Letting go, piece by piece

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
When Alzheimer;s robs our friends of their memories, it is up to us to remember, writes Julie Orr-Wilson. 

Reciprocity: the exchange of things for mutual benefit

Altruism: the caring of others without getting something back

Relationship: the way in which people are connected

Friendship: mutual affectionate bond between people.

I see her down the garden path. In the distance. She's a little bent over. Thin. The faded rust-red designer-label Hero coat too big. I take my time, to gain perspective. There's going to be another view. Sobbing she sits on the bed, a suitcase at her feet: "What have I done wrong?". I hold her. I hold her like never before, in all the years, and let my tears fall on to her fine, white, carefully cut hair.

The early weeks of readjustment. Such an unfamiliar place. A room. Titrating a life-time of objects down to a paltry few. Art, badges, books. Clothes, china, crockery, dishes. Electrolux. Everything. Friends. No. They just stop coming. Furniture, frozen peas. The garden trowel. Handbags, ice cream containers, jewels. Knitting needles, linen, maps and notions. Old newspapers. A whole pantry. Porridge, paprika, pasta. Pottery, pictures, pins. Quick-eze. Rackets for tennis. Rugs. Savlon tubes, tissues, tea-towels. Utensils, vitamins, witch's britches. Everything including X, Y, Z.

"There is the church. There is the steeple," she laughs, drawing my attention to the view. Protected by puzzles, we proceed. Spot the differences. Beginners' crosswords, because this expert is failing to find the words and I never have. New Idea, Woman's Weekly. God forbid us stooping low.

Outings to cafes, coffees, lemon meringue tarts shared. We'll walk most days. In the beginning. Strident, striding, no stick, no arm. There's a lump in my throat, always in those early years. I take comfort in the familiarity of her now shabby-chic Sanderson linen chair. It's as old as our friendship, even older. Quality stands the test of time.

I've given up explaining I'm not her daughter, just a stand-in. I can see their questioning, "What's in it for me?". It's hard to explain devotion to one who is not next-of-kin. Friendship, that mutual bond of affection between people. Gone, as the unravelling neuronal ropes, fray and splay. I've been preparing myself all along for, "The Day", coming not in increments, instead one fell swoop. It's not new to consider, "What will I do when ...?". Give up? I am no Pollyanna or her Anne of Green Gables. People challenge me, "Why bother? What's the point?". Gone, memories shared, jokes, eyes, touch rejected, little warmth. On my own now. Alone. There's nothing coming back.

Each visit I coach myself with the mantra, "You must be brave". I don't remember the last conversation I had with her. One where the words strung together coherently, some response from me. Blue eyes meeting mine as together we shared an "in" joke. It's probably longer ago than I wish it to be.

Sometimes she mentions driving, a word, but never now a sentence or phrase. Our connection, the pretty pink lipstick I crayon on her lips. The handcream I help her rub in. I have made up my mind. Piece by piece that's how I will let go of her, even though she's long let go of me.

There comes the need for another place.

The Inge Doesburg, Olveston original, Marilyn Webb, Betty Pilkington, to hang on another wall. The Persian rug. The chair, dismissed. I'm aggrieved, having loved it long. The teals, the blues, the taste, singing out her style. Only seven outfits this time. The practical navy pull on pants. Pretty cotton blouses, all blue, to mix'n'match. The hoodie, her signature, sporting style.

It's a long time since she's felt the rain on her back or been annoyed at the wind messing up her carefully cut hair but when I finish packing the suitcase, on top I will gently place her faded rust-red Hero jacket and let the tears fall.

September 21 every year is World Alzheimer's Day, which aims to raise awareness of Alzheimer-related dementia.


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