A Black Hole Where Once Your Mind Was

Posted at 05:35am on 28th December 2008

His world is one of darkness. Silent. Confused. He’s not entirely Anything. Not blind, nor daft. Just less of what he was. Diminished. Shrunken. Glimpses of shapes he catches in the side of his eye appear tall and distorted, disorienting and delusional from a moving car. The rushing sensation induces motion sickness. He cries out for it to stop.

Sometimes, in the house in which they’re staying, he thinks he sees faces he knows. His eyes dart about to confirm an identity, but the features he thought recognisable dissolve into a black hole of oblivion. Someone tells him to look up and to the right to see clearly – but he won’t remember. He reaches out to lift his drink to his lips, but the glass he thought he saw is not where he supposed it to be and though his nails hit something hard his fingers encounters only air. Someone looms close telling him in loud, booming tones: “it doesn’t matter, not to worry”. But making a great matter of mopping some sticky liquid from his front, this same person – his daughter? – frets over a stain on the carpet. He can tell she is agitated. Worried. Is this something he has caused?

Everyone shouts at him. At least, he thinks it’s at him. He hears exasperation in their tone of voice – but nothing of what they are saying.

“Have I done something wrong?” he asks.

“Have you got your hearing aids in?” he is asked in return.

No! They hurt. He doesn’t want them. Then he can’t expect anyone to speak to him, he’s told.

“What’s the time?” he asks, as he puts the small pink plastic appliances in place.

“Look at your watch!”

“I can’t see!” He’s angry now.

“But you can hear.”

He presses a small cog on the watch. “Ten-forty-five a.m.” it says.

“Where are we?”

“At Mel’s house. For Christmas.”

“Mel?” His voice brightens. “Our Mel?” Then drops. “What time is it?”

He knows he’s being perverse, but can’t stop himself. He's so bloody angry!

So are they. “For goodness sake,” they chorus.

He jabs his chest. “This is an intelligent tie, I’ll have you know,” he retorts.

“Yes, Daddy.”

His anger melts. “I know I’m stupid now. . .”

He feels a touch on his arm.

“No, you’re not. You’re still my Daddy.”

But he’s not. And never will be . . .

You’re exhausted. Worn down and disappointed. Not with him. With yourself. Your mother’s almost always short with him, but she has him all the time; you, he sees only occasionally. You wanted to be Saint Mel: the one who always has patience; who makes scintillating conversation to stimulate his mind; who always has time for him.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” says your other half. But the words have a hollow ring. In your eyes, you know you’ve failed. You try to recall how it came to this.

The hearing went first, of course, legacy of countless flying hours dropping paratroopers over France, his ears unprotected from the droning noise of engines. The pension he receives for the condition is in recognition for what he did for King and Country, but it does nothing to minimise the endless hours of shouting, repeating yourself until you could scream. And you know, though you’re ashamed to admit it, that like everyone else – all the old friends who used to call but are now too busy – that it’s easier simply to ignore him; to leave him in his silent world.

The sight – now that – you could do murder for that! Double murder. Cradle to grave? What a joke! How dare Mr Gordon B….. Brown decree that macular degeneration should not be treated on the NHS until the second eye goes. Was it some cynical foresight – ha! ha! – on his behalf, knowing that by the time the second eye shows signs of AMD, the first has deteriorated beyond redemption?

You could cry for him, this visually oriented, white-haired old man who is your father. The much loved view from his home is now obscured from his vision. Likewise, the children whose antics on the beach he so enjoyed. The beautiful women whom he “clasps to his bosom” but will never see again. The televised pictures of the starving for whom he once wept and sent money. He will never hold a paintbrush in his hand again. Never mix watercolours on his palette. Never observe and portray a scene for the delight of others. A collection of half-finished sketches and paintings lie gathering dust: a guilty rebuke for any one of us who might think of discarding them.

You could cry for your mother, too. With less than a week to go to her birthday, she won’t admit to being ninety; hard-of-hearing or having to squint to read labels on his prescription pills. Her car has got into more scrapes than Billy Bunter – but does she want you to drive her to the Boxing Day sales? Does she heck! “I’m quite capable of taking myself,” she says, haughtily. But inside, she’s in a state of mourning; grieving for the man she married; the beau who, at your birth, wrote beautiful letters to her from Burma; the lover who frets because he hasn’t bought her a birthday present, and you’ve had to do it for him.

Worst of all is his memory loss. “Where’s the lavatory? Which is my room? Am I in with your mother? No? Oh, I’d love to be in with her.” Well, I’m sorry to say, Daddy, she wouldn’t love to be in with you!

The intelligent tie is folded and put away with his outer clothes. It’s a badge of honour for MENSA members, and having taken the exam at eighty years of age and come out with an IQ in the top 1%, he’s justifiably proud of his right to wear it. The intellect is intact, and with it the ability for mental math and poetry recitation. They’re useless, of course, with the memory loss. And now he’s lost his dignity, too, and if you don’t stop him, he’ll strip down to the buff for all to see.

You go through the nightly ritual: a portable stair-gate erected on the landing and, in case he should topple over that, a large piece of furniture dragged into place in front of it. A low watt bulb burning overnight in the toilet, and because he’s been trained to turn it on, one in his bedroom when he wakes. The brain’s inability to record modern memories means that the route he treads out repeatedly between bedroom and toilet is forgotten before it’s completed. You know he’s nervous. Frightened of disgracing himself. Afraid he might encounter intruders. But after a dozen attempts at reassurance, you lose your cool. He can’t reason, but you can. And you’d think that, like a moth to a flame, he’d be attracted to a lighted room on an otherwise darkened landing. Not a bit of it! At three-hourly intervals throughout the night, every bedroom door is opened, lights switched on, the occupants aroused and questioned.

The doctor is reluctant to prescribe sedatives which might result in a fall, but suggests over the counter sleeping pills. Tentatively, you try him on one. No result. The dose is increased. Miracle of miracles, he sleeps through the night. Neither you, nor your mother sleeps a wink. “I was on tenterhooks all night waiting for him to come in,” she says next morning. “I thought we might have killed him,” you say. And you’re not sure whether the thought was a fear. Or a forlorn hope that one night, quietly and peacefully, he might slip away. “He’ll probably outlive us all,” says your sister, when she phones. She’s probably right, you think, sinking wearily into a chair.

Welcome to senility; to longevity without quality. This is not just any old-age. This is old-age twenty-first century style. Does anyone out there have any solutions?


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