Watching you sleep

Today I walked into your room. You looked up confused, from your seat on the bed. “Hello mum” you said as you smiled at me. My heart lurched. Were we at this point so soon? Was I lost to you? The confusion remained as you stared, but a blink and your eyes cleared momentarily. “Not mum, you just look like her.” You reached your hand out to me. The warm touch that I remember so well. The hand that had held mine so often through my 58 years to offer comfort and to ground me when I felt lost, “Hello my Annie”. And then you were gone again, mumbled words and names I knew, but no sense to be had as I heard them, no story to be grasped to bring you back to the present day. So instead I lifted your legs onto the bed, they were hot and swollen not the slim ankles of your youth. I rubbed them gently “mmm, that feels nice. Lovely darling”. I plumped the pillows behind your head, and pulled the duvet to snuggle you in as a mother would: “Have a nap, you look tired”. Roles reversed: this had been the deal for many years. However today it was that stark reminder of the frailty of life. The realisation that the dementia was doing its worst – your body was present but your mind was lost to me in this moment. You were lost in a different life, one that I couldn’t see or make sense of. I was sad that we were apart.

Your eyes closed as I sat watching you, but still you mumbled the script for what you were experiencing in your head. Your face smiling and then grimacing, your hands plucking at the covers. Happy or sad memories it was difficult to see. I reached for your hand, and we joined together in warmth: physically if not mentally. You opened your eyes, “Ah, still here”. You smiled and your eyes slowly closed again. Time passed – your restlessness continued. It hurt because it seemed a reflection of the restlessness within. I watched the twitching of your face, wishing for you to feel your usual calmness, the gift you had given me. I often exuded the calm despite the storm around me – but would this be my fate too? In my old age when my filter had been lost would I too feel such agitation, no rest or respite from the squiggling thoughts?

The sound of a motorbike backfiring through the open window woke you again from your troubled sleep “What was that noise?” I decided to play my usual trick, a joke to break the tension “Oops sorry, pardon me!” You giggled; a lovely sound to my ears, an example of the role I have played for you for years. I am your joker, your teaser, the jester, the fool, always the part I have played, the mask I have donned with love. Again you closed your eyes to sleep but this time no mumbled words, no plucking at the covers, no grimace on your face. Instead your face was smooth and soft – you looked like the photo of your mum as you rested peacefully at last. Now I could leave. I reached for your hand, kissed you once on the cheek and then on the forehead, “Sleep tight. Sweet dreams. Love you.” You squeezed my hand without opening your eyes “Love you too”. I quietly left the room, the door closing behind me. I stood in the dark corridor outside your room breathing deeply. Who would I see the next time I visited? My mum, or that person living between worlds?

As I sit and write to soothe my squiggling thoughts following today’s visit I feel such a mix of emotions. There is the devastating realisation that day by day my mum as I remember her disappears in front of my eyes. However, I feel honoured that she gave me her mother’s name – as the forenames given me when I was born, but also in her exclamation as I walked through her door today. She loved her mum fiercely. She waved goodbye to her on leaving her island home when just 16 years old, never to see her mother again. She talked often of her mother’s love and strength in life. I am proud that these strong women are part of me and I hang onto this knowledge as the storm comes ever closer.

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