When Alzheimer’s hits home…

By Hans Ebert

You start to think when the first tell-tale signs started to show. Was it the repetition for years of the same two jokes about being on a seafood food diet and where she sees food and wants to eat it, or that other one about how mangoes where women go? Was it the much repeated story of the many years my parents waited to have me, their only child, and the hours she was in labour before I decided to pop out- on her birthday- apparently looking like an…eggplant.

The passing away of Glen Campbell recently to Alzheimer’s which leads to full-blown dementia struck home. My mother passed away from this dreadful disease some years ago and it’s always been something I’ve “blocked from view”. But as the feeling of mortality finally grabs you by the balls, you try to retrace your steps for some answers, and, perhaps, redemption.

My father kept my mother’s condition away from the family for a long time. Too long or else he was in denial. Rightly or wrongly, he was scared of losing his life long partner. One talks about growing old together, but they really went the distance with my mother always being the strong one- the one who looked after the accounts, the house, and who supported whatever life moves they made.

After moving to Melbourne from Hong Kong, a move I really doubt she wanted to make just as I am certain having to leave everything in Ceylon for the uncertainties of starting all over again in that barren rock that was taking shape called Hong Kong, it was living a quiet suburban life, taking Sunday trips on a tram together for hours on end and seeing the occasional friends.

While my father was extremely outgoing and trusting of everyone, mum was more reserved. Later on, she was almost withdrawn- and sad. One vivid memory was her knocking her head with her hand and saying to me, “I don’t know what’s going on inside here. Maybe, I’m going crazy.” And then she laughed and went back to doing the crossword puzzles she loved doing and was so good at solving. No one took any notice of her mood swings and bouts of forgetfulness. My father poured himself a brandy and told her not to be silly. That she was fine.

Again, looking back, we should have seen the signs. But whatever was going through her mind, she kept well hidden under lock and key. It was always about making everyone else happy and making sure everyone finished whatever she had cooked. And her cooking skills were rapidly disappearing.

When my parents came to visit me at my hotel during a trip to Melbourne and mum excused herself to go freshen up and stayed inside the bathroom for over half an hour, I wondered what was going on. Dad had ordered a brandy and dismissed it with a casual, “Don’t worry, son, she’ll be out soon. Look, her handbag and overcoat are here. She can’t go anywhere”.

We never saw her come out. Instead of returning to the living room where we all were, she had mistakenly/forgetfully gone through the front door, walked down eight flights of stairs, got onto the street and had just kept walking for hours in the cold until, somehow, she reached a police station near to where my parents lived. There, she introduced herself and mentioned that she was lost. While all this had been going on, hotel security had checked all closed circuit cameras and had come up with nothing. A police search was mounted.

As expected, my father, a good man, but so dependent on the strength of my mother, was a total wreck. I found it too much to handle and left to meet a group of friends in horse racing and numb myself by drinking my worries away. It was the coward’s way out. When receiving the call that she had been found, it was just another brick in the wall. What was that good thing running in Flemington the next day? It was high avoidance.

It took my ex wife Trina to actually do something about my mother’s condition.

It was she who knew something was wrong, took her for a medical, and found out that, yes, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. She brought my mother home and washed, showered and even cut my mother’s toenails as they had grown so long that she couldn’t even walk properly. She couldn’t fit into her shoes.

We took mum shopping one day, something she hadn’t done in years- but only to lose her again while thinking she was in the changing room. Fortunately, this time, she was found quickly. That signalled the time to escalate change.

While my father was crying that he couldn’t live without her, Trina, along with a cousin living in Melbourne, whom I still have to thank for everything he did, made plans to move mum to a respite home where she would receive all the attention that was long overdue.

It was an incredible show of strength and love from my ex wife who told me, “I made a promise that your mum will leave here with dignity”. She kept that promise. When dementia had taken over and mum was moved to hospital, what always made her eyes come alive was when Trina would walk into the room. I doubt mum knew who and what was around her, but she definitely recognised Trina though she never ever recognised the fact that we had divorced and that our daughter was no longer the little girl she once knew.

I’ve always wondered what my mother must have been thinking just lying there in bed, totally helpless and remembering what had happened when she was fifteen, but with no recollection of yesterday or today. She was just killing time. When those friends only she could see and communicate with called her home, it was again Trina and my cousin who made all the funeral arrangements. I had better things to do. Like watch the races at the bar at Crown.

The funeral was a funeral, I made an off the cuff speech with my offbeat sense of humour keeping the truth at bay, made small talk with friends and relatives and then hosted a dinner for a few friends and whatever family was around. My dad ordered a few brandies and later learned to cook and how to live alone with himself until he suffered a heart attack at 94 and left with no pain. I was never able to say goodbye to him, and which he kept asking me to do as time was running out. I was busy at that time trying to outrun my own demons from hell.

It’s recently struck me just how much we mourn the passing of celebrities, but never look inwardly at our own lives, the people in them, and the life lessons we’ve learned.

We seldom think how a disease like Alzheimer’s affects us and many close to us. Maybe it’s affecting us without us even knowing it. After all, Alzheimer’s is meant to be genetic. So, keep writing, keep creating and be careful what you turn into priorities.

Trina and I speak to each other, but not nearly enough. I wish we did as we didn’t really talk meaningfully when together. But maybe so much water has flowed under the bridge that it will only be small talk to keep from opening up old wounds.

My daughter hasn’t spoken to me in five years whereas her daughter has no idea I even exist. I can’t really call her my “grand daughter” as there’s only a void there. That hole is beyond fixing. The rain has been allowed to not only come in, but wash away the past, present and any future that might have been left. That’s life and it’s something you accept and move on by removing the stumbling blocks.

Life is also revisiting those times where closure is needed. Hopefully, I find. It just might be the key to happiness and the difference between living a lie and living a life.

#Alzheimer’s #family #parents #life #Hongkong #Melbourne

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