Hazel McHaffie

Mamie Magnusson

‘It is yesterday that makes tomorrow sad’

No two author appearances are the same: the venues, the audiences, the questions, the reactions, vary greatly. But of course, for the author, the subject matter is pretty constant when you’re doing a post-publication circuit. Me speakingI’m in the midst of this at the moment for Over my Dead Body so it made a nice change on Monday to sit in the body of the kirk listening to somebody else; watching and learning from their performances.

Sally Magnusson was the star attraction of a conference at the Dementia Centre in Stirling University, talking about her new book: Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything. It chronicles her mother’s journey into dementia – ‘a vicious brain affliction that hijacks memory, personality and functional capacity’. The blurb summarises it as ‘both deeply personal and a challenging call to arms. Faced with one of the greatest social, medical, economic and moral challenges of our times, society must urgently reconsider how we look after the most fragile of our citizens.’

Sally herself has been a familiar face to us in Scotland where she regularly presents for the BBC; and of course, her father, Magnus was a household name before her. She comes across as someone I’d like to meet, so I went with high hopes … and a degree of fellow-feeling given that my own mother developed vascular dementia in the last year of her life.

Reproduced with kind permission from the DSDC and Tony Marsh, photographer

Reproduced with kind permission from the DSDC and Tony Marsh, photographer

I was not disappointed. Her experience, as well as that of another excellent speaker, (Katharyn Barnett, a diamond analyst, telling her similar story) echoed mine in several dimensions. Both women lamented the lack of understanding, knowledge and empathy, the need for ‘big, bold, top-down culture change‘. Both appealed for better resources and support. Amen to that.

Sally’s book itself? Beautifully written, moving and very readable. It doesn’t shirk the reality, the frightening, sobering facts about this horrible thieving illness which is now so much more prevalent in our aging society. But it’s softened and made more accessible and gripping by the personal elements. The focus throughout is her beloved mother, to whom she’s speaking, whom she wants to remember in vivid detail.

‘I tap late into the night, eager to round up your slippery self before it slides into yet another shape. It’s as if I have to catch you now, as if by the time I see you again tomorrow it may all have changed, as indeed there is every chance it will. If I can only pin you by the bullet point, secure you with headings, trap you in words, corral you within a list, then perhaps I can hold you beside me here for ever …’

In the telling, the Magnusson family come alive and they feel very real. In spite of her glamorous public persona, Sally is a ‘normal’ daughter, niece, mother, aunt, to her many relatives, rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in with ordinary everyday things. Driving the elderly as well as the young around. Escorting, comforting, entertaining. Being irritable, losing her temper, regretting, lamenting. As she says, she too knows ‘the confusion in a middle-aged soul’, being ‘pinched so hard between two generations that we have trouble locating an identity of our own.’

Her father, Magnus, comes across as a rather detached figure, retreating to his study and his writing, leaving the running of a large household to the womenfolk. Mother, Mamie, once a highly respected journalist in her own right, is portrayed as a lively, loving, wise, colourful character at the very centre of the family. Sally recalls her ‘falling out of a punt into the River Cherwell, tumbling down a Glasgow manhole and half drowning during the vigorous self-cleaning cycle of an automatic French toilet,’ but always bobbing up again with insouciant charm and wit. Now though, she’s causing a different kind of reaction, a vague unease segueing into horrified realisation: losing her sense of curiosity, wandering around a guesthouse half clad, challenging two huge ‘gansta types’ on the London underground, needling her twin sister, forgetting words.

The diagnosis comes harshly and there are no magic bullets, search as Sally might among the world’s experts. The family regroup; the Mamie-sitting begins. In spite of their busy, high profile jobs, the Magnussons resolve to look after Mamie at home. They are articulate, energetic, insightful, relatively wealthy – they have the wherewithal to marshall support and an army of assistants. Not everyone can. But even with their resources the toll on Sally and her sisters is heavy – the constant anxiety, chaos, extreme fatigue, frayed nerves. Their own families suffer.

On the other hand, they see for themselves the benefits of familiar surroundings, constant family presence, the therapeutic value of the music which has been so central to Mamie all her life. They confront head-on the reality of decision making at the end of life – do we let her slip away or do we treat? – as a family: unencumbered by the constraints and pressures of officialdom, with their mother safe in her and their own world.

‘What mattered was that life still burned within you, fierce and lovely, and we could not let you go.’ However ‘… we know it could be different, perhaps even should be different, next time. Drug development is out of kilter. We have medicine to stop lungs filling up but not the brain eroding. We have drugs and vaccines to counteract or slow down almost ever disease that nature has organised to bring life to a close, but none to mend the mind. So thousands of old people lie in thousands of beds,waiting for a death we do our best to deny them for as long as possible. Better, perhaps, to face thinking about a time when the treatment might be allowed to stop.’

Over time they revisit their decisions as they see the life they have revived her for sliding into ever more debilitating levels: the ‘scorching emptiness’ in her eyes, the dislocation, the sadness, the fear, the outbursts of rage, the ‘tyrannical’ attention seeking, the inconsolable weeping, the hostility, the violence, the ranting and raving, the unearthly keening, the hallucinations, the ‘nightmare your life became’. But Sally finds the most harrowing moments are when her mother manages to rise above the fog sufficiently to articulate her feelings: utterly lost; hating her dependence on others. That was the worst stage for me too, when my mother was aware of her predicament.

Difficult as the behaviours are, the Magnusson sisters face other stark challenges.

‘What is threatening to defeat us daughters is not so much your behaviour as our emotions. Others, namely the stalwart women who look after you as a part-time job, seem often to manage you better than we do. We have kept a major role in what is now a 24-hour rota not just because the financial reserves are finite but because it is clear you want us. Yet each of us is haunted by a mounting sense of failure … Perhaps, we three sisters tell ourselves, we need to hand over the reins to people who are not so emotionally involved, who don’t find tears flooding into their eyes every time you lash out or look lost. Perhaps we must contrive to become breezy visitors rather than ragged carers.’

Nevertheless the occasional sparks of recognition, the lulls in the battle when they sang together, the rare tender touches, kept them persevering at home to the end, shored up by the team of professionals who tended to their mother’s physical needs. 

In the end Sally concludes, on a personal level, through this painful journey with her mother, she has discovered the true meaning of love – a love which she wants her own five children to understand. And on a more global level, she believes, ‘A nation discovers its truest dignity when it cherishes the dignity of those from whom it has not heard for a very long time. That much I have learned, beloved mother, from your living and your dying.’

The story isn’t new. So many thousands of other daughters have travelled a similar path, but perhaps the powers-that-be will listen to an attractive, articulate celebrity who has captured the anguish and the need so eloquently.

One final thought: Analysis of Iris Murdoch‘s writing reveals a change – simplified syntax and impoverished vocabulary – when Alzheimer’s started to destroy the connections in her brain. Mamie Magnusson simply stopped writing. I must listen well to critique on my own scribbling as the years roll on! Is this dread illness even now lurking under the lamp post outside my window?

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