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The Long Hello: A lyrical memoir on Alzheimer’s

Cathie Borrie and her mother.

Every day I sit with my mother and watch the sea.

There's a row of birds perched on an errant log – cormorant, cormorant, seagull, heron. Crow.

"Cathie, sometimes I drift off for 10 minutes and I don't know where I've gone."

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"Does that bother you, Mum?"

"No, it doesn't. Are you my daughter?"

We watch frantic wing flitting at her bird feeder. Chickadees, starlings, sparrows. A house finch, brown-striped.

"Cath, I think it's a finch, it's only – a finch, a finch, a finch! Are they trying to tell you they aren't in there? What are they trying to say?"

"To say … ? I don't know."

"They're trying to get something across, aren't they, love?"

Anxiety begins to set up house inside my mother's head. She calls every hour, forgets we've just spoken. Her signature ring – insistent, startling, urgent. I run to catch her calls.

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"Where are you, love? I've called and called."

"I'm fine. I was at the dentist's, remember?"

"Oh, but I read in the paper that we should take a second look and feel good about it. Did you have anywhere to go with my mind?"

"What? No, I thought I'd leave it right where it is. Yes, that's safer, isn't it?"

"But where did you put all that information?"

"In my head."

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"Oh dear."

"It doesn't matter, does it?"

"Not unless a car is coming."

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I start seeing a family therapist who works with midlife children caring for aging parents. She knows how my mother and I spend our days, hours, minutes.

She has a cat.

I tell her I can't breathe with all the worry sitting on my chest. She gets the cat, plops her down beside me. Sometimes I take my writing over, read out my pencil-scratchings – mother, boarding school, men. She teases out essence, points of view.

We watch my dance videos – slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.

"You describe the experience of looking after your mother in some of the same ways you talk about dance."

I am choreographing a dance for my mother and me.

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Starlings replace chickadees. The seed is getting low.

"What do you think is the most important thing, Mum? I mean, a good thing?"

"Understanding."

"And what about the rest of your life? What's your thinking on the rest of your life?"

"Oh gosh, there can't be much left of it can there, Cath?

What will I be, 66?"

"You're going to be 86."

"Oh yeah, 86."

"How old am I?"

"Oh about 60, 60 and the pen you're holding. I'm 62 or 3, the age I quickly got to."

"How would you like to live out the remainder of your days?"

"I don't know, it fills me with horror. The same as what I'm doing over there only I'll be better. I'll be flying down the hill in my jacket!"

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We listen to Bach.

"Did someone take the place of A-flat minor? You know, I think about the radio, listen to the radio, and I wonder if Cath is listening, too."

"You mean … you wonder about me when you're listening to the radio?"

"Yes. It's the only time."

Prelude no. 1 in C Major. My mother sighs, closes her eyes.

"What was he thinking? What was Bach thinking?"

"What's the nicest thing about you?"

"Nothing."

"Okay, what's the second-nicest thing about you?"

"My love of music, my love of good music. In fact it might be the first thing. Do you know what I had last night?"

"What?"

"Two lots of the London Conservatory taken away."

"What do you like least about yourself?"

"All the things I could do and wanted to do and didn't do because I couldn't be bothered."

"You always loved music, didn't you?"

"It was Mother who made me compete. Once, when I was six, at that big hotel downtown, a man lifted me up onto the piano stool and I was so mad because I could have got up by myself.

Mother never forgave me for quitting, but I was just so nervous. I hated it. After I left, my piano teacher told Mother that the German adjudicator asked her where the little golden-haired girl was, the one with music in her ears."

Our eyes scan the sea.

"There's a huge freighter coming in. I wonder where it's from."

My mother squints.

"It's coming in too full, you can't see the Plimsoll line."

"You have a good eye."

"Yes, but is it the right eye?"

"You're feeling better today, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"Because?"

"Because it's all coming in and none going out."

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Four cruise ships leave the harbour for Alaska one after the other.

"Here they come, Norwegian Wind, Veendam, Dawn Princess, Radiance of the Seas. They're getting bigger every year."

"I've been on one of those ships and spent a whole morning up on the bridge. You should see the instruments. Wow!"

"Which do you like better, the sea or the sky?"

"The sea."

"Because?"

"You can swim in it."

"And?"

"It's always out there for you. It's always there."

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"Love? How do I get home or when I get home how do I get home?"

"Mum, you are home, see all your things around you?"

"These are my things? How did they get here? I think that girl, she was the one I found most interesting but sometimes I think she employed too much use of the wind."

"Who? Who was that?"

"Who? You're a regular customer and I'm the one that rushes in, all eyes. This is my home? Do I own it?"

"Yes, you own it and you'll always be able to stay here."

"Good, because I never want to leave here. Getting them unscrambled is an important thing – you go seven, eight, nine, which means you're pretty strong which is a good thing. And the birds, that's what they were screaming about, these little ones this morning."

"What were they saying?"

"They said, 'Stay little one, stay.' And I said, 'Okay, okay.'"

"That should settle it."

I make tea.

"Tea is a more pleasant drink. It just seems to sort of go down and settle things."

"You're my favourite person in the world."

"Favourite amongst the constipated you mean."

"How was your day?"

"Today I was down at the horse barn. It came with lots of blessings."

"Oh my … I love listening to you talk."

"You love what?"

"Listening to you talk."

"Oh. I thought I heard you say, I love looking into your voice."

"I love that, too."

Copyright © Adapted from the book The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me by Cathie Borrie, to be published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Printed by permission.

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