The darkness of dementia

It was always summertime when they came to stay on the farm: my eldest aunt, her husband and her family of four. It was always a happy time. The eldest of my cousins would take me fishing on the banks of the River Parrett. My aunt was always cheerful, always having a composed wisdom in all that she faced. My uncle would assist my grandfather and my two uncles who were on the farm with the gathering in of the harvest. We would go out to the fields with them. Riding on the wagons there would be stories and laughter.

My uncle died from pancreatic cancer in 2008. I flew from Dublin to Heathrow in order to get the train out to Didcot to attend the funeral. My aunt seemed unchanged from the person I had always known. It seemed hard to imagine that she was over seventy.

Age did not weary her. Aged eighty-three, at a wedding reception in 2018, she was out on the dance floor with those sixty years younger.

But the shadow of forgetfulness has arrived. The isolation of lockdown has accelerated the decline. An aunt tells of conversations with her eldest sister where after a few sentences the thread is lost, or repetition begins. It is hard to imagine the forever young woman will no longer share wise words and happy memories.

In Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces, there are words to which I have had frequent recourse.

He looked up and forced himself to regroup. ‘Yes. Yes. I just have to say, while I am still able, a sort of goodbye, or at least an au revoir. Some weeks ago I … Er, I suffered a peculiar experience. I do not wish to go into it except to say that I appeared to lose my memory. I was in a police station with no recollection of how I had got there. I was not unhappy, I just did not know what was going on. I was like King Lear. “Methinks I should know you, and know this man;/ Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant/What place this is; and all the skill I have/Remembers not these garments; nor I know not/Where I did lodge last night.” Anyway, to … To cut a long story short, I have been to see various distinguished gentlemen¬¨at the hospital in Queen Square and it appears that I am in her early stages of some kind of senile or pre-senile dementia.

‘Rather interestingly, it has been named after Alois Alzheimer . . .

. . . He looked back to his postcard. It said: ‘Age.’

‘Yes. Age. I am rather young to have this sort of thing, though perhaps sixty does not seem so young to the children at the far end of the table. The truth is that we know very little about this illness. We know very little about anything, as a matter of fact. Never mind. It is really not important. It is just that one day I may no longer know your name, and I ask you to forgive me if I pass you in the street or on the stairs and my face does not light up with love or recognition. Please forgive me. I shall no longer be myself. I am going into a dark country and I very much wanted to say goodbye to those that I have loved before I go. . .

. . . He gazed once more down through the mist of faces until he saw the features of the woman he had loved – no longer young, but red and twisted with grief, shining with tears.

‘I have been blessed beyond what any man could hope or wish for,’ said Thomas. ‘All I ask now is somewhere safe to live. I must pull in sail and lower my sights from the horizon. I am quite content to do so because I have been so fortunate in my life.¬† I always felt that if I had to make a speech like this I should find some Shakespearean eloquence. But it is too late and the plain words will have to do. As a doctor, I have achieved absolutely nothing. Nothing at all, though God knows I tried. But in love I have been rich. Once long ago I finished a lecture in another place by saying we should try to make our lives a hymn of thanks – or some such phrase. I do not think it was a very memorable phrase, even to someone without my difficulties. I shall do my best to follow my own advice. All I ask is for your forgiveness.’

He looked one last time down the table of anxious faces. ‘My mind may not know you,’ he said, ‘but in my heart you are remembered.’

In my aunt’s heart, I know that all those who loved her are still remembered.

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