There were a lot of signs that Mum had veered off the path through the woods and was heading in the direction of fairyland, but we tended to ignore them. We put everything down to her deafness, to not wearing her hearing aids, to general cantankerousness, to elderly stubbornness, to a lifetime of unsociability. We did our best to keep her going, to cope with one disaster after the next. It couldn’t be that, not in our family. But it was that. The D word.
The thing that brought it home to me was quite small, really. Mum stopped reading. She was no intellectual – not on the whole a literary reader – but she had read all her life. She once showed me an exercise book she had kept as a teenager, with neatly-ruled pencil columns, listing every book she read. Title, Author, Date Started, Date Completed. I still have one or two of her school prize books – Jane Eyre, Villette.
At one point I started reading Dickens, but in a random sort of way. Mum was inspired to read Dickens too but being Mum she had to get the complete set (identical, must be identical) and read them in chronological order from Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and keep a list. We often shared pointless projects like knitting blankets for charity, jigsaw puzzles or reading particular authors; it gave us something to talk about when really, apart from genetics, we didn’t share much else.
One day I noticed the bookmark in her latest ‘read’ hadn’t moved. It’s one of those things I have a kind of eye for – whether tiny things have changed since I last saw them. Even a few pages would have made a difference. She’d been busy, she said. Summer – out in the garden a lot – and she did find nowadays she read a few pages and fell asleep.
Next week the bookmark hadn’t moved. I noticed she had put an elastic band round the book as if afraid the pages would decide to unglue themselves and flutter off somewhere.
Next week the bookmark hadn’t moved. The book hadn’t moved. Mum didn’t seem to have moved much, either.
Anyway – what this is leading up to, when I can get there, is this. Over the past few years I have been reading less and less. I believed I was reading. I kept telling myself I was reading but what I was actually doing was sipping, a few lines here, a page or two there, perhaps. I was not finishing books. I kept losing interest, or starting another book, and then another. All over my house, books with bookmarks a few pages in, bookmarks that hadn’t moved. And then the writing dried up. Recently I have realised that the two are connected. You need to feed the writing with reading, the thinking that comes from reading, the connections between this bit of reading and that bit of reading.
In my defence, it has been an abysmal last few years. I’ve had a lot to worry about, financially, workwise and, of course, the greatest worry of all, Mum. Until you’ve been forced to ‘walk with someone on their dementia journey’ (cringe, cringe, cringe!) you don’t realise what it does to you. It takes your life over. It sucks all the energy out of you, and kills all the joy. As you battle to communicate, to comprehend, to follow them at least part of the way into fairyland, you get a bit demented with them. I mean, that’s the way it is. You can’t just cut the psychic connection you once had with them, particularly if it’s a parent. Instead you turn into a kind of wraith, shambling along behind them like Gollum with The Ring. My precious, My precious.
My bookmark – multiple bookmarks – had stopped moving too. Something had to be done because – well, because it hangs over you, dementia does. Life’s never the same again. From that point on you watch yourself and you dread what you might notice. Every time you forget something. Every time you find the teabags in the fridge. Every time you can’t immediately call a name to mind. Is this it? Is that going to happen to me now?
So I started trying to read again, i.e. set aside the time for reading and actually finish a book, and it was more difficult even than I had imagined. I just couldn’t focus. I couldn’t concentrate even on stories that would once have absorbed me to the point where people would be waving their stupid hands in front of my face and asking me where I was. (I hate that, don’t you?)
The internet hasn’t exactly helped. Current thinking is that this access to instant information, the ability to click rapidly from one subject to the next, the constant distraction, is actually altering our neural pathways and leaving us with short little spans of attention. We are metamorphosing into something else. Internet Man/Woman.
In the end I had to take desperate measures. I started selecting books for teenagers, science fiction, fantasy – anything to kick-start my imagination and keep me absorbed and turning those pages. I suppose I am entering my second childhood, reading-wise and, fingers crossed, it seems to be working.
So this is a cautionary tale. Don’t let them creep up on you, the no time to read, too stressed to read, too tired to read, too sleepy to read, too poor to read, not worthy of reading monsters. Stay alert at all times and keep that bookmark moving.