by Mita Ghose

[i]The following piece was published in The Statesman, Calcutta, India, on January 10, 2000. The subject of this piece passed away on 3 April 2004.[/i]

She is lost to me already, without having died, this woman I care for in more ways than one. Bound to her by indissoluble ties, I sometimes pause to wonder, guilt-stricken, whether my commitment to this stranger in all but name and appearance can honestly be described by the euphemism that pervades the literature available on the malady–“a labour of love”. For oftener than not, I am unable to regard it as anything other than an exercise in frustration, resentment, anger, futility and resignation.

The instinct for self-preservation urges me to ask a silent question of the cruel circumstances in which I find myself trapped: “Why me?” It is swiftly followed by an overwhelming sense of shame, as I realise that she is the greater victim. And then I am left to rage inwardly: “Why, for God’s sake, of all people, her?” Knowing only too well that there is no answer.

For who could have imagined that this woman, spirited, capable, hyperactive and compulsively hard-working, would, one day, choose to while away the hours in slumber, rousing herself reluctantly for meals, like a newborn responding mechanically to elemental needs?

Who would have thought that rows of books, unread, would gather dust in a room belonging to an intellectual for whom they had once been a passion? Who could have foreseen the possibility of an individual with an inexhaustible capacity for generosity and personal sacrifice, turning so deeply inwards as to focus single-mindedly on her own wants to the exclusion of all else? Yet, these are the more bearable aspects of her condition.

For there are days I have come to dread, when her dormant energy awakens to assume a malevolent form. Like one driven by mysterious forces which refuse to let her rest or relax, she will mark the hours in aimless movement and meaninglessly repetitive speech, petulant, demanding and irrational at best, enraged, deceitful and viciously abusive, when things take a turn for the worse. Which they do increasingly in the twilight zone of Alzheimer’s disease.
There are recurring episodes, still few and far between, marked by frightening lapses of memory, when I become for her merely “the woman who looks after me”. That hurts. Nothing, however, can equal the depths of the anguish I experience when, in her lucid moments (and there are still many), she clings to me helplessly, this former tower of strength in crisis, and whispers: “What has happened to me?”

I wipe away the fugitive tears she would have known how to hold back once and enfold her frail frame in an embrace meant to soothe and reassure us both, an uncomfortable reversal of the traditional roles we had grown used to over the years. And my reply to her bewildered query must remain unuttered: “The real you has gone away forever.”

Meanwhile, the living, breathing shell remains, to be tended and cared for as if it were the person herself. An illusion the tranquil phases of this treacherous illness can sustain quite convincingly. Until my gaze, unfocussed in preoccupation, is arrested by her old alarm clock, one of the objects she clings to possessively, although she can no longer read the time, because its familiar face gives her, perhaps, the fleeting sense of security that mine can not. Its alarm silenced by age, the gadget ticks away in a parody of precision, busily marking its own hours, and completely out of sync with time in the real world. And every day will widen the discrepancy a little further.

That clock, ironically as afflicted in its own way as its owner is in hers, can, with a bit of effort, be set right. There is no such hope for the stranger I continue to address, from force of habit, as “Ma”.

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