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.