I love Christmas – always have done. For me Christmases have been family affairs, rich in laughter and companionship. My late father was a post-ghost Ebeneezer Scrooge – he knew how to keep Christmas well. This Christmas was the third since Dad’s death and the third since Mum’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s Disease. It was also the first for Mum outside the family home. My sister and I agonised over whether she should take out of her residential care home on the 25th or whether we should visit her there. She seems so settled and comfortable at the home so we opted for the latter. My sister, in particular, suffered pangs of guilt that we weren’t making the effort to entertain Mum for the day – after all, one day in the year isn’t too much to ask is it? And yet, we asked ourselves, who was going to benefit from taking Mum out of her world? If we were doing it for Mum, then we should do it. If, though, we were doing it for ourselves, to silence the voice of conscience which is a constant companion these days, then it would be kinder to leave Mum “at home”.
And so, we went to see Mum on Christmas morning. By we, I mean my sister, her three daughters, my Mum’s cousin and me. It was quite an invasion and yet Mum coped well. She seemed pleased to see us even if she did greet me with a “Oh, you’ve come as well have you!” We exchanged presents, though Mum’s gifts seemed to mean nothing to her. This time last year, she’d been obsessed by Christmas cards, putting up the ones she’d received in 2009 alongside the 2010 vintage. This time, though she received plenty of cards, they meant little to her. We stayed for about 40 minutes which is twice as long as normal and Mum was happy for us all to leave. There was no suggestion she wanted to come with us, for which we were all relieved. We had made the better decision of the two.
Yesterday, our house was filled with family and friends. Most of the friends were people we’ve got to know since moving to Warwickshire six years ago and we’re starting to build our own stories with them. Memories of fun times, memories which strengthen the bonds of friendship. These memories give us an instant currency of conversation and are precious. Reflecting on a very sociable gathering this morning, it struck me that it is precisely these bonds which Mum no longer has. She no longer builds memories – that facility has long been gone – but now she no longer seems to have access to the store of past memories, of Christmases gone by, of the simple pleasures of spending time together. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have no access to anything which happened more than a few minutes ago. It brought tears to my eyes. For this reason alone, surely dementia has to be the cruellest of diseases.
As I write this, my eyes move above the screen to a photograph of Mum, taken about four years ago. Smiling, her eyes sparkling, she’s my lovely, lovely Mum. The Mum I visit now knows little about me. She knows she knows me, but I’m increasingly unsure whether she knows why. But, even though – for her – I might no longer be her son, she’s still my Mum and I still love her so much.