I've been avoiding visiting her. I tell myself it's because I'm so busy, but I know that's a half-truth. I defer spending time with Mama, my grandmother, because she is succumbing to dementia. She is no longer the woman I remember. Like a petulant child, I am avoiding unpleasantness - the sad discomfort of witnessing Mama's decline.
She once was an auburn-haired woman with sturdy arms and legs, capable of anything. My Mama raised seven children, and cared for her chronically-ill husband until his early death. Mama worked at a care facility for disabled children. She cooked a mean roast dinner and the best peanut biscuits ever. She chaired a women's writers group. Until the past year or two, she giggled like a schoolgirl at any mildly off-colour joke you could come up with. I went to see Mama today, in the nursing home where she now resides. My mother warned me beforehand that Mama's memory had deteriorated since I last saw visited. Mum wasn't sure if Mama knew who any of the family were any more.
As I walk in, I see her. Mama sits at table, snowy-haired and blue-eyed, looking so small. She is smiling in my direction. She looks pleased and surprised, though slightly perplexed. It must feel like when someone greets you at the shops, and for a moment you just can't place them. It must feel like that for Mama every day.
Mama knows her memory and language are failing. Over and over she starts to speak, then shakes her head in exasperation when she cannot finish. Tears fill her eyes, and she puts a hand to her forehead, "I'm going silly in the head". Her lips quiver as she tries to get a handle on her emotions. She repeats, " I'm so silly", and apologises. I touch her arm and tell her she's not; it's OK. I tell her I know she must feel so frustrated. I feel useless in the face of Mama's obvious pain.
Mama is touchingly concerned that my little son needs entertaining. She suggests a walk to a small sunroom.
"See the birds, they...."
"One of the other ladies put a ...."
Mama's sentences go unfinished as she struggles to grasp the words, or is it the thought itself that slips away? Eventually, another resident in a wheelchair comes and speaks to us. She describes how she has bought a seed stick and wired it to the fence, to attract the crested pigeons. I can see a bird now, feasting on the sticky treat. Mama's face lights up, as her meaning is finally conveyed; as we stand together watching the bird peck and fluff up its' feathers.
We walk to Mama's room, and she excuses herself to use the shared ensuite bathroom. A few minutes later, Mama opens the door to leave the bathroom, then hesitates, and slowly manoeuvres back into the bathroom to wash her hands. She washes thoroughly. She places a piece of paper towel carefully under the soap dispenser, where there is a small amount of liquid soap pooled. She takes the paper towel she has dried her hands with, and meticulously wipes down the taps and basin top. I am fascinated by her deliberation and thoughtfulness. I feel guilty to be surprised that Mama's nature remains essentially unchanged by her dementia. I know some people are changed. That must intensify the distress for their loved ones. But my Mama is just as lovely now as she ever was - gentle but prepared to have her quiet say, always thinking of others, loving, quick to smile. Her sparkling intellect has been dulled, but I remember it clearly - so clearly that I sometimes believe it is still there.
A cleaner bustles in to the bathroom, chatting breezily about how fast the toilet paper gets used in the bathrooms. Mama quips, "They must eat it, hmm?". The bustling blond cleaner laughs out loud. "I reckon they must!". Mama pipes up again, " This is my grand-daughter. She's a.... she's a doh....". Mama's eyes well up again, and she shakes her head.
The cleaner is well-meaning, but she has that high-pitched and over-exaggerated manner of speaking, as if talking to a child. " Don't worry love, you're doing fine, you speak really well", she gushes to Mama. I feel a prickle of annoyance. I don't want her speaking to my grandmother in such a condescending tone, however kind the intention. Mama is still insightful, she still knows she is losing her mind to dementia. To deny her the right to express the hurt and confusion she feels seems wrong.
Mama lifts her head up, wipes her eyes, and tries again. "She's a doctor!", Mama blurts triumphantly. The cleaner looks suspiciously at me - I am wearing ponytail, running shoes and cargo pants. I nod, and confirm that I really am a GP. I grin at Mama and she grins back, all proud grandmother. I'm so proud of her.
When it's time to leave, Mama insists on walking us to the front door. As she begins on her wobbly walker way, I realise I will have to escort her safely back to the dining hall before I can depart. We will become locked into a repeating cycle of accompanying each other to the car park and back to the common area. I find a volunteer who offers to walk with us.
On the front path, I kiss Mama's papery cheek. Ever-polite, she thanks me for coming by. Morbidly, I wonder if this will be our last conversation. I tell Mama that I love her as I hug her goodbye.
My mother tells me that Mama doesn't remember when people come to see her. The very next day she has no memory of ever seeing a visitor. Sometimes she is forlorn, believing that no-one ever visits, yet her youngest daughter comes by almost daily.
I will remember the visit in her stead. I will remember her as she was, and as she is now. She is a woman of infinite grace. She is my beautiful Mama.