The Cushion: a story of dementia and grief

This is a piece of narrative non-fiction. A true story, a telling of an incident that happened this week. My mother moved into a nursing home in July last year, after it became obvious that she was no longer fit or suited to living alone. For the most part she is happy. The place she lives is lovely, the staff incredibly kind. But the mix of emotions–for both of us–is a complicated one, and not easily expressed in the big, brightly-coloured building-block words we often use for our feelings. This narrative is the closest I’ve come so far to express something of the journey that this past year has been…

 

…”You know the one, on my armchair. A creamy colour. Can you bring it in to me?”

We’ve had this conversation three times in as many days now. I remember. She doesn’t.

“Yes, Mum. You asked me that yesterday.” I don’t say, “and the day before as well.” There’s no point. I don’t want to upset her. “I’ll have a look for it,” (the first lie always feels the most sour) “and bring it to you as soon as I can.”

The cushion is gone, the creamy one on the armchair. The armchair is gone, and the funny wooden box next to it that held an assortment of half-completed crossword puzzles, dog-eared coffee-stained knitting patterns, scraps of wool, and cat hair. The coffee cups have gone, all bar one or two. The clothes horse, the towels, the hundred pairs of near-threadbare underpants with their vain attempts at elastic that hung to dry there. All gone, either to the second-hand shop or the council tip. The cushion in question was ripped and lumpy, and ended up in a bag of rubbish with the kitty litter and some old food from the freezer.

“I need a cushion, you see. That one’s quite a comfortable one. Could you bring it by on Friday, do you think?”

The second lie, the tongue’s back broken by the first, is easier. “That’s fine, Mum. I’ll see what I can do.”

*

The pain is not an obvious one. It doesn’t jump up at you, demand to be noticed, but slides quietly in with every passing hour, until your body and mind ache with the weight of memory. A lifetime’s worth of residual fear, unexpressed grief, lies I’ve believed about myself in the past—long vanquished—whose ghosts arise again: “You’ve done a bad thing. You’re a BAD DAUGHTER. You threw out all your mother’s things and rented her unit to strangers and put her in a home!”

I did throw out her things. I threw out her cushion. I threw out her armchair and her table and everything on it. I emptied her cupboards and cleaned them out, and rented her empty unit to a family who needed a new home. I told her all these things, too, multiple times, and she said, “yes, you’ve done a good thing,” and “thank you”. Not that she remembers that any more, when she asks for her cushion. I’m scared to my bones in wonder of what else she’ll ask for that’s gone.

*

I could go to a homewares shop and buy her a new cushion, but I know the stuff they carry these days—textures and big prints and fur—and it’s not her. So I go to the op-shops, the same ones I took her stuff to all those months ago, and I poke through baskets of cushions left there by other mothers, other daughters who have discarded old and unwanted things. I got to five shops, six maybe, analysing each selection’s offering in terms of its size, comfort, and similarity to the one that was lost. I find one eventually, for $2.50, take it home and write her name on the label.

The phone rings. It’s her. I don’t answer it. The guilt of my cushion-discarding transgression overwhelms every other emotion I have today, and in this place I can’t be the daughter she needs.

I don’t go to see her that afternoon, or the next. The cushion sits jauntily on an occasional chair in our lounge-room, one that used to be hers. I let the cushion sit there for days—could leave it there forever until she forgets that she ever had a cushion, an armchair, a unit, or a daughter even—could leave it there until the next lie becomes the truth, “this is one we had at home and we don’t use”.

*

I visit her on Friday, three days after I bought the cushion. I don’t give it to her directly, just leave it in her room and go sit with her and have a cup of tea with her in the communal lounge.

“I brought you a cushion Mum”, I say, and mumble the lie about one from home and something about how I couldn’t find the other one. She doesn’t mind.

We talk about her knitting, and what’s on the news, and about how lovely the staff are there, and I answer the same questions three times in ten minutes about what the kids are up to, and what grades they’re at in school. She doesn’t question anything I say, or confront me on what I’ve done with all her stuff. My mum is happy to have a cushion, and most of all happy to have a daughter and a visit and a cup of tea. I leave her with a kiss and a smile and a promise to come back next week. She doesn’t blame me. She doesn’t even remember. The guilt—like the armchair, the mess of crossword puzzles and old wool scraps, like the old cushion—is no longer mine to carry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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15 thoughts on “The Cushion: a story of dementia and grief

  1. Very nicely written, Megan. We went through this many years ago, did a lot of lying and felt a lot of guilt. Our mother wasn’t happy and that made it more difficult, but there wasn’t anything we could do to make her happy because, as you said, she forgot. Life can be so hard.

    • Oh Pat, that’s so hard. There’s another resident where my mum lives who isn’t happy, and it’s so tragic. Thanks for sharing your story. The more I hear the better I feel, that’s for sure!

      • Especially useful to know others have walked this well-worn path and there are many who are walking it with you. That helps but we still carry our own personal pain and grief.

  2. Well written Megan, I think all of us that have had parents with dementia have done the same we have all had “our cushions” to deal with the lies are easier than seeing them distressed and unhappy. We found we played and communicated in their world and reality as hard as it was!

    • Thanks Pete! Yeah. I’m a natural stickler for the truth, so it’s a new place for me. I like what you say about communicating in their world…I’ll remember that.

  3. This is so, so good. I’m just starting down this road myself with my Mum. After I moved her in with us she has started to come back to us a bit, but there are still many days where I feel like a broken record, and I know she will continue to degenerate in the future. You have captured this perfectly. I’m becoming adept at lying to her and it pains me to do it even knowing in some cases it’s the kindest thing to do! And I agree, what matters is that she knows she is loved by her family and that even when she can’t keep anything straight, she will still be treated with respect and honor. Which, come to think of it, is how every relationship should be anyway!!

    • Oh Muffy, I feel your pain!! Man it’s a hard journey. Yes, respect and honour. One of the best things I’ve found in this season, with my mum and the funny vagarities of our relationship and after all our years of differences, it’s been so nice being able to SHOW her I love her in really practical ways that she really understands. It’s been tough at times, but at the end of the day I’m honoured to be able to give back to her.
      Thanks for commenting.

  4. Very well written sweetheart. and as one daughter grieving the living to another, she would be proud of you for trying to make her feel at ease. as am I xx

  5. Oh Meg, I’m so sorry you and Mrs C are going through this, I cried as I read it. Those lies are sometimes so justified, my pa was out in his shed for 8 years, it was too awful for the family to keep telling Grandma he has passed, and she had forgotten. She was quite satisfied that he was out back, ( he must have had the worlds tidiest shed!) Her happiness was so much more important than any guilt we may have initially felt, and I’m sure you will come to be more comfortable with your stories ( not exactly lies) to keep your Mum happy as long as it takes❤️ Love to both of you!

    • Thank you so much Tan! I love your story about your pa…that’s hard…and really beautiful your love for your grandma in that. Thanks so much for your encouragement. It’s always so good talking with people who have walked a similar journey xxx

      • Anytime Meg, btw it’s great you’re writing again, as your most avid supporter 😊 I have missed reading your blogs❤️

  6. We are starting on a very similar journey here. I’ve been through out before, with my grandmother but nothing really prepares you for the day to day reality. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  7. As I deal with my Grandmothers advanced Dementia and I also work in a facility as well I understand all too well the pain and confusion that we too can deal with just in trying to communicate with someone who’s in the fog. It is taxing and exhausting but sometimes they just need to see a smiling face and an energetic voice to change their mood completely and get them off the track they are on. Keep at it, and know you’re not alone in this journey.

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