I went to visit a woman who helped shape my past on Sunday.
It was her 80th birthday and people had come from far and wide to her sunlit care home to share her day.
Each one hoped to trade fond memories with her. Me, too. This lovely woman was a constant figure right through my childhood.
Her family and mine were once close friends; we were constantly in each other’s homes. We holidayed together. Her children were like sisters to me. I called her auntie.
In my mind’s eye I can still see her, at our picnics and birthday parties. Tall and blonde, she was. And kind.
But she couldn’t remember me. She has a form of dementia.
We’ve all seen the portrayals of dementia at its worst; we know this condition can cruelly reduce highly capable and independent souls, men and women who have fought wars, run companies, raised children and grandchildren, to the helplessness of babies.
I think I feared seeing her like that. But no; there she was, sitting serene and composed, quietly holding court as if there was absolutely nothing amiss.
As elegantly dressed and demure as ever, she passed pleasantries and chit-chat with everyone who stopped at her chair to offer birthday greetings and good wishes while her daughter, my old friend, rushed around as hostess, doing and saying all the things her mum would once have done. She gave me the sweetest smile. I took her hand and said: “It’s Josephine. Do you remember me?”
I was looking straight into her eyes and there was nothing but wistfulness; I’ve never seen that before.
She searched mine for something; a clue, the tiniest glimpse of the past. She was so sorry, she said with the sweetest smile, she didn’t but wished she could.
“You are my Auntie Jean,” I said.
“Am I?” She asked, her eyes registering surprise. There was a pause.
“I think I do remember something about that name,” she replied. As ever, she wanted to help. “I used to have an Auntie Jean, maybe it’s her you’re thinking of...”
So I told her about MY Auntie Jean and the things we used to do, the places we used to go. Eventually I asked if she remembered my father, Peter, once one of her dearest friends.
“Pete,” she said in a rush, then whatever gossamer strand of memory she was trying to pluck at dissolved in air.
I saw it go and as I pressed my cheek to hers and promised to see her again, all I could think about was how so very strange this illness is.
How can a button in some tiny part of a person’s brain be switched off like that?
How can all the conversations and events and people that shaped her now be forever out of reach, treasures in tissue in an attic she can no longer find the key for?
The past is lost to Auntie Jean and the thousands like her robbed by the thief that is dementia.
Though she seemed happy in her present; in that lovely, sunlit dayroom, surrounded by flowers and friends and all the people whom to her amazement and delight had come to talk to her that day.