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Family

Beyond the Shadows of Dementia

June 21, 2018 by

sunlight on a path
Photo by Darius Clement

At least once, if we are truly fortunate, someone incomparable walks into our lives. Connie was such a person to me.

When I first met her, Connie was ninety, drifting gracefully into an unevenly textured world of dementia. Our introductory visits were set in England during the notoriously bleak post-Christmas period that allows only seven hours and forty-nine minutes of light per day. Such long stretches of night brooding over the uncomfortably cold, unrelentingly grey days make it a season to contend with. Connie was not at her best.

I never knew Connie the celebrated cellist, the accomplished Cordon Bleu chef, the sensitive artist, the creative gardener, the clever architect, or the deeply loving wife who cared for her husband for years before he died. Others filled in the appropriate superlatives for me. The Connie I did know was pared down to a well-bred quintessentially English woman, who held out persistently against the darkening shadows in her mind.

photograph of Connie
Connie

Our conversations could be tedious, as anyone knows who spends time with a person who has dementia. Mostly, however, Connie and I evaded the circular rewind patterns and ventured into her life between the wars: at home in London and at school in Sussex. Very carefully and always self-deprecatingly, she lay before me, piece by precious piece, the richly embroidered moments she still owned.

I knew our time together wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. Two and a half years later, spot on the summer solstice with its celebratory sixteen hours and thirty-eight minutes of daylight, Connie died. It was a perfect moment for her to break free from her mind’s encroaching darkness. It confirmed for me that Connie always was, and will remain, a woman of the light.

After losing Connie in person, I attempted to recapture her in words, inadequately I admit, but perhaps enough for you to catch a glimpse of the Connie I knew and loved.

Connie – 1920-2013
You entered my life in the darkness of the Winter Solstice,
with Christmas past,
a dreary, frigid, lingeringly lonely time,
fretful.
And you left, lucky you, Connie,
on Midsummer’s Eve,
the celebration of light and life,
free.
How often in these last few years
I wished I’d known you whole,
untrammelled by dementia,
when all the moments that molded you
belonged to you still,
held firmly or filed carefully away,
accessible.
Since we shared no history of common experiences
I depended on you
to wander through your life with me.
Sometimes – oh yes – we could:
fleeting glimpses of a slender, quiet girl,
untidy, musical, with a mind of her own
sustained by an iron will,
unafraid to stand alone,
fond of affection.
But so often you would draw a blank –
hands empty,
keys lost –
a puzzling shadow over the mosaic of your life.
Thankfully you could smile at empty spaces.
One day I invited you to my home for tea.
I had rung ahead and left an unidentified message.
For hours you had been dressed, anxious,
awaiting a friend to take you out.
When I appeared you were stunned.
You unravelled.
“One of my people was meant to come.”
“I am one of your people,” I replied lightly.
But no, you considered me a “bonus,”
not a friend.
Was a “bonus” someone you loved?
At ninety-two, you were beyond the usual currency of relationships.
I floundered in my non-definitive status,
but understood at last that you loved me.
Your deeply warm, unguarded responses
to unannounced arrivals
assured me of my place in your heart.
Finally, I stopped fretting about friendship.
I simply loved you, deeply.
Now I know life as a “bonus” was your gift to me.
You cut me loose
to come and go as I pleased,
with none of the complicated
dependencies and expectations of friendship.
A gift for us both.
Thank you, Connie.
And best of all,
you always remembered my name,
no mean feat I know.
And I, Connie, will always remember yours and more.
I miss you:
your equanimity,
your Roedean gentility,
your acuity, potentially acidic,
your humour, your love of poetry,
and your delicately measured musings –
a graceful balm to my soul.
Yes, I miss you, Connie,
but it was time for you
to pass beyond the increasingly rueful limitations
of this life
to your home.
You’re home, Connie.
And that is where I hope to find you
once again.
—Ann Morrissey, 24 June 2013
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About the author

a photograph of Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • Ann, I miss reading your writings since summertime. I hope you are still teaching and writing? I noticed that several of your writings are no longer on the blog. Blessings as we prepare to enjoy Advent & the Christmas Season!

    Beth HARVESON
  • A simply beautiful offering of a tender, but full life. Many such live in the world of their dementia and how wonderful that you were able to find her there. Your place in her life must have been precious to her. Your words summing her up are wonderful and give an insight into her special character. Thank you.

    Judith Scollard