"Who Are You?"
July22, 2011

I'm ten minutes late, so perhaps that explains why Mum is not in the hall of the care home ready and waiting. I see her in the lounge, sitting at a table where there is some activity going on. I slide into her field of view expecting the usual big smile of welcome, plus maybe a 'Here he is!' or a 'That's my boy!'. Instead, seeing that I'm expecting something out of her, she says, not without curiosity: "Who are you?"

I put my face closer to Mum's, widen my smile and say: "Don't you recognise me, Mum? It's Duncan. You know - your silly son!" Her expression doesn't change. She still doesn't know me. I shrug it off and get on with the visit. I wheel her out to the front lawn where she greets Dad cheerfully, though not by name. I think she knows me after a while, but I don't test her. I do test her in another way, when, after tea on the lawn, I ask her to get into the car. All she has to do is stand up, basically, because I can do the rest. But for a full twenty seconds she doesn't recognise this most basic of instructions, just as she didn't one day a few months ago. Though the next day when I tried her with the 'stand up' request, she immediately recognised it. Just as I expect her to immediately recognise me when I next call round.

I'm doing Dad's dishes at the family home when Mum's 'who are you?' line comes back at me, hitting harder this time. Who am I? Oh come on, Mum, I'm your first-born son. And one day about fifty-three years ago, I would have come out with my first words, probably for your ears alone. Oh dear. I suppose Mum's 'who are you?' is a horrible reversal of that special moment of bonding.

A couple of days later, when Mabel has been helped into the car, and Dad and I have got the seat belt wrapped around her, I say to Mum: "What's my name?" She doesn't answer straightaway, so I say. "Go on, Mum. Tell me what my name is, I'd really like to know…" Then I stroke her hand and say: "Only you can tell me what my name is."

But she can't. So I have to give her a whopping big clue. "It's Duncan, isn't it? That's what you've always called me. You and Dad gave me that name and he's sitting here in the back seat… By the way, what's his name?…"

"What's my name, Mabel?" says Ian, leaning forward, so that she can see him out of the corner of her eye. Hearing Dad ask the overt question makes me uncomfortable. Dementia-sufferers do not need to be be asked a lot of direct questions. It makes them uncomfortable. Of course it does: it makes anyone uncomfortable to be asked questions they don't know the answer to.

So I try and help Mum out. "It's Ian in the back and me beside you, isn't it, Mum? Ian right behind you and Duncan sitting next to you. Your crack husband-and-son team."

"Duncan isn't here," says Mum frowning slightly. By which she may mean that the real Duncan wouldn't be insensitive enough to be asking her the same stupid question over and over again. Anyway, I'm pleased with Mum's response. It shows that my name still means something to her. And it motivates me to carry on our exchange: "Ah, got you now, Mum! Duncan is most certainly here. I am he. Duncan's right beside you and he's going to drive you and Ian wherever you want to go."

Does that sound like hard work? Recalling it makes it seem like hard work, but it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary at the time. It's what passes for conversation these days.

It's late at night. I'm sitting at the computer writing this when the photograph that heads today's blog comes into view, almost by accident. Mum looks as though she might be whispering, teasingly,
'Who is he? Who is he taking a photograph of?' into my young ear. It makes me sad to think that the sharp woman, encouraging her young son to look into the camera held by his father, no longer recognises her son. Or at least that recognition is coming and going. The woman, my mother, who was effortlessly aware that her husband was taking a photo of herself alongside their child, has lost all the acuity she had in her prime. Mum brought me into the world. And now she's leaving that same world of language, identity and family. I just have to accept that that's the way it is.

When Mum has completely forgotten who I am, I'll still know who she is. (The person who encouraged me to know myself.) And I'll still be driving her through the landscape as long as she gets something from the change of scene and atmosphere.

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