This story of a phone call with my mother as her memory was going is published in Landfall issue 243.
“Hello Mom. It’s Bev here.” My greeting on the phone is carefully phrased and articulated. Not a casual, “Hi Mom, it’s me,” any more.
I pause. Has she heard? Does she register who it is? Perhaps I should have added “your daughter.”
I visualise her mind as a smudged blackboard with bits partially rubbed out. Like the names of her grandchildren. She finds a way around it. How are your girls? she might ask after a half hour of detailing the latest in her declining lot: chronic chest infections, increasing deafness, loss of appetite, loss of weight, partial loss of vision in her right eye.
These are the focus of this phone call too. Mum reads out the long list she’s made of her ailments for the geriatrician to fix. She doesn’t accept being nearly ninety, frail and failing. The downward spiral is unacceptable. She expects a cure for her discomforts and infirmities, except for the deafness, determined to get back to playing bowls and rummikub. The doggedness is commendable; the lack of realism less so.
I pull on my best semblance of patience but it’s a bad fit, scratchy and uncomfortable like a cheap sweater. “Yes, that seems like everything,” I say into the phone, smothering a sigh, “but what about the memory loss?”
That’s the real reason we made the appointment with the specialist.
“I suppose so. Some days are worse than others. I’ll get Trish to add it.”
Trish is my long-suffering sister. She must be visiting for the day, her efforts to reduce Mum’s dependence on her by moving further away from the retirement village, thwarted. Now Trish travels further and visits for longer. And there are tears and tantrums when she leaves.
Mum’s forgotten that the forthcoming appointment was triggered by her less-than-stellar performance at the local doctor’s in a mini mental-state exam: What’s the date? the season? Where are we? Remembering an address, drawing the time on a clock, following instructions.
Just a few weeks ago, her lawyer decided she was legally competent in the morning, but not in the afternoon. Rather a fine distinction this seemed when it came to things as significant as changing a will or entrusting us with permanent power of attorney over her property and welfare.
We’re hoping the geriatrician will tell Mum that she must move, forgo independent living, and accept more support. She’ll grumble, but she’ll listen to him.
The phone call falters on. It’s like the way Mum moves now, clutching at surfaces for balance. We’re starting on the back and forth of lengthy goodbyes, the trading of umpteen platitudes, when Mum asks, “What was the thing I was going to add to the list?”
Jolted into spontaneity, I give a half laugh. “That could be a joke!” I say.
But it wasn’t. Her response is a disconcerted silence. Chastened, I soften my tone. “It was memory loss.”
“Oh, I’ll go and tell Trish to write it down straight away. G’bye,” and she rushes away, anxiety rippling down the line.