Visiting by Pippa Kelly

May 30, 2013 | By | 28 Replies More

We’re sitting in the pretty, flower-scented garden.  Behind mum, in the shadow of the rose arbour, French windows lead into the house.  They’re open; it’s one of those freshly washed April days that make everyone smile.   Mum’s smiling.  She’s looking across the lawn to where the froth of almond blossoms catches the breeze.

There’s an open book on her lap. Daniel Deronda. She used to recite great chunks of it standing in the kitchen. Still can. And Mill on the Floss. She calls George Eliot the greatest writer that’s ever lived.  Yet she’s never liked Middlemarch; none of us quite knows why.  Dad used to say it was sheer cussedness; that she’d read somewhere that literary experts considered it the perfect book, which was enough to put her off for life. He had a point. So, possibly (if he was right), has she.

Mum’s hands rest on Daniel Deronda. They don’t look quite like her hands, though I can’t pinpoint why.

There’s a flash of colour in my periphery vision: a blue-tit. He lands on a low-lying branch and tips his head at us.  I wonder what sights he sees in this garden, what sounds startle him into flight.

Mum’s still absorbed in the shifting petals, bubble-gum pink against an azure sky. I breathe deeply and inhale lilac, so laden with nostalgia that my heart stops and I have to resist the urge to kneel on the grass at her slippered feet, rest my cheek on her lap, and feel the rough wool of her skirt as she strokes my hair and tells me that everything’s going to be all right.

“Sonya – !”

Her voice makes me jump.

“I’m not staying here much longer. “

She’s looking at me with her soft Irish eyes. The colour of the sea, dad called them.

“No – of course not – it’s just till you feel better mum.“

“Don’t lie to me Sonya.” Mum’s still staring at me. The thought of her knowing – knowing what’s happening – is too much to bear. I shift in my chair and pull my eyes away from hers. My gaze settles back on her hands. I realise she’s not wearing her gold bracelet. That’s what’s not right.

“Where’s your bracelet mum?”

She looks down, frowns, wrinkles her nose in that new, odd way she has and shrugs her shoulders. “Dunno – “

Don’t say dunno – it’s uncouth Sonya.

“Is it in your room mum?”  I’m worried that she might have lost it or, worse, someone’s taken it.

No wonder you can’t find anything – your bedroom’s a pigsty Sonja!    She used to make me tidy it on Saturday afternoons or I couldn’t go out in the evening.

Her gaze is milky.   Her lips start to move silently.   I know what she’s saying.   Her mouth is forming the words like a prayer.  It is a common sentence that knowledge is power, but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of ignorance ….  She carries on for several minutes, the complex sentences unfolding from her as perfectly as the day George Eliot wrote them; and then, as suddenly as she started, she stops.

“I’m not staying here a moment longer!”  She half shouts it and for a moment – a moment of my own utter madness – I’m six again and being told off.   My hands tighten in my lap.   I can’t find the words – any words – to reply.    “I’m not staying here!”  Mum shouts again.

“How are we doing?”

I look up into the florid, middle-aged face of a woman in a cardigan. I don’t know who she is.  She may live here, she may be a member of staff, she may, like me, be visiting.

“Fine, thank you,” I say.

“I’m not staying here!”

“It’s okay Kathleen, no one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to.”  The woman bends down.   I watch mum’s eyes slowly focussing on her; at first I think the woman’s gained her trust.  But then mum’s features twist into a knot, she sucks in her cheeks, pushes her tongue to the front of her mouth and spits.   I flinch as if I’ve been hit; as if the spittle sliding down the other woman’s chin has struck me.   The cardiganed stranger seems unperturbed: she takes a tissue from her cuff and wipes her face. “Okay then Kathleen, never mind.  I’ll come and see you later.”   She straightens herself, gives me a knowing look and walks away. As I watch her retreating, my heart pumps fit to explode and a voice – my voice – inside my head shouts silently after her, She’s not Kathleen; she’s Kate!  She’s my mum!

When she first began forgetting things I put it down to old age.  When she stopped going out I thought she was frightened of getting mugged and didn’t much blame her.   When she said that the home-help was stealing her jewellery I almost believed her.   Only a call to say that she’d been found wandering in the road in her nightie – at midnight – rammed the message home.  I couldn’t see what was under my eyes.  Couldn’t or wouldn’t?  Or simply didn’t want to?

Mum’s head’s lolling onto her chest. Her medication makes her sleepy; it carries her off to the land of nod. When I arrived she told me she’d cried herself to sleep the night before.

“No!  Why?”  Guilt licked at me.

“Because I can’t remember my life.”

I’d never heard anything as empty and sad.

Daniel Deronda slips from her fingers.  I pick it up off the grass and begin to read, seeking comfort from the familiar words.   A sudden silent movement announces the blue tit’s return; when I look up his unblinking eye is watching me, watching mum drifting slowly away.


Pippa Kelly lives in London and writes extensively in the UK press on dementia and old age.  Her mother, who suffered from dementia for over 10 years, died on Christmas Day. Follow her on Twitter @piponthecommons.

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Category: Prose, Spring, When Women Waken Literary Journal

Comments (28)

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  1. Stephanie Rodda says:

    Beautiful expression of the deep pain that can accompany great love.

    • Pippa says:

      Thank you Stephanie. Dementia is such a cruel, pernicious disease, stealing people’s souls while their bodies remain.

  2. Jen Squire says:

    Oh Pippa, what a wonderful way you have written about such a devastating condition. Any of us who have had similar experiences know how painful it is – not knowing what to believe, guilt that you feel, sustained grief at the ongoing losses.

    You’ve captured this beautifully, a really valuable contribution.

    • Pippa says:

      Many thanks Jen. As you know it’s always good to get feedback on your writing. All the very best to you. Pippa

  3. S. Etole says:

    “Because I can’t remember my life.”

    I’d never heard anything as empty and sad.

    That is just it, isn’t it? They’re lost and yet the body lives. Broke my heart when my mother began to experience this.

  4. Oh, I know this road. And it’s a sad, hard one. Slivers and slices, each one stealing away another moment, another memory. Ghastly, fiendish. I am consciously looking for the pieces that remain and trying to hold before her the stories I know. . . because, in truth, it is I who hold her memory now. Blessings as you walk it with her.

    • Pippa says:

      Many thanks Diana. My mum passed away on Christmas Day (possibly her favourite day of the year). Now I’m coming to terms with her absence. All the very best to you and your family, Pippa

  5. Kathryn says:

    What does one do with seeing the person they love not only slip away, but also, introduces us to a person that appears so different to the one we have loved and known. Are the negative and positives revealed through dementia hidden aspects of the person come to the fore? The challenges of relating to these unknown sides of people I feel is such a prevalent aspect and has not really been delved deeply into. Your writing brings to my mind the challenges of relating to one that is forgetting who we are and who is also changing from the person we’ve known.

  6. Wendy Mauro says:

    This is a very touching piece. You have captured the truth of the sadness, frustration, and resignation felt when a loved one suffers dementia. I have worked with the elderly for the past ten years, and your piece is personal and universal at the same time. And I love that you are in touch with the beauty of the world in nature throughout. Lovely.

  7. Linda Mockett says:

    This was a beautiful and heart-breaking article. Dementia is in my family (maternal grandmother and three of her daughters) and, selfishly, I fear for my own future instead of being thankful my mother is unaffected.

    • Pippa says:

      Many thanks Linda. And you are not selfish; I think we all fear for our future when we can see what may lie ahead. Pippa

  8. Tara Moeller says:

    This piece stuck home to me. My mother, just finished a year-long fight with lymphoma in her brain, is suffering early dementia. Sometimes, she is not my mother, not the woman that raised me, that led me, that raised. Sometimes, she is toddler in an old woman’s body, and I don’t think I’m a suitable mother-substitute. This piece let me know I am not alone – and neither is my mother.

  9. Emily says:

    This scene captured the shifting complexities of dementia and rooted them in a moment that feels ordinary, concrete and real. Your writing is poignant and powerful here.

  10. suku07 says:

    Love seldom comes without pain.. and you have made such a great effort in putting it down in your story.. lovely 🙂

  11. This was a beautifully written article and I could feel the unconditional love through your writing. I thought it was brilliant how well you encapsulated the young child and how easy it is for us to convert back to this. Sometimes it takes just one word. Lovely piece.

  12. Marta Szabo says:

    This is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read in a long long time. It’s not easy to convey how this woman has changed, but you do it. I could see the difference between the woman she once was — active, disciplined, irrefutably “the mother”, literary — and now this person in the bed, lost, angry. I felt the sadness, the tragedy. It was all very very real.

  13. Jennifer Dellow says:

    The juxtaposition of the tranquil calm of the garden which evokes memories of your childhood with the angry confusion of seeing someone you love be lost is wonderfully written. I think that this is powerful in a sense that you capture one moment, one visit, and yet there are feelings and memories which cover a lifetime. Beautiful….

  14. Megha says:

    Pippa, this is heart-rending. Inspires me to spend more time with my parents before time begins to take its toll. Must have been difficult for you to write it.. Amazing stuff.

  15. Pippa Kelly says:

    Thanks Megha. I find it strangely comforting writing about my parents.

  16. Jaq Money,-Chappelle says:

    The language is beautiful and the cameo short story idea works really well. I’ve been in the same situation caring for my favourite aunt who passed away in January. I visited her care home twice a week and the visits meant the world to both her and i. Congratulations to

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