Losing my mum — one memory at a time

Tim Thornborough | 2 Mar 2016

My visit to my mum on Mother’s Day will follow a predictable path—just as all my regular visits do these days. She recognises me as I walk in. I sit with her and hold her hand. She asks me how everyone is; her eyes betraying the internal struggle to remember who the people are I am talking about. They are her grandchildren, her daughter-in-law. The conversation is punctuated by repeated questions. My answers are honed sharp by repetition.

"I’m ready to go home whenever you are”
"No mum, you live here now—you’ve got your own lovely room over there.”

“Are you staying at my mum’s house?”
"No mum, I live close by with Kathy and the children.” [I can’t bear to tell her that her parents and sister have been dead for over 25 years.]

“You must have travelled a long way to get here.”
"No mum, I just live round the corner.”

Alzheimer’s is cruel. Slow motion time travel into the past—with no return tickets on sale.

Alzheimer’s is cruel. Slow motion time travel into the past—with no return tickets on sale.

It confuses her that she is old and hardly able to walk. Deep down she thinks she should be going to work in the factory making Lancaster bombers—the date being 1943. She talks warmly of that time and remembers some incredible detail. When she was fitter we visited the Imperial War Museum where they have a cockpit from a Lancaster. She stood and explained specifics of the controls to us, and how she worked at wiring the panels. She talked about the deep pity they felt when a group of horrifically burn-scarred airmen visited the factory. She talked of dances and friends long gone. And then looks at me, her son—now nearing 60—and her own frail body, and she cannot compute.

The disease has not yet robbed us of her personality. We joke about people, or the TV, or the weather, and the same wry, dry northern wit emerges. But I know that it is likely to come. When it has finished shredding all the memories it can, it will turn on her patience, her dignity, her warmth, her love—and leave us mourning for her loss while she still breathes.

We share a lounge with half a dozen others at differing stages of deterioration—many sleeping and silent. But one trembling man stands in the corner singing hoarsely and tunelessly. I catch the words of songs deeply embedded in his mind: Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so … I will cling to the old rugged cross … Amazing grace how sweet the sound …

He may be lost to those around him, to his family, to himself even, but deep within his soul he knows he is not lost to the Lord. Through repetition and meditation and joyful singing in days gone by, gospel truths have entwined with his mind at its deepest levels and are now bringing him comfort and reassurance at this distressing time of isolation, loneliness and fear. I resolve to treasure my times of singing in church each Sunday. Turns out they may not just be for that moment in time, to lift my soul and give words to my thankful heart; they may be the means God is giving me to persevere through the valley of the shadow of death that is yet to come.

But for now, my Mum and I hold hands. No songs come to her lips, so I kiss her head—for comfort in her confused helplessness. A kiss delivered with the tenderness and love with which she once kissed my infant brow.

And as I leave, I pray that at the end of her life she will know the truth of what David wrote so long ago:

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23 v 6)

Tim Thornborough

Tim Thornborough is the founder and Publishing Director of The Good Book Company. He is series editor of Explore Bible-reading notes, the author of The Very Best Bible Stories series, and has contributed to many books published by The Good Book Company and others. Tim is married to Kathy and has three adult daughters.

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