Days after she entered her nursing home my mum told me that she’d cried herself to sleep the night before. “Why?” I asked, my voice shaky with guilt. “Because I can’t remember my life,” she said.
Ten years after she uttered them, mum’s words still haunt me (I wrote a short memoire based on them). She had only recently been diagnosed with dementia and while she went on to live eight years in her nursing home, with various medical and emotional traumas along the way, it is that moment – as the two of us sat outside on a glorious spring morning – that remains etched on my brain.
It does so, of course, because the thought of losing one’s memories is frightening: it strikes at the heart of who we are and goes a long way to explaining why dementia is one of the most feared conditions of our time.
For me, though, that moment turned out to be doubly poignant. Because it transpired that mum had had a life, a past, that her family had never known about. (See my Sunday Telegraph article for more). It took dementia to reveal it – and it taught me a very important lesson. How I wish that I’d asked mum, and dad come to that, more about their upbringing and the past that made them who they were.
What we did know was that mum, a miner’s daughter from the north of England, was largely uneducated, having left school at 14. We knew she was opinionated, proud and fiercely determined – and that in her teens she came down south and met and married our dad (a middle-ranking civil servant).
What we didn’t know – and could never have guessed from her confident exterior – was that as a young girl mum had been “in service” to the Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne at Clumber House, his stately home. She was, to put it in a popular TV context, one of the lowlier members of the “downstairs” cast of Downton Abbey. It was an extraordinary revelation that showed us all who mum really was.
But it came too late. It came because, before it robbed her of her power of speech, dementia stripped her of her inhibitions and she began to talk – haphazardly, in fragments that we subsequently pieced together – about the extreme poverty of her childhood.
One of the many cruel aspects of dementia is its ability to change people’s personalities: you hear of gentle souls becoming aggressive, of previously articulate academics stumbling over words. In mum’s case her dementia opened her up and in that sense, although it took her from us several years before she died, in a curious way it also gifted her to us – but she paid an extortionate price.
The revelation caused by mum’s condition explained so much about her: her inordinate pride in modest possessions, her love of the finer things in life (she’d seen them as she’d scrubbed floors in the “big house”), her determination to equip her three children with the education she’d never had.
Most of all, it explained an inexplicable event that had soured our relationship over two decades earlier. She’d never forgiven me for divorcing my first husband. She’d seemed more concerned that I was walking away from a nice house in an affluent area of England than that I was deeply unhappy. I was shocked and hurt by what I saw as her shallow materialism and for two years we barely spoke: two proud, forceful women neither of whom was prepared to concede an inch. To some extent our relationship never fully recovered.
In hindsight I see how foolish I was. Once I learnt just how poor mum had been I understood that, for her, turning one’s back on security and wealth was madness that had to be stopped. Her reaction made sense: it was borne out of love.
So my plea to anyone reading this is to talk to your parents and, more importantly, to listen. Those we love most have the power to hurt us most; they also have a knack of upsetting us, often because there is so much of them in our DNA. I used to think I took after my dad – I was better focussed, less eccentric, than mum.
Now I like to think I have her strength of character, her determination, her bloody-minded grit. I’m not sure I do. But I so wish I could talk to her about all this – about everything. If your mum and dad are still alive, do it. Get talking to them, about them, before it’s too late.