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When kindness takes over from love

When kindness takes over from loveOn the day I went to visit my mother in the facility that was to become her home, I found her standing in the corridor alone. She was holding a tea cup half filled with cold water. She looked at me for a moment, and then smiled as she registered who I was. 'I've just found out Harold's left me for another woman,' she said, still smiling.

Harold is my father. Over the last few years, he had gradually transformed from husband to carer. He tended to my mother's ever increasing physical needs 24 hours a day until, at 78, he was worn out and could cope no longer. It was not just the physical demands, but the emotional assault. My mother was oblivious to this.

'Has he?' I said, trying to stay neutral and assessing her mood. 'Yes,' she said, 'but I'm OK because he's coming to take me to church on Sunday.'

My mother's memory, as she said herself in one of her more lucid moments, is like Swiss cheese. But the synapses that hold God in place are still firing on all fours. God remains hardwired, in ways I could never have imagined, and I am, at last, sincerely grateful. Her religion has become her salvation. She has been going to church every Sunday for as long as I can remember. After many years of refusal, my father has started to go with her.

'At his age,' she says, 'and for a younger woman.'

'How do you know?' I ask, aware that I'm straying into dangerous territory.

'She rang him at home once, crying, and asked to speak to him. I wouldn't have thought he'd want to come to church.'

She turns and raises her eyebrows: 'But he does.'

The philandering husband is not entirely lost, it seems. He may yet repent, see the error of his ways, and return like the Prodigal Son. It is my ardent hope for her and for my father that this outlandish fantasy becomes a factual narrative in my mother's mind. Better for my father to be wrongly condemned but forgiven, instead of merely wrongly condemned as he has been, in one way or another, for these last few years.

When kindness takes over from loveEvery day we must negotiate the twists and turns of reality, fantasy, truth, as well as falsity, hope and despair. Some days you want to weep, on others your stomach lurches with anxiety and on some days you can switch off, just like she does.

I once read a book about the mind, in which the author described Alzheimer's as a diagnosis of exclusion. When every other possibility has been ruled out, the condition of failing memory is called Alzheimer's Disease. My sister likes to point out that my mother has vascular dementia, a condition that seems to offer my sister some obscure comfort, even though it seems the effects are exactly the same. In the book, the author makes the observation that memory is not some added extra, but who we are. Without memories we are no-one, and it is into this abyss of being no-one that it is our duty to helplessly witness our mother slide.

When I came to visit my mother a week ago, she was sitting on her bed sobbing for the same reason. Harold had left her for another woman. 'No one takes my side,' she said. 'Don't you think he's terrible?'

She demands an answer from me, and only one answer will do. I feel paralysed, like a child unfairly carrying the burden of their parents' emotional needs, but I am nearly 50 and have children of my own.

'Yes, he is,' I say, putting my arm around her, astonished that this black lie, although told for the best of intentions, should feel so disloyal and painful. And it occurs to me with a kind of horror how vulnerable she is, how anyone could tell her anything and she would have no way of assessing the veracity of it. She could be tortured by lies and untruths in the same way she is being tortured by the lies of her own mind's making. She refuses to be persuaded that they are lies of her own mind's making, for then she would be truly mad. So she screams at you, if you say nothing when she tells you of your father's infidelity.

'Don't you believe me?' She sobs again in disbelief that her own daughter could be so cruel and heartless. It is of no comfort to me to know that it is the illness that makes her think of me in this way. I still want her to love me, like the child that I still am, but more than this I want her to know that she is still loved—not just by me but by us all, and especially by my father, who at this moment stands damned to hell for a crime he has not committed.

My husband told me that a psychologist he used to admire once said that there's no room for honesty in relationships, but only kindness. I think that the wisdom of this is that it is mostly easier to be honest and harder to be kind. Kindness requires tact and empathy, which are qualities harder to muster than simple honesty. To be honest is to say 'I don't think I love you anymore'. To be kind is to stay, even when love has passed.

The hardest thing of all about kindness is that it is mostly invisible, like my father's devotion to my mother. It is for this unseen work that God was invented, to witness the daily acts of kindness that go unheralded and unnoticed, so that kindness is not in vain and so that people can persevere with kindness beyond all reason and sense without losing heart. The Dalai Lama has said: 'My religion is kindness.' Surely there is something irreducibly holy about kindness.

When kindness takes over from loveIt is in the kindness of the staff who look after my mother that we must now put our faith. I wish I believed in God, so that I could pray to him for all these things, and I wish that all the staff belonged to the Dalai Lama's religion.

The prospect of visiting my mother fills me with dread. When I'm cornered in the contest between fight and flight, flight always wins. I fear the intensity, and regret my inability to give her what she needs. It is this failure to be able to comfort that is almost unbearable.

So I am delighted, on this occasion, to buoy her with hope that Harold will return from his philandering ways. And I can say with my hand on my heart that this faithless, faithful husband will come and take her to church on Sunday.

We walk down the hall to her room. Though once quite tall and elegant, my mother is now stooped, and shuffles as if she were a hundred years old. A man wearing a lumberjack shirt, and the same faraway look as my mother, says hello. After taking two more paces, and he still in earshot, she says in a clear and loud voice, 'He likes me. Silly old fool.' And I am momentarily thirteen again, shamed by my parent's directness. I have to persuade myself that the social glue here is made of different stuff.

You can't know which memories are going to last, and for how long, and which are going to fade. You can't rely on her to know who you are when you come to visit or to call you by your name. It may be your sister's or her sister's. And she may tell you when you visit, as she does on this occasion, that she has seen no-one at all since she's been here, except for her sister, who lives interstate in her own facility crocheting rugs for their long dead mother. I like to think that she has seen her sister so I ask my mother how she was. 'Not good really,' she says. 'She didn't recognise me. She has a memory problem you know.' I will tell my sister this story and we won't be sure whether to laugh or cry because my mother still speaks a piercing truth every now and then.

One day, my sister, my mother and I were sitting down to lunch. It was not long before she moved into the facility. 'Am I the mother of you and you?' She pointed first to my sister, and then to me. Yes, we said. 'That's good,' she nodded. Her face was blank, but she seemed to be in some contented place. Then she said again, 'That's good.'



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