Excerpt – Enter Mourning, Chapter 4

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Enter Mourning: A memoir on death, dementia and coming home

By: Heather Menzies

Applying communication theory (Marshall McLuhan and James Carey) plus neuroscience (Oliver Sacks) to probe the mystery of the shifting nature of communication when language and memory break down.

Chapter 4: Learning to talk all over again (excerpt)

…..Tea on her bed, with those same teacups and the same appreciative comments about them every time, became our regular ritual, and every time it seemed to take on more lustre, more resonance almost, like a melody line in a concerto for the piano and violin, offset in infinite variations by first the one and then the other instrument. It resembled too the gestures of approach, retreat, lingering and longing in a lovers’ pas de deux. And increasingly I could just enjoy them for what they were, gestures of our connection. I could dwell in these moments sharing a cup of tea with Mum, and be satisfied.

Mum was extending herself less and less, in activities and outings and even in conversation….

Every so often, I brought the Memory Book from the coffee table, and we turned its familiar pages, following the chronology of Mum’s full and active life. Sometimes it triggered some memory: an anecdote from the house where she grew up in Sherbrooke, when we came to that page, or the picture of her most loyal childhood companion, a cocker spaniel.

“Brownie,” Mum said, her voice tapping a vein of pure joy at seeing an old friend.

I didn’t task her with questions, didn’t try to draw her out. When she lost interest, we sat there drinking our tea in companionable silence, listening to the birds, the chime of the clock, our breathing comfortably in sync. Periodically, Mum squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back; it was conversation enough.

A familiar stranger was taking over more and more of the person I had grown up knowing as my mother. If I stayed in touch, not looking for the old Mum, but opening myself instead to the new, using the touch of her skin in my hand, the look in her eye, her frowns, her sighs and smiles as my guide, I could know her still. I could know her by giving up my own familiar ways of knowing, and opening myself to unknowing too. It wasn’t easy.

In a journal entry from shortly after the Remembrance Day incident, I wrote: “Woke up last night grieving for Mum, and all the things that have slipped away from her grasp. She can hardly talk anymore—beyond simple statements like ‘it’s so nice here,’ single words like ‘lovely.’

We’re used to communication being like a phone line, clear signals moving efficiently along a neat linear line. But Mum’s sentences no longer strode boldly one after another across space and time, sure of the point they were making. They still started boldly enough, with words like “There was a man….” or “And then we went to…, “ but then they veered off, petered out, dwindled away. Week in, week out, the sentences got shorter and slacker, more and more riddled with lapses and gaps, subsiding into silence. I learned to hold my tongue and not second guess, nor even to deflect Mum to another subject. I learned to breathe, just sit there and breathe. I learned to go slack too, sinking into the silences, ready to move on, or not to as well. At any given moment, this was where we might be: mid-sentence somewhere, and meanwhile, here was Mum’s hand in mine, her face searching mine for response of some kind.

Our “conversation” became simply what was left as the grammar, sentence structure, and finally even the words fell away. We were still two people communicating with each other, with intent and meaning flowing back and forth.

Mum’s crumbling capability with words, matched perhaps by my crumbling expectations, was also a medium of transmutation, bringing both of us into a new way of relating to each other. An old way too, in the sense that we were tapping the primal root of what human communication is all about: the bedrock rhythms of expression and connection, as the common root word for “communication,” “communion” and “community,” meaning “to share with” suggests.

All Contents Copyright © Heather Menzies