Cathie Borrie holds degrees in health and law, but nothing prepared her for the years of caregiving for her mother. Not for the difficult days, nor—more importantly—the days of her mother’s splendorous language and unexpected humor and beauty. This excerpt is from her acclaimed book, The Long Hello~The Other Side of Alzheimer’s, a lyrical memoir of her experiences that will inspire other caregivers
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.
Cathie, sometimes I drift off for ten minutes and I don’t know where I’ve gone.
“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 . . . oh—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.”
I think there’s something, they’re trying to get something across, aren’t they, love?
Bird-pecking at the feeder. I tap on the window.
"Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. How do you think birds get their names?"
I don’t know.
"What shall I call myself? What name?"
Don’t you know?
"Yes, but I’d like a different name."
Well, I like Hugh or Cath but I think Hugh is better. More suitable.
"But you won’t ever forget me, will you?
As if I ever could.
Starlings replace chickadees. The seed is getting low.
"What do you think is the most important thing, Mum? I mean, a good thing?"
"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, sixty-six?
"You’re going to be eighty-six."
Oh yeah, eighty-six.
"How old am I?"
Oh about sixty, sixty and the pen you’re holding. I’m sixty-two or three, 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!
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?"
"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?
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 going out. 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?"
Because it’s all coming in and none going out.
Four cruise ships leave the harbor 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?"
You can swim in it.
It’s always out there for you. It’s always there.
For lunch I make fruit salad and cottage cheese and one piece of whole-wheat toast. I stand at my mother’s kitchen window cutting up fruit and look out at the day. It’s raining. A raven watches me from his perch on the power line as the wind whisks wave tips into frothy white manes. I try not to think about where I am and what I do all day or the things I used to do and miss most—working, studying, canoeing, movies.
She has her lunch on a TV table in the den.
"How are you, Mum?"
I’m sort of dragging myself through.
"What are you dragging yourself through?"
Oh, wheat fields and sticky things. Someone’s pinning me all together. Oh yes, yes, I’m very, very clear. When that girl Cathie phoned this morning I thought, what’s she phoning me for?
"Cathie? But I’m Cathie—"
Then I heard her say, ‘Oh, because it’s a day,’ but she didn’t say the right name. Anyway, he went into sing and you went into sing, didn’t you?
“Into . . . sing? Um, I guess I did. Mum, I miss you.”
You know, I just stamp my foot and there she isn’t.
"She? Oh. You know, even though I see you every day I still miss you."
Then my daughter Cathie came back to this side when she was through over there. I guess she was through and I was so surprised and thrilled and we had tea together and it was nifty.
"Your daughter? Oh. Well, how would you like us to be related?"
I think we’re doing fine in the water.
I tell people I’m still working and making money but I’m not. Try to ignore the tightness in my chest from having to move so slowly when I like moving fast, and the creeping sense of captivity that sits heavy in my gut.
My mother sits on her couch with her eyes closed.
"Would you like to have a little rest?"
Okay, dear. But where are you going to sit? And then you’re going to go away with Dad, aren’t you, and I’ll be all alone.
"I never go away with Dad."
Oh, that’s good.
"You seem so tired . . . are you giving up?"
No, I don’t give up. I don’t know how you do it.
"Neither do I."
I draw the curtains.
"How was your day?"
It’s very hard for me to tell you because when you say, ‘How have you been today, Mum?’ I try to think, and I can’t think of anything. I don’t know what I did this morning, I have no idea.
"Oh. Maybe a better question would be—how are you right now?"
Well I’m fine, just fine. Yes, it’s a good, a better question to come for me.
"You look like a little porcelain doll lying there."
Does it, does it look just like china?
"Yes, just perfect."
Well, that’s good. Somebody’s got to be perfect.
||In this shimmering jewel of a memoir, The Long Hello ~ The Other Side of Alzheimer’s, author Cathie Borrie traverses rich terrain as she unearths the hidden and often painful treasures of a life well lived: the shadows and joys of childhood, the relationships that leave us both illuminated and bereft, the love, longing and loss that surge to the fore when a parent is ailing. Memory, and the losing of it, serves as a powerful guide, and Borrie follows her mother’s eccentric and poetic lead into the past, transformed by the unexpected brilliance of the elder woman’s shifting dementia mind. A paean of redemptive beauty, The Long Hello cherishes the bond between mothers and daughters, and creates a startling change in society’s perception of those journeying through Alzheimer’s.