The rims of her eyes are red, and she fights her tears as they threaten to spill out. “I am sorry.”, she apologizes softly. From the reflection off her irises, I see myself – a livid expression, widened eyes, lips quivering with anger and hands clenched into fists. And just like this, the anger and impatience in me left like a thief scurrying in the shadows of the night and I fall back onto the chair beside the bed in a slump.
There is a snicker coming from behind and I know it is from the elderly man staying in the same room as my mother. He likes to mock me and my despair, but this time I do not care like I normally would have. Instead, my eyes meet hers, which still hold the same fear and confusion, unable to comprehend the cause of my agitation.
I smile wearily at her and being surprised by the sudden change of my mood, she smiles back at me while her eyes dart left and right to search for any lingering sign of irritation on my face. I pat her hand comfortingly, hoping to dispel her distrust that my anger is really gone. While this gesture makes the distrust go away, it does not make the unfamiliarity in her eyes go away as she looks at me. It is the dementia and not her, I console myself.
The reality that my mother has contracted this illness has not fully sunken in, even till now. Sometimes, I feel that she is taking revenge on me for all the trouble I caused her when I was young. It all started five years ago. The signs were there but I had chalked them up as the occasional forgetfulness that comes with ageing. Initially, she would misplace her keys and groceries. I would find fully thawed and spoilt meat in a cupboard on some occasions, but she would deny violently when I asked her about it and push the blame to me. She would scream at me for accusing her, which was unlike her usual calm and demure self. Seeing how agitated she was, I would pacify her with words and sometimes her favorite food.
However, the situation worsened as I would find her wondering around the park near our home when I was on my way home from work. When she saw me, she would blankly stare at me at first. Then she would smile and exclaim, “Oh, you are here! Bring me home!” I was puzzled by her presence in the park at that timing but was afraid of questioning and provoking her. I did suspect that she might have dementia. But I was scared, scared of confirming my suspicion. All these were not enough to pressurize me to bring her to the doctor until that fateful morning, when I woke up to a forgotten pot of boiling water on the stove.
The diagnosis was one of the hardest parts. Having a confirmation on my suspicion brought my worst fear to life. It is ridiculous that even after the diagnosis, I still harbored the naïve hope that it is an illness that my mother can recover from. There is no known cure for dementia currently, and I do not know when there ever will be one.
The first telltale sign of forgetfulness was followed by many other worse and more distressing symptoms. And as time went by, I fought to control my temper as these symptoms started to manifest physically in front of my eyes. Pacifying her by bringing home her favourite food was gradually replaced by the slamming of doors, yelling at her for throwing tantrums like a child and blaming her for losing the ability to take care of herself, for forgetting to take her medicine and bathe herself despite being a grown-up. She was no longer acting like how a mother should act. This role reversal was something difficult to digest and had often reduced me to nothing but tears on some nights. I want my mother back, back to the way she was. But I know that even though she still holds the same physical appearance, this illness was eating her personality and memories away, bit by bit.
A few months ago, my mother fell down at home and hit her head on the floor while I was at work. I remember being shell-shocked when I received the news and the rest was a blur as I rushed to the hospital. Seeing her in a coma was another hit as I broke down beside her bed and cried for the first time since she was diagnosed with dementia. I lost all my anger towards her, towards her illness at that moment. I just want her to regain her consciousness, with dementia or not. Suddenly, those bitter days spent caring for her were so precious to me. I thought I had lost her. I just wanted the chance to care for her again.
I have never been religious, but I prayed with all my heart and all my soul. If there really was a God or deity or something or someone, please, just let my mother be conscious again. Whatever it was, I thank the lucky stars for bringing her back to me. However, after her fall, the bed was now her permanent spot and she lost all ability to take care of herself. Her memory and sense of recognition also drastically worsened. She does not call me by my name anymore as she has lost all her memories of me and can only wail to get my attention. She was not the only one distressed over her loss of control over her bowels, soiling herself while in bed.
There were many nights where I would secretly weep from the stress of juggling my work and taking care of her. There were many nights where one forbidden thought came to my mind. But I would feel guilty and quickly push away that thought while reprimanding myself for even having that thought. I really did not want to break my vow of never sending her to the old folks’ home. But I guess that vow should have been labelled with a “HANDLE WITH CARE” sticker for it was so fragile that it was broken exactly two months after bringing her back home from the hospital.
Now, as I sit beside her bed in the old folks’ home and sniff back tears, I recall the long and arduous five years of being a caregiver. A smile comes to my face. Despite all the chaos and angry moments because of her change in behavior and temper, there were also some touching moments where I caught some glimpses of how my mother was like before she contracted this illness. Before her fall, she would come to my room on some nights to cover me with a blanket, just like how she used to before she contracted the illness. Even after the fall, she would ask me at times whether I have eaten, just like how she used to before she contracted this illness. Even though they were rare, these small glimpses were enough to power me through the past five years. And with this new-found energy, I tell myself that I want to try again.
On my mother’s bed, there is a tattered photo album which has been flipped vigorously. A photo of a younger version of my mother and me drops out. In the photo, our faces were plastered with wide, brimming smiles as we were dressed up for the photoshoot. My hands were placed on her shoulders as I stood behind the chair that she was sitting on. I want to try again, I tell myself. I sit up straight and look into her eyes as I repeatedly point to my younger self in the photo and back to myself. I hope her eyes light up with recognition, but they do not. Instead, she asks “Who are you?”. My shoulders drop and my heart clenches upon hearing her question. I still hold the hope for a miracle, a miracle that she will one day recognize me again.