Has my mother been given “the gift of forgetting”?

This morning I read the line “The gift of forgetting” in a poem by Wisława Szymborska. Immediately I asked myself if it is a gift to forget and quickly–and somewhat counterintuitively– decided it was.

Something else that I’d read this morning in a book by a neurosurgeon supported the conclusion. Henry Marsh in his uncomfortably honest book First Do No Harm writes about his many failures, the failures that are an unavoidable part of neurosurgery as well as his many mistakes, and is grateful that he has forgotten most of them. He speculates that the greatest neurosurgeons may be the ones who are least disturbed by their failures and most able to forget them quickly.

And inevitably I think of my mother, who has spent 10 years without any short term memory and with her long term memory fading progressively. Is her forgetting a gift?

Then I think of a workshop I was doing in Bangalore last week. As so often, I was diverted into my near party piece of asking people how they wanted to die. There are four broad options: sudden death, organ failure, cancer, and the long slow death of dementia or frailty. As usual, everybody except one participant opted for sudden death. But the one exception was the person most familiar with death and dying: a palliative care physician who is also an anthropologist. He opted for dementia/frailty.

I must have asked this question to around 500 people by now. Nobody has ever opted for organ failure, and only one other person has opted for dementia/frailty. A few have opted for cancer, and I created a global storm by arguing that cancer, with its relative quickness and opportunity to say goodbye, was the best. http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2014/12/31/richard-smith-dying-of-cancer-is-the-best-death/

But I have begun to change. I visit my mother almost every week, and the hour and a bit we spend together is enjoyable. I’ve always been glad when I cycle away, but perhaps because I’m getting so used to the nursing home and its gallimaufry of inhabitants I’m beginning to come round to the idea that perhaps the long, slow death of dementia is not so bad. You slowly fade away, casting aside the worries of the world, abdicating gracefully all responsibilities, and forgetting who you are and even that you are going to die. When death finally comes calling his touch may be very light–no raging against the dying of the light.

All this thinking has had a practical effect. Like many doctors I have boasted that I will kill myself if I know I’m becoming demented, always doubting that I’d actually have the courage to do. Now I’m resigned to dementia if that is to be my fate. That’s progress.

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3 thoughts on “Has my mother been given “the gift of forgetting”?

  1. Thanks Richard for this moving piece. Between us we have four parents still alive aged 87-94, sadly all with dementia. We’ve learned a lot about the range of responses they had – from rage to serenity, and so much about the best and worst of the health and care industry. Our views continue to evolve, but all letting go is hard!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are conscious that we are lucky in that my mother is mostly cheerful and positive, praising everybody she meets. She’s popular in her nursing home. I know that it could be very different, and perhaps you might write a blog on your experiences. 4/4 seems a high hit rate for dementia, assuming it is 4/4: maybe somebody has multiple parents. For us it’s been 1/4: the men dying youngish, and my wife’s mother making it into her 90s without any dementia.

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  2. Pingback: Practising for my dementia | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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