• Caroline Noon

Dad, dementia and me

A good friend wrote a very emotional piece recently on her experience of visiting her father last year. She hasn’t been able to visit him since travel to the USA shut down over COVID-19 and she is very apprehensive about the toll the last few months will have taken on his ability to recognise her.

Toby is a fabulous writer and an extraordinary teacher of literature - she runs salons (lovely word) among book lovers in the UK and (travel permitting) France and the US. Her gift is to unlock the secrets and the meanings of great writing - and this, I’m sure, is why she can so eloquently illustrate the emotional minefield of dealing with dementia, as she does here:

The Enemy you can’t name

My Dad and I sit on the porch in the summer twilight, the waves doing their slapping song on the shore, the westerly wind strumming the leaves and fir trees. We talk — well, he talks — in arcing circles that sometimes have form, sometimes break away from meaning and sense in surprising swoops and twists. He tells me about going to war (one of the many strange things about this is that until recently, he NEVER spoke about being a soldier).

He tells me how he enlisted – first run through he is 18, then 16, before long he went to war at 14 – because, you know, the army bent the rules for those boys from the country that knew how to handle a gun. A few times through this particular excursion we ended up in a story about how he shot off his toes—accidently and his mother had to take off his shoe. Or he thought he did, and then his mother reassured him that he didn’t. Either way, the toes seem to have grown back.

We circle back to my mother.

“Have you heard much from her since she returned from Egypt?” my Dad carefully asks. I don’t think my mother ever went to Egypt- in any case, she has been dead 6 years so no, I haven’t heard from her.

I look at his eyes—and see how sad he is—he thinks she has left him, he doesn’t know how to explain to himself the gap between when they were together and now—when she is not here. When this has happened in the past, I have carefully explained that she died, we were all there, we are all still grieving, we probably always will be…but now, I choose the lesser of two cruelties.

“I haven’t heard from her, Dad. I know, it is sad.”

The enemy you can’t name? That enemy is in your own mind. It is the force that breaks up memory, sense and connection—and sometimes makes you turn on those who love you and care for you. A wise friend said: “The mind breaking down shows some amazing things.” Weeping quietly, I try to hold up my end of this collapsing narrative.


Toby Brothers London Literary Salon Director

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