across her temples because she couldn't instantly make me feel better. They had never gone to college but had instilled a strong work ethic in all of their children. They had nurtured my determination and now shared the pain of my disappointment.

Weeks later, she was also there as I stood at the gates of Mary I, excited to begin a Bachelor of Arts degree. She remained there, every step of the way of my four-year course, rejoicing in my highs and supporting me in my lows.

When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend, I sat quietly with my mother in the sitting room of our home. The only sounds were the peaceful crackle of the blazing fire and my highly emotional sniffling. I always was a drama queen but she knew how to handle me. She said little, but her presence and the odd pearl of wisdom were enough to comfort me.

I drifted on to memories of my own wedding day, the day I caught the first glimpse of my mother starting to slip away. She tried her best to hide it because she wanted to enjoy all the pomp and ceremony. She even managed to revive her dressmaking skills so she could make me an exquisite, velvet cape for my winter wedding.

She was well into her 70s at this point and I was so touched by this gesture because I knew how physically difficult it had been for her. The magnificent cape caused quite a stir when the large entrance doors of Thurles Cathedral opened and I walked down the candlelit aisle on the arm of my father, both of us beaming with pride.

My mother suddenly groaned in her sleep and I was jolted back to the reality of my makeshift bed. It was now 5am and I was exhausted. My mind aimlessly drifted towards a less pleasant memory.

I remembered standing in the downstairs toilet, helping my mother to clean herself up. She was embarrassed. My father anxiously paced outside. I looked away momentarily from helping my mother and I caught the sorrow in his eyes. There was something else there, too: a disbelief that his youngest daughter was tending to his wife in exactly the way she herself had cleaned and cared for each of her 12 babies. We exchanged a look that said "I'm grateful and I understand" and got back to the task at hand.

I don't know why but we never explicitly told my mother she had vascular dementia. We all simply slipped into our particular roles, roles which adapted to each visit and change of mood.

Thankfully she never got angry or aggressive. But she sometimes cried. And then I cried. Sometimes I cried with her but I tried to save my tears for later. I had to be the strong one for her because she had been the strong one for me for so many years. It was the least I could do.

Not long after that night of memories on the floor of my mother's room, my father with the support of us, made the soul-destroying decision to admit her to a nursing home.

The staff there did their best, but her inevitable decline continued. My father died a year later. We brought her home to see him laid out which we romantically hoped would help her in some way. I like to think it did, but on more realistic days I'm not so sure. When I went to visit my mother after the funeral, she enquired about my father's next visit. She didn't remember, or didn't want to accept that he was gone.

I stayed away from her for a month in an attempt to grapple with my own grief. I couldn't face talking about him in what was now the oppressive present tense of dementia. And yet that present finally passed too.

My mother died 11 months later in November 2012. The final weeks before she died were particularly excruciating; she was physically fading away but her strong spirit did not want to give up the fight. As she took her last breath, my siblings and l breathed too: a sigh of relief that this painful journey had finally come to an end, for her and for us.

A close friend is now embarking on an equally difficult journey with his father which prompted me to reflect on those final years with my mother, and on the dementia that robbed us of her, long before she passed away.

In his memoir Pour me a Life, AA Gill asks "What's to examine if you can't remember it? Memories are the evidence of a life."

I'm thankful my mother could at least retreat to revel in the memories of a life lived to the full, and I'm grateful for the many treasured moments she left behind for us to remember.

Gabrielle Cummins is chief executive of Beat 102-103FM - just one of the radio stations promoting Memory Ribbon Day for the Alzheimer Society of Ireland on Friday, November 24

Sunday Independent

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