Monday, 5 November 2012

Mum's Handbag

My family and close friends will agree that I am easily irritated: cyclists who think the Highway Code does not apply to them; taxi drivers who think the Highway Code does not apply to them; self-checkout lanes in supermarkets that never save time and are always demanding you remove the last item you placed in the bag; telephone menus and holding messages where all calls are important; people who use the word 'like' incorrectly for, like, reacting to something; CJ from Eggheads. Though often annoyed I rarely hate. Hate is a strong, negative emotion that gives rise to pain and turmoil.

However, I do hate – nay, loathe with passion – my mum’s handbag. A shiny black leather affair, my mum’s handbag is seemingly bottomless, and has been constructed with so many pockets that it resembles a Chinese puzzle box; and finding anything in this bag requires the ingenuity of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, the nimble fingers of Lang Lang, and above all the patience of Shakespeare's gentle stream. This handbag has the capacity to cause mania in all who dare to enter; has a demonically-possessed handbag ever been documented? It is the devil's work and belongs in a steel cask where it can do no further harm.

So, you can see straight away that I genuinely and sincerely hate this handbag, and I have told my mother on many occasions that once she passes away, this handbag will be placed ceremoniously atop its own funeral pyre and burnt while I and the other long-suffering members of my family dance and whoop. We will recreate The Wicker Man with the handbag substituted for Edward Woodward.

There is a serious design flaw in this handbag: it has too many pockets, and for my dementia-suffering mother and my family who must care for her, too many pockets are a BAD THING. As anyone coming to terms with a relative with dementia will know only too well, having too much of something is difficult to manage, for dementia lowers the capacity to make choices; and so in the end the dementia patient makes no choice, or the same choice as yesterday (in terms of food to eat, for example, or clothes to wear); or, in the case of my mum’s handbag, the choice of a pocket for some titbit of information that has been jotted down on a scrap of paper and then hidden somewhere safe. Hence, looking for something in The Handbag becomes a repetitive act; zips are opened and closed, Velcro tabs are ripped and mended as the contents of said handbag are spilled to the table/chair arm/floor - packets of cigarettes and a lighter, inhalers, bus pass and disabled badge for the car, bank-book, two purses and three wallets containing bank cards, mobile phone top-up cards and, for some bizarre reason, my name card from my old job at Nottingham University.

But most of all there is paper – a lot of paper. And it is not neat paper, folded, clearly labelled and therefore useful; rather we find in The Handbag hastily-torn scraps of paper festooned with series upon series of apparently random numbers. Telephone numbers? Lottery numbers? PINs? Who knows? We don’t, and my mother has certainly long ago forgotten their meaning or function.

And yet my mum will not, under any circumstances, relinquish The Handbag. We have tried to wean her off it and we have even spent a lot of money buying replacement handbags with only one pocket that should be easier for her to use. But such efforts are to no avail. The Handbag remains by her side day and night, within easy reach in case she needs to check the location of her mysterious Scraps of Paper. Even on a fourteen hour flight to Taiwan my mother repeatedly checked the contents of her handbag. Why, over the Himalaya she suddenly felt an urge to make sure she could find her front door keys, I will never know. Experience now tells me that she was anxious – this was a long way for her to travel and was naturally nervous – and she was in the early stages of dementia when such behaviour seems both bizarre and irritating.

I am still coming to terms with my mum's dementia. In fact, my therapist says I am grieving for a significant loss. My mother has changed certainly since my father died in 2004, but most noticeably in the last twelve months. It is difficult for any child to watch their parent become old, vulnerable, weak, confused, child-like, often angry and depressed. In addition to learning how to interact with my mother and her problems, I am also learning about myself, though I still question whether I have the patience and tolerance to be the son I wish to be at this moment in her life. It is a daily challenge. It is not easy to feel that the child is fast becoming the parent.

Something else occurs to me: The Handbag is important for my mother as it represents for her normality and independence, both of which are quickly slipping away. The bag is her possession and it contains more of her possessions that we cannot and certainly should not try to take away from her. She tells me that she is trying to pretend that she does not have dementia, and perhaps the Handbag is one way of doing so. Just as much as I try to come to terms with her dementia, so I need to understand better the symbolism of the bag, how it reflects her thinking, daily struggle and fight for individualism.

I hate the dementia - The Handbag - with its clutter and confusion, muddle and mayhem; but I do and for ever will love my mother. No matter how irritating she becomes, how angry, distressed, bitter, upset, confused, depressed or sick, she is still my mother. Neither the dementia nor The Handbag can ever erase that bond.

1 comment:

  1. Gary, A very moving piece. Thank you for sharing. John