by Dan Shewan
I’ve always envied people who can remember holidays from their childhood. I’m not great at remembering things. Sometimes I forget to eat, or shower, or brush my teeth. Sometimes I forget to ask my wife if she’s okay when she cries. I’m trying, I really am. I leave notes for myself like clues, little reminders to be a better person. Sometimes I forget to read them.
That’s not to say I can’t remember any Christmases from when I was a kid, of course. That would be weird. The kind of thing a therapist might remark upon if I could afford to see a therapist and had the inclination to tell them I can’t remember much before my twentieth birthday and I’m actually more than a little concerned that I took way too many drugs as a teenager and now I’m broken and it’s all my fault. There was the year when my dad made Brussels sprouts as a side. They’re just like tiny, wee cabbages, he said. I managed to chew a single Brussels sprout for maybe four or five seconds before projectile vomiting all over the dinner table. There was the year we got our first real Christmas tree. It was magnificent. It smelled lush and strong and wild, and my father muttered darkly the entire time he wrestled the tree into the space in the bay window of our living room. His hands were raw from his previously undiscovered allergy to pine needles for weeks. There was the year we made my hamster, Rufus, his very own little Christmas dinner. We gave him a decent scrap of turkey, a quarter of a roast potato, two or three garden peas. Quite the festive feast for a tiny rodent. A veterinarian would later tell us that Rufus was the fattest hamster he’d even seen. We didn’t tell the vet about the Christmas dinner.
The Christmas of ’93, though, that was a very good year. That’s how I see it in my mind; capitalized, a singularly memorable event, the way old-timers tell stories about freak storms. The one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was a copy of the Jurassic Park video game tie-in for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and my parents got it for me. I’d read the novel at eleven because I was one of those lonely, precocious little shits who read Michael Crichton novels even though they probably only understood about half the book and thought it was much better than it actually was because they were too young to know any better and loudly told anyone who would listen that the book was way better than the movie; the kind of kid teachers secretly hate because they seem determined to squander their intellect just to spite them. If only Daniel would apply himself, the teachers would say on parent-teacher night. He has so much potential.
For what, they never said.
My mother isn’t great at remembering things, either. My mum has Alzheimer’s disease, you see. Her mother had it, too. Sort of a family tradition, you might say. It’s too soon to know if I’ll get it, and I’ll never be able to afford the tests that could tell me whether I have what scientists call deterministic genes. Maybe it’s better that way, a mysterious gift left beneath the tree on Christmas morning, only you can’t shake it to figure out what’s inside. You just have to wait and see.
My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease when my mum was in her early teens. I don’t have any cute names for my grandmother the way people who can remember holidays from their childhood have cute names for their grandmothers, names like Mee-Maw or Nana or Grammie. Even if she had somehow lived another thirty-something years until I was born, my grandmother was, by all accounts, the kind of stern, fearsome woman who had little use for such familiarities. One day, Mum visited my grandmother at her home in Liverpool. Upon entering the house, she was met by the plaintive stare of my aunt Carmel and the sight of their mother sitting in a makeshift bed that had been set up in the corner of the small living room. My grandmother looked up at Mum and said, Oh dear, you can’t just go walking into other people’s houses. She had no idea who my mother was or why she was there. My grandmother died shortly afterward, never remembering the strange woman who came to visit.
My mother can no longer remember that day, either. If she does, she can’t tell us. Sometimes I wonder where those stories go when we can’t remember them anymore. Maybe they’re still in there somewhere, waiting to be unearthed, the way you can sing along to the lyrics of a random pop song you haven’t heard since you were a kid when you hear it on the radio. Or maybe they’re just gone. Just like Mum.
Dad visits my mother at the nursing home every day. It’s just down the street from his house, which gives him a much-needed excuse to get out of the house and interact with other human beings instead of drinking single-malt whiskey alone in his empty house. My wife tells me I need to get out more – I must make a note to remind myself. As is the case with many pensioners, you could set your watch by my father’s daily routine. Even from the other side of the Atlantic, I know exactly where he is and what he’s doing at any given moment. Two days after my dad had his hip replaced, he was already talking about visiting Mum in the nursing home. Three days later, he was back to his regularly scheduled programming, albeit with two walking sticks instead of one. Most of the time, Mum recognizes my father well enough. Some days she greets him with the excited, wide-eyed smile of a child standing at the living room window watching Daddy walk toward the house after waiting all day for him to come home. Other days, she slaps his hand away when he tries to hold hers, hissing accusations through clenched teeth before wandering off to take care of unseen chores.
Mum never had any trouble making friends. Since being admitted to the nursing home in February 2016, she had befriended several other residents, some of whom were also prisoners of their own minds. There was Val, an elderly woman in her nineties who walked with the same pronounced stoop as my mother did. The nurses told me Val and my mum would often shuffle down the hallways and back again all day long, hand in hand, engaged in the kind of secret, whispered conversations that only children can understand. There was Archie, a slow but kindly gent who was fixated with time. He’d ask what time it was, before proceeding to state the time for the next several hours in five-minute increments. Dad told me Archie would also remember your birthday – another of his favorite questions – weeks after being told, despite his inability to remember almost anything else. There was Anita, who was always asking where her mother was. When she wasn’t trying to find her missing mother, who had been dead almost as long as my grandmother, she was trying to escape. I’ve got to get back home, she’d say. I don’t like it here, I’m going back to Sheffield.
At just sixty-seven, Mum was the youngest resident in the nursing home by almost twenty years. Another little cruelty.
It’s Christmas Eve 2016. The nursing home staff have done their best to make the place look festive. A modest holly wreath hangs from the front door, and a short, plastic Christmas tree with blinking fairy lights greets guests in the reception area. Glittery cards hang from strings on many of the walls, season’s greetings from family who just couldn’t make it this year, so sorry, merry Christmas. The thick, double-glazed windows that are kept locked at all times for the residents’ safety have been frosted with aerosolized snow spray. Some of the residents are even allowed a little eggnog or a glass of sparkling wine. Somewhere a radio is playing “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney. My mother always hated Paul McCartney. Chapman should’ve shot that bastard instead, she’d say whenever Wings came on the radio. He only ever cared about the money.
We take our seats at a table in the otherwise empty cafeteria, careful to avoid spilling the cans of warm lager we have been given on the thin vinyl tablecloth. The home’s cook, a burly young lad with a broad Yorkshire accent, serves us our Christmas dinner: sliced turkey that has been cooked far too long, lumpy mashed potatoes layered with a thick, viscous gravy that has already begun to congeal and develop a skin, a handful of cold garden peas. One of the nurses brings Mum through from the lounge and helps her sit down. The cafeteria smells like hand lotion and disinfectant. We nudge the cold food around our paper plates while Mum stares into space, fixated on something across the room that only she could see. Dad tells me she sees hallucinations from time to time. Small children mostly, though sometimes dogs follow the children around the home, too. After less than five minutes, Mum stands hesitantly before muttering that she has to go, that she has far too much work to do.
Everybody has their limit. For Dad, it was Mum’s infrequent bathroom accidents. For me, it was the fucking coloring books. Many nursing homes have entertainment coordinators; kind, generous folk who take the time to book Roy Orbison impersonators and organize Easter egg hunts and write Valentine’s Day cards for the residents. My mother’s nursing home is no exception. One day, the entertainment coordinator thought it would be nice for the residents to do some coloring. Mum and the others were given small packs of non-toxic crayons and coloring books, and left to their artistic endeavors. Describing the scene during one of our daily phone calls, my father told me how happy Mum had seemed with her crayons, how the very tip of her tongue had crept out the corner of her mouth as she focused intently on the task before her. My father’s voice was light and excited, but I felt a deep, wrenching shame that stung my eyes with tears. She wouldn’t want to live this way. Alzheimer’s is a bastard like that. It not only robs our loved ones of their autonomy, their dignity, their memory – their identity – it also infantilizes them, reducing lives of accomplishment and pride and meaning to thick, heavy lines scrawled in a child’s coloring book. I try to find a measure of joy in Mum’s childlike marvel, to remind myself that at least she has been spared the horrors of the world in which we live now. That she’s happy, wherever she is.
If she isn’t, she can’t tell us.
In the Sixties, when my Mum was just a runaway lass from Liverpool who wore miniskirts and go-go boots and a towering beehive hairdo, she and a friend were approached by a gadfly drunk in a pub who wouldn’t take no for an answer. When the man grabbed her friend’s arm, my mother shoved her lit cigarette right up his nose. She was a Liverpool lass through and through, my mum, despite how hard she worked to shed her accent. She had dozens of these stories. Stories of running away from her abusive elder brother when she was just fifteen, fleeing the sooty streets and terraced houses of postwar Liverpool for the lush greens and historic architecture of Cambridge; of narrowly avoiding a fiery death by changing her mind about accepting a ride home from her friend and her husband, having almost gotten into the car they would crash less than half an hour later, the heat of the fire so intense it fused the blackened body of my mum’s friend to the upholstery of the seat; of how she and another friend had ended up in a dingy jazz club on Matthew Street one night in 1960 and saw some band called The Beatles before they became the biggest rock band in the history of the world, bigger than even Christ Himself.
My mother isn’t dead, but I talk about her in the past tense. In a very real way, my mum – the teenager who would have gone to art school and become a painter if life were fair, the jazz fan who loved listening to Duke Ellington and Stan Getz and Django Reinhardt, the runaway from Liverpool my father fell in love with in a crowded pub on an Air Force base in Yorkshire, the mother who liked to read Agatha Christie novels in the dappled sunlight of Aberdeen’s Duthie Park while I played with my beloved dinosaur toys – is gone forever. Just like the memory of our last conversation. I can’t remember what we said, and now neither can she. Another story gone to wherever those forgotten memories go.
When people die, we must speak for them. He’d like that, we say as we write obituaries, choose bouquets of flowers, settle on tasteful coffins and urns and headstones. It’s what she would have wanted. Except sometimes we really can speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. She wouldn’t want to live like this. My mother never forgot the memory of her own mother talking to her like a stranger – until she did. Before she forgot, Mum made my father promise that, should she suffer the same fate as my grandmother – if she carried on the family tradition, you might say – Dad would take care of her. They had amassed a small stash of around forty diazepam pills that my Mum’s doctor had prescribed for her anxiety before she became ill. The plan was to grind the pills into a fine powder, wait for an opportune moment, then add the deadly mixture to one of Mum’s drinks. It would be painless, they thought, like falling asleep. Weeks after Dad finally worked up the courage to tell me of the plan he and Mum had hatched together, his chest heaving as he sobbed, the one and only time he ever allowed me to see him cry, I had to tell him that forty diazepam probably wouldn’t be enough to kill her, that it was surprisingly difficult to fatally overdose on diazepam. I didn’t tell him how I know this.
Like fixing the leaky roof on the shed in the backyard or finally getting around to installing a shower in the claw-foot tub, his macabre promise would have to wait.
Sometimes I don’t trust my memories. They’re blurry and out of focus, the world itself distorted, like trying on someone else’s glasses. People are missing. The sounds aren’t quite right, like hearing muffled laughter underwater. They feel like the memories of another person. In a way, I suppose they are. We are all unreliable narrators, but it doesn’t matter how unreliable our narrators may be if we cannot remember the stories they tell us. I read somewhere that stress, anxiety, and depression can cause memory problems. Or maybe my doctor told me, I’m not quite sure.
The youngest person to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease was just twenty-seven. For some reason, I have no problem at all remembering this.
Neither my father nor I have spoken with a grief counselor, mainly because my mum isn’t dead, even if the parts of her that made her who she was have gone to wherever our forgotten stories go. The nursing home Mum lives in has plenty of pamphlets about dementia – the kind of brochures that say things like If you’re chatting to everyone about Mum’s memory loss, maybe you should chat to Mum and offer helpful tips on How to Approach the Conversation – but nobody tells you how to approach a stranger wearing your mother’s face. Nobody tells you that the thought of the woman who used to be your mother coloring with crayons will somehow be far worse than the cruel indignity of no longer being able to go to the bathroom by herself. Nobody tells you that you’ll have to find a way to tell your father that a fistful of crushed diazepam probably wouldn’t be enough to kill the woman he fell in love with in a pub on an Air Force base that no longer exists almost half a century ago.
Grief counselors will sometimes suggest that the relatives of a dying loved one say certain things before it’s too late. While there’s still time, they say with strained smiles. Everybody knows exactly what they mean. They recommend saying things like I love you and forgive me and thank you and goodbye. What they don’t say is that this is for us, not our loved ones.
It’s Christmas Day 2016. Before we leave the nursing home, I kneel down to say goodbye to Mum. She smiles, reaches out a hand to gently stroke the beard I’d grown in the lost years since we had seen each other. Her hand hesitates as she brushes my cheek, as if she were stroking the fur of a wild animal through the iron bars of a cage at the zoo. Her eyes grow wet with tears. I try to pass her a tissue, but rather than take it from me and use it herself, she takes my hand and dabs the tissue against her eyes. Her skin feels thinner than the tissue paper. I tell her I love her. I’m pretty sure she hears me, that she knows who I am. I forget to say the rest – I’m not great at remembering things.
Hopefully I’ll get another chance next year – one last gift for Mum I can leave beneath the tree.
Dan Shewan is a writer and journalist based in New England. His work has been featured in a wide range of publications in print and online, from national newspapers to small literary journals, including The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Full Stop, Pithead Chapel, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others.