I came back from a visit to my mum yesterday feeling as I always do. Guilty, frustrated, sad, hopeless, not knowing if I think my mum is better off alive or dead. As regular readers will know, my mum is now 90 and has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She’s a long way from the worst end of the spectrum, and the new treatment she’s on does seem, unless I imagine it, to have slowed the rate of deterioration. So she knows who I am, and many people would consider her to be perfectly coherent. Or at least they would, so long as their contact with her didn’t exceed the length of time it takes for her story-tape to wind full circle and get back to the beginning. The half-life for that varies from about 10 minutes to quite a bit longer, and my rather more cruel younger brother has perfected the technique of being able to control the story-tape almost at will. In fact, it’s more like a CD than a tape: it’s possible to select tracks at random and they don’t have to be repeated in order. My brother can now predict with a sad but foolproof accuracy what stimulus will inevitably evoke which story. It feels horribly manipulative – even though there is a macabre kind of comedy in it – but actually it is a more successful method of interacting with my mum than I’ve managed to come up with. It may be distasteful, this deliberate eliciting of the same time-worn stories, but in a way it is devastatingly honest. It doesn’t pretend that a real, and real-time, conversation with my mum is any longer possible. My brother has worked for years with Alzheimer’s patients, and he doesn’t allow emotional closeness to get in the way of what works.
But I don’t seem able to make the same rational, detached leap from anxious and guilt-ridden silences to flowing, guilt-free interaction. I envy my brother, and recoil from his technique, in equal measure. For me, the problems I have in conversing with my 90-year old mum have their roots in the difficulties I’ve always had conversing with her 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-year old precursors. Our family has never been hot on sharing the minutiae of everyday life. I marvel at those people who say that they talk to their parents (well, their mums, anyway, which it usually is) every day. What on earth can they be talking about? I would of course have told my mum if, for example, I’d got a new job, or moved house. I might even have told her in broad terms what the job was about, and what it required of me. But I simply could never imagine telling her about its day-to-day happenings or frustrations, and I could never have imagined her being remotely interested. Equally, although the fact of new relationships would eventually surface – it’s hard not to explain the sudden appearance of a son, for example – I would never talk about them until the subject was unavoidably out there for whatever reason. The idea that I might have sought the advice of either my mum or dad about whether to pursue a relationship, or to share with them its first faltering steps, is frankly laughable. So it’s hardly a surprise that when I now visit my mum, I haven’t a clue what to say.
It is self-evidently far too late to try and do anything about it at this late stage. My mum has just about got it into her head that I’m working in Manchester, but Manchester is itself now merely one of my brother’s mechanical prompts. “Oh, Manchester. They say it always rains in Manchester, but I’ve been there twice, and both times it was glorious sunshine!” Swiftly followed by the fact that the first of these gloriously sunny days was somewhat marred by an IRA bomb. There’s no point whatever in embarking on an explanation of what my job’s about, and she never remembers that this sudden move to the North West was prompted by unemployment in London. And in any case, the next question will be about whether or not I’ve just driven up from London, or Manchester. It’s usually Manchester. Which leads us smoothly back to the remarkably counter-intuitive nature of my mother’s meteorological experiences in said city, and how the IRA chose my mother’s visit as a pretext for blowing half the place up. Yesterday, these two stories returned for an encore only a matter of minutes after their first appearance. So my mum’s CD is going to get its tracks regurgitated anyway, and all my brother is doing is broadening the selection, and controlling the order. His conversations with my mum have a steady momentum, and instead of cringing at the repetitions, he whips out the remote control and moves the conversation smartly on. Whilst I do cringe, and try to avoid the stimuli, and am thus left half the time in silence.
And so I am driven to conclude that my brother is not more cruel than I am. He’s just a lot less selfish.