October 12, 2012

I went away for the weekend and Mabel hasn’t had a visitor at the home for four days, so I can’t expect her to be too lively when I turn up today. Indeed she doesn’t respond to my presence and I suspect she doesn’t recognise me. But once I’ve wheeled her outside - and before transferring her from wheelchair to car - I crouch down in front of her for the second time and now she does smile. I think she recognises me. I think she knows she’s going for a run in the car with her loved ones.

I park in the middle of town. Dad wonders why we’ve not headed off to the countryside as we usually do. I tell him that I want to explore something that happened to Mabel in 1941, when she was 16. Ian knows the basic story: Mabel was cycling down Allan Street, where we’re parked, when she was hit by an army motorbike travelling uphill on the wrong side of the road. Mabel went over the handlebars and was knocked unconscious. When she came to - surrounded by concerned bystanders – she took fright and raced home. That’s the story as she told it to people when she still could tell stories.

Today I’ve brought along her Girl Guides’ diary, which Mabel is gazing at. I’ve transcribed the entries so that I can more easily read them aloud. So here goes:

"Monday, 30 June, 1941
'I had an accident with a Pole today. I was on my bicycle and he was on a motor bicycle. I went over the handlebars of my bike and landed on my head, but cycled home.'"

“Do you remember that Mum?”

She doesn’t reply, but there is an air of awareness about her. At some level she is listening to the words of her young self, written when a Polish regiment was stationed in the town.

"Tuesday, 1 July 1941
'I was in my bed today. My head was very sore and the doctor said I had to stay in bed all week. Bolek gave me a bottle of wine and two of the friends of the soldier who knocked me down came to see me.'"

“Bolek is the Polish officer that was billeted to your family at Fernbank, Mum. He almost became part of the family. Remember?”

Mabel is still looking pensive, saying nothing.

"Wednesday, 2 July 1941
George who knocked me down is in the hospital. His friend came to see me today and brought sweets. Boy! It’s great to be in bed. Bolek was also in to see me twice.'"

It’s obvious that Mabel liked the attention she was given when she was ill.

"Thursday, 3 July 1941
'I was feeling much better today, had Mrs Cosh in to see me. The soldier brought back my bicycle, it looks OK.'"


"Friday, 4 July 1941
'I was up today but did not go out. A Polish woman came and gave me some stuff in a bottle to rub on my head. She was very nice.'"

Although Mum hasn’t been saying anything, Dad has. He’s told me that Mrs Cosh was the minister’s wife and that Mabel did well to get a visit from her. He’s wondered aloud what the magic potion that the Polish woman provided would have been.

When Dad’s finished responding to Mum’s words, I mention that there have been a couple of recent reports that suggest a link between head trauma and subsequent dementia. One of the experiments involved war veterans in the USA. Those that suffered a head injury were twice as likely to contract dementia later in life.

“Have you ever had a serious head injury?” I ask Dad. “Knocked unconscious, anything like that?”

“I don’t think so. How about you?”

“I remember feeling uncomfortable after heading old leather footballs on a couple of occasions, but, no, I don’t recall ever being knocked out.”

As I understand it, Mabel’s vascular dementia was brought on by the strokes she had, which began in her late seventies. However, it’s possible that the accident she was involved in when she was 16 contributed to her present state.

We drive out of Blair and park up in the countryside where we have a view of the autumn fields, still golden but shorn now of their flowing crops. Once I’ve fed Mabel her piece of cake and am helping her with her cup of tea, I remind Dad of an occasion that he and I have no reason to be proud of.

“Remember that time when we were living in Hamilton, Dad? Mum had been sick and was spending the day in bed. In the middle of the day, she fainted and half fell out of bed. Her head was resting on the floor; she looked uncomfortable and vulnerable. Do you recall that?”


“I was scared. I remember you and I discussing the situation. For some reason we thought it best to leave Mum where she was and phone the doctor. On reflection that was a stupid thing to do, born of fear and ignorance. The strain on the blood vessels in Mum’s neck might have been severe. She complained of a sore neck for days.”

Ian doesn’t say anything. There’s not much to say. At least I know that when emergencies have happened in the last few years we’ve managed to deal with them more sensibly.

Mabel has finished her tea. Time for a bit more eye contact. So I get out of the driver’s seat, go round to Mum’s side of the car and sit on the frame of the door. She smiles brightly as she looks into my eyes, as if my presence has just come to her attention. There’s a bit of mucus close to her eye, which I gently remove with my finger in much the same way that, so long ago, she used to remove the ‘sleepy beasties’ from my eyes.

Mabel has severe dementia. For us it doesn’t really matter what brought it on. What matters is that we’re still here for her. She doesn’t seem to want much in the way of direct inputs. So all we have to do is provide some low-key company on a regular basis and make sure that the home is taking care of things from the personal care perspective.

Only the other day one of the carers, asked if I would bring in some more shampoo for Mabel, which I did. And I can see that Mabel’s hair has been washed today or yesterday. It feels clean as I let it flow through my fingers. I trust Mabel finds that as soothing a motion as I do.

“Oh well, Mum. If a stranger riding on the wrong side of the road doesn’t do for us, then the limitations of our own flesh and blood will. Isn’t that right?”

No answer.