The realm of forgetting

Mar 22nd, 2009 | By | Category: Ministry

Do they teach people about dementia in college now?

In the ’80s, three days out of three years were spent in a psychiatric hospital; it was intended to cover every sphere of mental health, including psycho-geriatric care.

It was not the most productive of three day courses. Fundamentalists wanted to engage psychiatrists on such questions as to whether there were patients who were ‘possessed’ and whether patients’ mental health was attributable to their own personal sinfulness.  There were moments when one was driven to wondering whether some patients were any more obsessive in their behaviour than some of the would-be clergy.

The one thing for which there was no preparation was coping with dementia; coming to terms with people you know gradually disappearing.  Perhaps it is a sign of being too long in a place, but it has become distressing to watch people whom one has known for some years slowly slip away into an unknowing.  People who sparkled even in recent times become shadows of themselves and fade into a twilight existence.

A friend returned to me this morning the copy of Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces I had lent her.  Faulks, in the space of a page, teaches more about dementia than I was taught in whole of theological training:

He looked up and forced himself to regroup. ‘Yes. Yes. I just have to say, while I am still able, a sort of goodbye, or at least an au revoir. Some weeks ago I … Er, I suffered a peculiar experience. I do not wish to go into it except to say that I appeared to lose my memory. I was in a police station with no recollection of how I had got there. I was not unhappy, I just did not know what was going on. I was like King Lear. “Methinks I should know you, and know this man;/ Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant/What place this is; and all the skill I have/Remembers not these garments; nor I know not/Where I did lodge last night.” Anyway, to … To cut a long story short, I have been to see various distinguished gentlemen¬at the hospital in Queen Square and it appears that I am in her early stages of some kind of senile or pre-senile dementia.

‘Rather interestingly, it has been named after Alois Alzheimer . . .

. . . He looked back to his postcard. It said: ‘Age.’

‘Yes. Age. I am rather young to have this sort of thing, though perhaps sixty does not seem so young to the children at the far end of the table. The truth is that we know very little about this illness. We know very little about anything, as a matter of fact. Never mind. It is really not important. It is just that one day I may no longer know your name, and I ask you to forgive me if I pass you in the street or on the stairs and my face does not light up with love or recognition. Please forgive me. I shall no longer be myself. I am going into a dark country and I very much wanted to say goodbye to those that I have loved before I go. . .

. . . He gazed once more down through the mist of faces until he saw the features of the woman he had loved – no longer young, but red and twisted with grief, shining with tears.

‘I have been blessed beyond what any man could hope or wish for,’ said Thomas. ‘All I ask now is somewhere safe to live. I must pull in sail and lower my sights from the horizon. I am quite content to do so because I have been so fortunate in my life.  I always felt that if I had to make a speech like this I should find some Shakespearean eloquence. But it is too late and the plain words will have to do. As a doctor, I have achieved absolutely nothing. Nothing at all, though God knows I tried. But in love I have been rich. Once long ago I finished a lecture in another place by saying we should try to make our lives a hymn of thanks – or some such phrase. I do not think it was a very memorable phrase, even to someone without my difficulties. I shall do my best to follow my own advice. All I ask is for your forgiveness.’

He looked one last time down the table of anxious faces. ‘My mind may not know you,’ he said, ‘but in my heart you are remembered.’

‘In my heart you are remembered’ – a glimpse of light in the gathering shadows.

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  1. ‘In my heart you are remembered’

    I suppose that phrase applies to all of us. There are people I should contact and never quite get there, I still keep them close in my heart.

  2. Grannymar,

    An affection for one’s loved ones seems often to survive, presumably in the part of brain responsible for the long-term memory, long after most other awareness has gone.

    I should not like to be in the position of the character in the story. I knew a woman some years ago who was aware she had the onset of dementia, “Ian”, she said, “I have this terrible rippling in my head and I don’t know how I shall cope”.

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