One thing I have learned from my mother’s dementia is that it is not just about forgetting; her dementia has also brought rich imaginings. Surely, Mom has forgotten much – people, where she is, what day it is, what year it is – but she is also constantly constructing stories. Some of her creative endeavors are complex and intriguing; others are horrifying. There are fictions which seem to be born of paranoia – the first time we knew she had slipped over the edge was when she called to tell me all her money was gone. The government had taken it all. Other tales seem to have been spun to explain inexplicable situations or to shift blame. Once, when she found her gallon of milk frozen solid in the freezer, she told me that a whole tribe of boys had broken into her assisted-living apartment overnight and made a mess and hid her milk. This, of course, despite the fact that she lived in a secure building with no children anywhere around.
Still other stories seem to be created just to make her life more interesting. For a fortnight, she was routinely telling me that she had spent the previous night out on a boat, having been evacuated due to impending floods. Luckily, she thought that everyone had a pretty good time on the mandatory cruise, and she would discuss their revelry at length. She has also recounted visits from friends who are long since dead and relatives who claimed they hadn’t been near her in months. Sometimes she conjures up an answer to a question that puzzles her. If I ask her where a bouquet of flowers or a new blouse comes from, she will tell me she won them in a contest. Some tales are funny, some are scary, and some are so outlandish it is hard to imagine how she ever thought of them.
Two themes come back again and again. Although my mother never had an office job (she was an artist), she often talks about all the paperwork she has to do before they will let her “go home.” As she has fallen farther from reality, Mom shuffles the coloring books in front of her and tells me that unless she finishes all this “work” there won’t be any money to pay her rent. She worries that if she has no money, they will not feed her. As many times as we have all told her that she has no financial worries, that everything is taken care of, she responds with more creative tales of men in suits who have come to take her money away.
And she worries about her mother and father, who have been gone for decades. Who is taking care of them, she’ll ask. Maybe she is really asking who will take care of her. But again the stories get elaborate – her parents live somewhere over the bridge, their phone is broken, they promised to come to visit.
Sometimes it is easy to see what sparks her imagination; other times the tales seem to come out of the ether. The stories are more often worrisome than comforting, but they are her stories and she sticks to them. I have seen various articles about fostering creativity in dementia patients, but little about the very fount of creativity they seem to become. We sometimes think of dementia patients as losing their humanity, but isn’t imagination the very kernel of what makes us human?
I was recently reminded by Lewis Hyde in his new book Primer of Forgetting, that forgetting can also be a creative and useful process. If you think about it, you might agree. There are things that we must forget or we cannot go on – either because the memory is so atrocious or because there is no more room. How many times can you relive that humiliating moment when your first boyfriend dumped you? Or the stupid things you did in your younger days? (“Remember not the sins of my youth,” pleads the Psalmist.) How many phone numbers or passwords can you hold in your head? (I think of the story about Louis Agassiz, who was famous for memorizing all the scientific names for fish and their parts. When Agassiz came to Harvard, he decided to put that prodigious memory to work to remember the names of all the students, at which he proved very successful. However, one day he realized that in memorizing undergraduates he had started to forget the fish. He immediately gave up on the students.)
Someone told me a story about his mother who had grown up in terrible circumstances in Hitler’s Germany during WWII. Her childhood haunted her, was written on her face, until she developed dementia in old age, and then it was somehow …better. I understand this and so does Philip Larkin – read “The Winter Palace” and you will sympathize. There are things my mother has forgotten (she almost never mentions her husband of over fifty years), but memories of her childhood seem to have sprouted from some forgotten seedbed and blossomed in full technicolor. In her own way, she has been creative in her remembering and in her forgetting.
This week’s story, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” is about an older woman with dementia whose imagination might be trying to tell her something.