I had a strange Saturday recently. A board meeting, a funeral, and then not wanting to face an empty house I took myself off to the cinema. I have never been averse to going to the theatre, a movie, a bar on my own. Fortunate really, as I have spent rather a lot of my married life with my spouse on the other side of the world – all in the name of oil and gas.
My film choice, Still Alice, was deliberate, on two counts. The first, I knew my husband would not wish to see it; the second, it covered a topic touching my family.
Julianne Moore having just won an Oscar for her portrayal of a 50 year old linguistics professor with familial early onset Alzheimers, played the lead character, Alice. The part was played with sensitivity and pathos, never descending to the mawkish, and showed the tragedy for all a family dealing with the debilitating condition, but most particularly the spouse.
I was drawn in, early in the film, when Alice records a message to herself on her computer, telling her failing self where the bottle of rohypnol is hidden, how to take the overdose, and reminding herself to say nothing to anybody about her plan. The agony, as the film progressed, was watching Alice try to remember the instructions from the time it took her to walk upstairs to the chest of drawers where the pills were hidden. And then not taking them.
Walking home the name of the film kept playing in my head – Still Alice. It’s a simple title, but I think misleading. Because anyone who has seen a loved one go through the agony of realizing they are not remembering, and then the subsequent decline into a morass of swirling words, thoughts and faces, the confusion and tantrums, and sometimes the violence, finds it harder and harder to see the person they once knew. The articulate, erudite, funny and loving person has become a nebulous cloud. Not though an empty vassal, because in the muddle of their mind lurks all the thoughts, muddied into a swamp from which they cannot emerge.
The flashes of memory become fewer, the daily Scrabble game becomes harder, the repetition of names, faces, facts becomes more and more painful for the carer. To be accused of dreadful deeds is agony, to be unrecognized is utterly soul-destroying, and so ‘still’ does not come into the equation. The woman, and it is more often a woman than a man suffering from Alzheimers, is not the woman to whom your troth was pledged.
Is it better I wonder to fall so deep into that swamp that memory no longer plays any part? That momentary fragments of a life once loved no longer erupt to confuse? Oblivion in a ambulatory vehicle? Maybe it is. But for the family, it can sometimes be a struggle to stay patient and loving to the wife, the mother, the grandmother whose final years are an unrecognizable journey. Surely hell could not be worse? For all concerned.
Words, like for the fictional Alice, are a large part of my life. The occasional lapses of memory, of words and thoughts which float away on the trade winds that cool my gallery are, I believe, a normal part of the overfull filing cabinet that is my brain, my life. I expect to forget more as I age, but like us all, I hope my cognitive skills remain mostly in tact.
My emotional stability is drawn from my family. The thought of putting them through the the pain of total memory loss, of not recognizing them, is inconceivable. If it comes to it, I must not forget where I put the pills.