Featuring an excerpt of the wonderful book Mrs C Remembers, where author Himanjali Sankar explores unique family dynamics, the mother-daughter relationship and the condition of dementia (and coming to terms with a loved one getting the diagnosis), with a profound touch.
Also Read: Our interview with Himanjali Sankar
Ma no longer asks if I am tired when I return from a work appointment. Instead she tells me she is hungry or that she wants to take a bath. It’s not a big deal, I know. But I can’t help wonder where my mother went. My mother thought of me before she thought of herself. Always.
Ma is a practical consumer of news. When I am horrified by something in the papers she looks at me sympathetically as if the horror lies in her daughter having to cope with it rather than the news itself. She does worry that I am too soft. In August when she was visiting, Omar and I were discussing the Sikh temple attack that took place in Wisconsin that month. A tall, bald white gunman in his forties killed six people in the temple – domestic terrorism, hate crime, who knows what the reason was. Ma was listening to Omar and me talking about it.
‘You are old enough to know these things happen – do you discuss such news every time there’s something in the paper?’ she asked us. It was a waste of time as far as she was concerned and a little naïve on our parts.
‘Ma, what should we discuss then?’ Omar said, amused. ‘Only the things that don’t happen?’
Ma giggled; she found Omar funny. ‘You are right. But Sohini gets upset – it isn’t good for her. She even cries when she watches a movie.’
‘True, she is insane. Even Tom and Jerry makes her cry,’ Omar said and Ma giggled again obligingly.
‘As in, how silly, though it is way too violent – Tom and Jerry,’ I said. ‘But, Ma, if no one reacts to what happens in the world, how will things improve?’
‘The world has been around for long enough without improving. Your getting bothered won’t make any difference,’ she said. ‘And people are reacting – that is how you get to read what you read in the papers.’
Ma was all right with the rest of the world burning so long as the four or five people she cared for were fine. I have always found that frustrating, Ma’s refusal to engage with the ways of the world. But there will come a time when I will wish for that refusal to engage, it will be preferable to what she will be like some years from now as her brain cells continue to die. Even a refusal to engage is a show of agency. Will she still experience moments of lucidity and understanding when her dementia is more advanced? Or will she withdraw completely? Though a practical person in every other way, Ma has always been terrified of old age and what might come with it.
‘Sudeep and you must let me go if I am unwell, don’t try to keep me alive with surgery and medicines.’ Ma has said this to me enough number of times for me to know she means it.
‘Don’t you want to live to see your grandchildren grow up?’ I remember saying some thirty years back when she first told me she doesn’t want to live to a grand old age.
‘Why? How will that help?’ Ma had replied, genuinely puzzled. The only thing that always terrified her was the idea of losing her own physical and mental faculties. Tough luck, Ma, I want to say now, with the same clinical practicality I have seen her practise. It is what you have to live with. Old age and a gradual lapse into the ridiculous. If Ma is told she has dementia she will willingly die today. She wouldn’t want to live with hope, that wouldn’t be the choice she would make. She isn’t attached to the world the way most of us are. The wonders of the world don’t tie her down; she has appreciated them and isn’t curious about what comes next in this life. She would rather die with her dignity intact. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.
I wish I could spare her, the way she has always tried to spare me the horrors of the world, but I can’t, just as she or anyone else for that matter can’t spare me from what my future holds.
— Excerpted from the novel Mrs C Remembers, with permission from Pan Macmillan India