|Photo: Dunn's bakery,|
With no short-term memory, she can’t look forward to future plans or recall pleasurable incident just past. She can’t remember having been in one room, once she has passed into another. Going in and out of the unit – even downstairs to function rooms or to the gardens in summer – is too disorientating for her.
She would gossip with the assistants, while I was fascinated by the toiletries: not the expensive fragrances from Chanel and Christian Dior, but lemon-shaped soaps by Bronnley, in their waxed paper wrappers like Christmas tangerines; bracing 4711 Eau de Cologne in sprays and perfume sticks that I’d surreptitiously test on my wrist; hippy scent Aqua Manda, in its dark brown apothecary’s bottle, heady with orange and spice and patchouli - and, most exotic of all, Maja.
Maja came from Spain. There was eau de toilette, talcum powder, and soap in a dramatic red, black, and gold box, proud flamenco dancer in full flight. The soap came wrapped in black tissue: unusually khaki-coloured and very grown-up to a young girl, with a subtle, woody, spicy aroma. It wasn’t always in stock, which made it a treasure to find in any other store; and sometime in the 1980s or 90s it was discontinued in the UK.
A few years ago, I was then delighted to find it available online. It would make a lovely Mother’s Day gift, I thought, recalling memories of that time when mum and I were always mooching in town together. So I had it shipped all the way from the US and excitedly presented it to her. She opened it with only mild interest; sniffed and quite liked the perfume; then casually returned the soap to me. I was disappointed and not a little hurt by this reaction.
Looking back, her dementia was more advanced than I had realised at that time. She still functioned well in other respects. But now I see: how could she recall the memories evoked by that scent, when she already struggled to recall the department store in town, the main street where it stood? These are landmarks known by all who live there, as familiar to us as our own house. And now she doesn’t remember that.
Of course it’s possible the soap meant less to mum in the first place, and that memory from thirty years ago was understandably hazy. But a person without dementia would have remembered something of it when prompted, or had the social grace to cover it up. Dementia just leaves a blank.
I had moved away to London when I graduated in the late 1980s, but continued to visit every other weekend and for longer spells. As mum’s dementia grew worse, I found myself spending more and more time back at the family home – to the extent that I often felt I was living her life more than my own. That town was as much my home as hers, as much my home as my own district of London.
Suddenly it’s over. I still go to some of those places on my own, but it’s not the same. I can't talk to mum about them, in case it disturbs her fragile sense of where she is now. And with no personal connection, nothing to root me in that community by everyday engagement (stocking up with mum at the supermarket, browsing for clothes together in the town centre, paying her paper bill, taking rubbish to the dump), I’m an outsider.
All the things we used to do that were bound up with that place – our shared rituals, the life we lived there with my late father – are only in my head now. No-one else remembers.
Dementia, we are told, attacks short-term memory: “they still remember the past”. Well, only selectively in my mum’s case, and only her own past - mostly her childhood or youth, long before my time. My past - and much of my present, the memories we shared of my lifetime - has gone.
A few weeks ago, she asked me out of the blue if I had a husband. I don’t and never have. I laughed it off at the time. But if she has no idea of something so fundamental about me, how much of me does she now remember?
The bereavements of dementia are many, and some are better known. I have come to realise that this cruel disease has not only robbed mum of much of the life we shared - it has left me alone with my own memories and made me a stranger in my home town.