One of the impalpable things that some of us leave behind when we move abroad is the immediate (and, therefore, actual) responsibility for dealing with elderlies. In my case, my mother, aka Gran, lived alone but just around our corner, and two years ago as we prepared to depart for Houston, she finally lost her mind after many months of anxious, forgetful, self-denying, delusional decline. In a very brief space of time, I – bullyingingly, bluntly and deviously, in her eyes – forced her out of her own home into a “mad house” (ironically, her words) of a hospital assessment centre, from where she would eventually be moved (round about the same time we were winging our luxurious way in business class whilst quaffing Champagne over the Atlantic towards our sunny new life) unceremoniously into her new but not so sunny life, in a dementia care home. The timing couldn’t have been crueller.
She didn’t know, and never will, that H and F, her two oldest grandchildren, and I, found for her simply the perfect place – newly opened, purpose designed with cosy living spaces, snug bedrooms, and a high ratio of focussed and kind and dedicated staff, well trained at all levels to understand the terrors of these bewildered old-lady-children; staff who “enter their world” rather than expecting them to carry on coping with ours. Gran is, without doubt, in the best surroundings she could be.
But she most certainly didn’t believe that two years ago. Her rage was visceral, and it was directed at me, of course, because I was the one who physically walked her out of her house for the last time and drove her away from it forever. While the memory of the actual, awful event slid out of her grasp within days, the emotional memory – how it made her feel – was etched, in that bizarre way that dementia can work: while almost everything gets forgotten, some things stick, in a groove, in a distinctly ungroovy manner.
So there she went and off we went too, each to our oh so very different new lives. And on they (our lives) then moved.
All this time we’ve been away, doing our ex-pat thang, so too has Gran, like a mute shadow faded in the very background of our everydays, while still declining, been silently, steadily (with an unsteady gait), unceremoniously, crossly and confusedly, but all the while undeliberately and, in her mindless way, stoically, doing her thing. Being. Her rage has gone, she no longer blames or cares, exactly, and she’s calm. But she has become a foreign creature, snappy or smiling or silent or sleepy, whichever way impossible to read, some flashes of recognition (of names, of a face, of a kink of memory linked to a photo or a song or a voice) rippling occasionally out of the murky mellow softness of dreamy oblivion. We did all that stuff and here she still sits. And around her, sit we, back down to earth.
I am not the first, the last, or indeed the nicest to have had to deal with such a situation. The truth is (for me, at least) that, over the pond, there was not a huge amount of reality to deal with. Yes, there were practicalities, financial arrangements, a house to sell, blah blah, but – unable to contemplate the confusion, horror, and, dare I say it, the raw flesh of even a Skype call – emotionally and empathetically, I was let off the hook. The circumstance of distance allowed me the acceptable option to forget about her for the most part, while she carried on forgetting about her too. A bit poignant, a bit sad, but just the way it was and had to be, both of us forgetting Gran in our separate ways. But I don’t have that careless luxury any longer. Welcome back to reality, do I hear?