This Mother’s Day – just like every other day of the year – I’ll be thinking of my lovely mum, Glenys, who has lived with dementia for over twenty years. She’s in residential care now in my home town, and I’ll visit her on the day, as I do most weekends and public holidays. For many years, until 2011, I was her sole carer in our family home and by distance during the week (my own flat being 100 miles away in London).
I’m a drama scriptwriter by profession, and in May 2017 my play The Things We Never Said went out on BBC Radio 4, starring Lia Williams and Siân Phillips. It later won the Writers' Guild Best Radio Drama Award 2018. In the past, mum would have been thrilled to share such news, would have tuned in with excitement, and called me after to enthuse about the production. Even if it was not to her taste, I suspect she would have praised it anyway – for I was her beloved daughter.
Today there is none of that. Mum has never heard the play or even known it was on; I didn’t tell her, as I knew it would mean nothing. And yet it’s all about her, about “us” – the people we were, and the strangers we have become. I have written before about that journey of unknowing, the subtle, devastating difference between recognition and connection; mum and I have now drifted even further apart.
Such fracture would have been unthinkable to either of us twenty years or more ago. Both only children (mum widowed, I single), we were each other’s only immediate family, each other’s best friend. But somehow, in those twenty years, the umbilical cord of all our life’s experience started to detach.
Mum has been in care for over seven years now, in two different homes. The rupture began long before that. I see it now, in odd, malevolent looks she would sometimes cast me, as we sat at home watching TV; in strangely inappropriate gifts, more suited to a child; in wild rages and accusations of uncharacteristic vitriol; in the bewilderment on her face, when I let myself in with my key. Now I see: already, she didn’t know who I was.
Back then, in our family home, she still had the social facility to cover it up, pretend to be “au fait” (one of her favourite phrases). She took her cues from the context: this woman is in the house; she knows me; I must know her. And (crucially) there’s no-one else here…
Looking back, I realise that around this time she stopped driving conversation. Always a prodigious and entertaining talker, she became not mute, but unusually tight-lipped. As if there were some passive-aggressive sulk going on beneath the surface – a silent antagonism that said I had done her some inexplicable wrong. When I served her meals, she would thank me courteously, somehow too polite, ingratiating almost; and as she ate, she might look up now and again and comment, “this is very nice, thank you”, with a gracious nod of the head. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now I see: she was addressing me as a waitress.
Yet this unspoken estrangement didn’t make her less dependent on me. On the contrary. She became unbearably clingy. Increasingly unsteady on her feet, she would refuse a stick on trips out, preferring to clutch limpet-like to my arm. At home, I could hardly leave the room by myself, let alone the house. On days when I had to drive back to my own flat in London, it would take until mid-afternoon to extricate myself from her maddening ploys to stall me. As I finally pulled away down the road, I would find myself screaming in the car.
My mother’s as-yet-undiagnosed condition trapped us both and locked us away from the world. Her intense, suffocating neediness convinced me that I was uniquely necessary to her and any attempt to regain my own independence would mean abandonment of her. It caused terrible guilt and trauma when those needs became too great for me to manage alone and I had to place her in care. I feared she would never settle, the distress would be too much. But in fact she has done well.
She needed someone with her 24/7. She needed someone. She didn’t need me.
In those latter years in our own home, mum relied on me not as myself, as “Ming”, or even her daughter; she relied on me as her carer (though she never saw it as that) - the person who shopped, and cooked, and cleaned, did the washing, managed the builders, handled the boring finance and admin; the person who always came when she called, who generally kept her alive. She relied on me, just as I had relied on her as an unknowing helpless baby. That most primeval impulse: to reach out to the one who nurtures, cry out in the darkness for “Mummy!”
Rewind a decade or so, to when I worked on the TV series EastEnders. Each new episode of mine would delight her, long after I’d become blasé. She’d call her friends, tell shop assistants, write proud notes in her diary: “Ming’s EastEnders today! Very good!!” A few years on, things had changed, although I didn’t understand it then.
One Saturday night, I was visiting for the weekend and had an episode of Casualty on. Mum showed no interest in the programme. In fact, she paid no attention – just carried on with her crossword, talked all through the dialogue, dozed off for a while. And when it was over, nothing. I was hurt, I have to confess. (OK, so it’s not Shakespeare, but come on, you’re my mum!) I too said nothing, though. What could I say? I told myself she was getting on and could be forgiven for dozing off; and it was just another episode of soap. Not big news any more…
A few months later: another episode of something. This time, I was in London. As the credits rolled, the phone rang. It was mum, as usual. But she didn’t mention the show. We chatted for some time, and finally I asked, “Did you see it then?” “See what?” I named the programme. “Oh, yes”, she said flatly. “Well, what did you think?” A long, blank pause. “Not much”, she said at last. “Stupid story, wasn’t it?”
By then, I realised she had forgotten that any of these programmes were anything to do with me, if she was aware of them at all. She didn’t mean to be unkind. But still it did hurt. Because I had to ask myself, are these her honest thoughts? Is this what she really thinks of my work, stripped of motherhood’s indulgence?
For her first two years in care, this encroaching “unknowingness” existed alongside our old relationship. She would not remember the context of my life or our relationship outside my visits, or the visits themselves once I’d gone. But in the bubble of those few hours over lunch and then tea, we were still mother and daughter – even if, in her eyes, I was the former and she the latter.
Christmas 2013 marked another watershed. Each week, I would find mum in the lounge, already seated at the table by the staff for me to join her for our lunch. Her mobility now greatly impaired, she had acceded to a wheelchair in recent weeks, so I was doubly surprised to meet her walking (stick-less!) toward me down the corridor from the lounge. I went to take her arm, and instinctively she recoiled, her face aghast with mistrust. “What’s the matter?”, I asked. But as I said it, I knew. “It’s me”, I said. “I’m Ming.” “Ming?”, she said, bewildered. “Oh, Ming…” It did come back, but I knew: out of the familiar context of the lounge, I could have been anyone.
I hugged her to me; she hugged me back with skeleton arms. “Don’t forget me”, I pleaded - though I knew I shouldn’t, it wasn’t a promise she could give. “Please, don’t forget me!” “How could I forget you?”, she said. “You’re my Ming. You’re my little girl.”
But by the spring of 2014 she had.
So where are we now? What am I to her? The harsh truth is probably nothing. She has not just forgotten me as the person I am today - she has no memory of the young woman I was, the teenager, the little girl, the baby in her arms. She does not believe she ever had a daughter.
Yet dementia is not a one-way street; it has countless meandering byways. Up to a couple of years ago, mum might greet me with pleasure on a good day and say I was “a lovely girl”, regardless of who I was. On a bad day, I’d be met by antagonism or just a blank. Sometimes she’d still call me by name, as if I’d just stepped out for a moment and we could pick up where we left off. But there was no longer any root to that knowledge; it was no more than a reflex – and now even that much has gone. Her eyesight declining, she barely registers my presence at all.
Her speech too, once so animated, is now eroding, along with the context that had long preceded it. Over the years, I had grown to accept that attempts at conversation must be on her terms, referencing her life before I was born. Now even those memories of her youth, the stories she told me about herself, are remembered only by me. What she yearns for most are her parents – and I can’t give her that.
So I put on a CD; TV has long since become too confusing. She still enjoys music, though not necessarily the same kind as before. I bring flowers, feed her fruit and cake, make her a cup of coffee; she used to drink tea like me, but so many tastes have changed…
As dementia shrinks down your world, small pleasures become more precious. Very occasionally in recent years, I have been able to wheel mum down to the garden in fine weather. I treasure those rare occasions when she can still enjoy the breeze, the birds, the warmth of sun on her face. I enjoy them too. But I can’t say we do it together. Side by side we are separate now. I miss the light of connection in her eyes.
Some time ago, I had a review with the Office of Public Guardian Visitor, who supervises Court of Protection Deputies like me, who manage the financial affairs of a person lacking capacity. As we went through the bank accounts, he asked me why I visited my mother so often (it’s a two-hundred-mile round trip). I was taken aback. Surely it’s obvious? She’s my mum. She’s over ninety, with advanced dementia; I’m her only family. Yes, but what is the purpose of these visits, he persisted?
I have to see how she is, I said; to make sure she’s all right, that she has everything she needs. You could do that by phone, he said. Some deputies visit only once a year. I was perplexed at this approach. She’s forgetting me, I said; I come as often as I can to keep up the connection…
Is that for her though, he asked; or is it really for you?
Afterwards, I realised that he wasn’t criticising me, merely pointing out the distinction between my legal obligations as deputy and the personal actions of a daughter. But it gave me pause for thought.
Each week, I drive down past the country pub where we used to go for Sunday lunch; the garden centre where we spent many a happy afternoon, choosing bedding plants and hanging baskets; the park we used to pass every day on the way to school, where families walk their dogs. It’s as if I’m driving past our old life and it won’t let me in.
Intimacy has gone; our shared history is erased.
My mother is not dead, but I mourn her every day. I mourn myself too, and that long-gone life we shared. But I will never abandon her. I will never give up. So long as she is still there, I will always continue to visit. Why?
Because I love her; and I know that she loved me. I do this as an act of remembrance.
My play, The Things We Never Said, is not currently on BBCiPlayer, but can be downloaded to read from the BBC Writersroom Drama Script Archive. You can also hear an extract from the radio production and discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Fortunately podcast with Jane Garvey and Fi Glover (@ 10’ 33”).
This updated post was published on the Dementia Carers Count website in three parts for Mother's Day 2019:
[Update 2020: Mum died in January 2020. We were fortunate that it was before the restrictions of COVID-19 and I was able to be at her side, day and night, for two weeks before she died. At peace, at last.]