My mother has dementia, a generic diagnosis that covers her deteriorating mental condition. She is 82 years old, and until 2012, she was independent and living on her own. According to Wikipedia, between the ages of 75 and 84, 19% of the global population will develop dementia. The percentage increases to nearly half of those over 85 years of age. My mother is in these percentages.
I spent the Christmas holiday with her, a holiday packed with memories of childhood, memories she and my father created. My sister popped in the video of home movies: There were a series of Christmas trees, velvet dresses from Best & Co, holiday dinners with relatives long-passed, and a home pageant where I played Joseph in search of room at the inn.
Her memory, is sparked for only a moment. Then she fades to humming, a way for her to contribute to conversation. Occasionally she will ask a question about something that should have been seared into memory.
“What did Kevin die of?” she asks about my father.
“Cancer,” I respond.
She looks perplexed; “You think I would remember that,” she says sadly.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art came to mind often as I watched my mother drift, engage, drift, and engage over the winter break. Like the speaker in the poem, my mother’s loss of a single intimate detail is not enough to be a catastrophic, but the collective loss of so many details is hurtful for us and confusing for her. Bishop opens her poem similar to the manner in which my mother began to lose her memories, as we all might casually forget a few things:
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster….
But who might be speaking in last stanza of the poem, me or my mother? Spoken by me, I am the witness to the loss of my mother; spoken by her, it is a farewell.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gestureI love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evidentthe art of losing’s not too hard to masterthough it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.