The first time I learnt about dementia was when my father was struck with it in his late seventies. It was painful watching such an intelligent man fall into this deep abyss of dementia, from which he could never revive. Dementia made him silent. He forgot to speak, to read, to write and to recognize anyone. That was not all. He often confused his wife, with his mother.
My mother was in her late sixties then. I cannot understand this association in his brain between my mother and his. I know that sufferers of this disease lose their short term memory, not the long term. Perhaps his mother’s memory at an older stage was locked in his memory and his brain used that to make an association, I wouldn’t know. But I know this, that if I stood before him, he would look at me, confused, probably thinking who’s this stranger? What’s she doing in my house? That was frightening for both of us.
I often saw him, sitting quietly with a book in his hand, not turning a single page. He sat there, as though he wanted to read. As though he knew he had to do something useful with it. But he just sat there, not reading a single word. Because he had truly forgotten the alphabet and the words. He was someone who read the complete works of Bernard Shaw in grade nine. Someone who aced everything throughout his university degrees. Who could speak three languages fluently – reduced to this. No treatment worked and no medical professional knew the cause.
In many ways, my dad’s predicament reminded me of the British novelist Iris Murdoch. She realized that she had dementia when she couldn’t put two sentences together anymore. What’s more horrific is that dementia is hereditary. It can be passed down to the next generation, as mental diseases often are.
While writingThe Pacifist, I remember my dad’s last days of agony. I created three characters with mental disease, Emma, Rose and Malcolm. I realized that Emma came closest to a dementia patient. Both Rose and Malcolm had a freakish madness about them but not quite as clearly demented as Emma. Rose’s mental illness surfaces as a child, long before Emma’s dementia becomes apparent. It worsens with age, eventually leaving Rose to be confined. Rose’s connection with the supernatural, such as hearing voices, seeing visions, and sleepwalking are attributed to an unnatural behavior of some kind. In the novel, she is diagnosed but untreated. Malcolm’s troubles, like his mother, but unlike his grandmother, begin much earlier. He has an unsavory and odd disorder, rarely found amongst children.
Whether or not such unique strains of mental illness are of a family pre-disposition, remains to be deciphered. But in all honesty, I have fictionalized my characters to transcend reality, at the same time keeping them rooted to the same anguish and fears that many face in life – in the same manner that my family did.
Mehreen Ahmed’s novel, The Pacifist, explores different aspects of dementia. Purchase the novel at any of the following retailers: