Dementia is a funny disease. I don’t mean odd, although it is odd. I actually mean amusing. I’m aware that this is probably a terrible thing to say, and that I am the only person who finds dementia and mental illness and spinal cord injury entertaining, but what can I say? It’s the life I was dealt, and I can only presume I’m meant to try to enjoy it. If everyone else wasn’t put on this planet to amuse me, what the hell are they here for? I did once tell my mother that the world revolved around me. She shot out a challenge: “So what was it doing before you were born?” I told her it was revolving in anticipation. I think I was about 12. The thing about being an intelligent child, is that you’re also a bit of a pain in the arse. I’m learning that with my own intelligent child. He’s clever and manipulative. It’s the downside of being bright. And, like me, somewhat self-centred.
So, that’s my disclaimer. I’m the centre of the universe and that’s why I laugh at the funny things other people say.
My dad has dementia. It’s been gradually deteriorating over the past few years. You almost don’t realise it’s happening. It started with him forgetting people’s names if he didn’t know them well. Introducing himself to acquaintances that he’d met before. Asking “Who’s that lady?” several times in a sitting. Just occasionally. Everyone does that. Well, I do. And I’m pretty much the basis of every one of my assumptions about the world. But now it’s gotten to the point that Dad has started to forget names of people he knows well. He recently didn’t recognise Brad. He asked “Who’s that man?” and when he was told it was Brad he was confused. “Our Brad? Are you sure?” That was the first time he failed to recognise a close family member. Brad pointed out that, in Dad’s defense, Brad’s gotten much shorter since he started sitting in a wheelchair all the time, so it’s a fair enough mistake to make. On the bright side, if you have dementia you always get to meet new people, and every birthday party is a surprise party.
My Dad does remember things from a long time ago. Everyone says that about dementia – the longer term memories stick. And Dad’s been living back there a little bit. He recently spent a couple of months working with old film movies. He used to be a photographer. He did weddings – both photo and video (ie: film) – and still has some quite beautiful old movie cameras, and a gorgeous old film projector. So he’s been playing with the films. Old family movies that he’s been looking through, taking scenes he wants and splicing them together. He put together a movie for me, for my birthday, and had it converted to DVD. A couple of years of family birthdays, Christmases and outings to the zoo, starting when I was about 18 months old.
We watched the movie on my birthday. It was like the whole world was one endless party for my little family. In nearly every scene I’m blowing out candles or opening presents. We had such a great life back then. And my parents knew so many people! I, being only a baby in the film, had no idea who most of them were.
“Who’s that, Dad?”
“That’s our neighbour, Rosita*.”
“And who’s that?”
“Those are the children that lived down the street. They often came to play with you.”
“Just some children that happened to be at the playground that day. We didn’t know them.”
“Who’s that lady?”
“ … That’s Rosita again.” I heard a hint of laughter in his voice. I must have pointed to Rosita four times in forty-five minutes and asked who she was (she kept wearing different clothes and changing her hair in different scenes!) so I began to understand what it must feel like for Dad to be always forgetting people and then told that he already knew them. “Well, she looks different this time.”
If only people were like cartoon characters and never changed their look, it would be easier, you know? In fact … I almost just came up with an awesome new law for when I rule the world. But then I realised I might not be allowed to change my shoes under the law of always having to look the same, and I immediately dismissed it as a terrible law. Who comes up with such stupid ideas? It actually bothers me that cartoon characters never change their clothes, to be honest. Do they shower? Do they change their underwear? Do they never put on weight and discover they can’t zip up their jeans? Seriously! Why doesn’t anyone ever question these things? It’s just lazy animation, is what it is.
It was nice to talk to Dad normally again, to have him recognise places and tell stories from my childhood. In fact, it was so nice that a couple of weeks later, at Christmas, I put on my DVD again. Because, you know, there’s a lot of opening Christmas presents in the movie so it seemed appropriate.
Dad said “What’s this film?”
I said “It’s the DVD you made me for my birthday.”
“It’s very dark. It isn’t very good quality. Who’s that child?”
“… That’s me, Dad.” Then there was silence. Because it was a silent film and because no one was talking. We all just sat there awkwardly for a bit … until “And that lady there, that’s your old neighbour Rosita.”
Dad was surprised. “Do you remember Rosita?”
It was hard to know how to answer. I went with the truth. “Well … I do now.”