Don’t panic. This isn’t an excuse for me to drone on about what makes us human. The constituent parts of a personality and whether we are still the same individual when our cognitive function deteriorates is a fascinating topic, but I am in no way equipped to speak knowledgeably on the subject. The post title merely refers to this oft quoted phrase “She’s still in there somewhere” – the implication being that we need not despair, our loved one is still with us even when they are ostensibly not with us (or with it) at all. Is this just a panacea of modern times? Is it the same as telling children that a beloved pet who has met an untimely end is “looking down on them” from heaven? Or the fond belief that someone is still with you after their death if you “hold them in your heart”? I am in no way wanting to belittle the feelings of those who have been bereaved or those who have a strong faith – there are ways of keeping the essence of someone alive despite their physical demise but the truth is that over time, despite the platitudes, it becomes clear that the person is lost. They have gone. Elvis has left the building.
In mum’s case, Elvis hasn’t quite left the building yet but he is entering his post-Vegas morbidly obese phase. She can no longer communicate with us. She can no longer respond appropriately to verbal or physical cues. She shows no discernible preference for any activity or topic of conversation. There are glimpses of a personality but I’m not sure that the personality we see is actually hers. The elements of naughtiness that led to her calling Donald Trump a Cock (Explaining why granny is allowed to get away with ‘that type of behaviour’) are hilarious and a welcome addition to the high brow political discourse in our house, but that type of comment was never really her. She’s just displaying classic disinhibition – which is great – but her entire non-dementia personality was inhibited and British and polite and reserved. She wasn’t a woman who shouted about Cocks (really not sure whether Cock needs a capital letter – thoughts?). So that episode wasn’t actually a glimpse of mum’s naughty side coming through, it was a glimpse of a person with dementia being able to throw off the shackles of inhibition and say the first word she associated with a vision of the orange buffoon.
My lovely aunt who died last year (see The Sisterhood ) came to stay for a few days the previous year to look after mum whilst my dad was away. I think it was an eye-opener for her but my aunt was an amazing woman who took it in her stride. To provide a bit of respite for the respite giver, I invited them both over for Sunday lunch (because that’s just the kind of girl I am, my generosity and benevolence know no bounds) and my aunt trotted out the old phrase. When I asked her how the past twenty-four hours had been she said, “Yes, she’s clearly deteriorated hasn’t she, but she’s still in there you know. I still see a bit of twinkle in her eye that’s clearly her.”
a) What ‘twinkle in her eye’?
b) How would a ‘twinkle in her eye’ indicate retention of personality traits?
c) Are you saying that ‘she’s still in there’ to make yourself feel better / make me feel better?
d) She’d never really struck me as a ‘twinkle in her eye’ kind of person so are you referring to a more cheeky side of my mother that I never knew about?
Obviously I have no answer to these questions given the fact that my aunt is now deceased and I wouldn’t particularly have wanted to grill her about her phrasing at the time anyway – it would have seemed churlish, let’s face it, to debate semantics when someone is doing you a colossal favour. It just strikes me as a curious, yet very human response; perhaps overly hopeful, perhaps genuinely felt.
However, I don’t feel it and I can’t make myself believe it. She no longer looks like my mum, smells like my mum or acts remotely like my mum. She doesn’t recognise me and I don’t recognise her but its not as bleak as it sounds – she’s very sweet to have around, she smiles, she’s a warm body for the dog to cuddle up to (the dog loves her) and she doesn’t mind – she doesn’t really mind anything, presumably because there is nothing left of her mind.
As I have said in many forms and guises previously, it is as if mum died a few years ago and as a replacement bus service we have an affable stranger who visits intermittently, a stranger who contributes little but is not a negative presence either. I feel a sort of ambivalent inertia about the whole scenario. I think I’ve done my grieving – now I’m just cracking on with the practicalities of another body to feed and toilet in a similar way to a small child or a pet. Yes, it could be better. But, it could be worse.