Back to Black

A Swift Current Back to Black Hallie Swift's latest essay about our mother's decade of dementia

Vuillard The Artist’s Sister with a Cup of Coffee 1893 the Fitzwilliam Museum University of Cambridge

 

We only said goodbye with words

I died a hundred times

You go back to her

And I go back to

I go back to

us

 

I knelt by my mother’s side

But mama…

Her smoldering eyes

drilled right through me as

she unleashed a torrent of accusations;

every word

a scorching, vitriolic indictment of

me.

Her nurse put her arm around my shoulder

You need to leave. You do not deserve this.

But it’s my only chance…

You need to leave.

The nurse quickly led me to the back door

Go.

Now!

I stood

shaken and dejected

in the blinding glare of the Southern California sun.

This raw, tormented incarnation was a new twist

-at least for me—

in the trajectory of my mother’s disease;

I had never seen her

in the full grip of dementia’s vise.

I had grown accustomed to many aspects of
the disease—

dissolving memory,

fantastical stories,

even harsh diatribes;

but I had never witnessed

the searing black vortex

which enveloped my mama—

the dementia horror show.

But even though I saw it,

I didn’t accept it;

I did not try to understand the disease; and

I dared not imagine

what it was like for her.

I buried the actual words my mother said that day—

I cannot remember a single cutting recrimination that

stung so deeply and

caused her nurse to push me out the door.

Retreating to my own fantasy world,

I continued to discount the staff’s reports of

my mother’s increasingly volatile, aggressive behavior–

even when

they moved a roommate

for her safety;

or warned another resident’s family

about my mother’s fierce outbursts

against their elderly matriarch.

They must be exaggerating, I silently intoned;

in my mind, my mama was the innocent – always.

And I was incensed when another resident accosted me in the hall:

Is that woman your mother? She’s awful –she yells through the night and we can’t get any sleep!

My mother…is not awful–she can’t control—she has dementia—this is not her!

But it was her.

And again and again

I simply refused to admit

what was happening.

It would have been so much easier—for everyone

–for me—

if I had only accepted

the vicious truth.

But then one day

an exhausted charge nurse

pulled me aside—

that week,

she said,

my mother’s screams

had filled the halls of the nursing home

in the darkest hours of the night.

And with her revelation,

I could no longer deny

the stark,

surreal,

tragic force

of my mother’s disease–as

night after night

dementia took her

back to black.

Hallie, I need to know something…

did your mother lose a baby?

What?

Did your mother lose a baby?

Why?

Because every night, we give birth.

You—what–

Every night–your mother wakes up– screaming–she’s having a baby.

The nurses surround her.

Push Push
PUSH…

And every night,

her baby is dead.

Hallie, I need to know–did you mother lose a baby?

There was…um…between my sister and me…

Then that explains it. Your poor mother loses her baby
every night…

we’re trying to help, we’re doing everything we can– but
I hope—for everyone– this ends soon…

There.

There you have it.

That’s all you really need to know.

Dementia is a horror show.

I see it so differently now than I saw it then;

but then

and now

I didn’t want to know
any of this.

Then and now

I cling to

another memory of us–

we gaze at the view

from the nursing home garden;

we speak in silence as

the sun sets

red gold purple orange turquoise blue

across a glimmering city.

She even invented a word for

our dramatic evening skies–

Dinnerscapes, she called them

(and how did her demented mind,

I want to know,

capture with one word

the landscape of our dimming day)

A Swift Current Hallie Swift's latest essay about our decade of dementia

“I called them Dinnerscapes because they remind me of your art” Dinnerscape, a pastel by Mickey Myers, all rights reserved.

 

I cling to

our dinnerscapes–

but that’s the Technicolor version

of our story.

In the end

the horizon always fades to black.

And I must finally face

the one truth

I refused to accept

all those years.

My mama lived through hell on earth.

It was called dementia.

She was not awful,

except she was.

You do not deserve this.

 

A Swift Current Back to Black Hallie's Swift's latest essay about my mother's decade of dementia

Vuillard Woman Seated in a Dark Room, 1895, Musee de Beaux Arts Montreal

Opening lyrics from Back to Black Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson composers, copyright 2006 Universal Music