Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Knowing Me, Knowing You

“Does she still recognise you?”  That’s what everyone asks.  Answer: for the moment, to some extent, yes.  My mum does still recognise me.  She knows me by sight.  But what does that phrase really mean?

Think of the many people you “know by sight”: members of your gym class, a cashier in your local supermarket, fellow commuters on your train, regulars at your favourite coffee shop or bar.  You might exchange the odd word, perhaps even know their name and ask after their family, their health, their plans for the weekend. 

But meet them out of context – fully-clothed in the street, instead of lycra-clad in the gym, or on the Tube, not at the till – and you may be thrown.  You know you “know” them, but are not sure where or how.  So you nod and smile, make small talk, or just keep quiet while they speak, in the hope they’ll give you some clue, and maybe it will come back. Maybe it won’t; but through this non-committal pantomime, you will have covered up your mental blank, met social expectations – and the other person need not know you don’t fully remember them.

This is now the level of my relationship with mum.  Yes, she responds to my face; I worry that her sight is declining and still value that.  I know I am lucky she can still speak and hear; we can engage to some degree.  She acts as if she knows me.  But all intimacy is gone.  An only child in my forties, I am no more significant to her than some tolerably pleasant woman she might have nodded to in a café, when she still went shopping in town.

That’s not to say she doesn’t care about her daughter.  Ask her, and she will say she loves her very much.  But that daughter, or that “Ming”, is an abstract notion, an amorphous idea of a young girl.  Mum can’t equate that with the actual middle-aged woman who sits at her bedside. On the table before her will be recent photographs of me that I’ve labelled with my name, in hope of reinforcing the connection.  She will often be fixated with these, remarking on them to me (not always in flattering terms!), and they will be more real and interesting to her than the flesh-and-blood Ming in the room.

Since I realised mum had dementia, I always knew there might come a time when she didn’t know me.  But I thought it would be at a stage where she didn’t know or respond to anything much. I had no idea it could co-exist with relative articulacy and sentience. I never imagined the slow and insidious way that “unknowing” could creep up, or the sophistication of mum’s facility to conceal it.

There have been times in recent years when it has been painfully explicit (as I have detailed in my earlier post, I Don't Know Who You Are); but with hindsight, I can see instances much further back, when the underlying clues were there. Mum loved to give presents, for example, and rarely ventured out without lighting upon something for me: purses, make-up bags, trinkets, jewellery. However, these gifts grew more inappropriate and sometimes downright bizarre. I was puzzled when she pressed on me a lurid silver, pink and mauve bangle of a kind I would never wear - more suited to a pre-teen Britney Spears fan than an adult. 

At the time, I was rather irritated at both the apparent lapse in taste and waste of money – affronted that, in choosing this, she didn’t seem to know me.  Little did I realise that was the literal truth.  She was buying that bracelet for the teenage me in her head, not the real woman I had become, or for a notional daughter whose taste she no longer recalled.

There were other more immediately troubling incidents, when she would suddenly say things like “are your parents alive?” or “when are you going back to Hong Kong?” (I’ve never been and live in London), which might be deemed obvious signs that she thought I was someone else; but if I looked askance or remarked on it, she would instantly cover up and the moment would be past. Sometimes I would catch her looking oddly at me, but she would say nothing. Now I think she was wondering who I was.

For all my life, until dementia took hold, mum and I had been close, with no other immediate family since dad died in 1988.  It is infinitely sad that not only has our current relationship lost its roots, but I find myself questioning the last decade or more, when those roots, it seems, had already begun to wither unseen underground. How much of our intimacy then was a sham, mum just going through the motions, humouring a vaguely familiar woman whom she “must know” because she happens to be in the house?  Could it be that we were living as strangers for pretty much all of that time?

Now that we are entering the last phase of mum’s journey, I have learned that “recognition” is not the same as “knowing”.  You might recognise the cashier at your supermarket till, but do you really know her? Not unless she’s a friend. “Knowing” comes from accumulated memory, the incremental sum of facts and thoughts and feelings about another person that go beyond superficial contact.  My mum still recognises my face; she sometimes knows my name, sometimes knows I’m her daughter and sometimes knows that she loves me, but rarely all those things at once.  I am lucky to have that much.

But I have realised that she no longer knows me in the deeper sense.  As she will sometimes say herself, she “knows nothing about me”: how old I am, where I live, what I’ve done for a living, if I’m married or have children.  She doesn’t know what clothes or perfume I like, what food l enjoy, what matters most to me – even what kind of person I am. 

When I visit her now, she will usually accept my presence without question and speak to me in a way that assumes we are familiar, as if taking up where we left off.  So long as I keep the chat to a minimum or on neutral ground, we have the illusion of intimacy; but if ever I stray to something specific about our lives, it’s all too apparent that mum has no idea what I’m talking about.  I feel a distance between us – a knock on a door that cannot be answered. “Remind me again, who are you in relation to me?”, she said a couple of weeks ago, as I was leaving after a whole afternoon in her company.

The photographs here are just a tiny fraction of the images of our shared lifetime that I carry in my head. Mum would have no idea of the relationship between the first and the last or any in between; she would not be able to recognise them as herself and me.  And I’m afraid none of them is in her head. 

How do I know she doesn’t really know me, if she acts as if she does?  By her lack of interest in, or concern for, the person who visits.  I know she loves her daughter; so if she knew that person was her daughter, she would care.