A repost inspired by this:

Seventy eight years ago a small Belgian girl, aged six, arrived at a convent school in Cape Town.  The details of why she was sent to this country are sketchy, but I know that she boarded with a relative in a Sea Point hotel.  This little girl, Elisabet, was befriended by a classmate, Veronica; who would become my mother-in-law many years later.

It was a friendship that would endure.  Grainy photographs show them dressed up for their first communion, as teenagers at a table at an afternoon dance at a local tea room.  They joined the St John’s Ambulance Service during the war and there is a picture of them posing in their uniforms with soldiers.  With the advent of colour film come snapshots of them, both now young mothers, on a trip abroad; at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, in a field of Tulips in Holland and at the Eiffel Tower.

Elisabet and her husband eventually returned to settle in Belgium.  They would have three children; two girls and a boy.  Veronica had two boys and the women wrote to each other faithfully, every week two envelopes of news would cross paths across the ocean; shared news of the minutiae of everyday life.

One Christmas Eve, as was the custom in their small Belgian town, Elisabeth’s two teenaged girls took the walk to early mass at their church.  On their return walk, looking forward to hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts, they were hit by a hit-and-run-driver, drunk from an all-night party.  (The driver later came forward and handed himself over to the police). The impact catapulted the two girls over a low wall and into the garden owned by people who had gone to Germany for the holidays.  The heavily-falling snow covered the two bodies even before Elisabet looked at her watch and remarked to her husband that girls were naughty being so late, they must have lingered talking to friends outside the church.

A search-party was mounted that evening and the town was scoured for the girls.  After two days, the whole country was on the lookout for any sign of them.  Rumours began to circulate; people speculated that the girls had run away.  Some – even in that time of relative innocence – wove ghoulish tales of paedophilia and captivity.

After almost two weeks, the neighbors’ return from their German holiday and set about clearing the mounds of snow from their garden and discovered the two frozen corpses.  My mother-in-law believes that Elisabet’s Alzheimer’s disease took root that day.

Their letters dwindled over the next years, eventually become little more than the obligatory exchange of Christmas and birthday cards.  Veronica learned that Elisabet’s husband had one day left a note on the kitchen table to say that he would not be home for supper and had never been heard from again.

They spoke on the telephone a couple of times a year, although – with time – Elisabet became less and less lucid.

When I came into Veronica’s life, I took up a friendship with Elisabet’s son, Bernard, and was able to give Veronica updates about Elisabet’s health.  After a few years Bernard decided that a visit to her childhood haunts may jolt Elisabet into some kind of lucid state and he planned a holiday in Cape Town.

Veronica was terribly excited to see her old friend, and her dismay when they arrived was heartbreaking to witness.  Elisabet, although fit as a fiddle physically, was like a toddler in her behavior; at restaurants she had to be restrained from eating the butter-balls and sugar sachets, she wet her pants often and sometimes it was quite clear that she didn’t know that Bernard was her son and not her husband.

It was soon after this visit that Veronica suffered her third stroke.   Almost paralysed, relying on me for the most intimate parts of her ablutions, frustrated beyond belief at her inability to communicate verbally with me, she managed one day to utter her first coherent sentence in days:

Dear God, I wonder if Elisabet is better off, a healthy body and an oblivious mind …


33 Comments Add yours

  1. souldipper says:

    Having spent three years working with seniors diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, this touches me deeply, Cin. Wonderful piece. Thank you.

    1. theonlycin says:

      Thanks for reading it, souldipper.

  2. Absolutely echo Souldipper. Beautifully, sensitively written. This subject sits in the back of my mind, and I wonder how we can all grow old and handle such captivity within the body which used to serve us so well. It is particularly cruel that while body and even mind might be ailing, our emotions remain as a merciless monitor of what has become of us.
    I’m hoping and praying the life of the mind will rescue me when it’s my turn.

    1. theonlycin says:

      My hopes for myself too, Kate.

  3. adeeyoyo says:

    *sigh* This is a very complicated issue, Cindy. My mom developed Senile Dementia (which is closely linked to Alzheimer’s) and the worst thing for me to see was that she had flashes of clarity when she would tap the side of her head with a puzzled look and ask what was wrong… Although these ‘flashes’ were few and far between (but then I wasn’t with her 24/7) it upset me to know that she was aware that her head wasn’t right. She was physically as fit as a fiddle almost to the end.

  4. i am so scared of getting old like that, either one leave me in a funk

    1. theonlycin says:

      Best not dwell on it too much …

  5. nrhatch says:

    Aah . . . a bit like Sophie’s Choice.
    Only we don’t get to choose.

    Does Veronica live with you?

    1. theonlycin says:

      Yes, she has a cottage on our property.

  6. Nzwaa says:

    Where is Veronica now?

    1. theonlycin says:

      Here Nzwaa, in the cottage.

  7. granny1947 says:

    I went absolutely cold reading this Cin…I wonder which is better?

    1. theonlycin says:

      Wouldn’t like to choose 😦

  8. gospelwriter says:

    This is a hard question, which would we prefer? Probably just as well we don’t get to choose…

    1. theonlycin says:

      Yes, just as well …

    1. theonlycin says:

      Thank you, awesome 😀

  9. slpmartin says:

    Such sad stories to have at the end of ones life after enduring so much…truly makes one feel blessed to be well.

    1. theonlycin says:

      Good health is a blessing indeed!

  10. Tammy McLeod says:

    this question is one that I often wonder about. My grandmother is 93 and her mind is a steel trap – so sharp and collected. Her body however, torments her with great pain and inability and I wonder if it wouldn’t be better the other way.

    1. theonlycin says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your gran, Tammy 😦

  11. buttercup600 says:

    So very sad Cindy…I agree with Charles on this….Hugs my friend xxx

    1. theonlycin says:

      Hugs back at you. xxx

  12. Artswebshow says:

    This is powerful.
    Such a complex issue fortunately i haven’t had to deal with tihs yet

    1. theonlycin says:

      Take care while you are still young!

  13. Supa says:

    I worry about my parents, so far away 😦

    1. theonlycin says:

      I’m sure you do, Supa 😦

  14. Naomi says:

    Very well written, thank you, Cindy. This subject leaves my heart so heavy, also having an aunt who suffers from Alzheimer’s, as well as a close friend who had a freak accident leaving her with brain damage that makes language all but impossible (speaking and writing it). All strength to them, as well as to you, in undertaking such a challenging labour of love.

    1. theonlycin says:

      It’s hard some days, Naomi 😦

  15. Tokeloshe says:

    An excellent post, thank you Cin.

  16. lidiatheron says:

    First of all I want to apologise for my English, it is not my mother tongue.

    My husband is in a care centre due to Dementia and also a little bit of brain damage after a heart bypass op. After his been diagnosed with Dementia, I made a study of Dementia, because I wanted to know with what I am confronted with. First of all, Alzheimer’s is not an illness on it’s own. It is also a Dementia, just like Fronto Temporal Dementia (also known as Pick’s Disease), Vascular Dementia and a few others. Although you can keep it at bay for a period, by ways of you eating habits and also not smoking, you can not really prevent it. There are ways you can also postpone the onset by practising your brain, or keeping it active, but it will still happen. Once it is there, it is progressive and irreversible.

    The sad part is that you can make provisions (financially speaking) for your old age, but nothing prepare you for reality. We lived in a small seaside village, not too far from drs and hospitals, but still, in the end we had to sell the property. We just could not afford it to put my husband in a care centre while I was still living in our house. When we were selling the house, it was in a very bad time, property-wise. I was fed-up with all the responsibilities, I did not buy another house. I am renting a granny flat close to where he is staying.

    Friends and other people just do not know how to handle the situation. For instance, while he was still fairly good, we would get people on street, who would just ignore him and ask me: How is H doing? I mean really, here is the man, why not asking him? As a result one’s life get very isolated.

    To get back to the question of which way would be better, I think, not that one can choose of course, that it is better for the person who lost his mind because they do not know that they are wetting their pants, etc. But it is worse for the caretaker. On the other hand, to be dependent on other people (physically) while you were very independent all you life, it must be hell. Just thins about it, if other people have to wash you private parts just because you can not do it any more. Or wipe your behind after they have helped you to get onto the toilet.

    In the end, I really do not know. Maybe that’s why you cannot choose!

    1. theonlycin says:

      Profound comment, Lidia. And you’re right, in both cases it’s not a nice job for the caregiver. Thank you for reading this.

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