To my mother, in anticipation of your leaving us

There is a growing distance between us and my mother-in-law. You can see it in her eyes. On occasional Sundays when we invite her and Papa to have lunch with us, I steal enquiring looks at her, to try to gauge where she is. Sometimes I strike up a conversation just so I can look deeply into her eyes without arousing her suspicion. I shouldn’t because I know that the growing distance will sadden me.

She is going away slowly, almost imperceptibly. On some days we share jokes and reminiscences and you think for a brief while that she is going nowhere.

It’s not like she is deliberately going away, it’s more like she’s being taken away – and there’s nothing we can do about it, no matter how hard we try.

We all try in our way to keep her. Her gentle, sensitive eldest son cleans the house, does the washing, and generally keeps everything the way we know she would want it. Her abrasive but loving second eldest son works hard fixing cars and he cooks the evening dinner, earning money the hard way – as she did – and feeding the household with the foods she loved. Her husband and companion of more than 50 years does not make a move anywhere without her, and treats her always with the respect and love he has given her unconditionally for so long.

Despite all this, the divide between her and us keeps growing even, giving us little moments of respite like when she notices my wife’s fetchingly greying hair which reminds her of her own mother’s hair which cascaded down over her shoulders and back in its whiteness. Ask her for sweets, that she always has nearby and somehow, you trigger a memory. And then there is Tupperware.

For years Mama travelled alone to towns in the Swartland to sell dishes, bowls, cups and the like to augment her husband’s income. The sight of Tupperware invariably reminds her of the winding, sometimes deserted roads she travelled, alarmingly, often at night, when women just didn’t do that sort of thing. It’s a tale we’ve all heard a thousand times. These days we never tire of hearing the stories again, while we can.

In these moments when we reclaim her, and stop her ebbing away from us.

Sometimes we react badly to our impotence. Like the night at a braai when someone scolded her for dishing herself up another helping having just moments before finishing a full plate of food – she’d forgotten she had just eaten; or when we lecture her for forgetting that she had worn the same dress the day before; or when we make her seem helpless by re-working her white hair into a more orderly style.

In truth, these actions are a helpless fight against her going away from us.

We know where she is going to, and we can’t do anything about it – her slow and gradual, irreversible slide into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s is taking our wonderful, witty, whirlwind of a mother, grandmother, and great- grandmother away from us.

We know there will be a time when her eyes will be blank when she looks at us across the table at Sunday lunch, and there will be a time when she will forget her husband and her marriage of more than 50 years, and the memories of long and winding roads selling Tupperware, the names, faces and accomplishments of her children, their singular likes and dislikes, and even the wonderful life she has lived.

There will come, says the doctors, a time when her mind will forget to tell her body what to do. And there’s nothing we can do about it, any of us, except to watch her go and hold onto the days when she is still with us.