My mother, a collage of my memories

I’ve been writing a lot about my mother as she has been these last few years. She is now bed-ridden, apparently peaceful and happy, and mostly silent, uttering a few words for an immediate need, but not articulating anything complex. But she was very active some years ago, sharp, very clear about what she thought and wanted, and today I’ll step back into the past and share more of the person she used to be before all this happened.

My mother was a very private person, for one. But she was also very particular about helping people and often went out of her way to do things for them. One thing she was very insistent about was about donating her body. At a time when she was already facing problems writing, she once heard someone say that body donation does not happen if the person has not clearly declared the intention of body donation. A couple of hours later, she handed me a paper. Here’s an excerpt:

 

My mother does not know I blog. But given the above, I think I am meeting in intent what she would have wanted.

Outside India, people understand that people who get dementia were not “lazy” or inactive, low-IQ laggards who could have avoided such a fate by being active. But in India, as I wrote some days ago, people behave as if dementia is something that touches only people who were, in some way, negligent.

No one could have called my mother lazy or low in willpower or negligent.

At a time when women barely studied and very few studied up to graduate level, my mother completed three post-graduate degrees: Psychology, Philosophy, and Education.

My mother taught in colleges and schools till she had to give it up because of my father’s frequent transfers and other such problems.

A few years ago, in a dementia daze, my mother tore off many important documents of her past, but some survived. For example, there is this thick typed document that was part of her M Ed work. It was a document she was particularly fond of, and work she felt deeply about.

When I was in school, my subjects were very different from what she’d studied. But till I reached class eight, she tried to stay abreast and teach me when needed. She had never studied geometry, but she picked it up for me. And Sanskrit.

She loved driving. Absolutely loved it. Drove much better than my father did. I remember once, when a colleague of my father had to be dropped somewhere, he somewhat hesitantly requested that my mother do the driving instead of my father 🙂


Making sure I was educated and became financially independent was an obsession for my mother. She was also very worried because I didn’t seem to be good at anything except studies. She tried to get me better in physical activities. When I almost failed in “art”, she joined art classes along with me one summer, and we both learnt oil painting. She wasn’t really interested in painting, but she knew that I would not go alone. I was 12 years old at that time, and yes, I did manage to start passing “art” classes after that.

Mother would sometimes drive long distances to buy me raffia for a project, or some other such thing that she felt would make me more skilled at a hobby people considered essential for girls.

When I was in my final year of school, though she could not understand head or tail of physics and chemistry and all that, she knew enough of the exam system to do something most of my peer-group mothers were not doing; she insisted on buying me exam papers of past years, and the official syllabus. When I needed to do a science project as part of a science talent exam, she even helped me out with the topic, choosing statistics, a subject she knew well. Then, bang in the middle of my board exams, I came down with chicken-pox. Everyone advised I drop the year. Not she; she knew how demoralizing it would be to give the exam next year as a private candidate, or to study class eleven again with girls and boys who had been my juniors. She got doctors to get my fever under control, and sat with me for hours, helping me revise subjects she barely understood. She made me explain to her how a formula in chemistry was read out, so that she could check what I was mumbling for correctness. She peered at my drawings of ore extraction to verify them.

But my mother was not concerned only about work; she was very much part of my fun, too. We saw every movie we could, often within the week of release. We went for picnics. She would buy me story books and poetry books. On some occasions, when she heard of a book she thought I’d like, and if it was not available locally, she’d write to the publisher and order it. She would chat up people teaching English in colleges to get recommendations on contemporary writers and good reads.

I did not think of keeping track then of what she presented me on which occasion, but sometimes now, when I open an old book, her writing jumps at me from faded pages.

My mother’s standards for me were rather high, though. Often she would tell me that I was not good enough. She had potential role-models for all aspects I was inadequate in, which really covered all parts of my life except academics, where even she had to agree I was more than adequate.

My mother’s sense of self included me. When she wanted to act humble, she assumed my achievements had to be reduced, too. After I got into IIT, ranking 129 in the all-India ranks, she went around telling everyone she met that she didn’t know how I got through; I knew nothing. I was very hurt and told her so, and she took that to heart and never again repeated that sort of running me down–till the dementia days, when this tendency returned in an amplified form.

There was a stretch of my life when she became very tense about my future. She was worried about my marriage, as I was short and dark and thin and not good-looking. Who would marry me? She was worried because she had no “dowry” to give.

After my son was born, my mother switched all her love and loyalty to him. Nothing I did for him was apparently good enough; my mother was always fault-finding me, often in front of my son. There was always something I hadn’t done properly, something I should have bought for him or taught him or some place I should have taken him out to or some value I should have imparted to him or some example I should have set for him. As I was working full-time in a job then, she was the one who looked after him, and she obviously graded me as a failed mother. She expressed her judgment of me to everyone close to us.

For me, in that phase of my life, such a constant flow of criticism was very stressful. I did not think that she was only judging me as an extension of herself, or remember how hard she had driven herself to be a good mother to me. She had grown up an orphan, and did not want me or my son to ever feel that lack that she had felt. In that phase of life, I somehow forget all she had been for me, all she had done; most of what I remembered were her frowns and harsh words.

She had judged herself as harshly as she now judged me, but I did not pause to think that. It is only now, as I piece together incidents to get a full picture, that I realize this.

When I was younger, my mother would often talk of her own childhood. Her parents died when she was young: her father of a heart attack, her mother of TB. She had one elder brother, one elder sister, and one younger sister. Her two sisters died of TB when they were around 16 and 12 years old (from what I remember). My mother was particularly hit by the death of her younger sister, Kanta. Often when my mother wanted to show affection to me, she’d call me Kanta. Later, in her dementia years, she sometimes looked into the sky and smiled and said Kanta was waving to her–a statement that always worried me.

My mother’s grandfather–her mother’s father–was a major influence in her life. He was a rich and principled man who brought her and her siblings up. He brought up the four orphans and tried his best to not let the TB spread in the family; he succeeded partially, because two of the four survived. But he was also a distant man who did not connect emotionally to my mother. For many years, I have known my mother’s grandfather only through what she has told me. What I heard were the impressions of a young orphaned girl who was dark-complexioned and therefore not very marriagable; she often told me that she was considered by her grandfather to be a millstone around the neck of her brother (who would allegedly have to get her married). “Your three sisters are three stones tied to your neck,” was what her grandfather apparently told her brother often. By the time the brother reached college, only one stone was left. In any case, my mother found her own way through life.

I do not know how many of my mother’s memories were based on facts, and how many on impressions. She was just a child then…

When my mother talked of her childhood, I was too young to fully value what I was hearing. I sometimes listened carefully, and sometimes switched off. I assumed the stories would be there later, when I wanted to hear them. That my mother would always be there, and so would her memories. My mother also showed me some places that were important to her. When my father was posted in Ambala, she took me to a hotel there, (I think it was Hotel Cecil) where her grandfather had died; she had read of his death in the newspapers. When she visited the offices of Tribune, and they learnt who she was, she was shown a portrait of her grandfather that hung there in a place of pride. Her grandfather was a famous man, and economist and academic and then a politician and a minister of pre-Independence Punjab, and my mother was proud of him, scared of him, and very uncomfortable with what she thought he was–a supporter of the British. He was  a “Sir”.

A few years ago,  when I surfed on his name, I found nothing, but recently, surfing on his name, I was surprised to find that he is, finally, visible on the web as part of Indian history. And in fiction, for apparently there’s even a well-known story written about him–one of these days I must read it.

For my mother, though, this historical figure barely exists any more.

Actually, very few people exist for her now; she doesn’t remember my father, either. I am there only because she sees me every day. My husband exists for her for the same reason. She remembers my son on some days. I show her pictures on days she is alert, and such days are not frequent.

All through these years, my mother had preserved some pictures, letters, and clippings of the past. And then, in the fog of dementia, she tore them up; probably because she did not know what they were, or maybe even touching them sent pain through her heart. I wonder now, perhaps my mother had finally got her priorities right. Of what lasting value are people, anyway? Or memories? These things exist only as long as our mind and emotions give them body, or as long as we retain artefacts that capture them in our attempt to externalize our memories.

Identity is so fluid. Even a thing like a name. Or a signature. These last few years, my mother’s signature reduced to a mere jumble, mixing names, mixing languages.

And now there is no signature, only an inked thumb when bureacracy requires it. Her identity is now in different terms, and it is a change I accept.

There are people who talk of dementia patients as persons who were not active; they should have tried to walk alongside my mother just two decades ago, before her balance problems; they would have been huffing and puffing and out of breath. Yes, she was a brisk walker. They should have tried to debate philosophy with her back then; it would have sharpened their minds.

When my mother was working in Lucknow in the 1950s, a young man once said that his fiance was very beautiful, but if one talks of eyes, it was my mother’s eyes that were the most beautiful. Those eyes, once sharp with intelligence are soft now, beautiful in a different way; they still hold love.

I will have to stop now. My own eyes are misting over…

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

15 Responses to My mother, a collage of my memories

  1. Linda says:

    I can’t remember how I found your blog; I have been reading it for a while and read so much about dementia, with which my father is afflicted. You have helped me so much. Thank you.

    My mother died recently, and my father has no memories to share. I’ve been mourning the loss of her memories and the things I never asked. But as I have no children I’m not the keeper of memories for the next generation, or so I’ve tried to console myself.

    • swapnawrites says:

      Dear Linda

      I feel your pain. The loss of a parent is a loss of a part of oneself, of someone we assumed would always be with us, helping us, being company, being the keeper of memories. And dementia robs us of that parent even though the person is still there….

      Thank you for dropping by and sharing your thoughts,

      Swapna

  2. Henri says:

    This is such a beautiful blog 🙂 I love the fact that you have shared some of your mum’s writing 🙂 Identity is really fluid and no one better than an AD caregiver can understand that! Your strength makes me smile. It is hard to give love to a mother who has been so critical. I have people who share that with me. But of course your mum did show you a lot of support like at the chicken pox time, etc. Truly, an inspiring collage of memories. Thank you for sharing. You are an inspiration!

    • swapnawrites says:

      You’ve been incredibly open yourself about your experiences and pain in your blogs. Your blogs were what showed me that people could write about the really bitter and hurtful parts of caregiving, with honesty…

  3. Hash says:

    This is beautiful, Swapna, so true, wise and honest. It has moved me to tears, lots of ’em. Hugs, H

  4. Farrah says:

    Dear Swapna,

    This blog touched me deeply. Brought tears to my eyes and memories of my own parents both of whom suffered Dementia for a few years before they left us for Heavenly abode.

    I lost my most loving father on August 05, 2010 and my closest friend…my mother left me just about two weeks back. It seems they were really made for each other and even death couldn’t keep them apart for a long time.

    Some day I will share their stories and how lovely it was having them around even when couldn’t really recognize us.

    Hope they are in good health in the Heavens about and always smiling…Ameen!

    • swapnawrites says:

      My dear Farrah,

      I’m shocked to hear of your loss. It’s been a long time since we were in touch, and I didn’t even know your parents were unwell. May Allah grant you the courage to cope with your loss, and to move on when you are ready.

      Ameen,
      Swapna

  5. Jayashree Prasad says:

    What Hash says is right. Let me repeat: this writing is so true, honest, heartfelt, touching & wise.

    Your mother’s selflessness and participation in all your activities, is something which only few mothers can do! I pray for her: hope she will have peaceful days till the end.

  6. Dear Swapna, this is so beautifully written, from your heart and passionate. Much of what you say resonates and reminds me of my mother. Beautiful memories, and loved your mother’s hand written notes, made this blog all the more special. Towards the end my mother could not even remember how to sign her name, just the word Santha and did not know her age, at times she thought she was five. Thank you for giving us so much insight into what dementia is all about. Your love and strength is remarkable. Send you my love.

    • swapnawrites says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this here, Leela. I remember how you used to tell me of the heart-aches and challenges you faced in caregiving, and how they had resonated with me because they were so close to what I was facing. I just hope that the pain will be less for caregivers now, and that they will be able to do what they need to do, without feeling isolated and helpless.

  7. austere says:

    awesome
    you made me cry.

    Baba had wanted to write something in that last month, but because of the medication all I got was a jerky line. And then he’d tried to spell the letters in my palm– but nothing. And all my life I’ll wonder.

  8. Pingback: Impermanence, Death, Closures and Continuity through Body Donation « Swapna writes…

  9. Pingback: Personal update: A year after my mother’s death | Swapna writes...

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