Healing, grace in a mother's precious final years
The months following her mother's death after a struggle with dementia have been a time of deep reflection for Samantha Bews. In the second of two articles, she explores how her relationship with her mother deepened, even as her condition became more serious, and how small acts of creativity helped her to navigate unknown territory.
By Samantha Bew
A month ago my father and I found ourselves, quite by accident, watching the Julian Schnabel film At Eternity’s Gate at the Nova cinema. It is a biopic about Vincent van Gogh’s last years including a re-imagining of the circumstances around his death. It is a startling film: its form, content and aesthetic bring the audience to Vincent’s way of seeing – a way infused with light and not limited to the dimensions of the material world. An image from the film stays with me.
Vincent stands among the reeds in the floodplains near Arles. His arms are outstretched, his body curved upward, his face to the sky. The reeds sway in the evening breeze, their upper leaves touched with gold. Vincent’s face is golden. He is grinning. His smile stretches all the way across his arms and out to the very edges of perception. He is a spindly reed. He is the sun and the sky. He stands in the glory of being.
It is quiet in my mother’s room. After months of extreme agitation she has finally settled, or “surrendered” as one of the more experienced nurses describes it. My mother, Lindsay, lives in a state of advanced dementia. No longer able to feed, dress or toilet herself, the nurses have become her arms, eyes, legs – though her mouth still works and she has put on a lot of weight! I visit her once a week, my father visits four out of the seven days. We are so grateful to the nursing staff here at this dementia-specific hostel who, despite her incapacity, continue to respect her as a person.
Can I say now that visiting Mum sometimes proffers gifts? There is still so much loss to navigate and yet this little room in a hostel in regional Victoria offers a pocket of peace. Is it because entering here I leave behind the demands of my working life and the constant undercurrent of responsibility I feel as a mother? Is it because in a dementia unit no-one expects you to achieve or be successful – a reprieve from our modern-day society’s preoccupation with growth and progress? Or is it because, in her profound vulnerability, my mother provides space for mercy, for grace, for healing? ...
For support, call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 or Meaningful Ageing Australia on (03) 8387 2274.
Samantha Bews is a theatre artist in central Victoria. To view her latest project on dementia click here
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