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One chilly afternoon, I drove with my mother on a narrow, winding backroad in Ireland. It was just after lunch, but the pale winter sun was already declining, casting soft shadows on the road ahead. White sheep dotted the green hills around us; ivy-enrobed trees stretched skeletal fingers to the sky.
In a stylish trenchcoat, patterned silk scarf and perfect makeup, she looked, at 94, a model of graceful aging. Her insistence on style and elegance had led the staff at the nursing home to christen her, with affection, “Lady Anne.”
As a boy, I knew too well the flipside of this elegance: snobbishness and superiority. Appearances were everything; social class was her religion; to be lower class was a moral failing. This, along with a frosty, condescending manner to anyone who offended her (including me, all too often) led to bitter arguments between us and a long period of alienation. For the past few years, though, I had been trying to repair our relationship, which is why I’d flown to Ireland that year.
Yet my mother was, by this time, deep in dementia and the frosty manner had thawed. She had a sharp memory for people, places and events in her youth, but almost no recollection of what happened a few minutes ago. Sad as this was, it made for some interesting, loopy conversions. Once, when my fiancée Carol Ann and I announced our recent engagement, she beamed with joy, “Oh, that’s wonderful!”
We continued on to other topics, and a few minutes later, we mentioned our engagement again.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she said again.
We repeated our announcement five times in that conversation, and each time the response was just as joyful and heartfelt.
Dementia seemed to give her an acute sense of the absurd, and she found herself the most absurd thing of all, happy to be teased, ready to poke fun at her own foibles.
She lived in Dublin during the Emergency, which was what neutral Ireland called the Second World War. As a secretary in an insurance company, she revealed one night, after a couple of gin-and-tonics, that she used to ride her bicycle to the German Embassy every Friday, to deliver a package.
“And who was the package for?” my brother-in-law Terry asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“Um … it was for, um, a Herr … Blighter.” I think she made that up, but Terry ran with it.
“You mean Gunter Blighter? The famous German spy?” (There was no such person, but it didn’t matter to Terry, who could never resist a good tease.) She put her hand to her mouth and giggled, flirtatiously.
“And did you sit on his knee?” asked Terry, with a wink. “Ah, go on, you did, didn’t you!”
“Only on Fridays,” replied my mother, archly.
And so the legend grew, of Lady Anne’s exotic past as a wartime femme fatale, like the courtesan and spy Mata Hari.
She could nevertheless change, in an instant. She had unnerving episodes when she would not recognize anyone around her, become frightened and panic. Often, when I called her at the nursing home from my home in Toronto, she seemed to be in another world.
“Have you got it?” she asked, on more than one occasion.
“The information,” she whispered into the phone. I could imagine her sitting there, eyes nervously darting around the room, hand cupped over the receiver.
“They’re keeping it from me,” she added. The information seemed to have something to do with an escape she was planning.
Once, she actually did team up with another resident to plot their getaway, but, dementia being what it is, forgot all about it and failed to show up at the appointed time. Apprehended at a local gas station, her partner in crime ratted her out.
Because of mum’s tendency toward paranoia, my siblings and I had to work hard to keep her amused. During our lunch that day, each time we’d see her mood change, we would come up with another joke, story, song – anything to keep her entertained.
In the car, she surveyed the bucolic scene around us, smiling beatifically.
“Mum,” I said, still desperately trying to entertain her, “I feel like a song. Will you sing with me?”
“Oh!” replied Lady Anne with delight. “What song would you like to sing?”
“How about Danny Boy?” I might have lived away a long time, but I still knew the words.
“Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling,” I began.
In a thin, reedy voice, she joined in: “From glen to glen, and down the mountainside …”
“The summer’s gone, and all the flowr’s are dy-ying …” we sang together.
And so we drove, for what was just a few minutes but seemed forever, along country roads, tires swishing through puddles, just the two of us, green fields, grey sky and sad song.
“ … Oh, Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.”
We pulled up at the nursing home. As I reached across to undo her seat belt, a bewildered look crossed her face.
“Now … who are you?” she asked.
I sighed. “Well, Mum, I’m David. I’m your son.”
She found this hilarious and chuckled. “Well, hello son.”
“Hello Mum,” I replied. And we giggled together.
At the time, the poignancy of the song, a ballad about a mother tearfully saying farewell to her son as he left his homeland, did not cross my mind. We did not get to the second verse, where the son returns to visit his mother’s grave.
I went back to Canada, the warmth of this rare moment of intimacy glowing inside me. Not long afterward, she died quietly at the nursing home. I returned to bury her and, with my brother and three sisters, raise a gin-and-tonic to Lady Anne, our very own Mata Hari on a bicycle, to whom dementia was life’s greatest gift.
David Dunne lives in Vancouver.