“Death is coming for us all…the day we will have to face the crossing will come sooner than we think. I hope my day is many many years away, but… I don’t want to make the greatest leap in life in a vague dream. I want to have the chance to look it in the eye, to say: ‘You have had me in your sights all your life, but it’s on my terms that I come.’” Hendri Coetzee – Living the Best Day Ever
Sitting across from each other on slightly uncomfortable wooden chairs in the care home I watch my Mum interact with one of the staff. The young girl lays her hand on my mum’s shoulder, raises the volume of her voice slightly and asks if “everything was alright dear” and if my Mum would “like any help?”.
My mum looks up at her and smiles with wide unfocused eyes. The staff member smiles back, hovers awkwardly for a moment trying to decipherer what this blank stare means before finally she walks over to another resident. As she makes her way over to a lady sat hunched in the corner I look back at my Mum and catch just the faintest flicker of a death stare from behind her eyes. It was an unmistakable reflection of something deep within her that these days only occasionally surfaces. Today this was a split second of a “fuck off am I your dear”.
Of course, I could have imagined it, I could have simply wanted to see a bit of her old self and so read too much into a distant stare. But, in that moment I think I saw my Mum: proud, wanting to help others – not wanting to waste people’s time in being helped, and ultimately using anger as a shield to hide away from all the insecurities and uncertainties of her life.
She focuses her eyes back on me, a second of surprise or alarm gives way to a meandering anecdote about the walk she believes she had taken that morning over Dartmoor. I ask if she saw any deer and she responds that she had, but only in the distance. This follows a second of silence and a drop in her eyebrows before she asks if I was OK to count? I promise her that I was more than happy to count to which she scoffs and says she doubts it. I once again miss the nuance of her reality.
Asking questions of dementia patients often only increases distress and confusion and so I try to steer the conversation back onto safe territory and say it was a beautiful crisp winters day outside. Her eyes look at me. One, two, three. Seconds pass with no response. I try a new path. I tell her that I recently spoke with her nephew, my cousin, and that he is happy and doing well. One, two, three. Eyes wide. No response. I try three of four times more and get little in response.
I decide not to push conversation. I sit with her in the weak winter sun surrounded by the stuffy air of the car home. Silence.
In the silence my mind jumps to memories at random. I think back to my mum cutting all the fire wood for the house by hand insisting that she was perfectly happy with her bow saw and no, she didn’t want me to come around with a chainsaw. I think back to her carrying heavy trestle tables out of the local scout hut as all the other mums stood and watched. I think about her slapping down any idea or suggestion that she might in anyway need any help.
With these thoughts in mind I smile at her thinking that I might get going soon. She doesn’t smile back. The staff member approaches and puts her hand on Mum’s shoulder and, just before Mum smiles up at her, she gives her a split second of that recognisable death state. The staff member either doesn’t notice or chooses not to.
The thing I feel saddest about when I leave is that Mum has so little capacity, so little control. Despite both the care home and my family doing all they can, we are no longer able to play by her rules and there is nothing we, or she, can do about it. She is left to be looked after by others. She is clearly being looked after well but they also clearly miss the very essence of her. I don’t think I am sad that she will pass away in the coming, weeks, months, or possibly years. I am just sad that it must be like this, not on her terms.