Some people process the world through paycheques, others through the haircuts on their neighbours, or the shoes they look down at or the latest thing the Internet says. As a writer I process relentlessly through words and words and words.
So when my grandmother, on the other side of the world, started her decline into Alzheimer’s, it was her language, or rather, the sudden and marked change in it, that drew me in to the pathos of her story. She’d grown up speaking Polish, using English as a second language and England as a refuge at the conclusion of the Second World War. Her English disappeared first, fast. Her Polish came forth, lingered.
It was language that first set Alois Alzheimer off on his discoveries about what has become his disease. He documented his communications with his patient Auguste Deter in both Latin and an outdated form of German called Sütterlin. Their interactions are meticulously preserved. The records survive in their entirety, with photographs, samples of Deter’s writing and case notes of memory games. Like the one you play with kids and twelve things on a tray that you cover with a towel and take three away and guess which ones have gone—except probingly serious.
Making sense. Using knowledge and logic. And language. It’s how Alzheimer approached his findings, and it’s how we address our own worried-well preoccupation with this disease. There are an estimated 40,746 people in New Zealand with dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is by far the most common variety. In 0.68 seconds I found 4.5 million hits on Google about preventing Alzheimer’s disease. So possible to be so precise. Words on paper. On a screen.
Alzheimer notes that Deter’s words are “full of paraphrasic derailments and perseverations.” Using the wrong words in the wrong places, using unusual tangents and repetition. In writing my grandmother’s story, bringing her as close as I can, I decided that poetry was the obvious medium, because poetry is cosy with paraphasia/paraphrasia and other derailments. The spaces between the words. The teddy bear in the handbag and the thrice-folded, stroked tissue. And it’s about laying them out to preserve, to store, and, in a way, to restore, as a conservator does with a canvas in order to highlight and arrange.
One of my grandmother’s last words was ‘zobac.’ You say ‘zho-bach.’ It’s Polish for ‘look.’ Though what we were always looking at in the last days was the spoon-fed minutia. The background of loss too much to frame. Because Alzheimer’s, like poetry, is a lot about what’s behind the said or not said. Where do they go, the words we are losing? Are they heading further into our dense neurofibrillary tangles, trapped?
Look. Here is your medicine. Look. Here is a photo of someone you once were. Look. Here. The gulf between us. Look. Is this in store for me?
Poems can also be therapeutic for Alzheimer’s sufferers. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is one of the many forums that believe in the importance of sharing words and stories in the face of memory loss. Across the USA, Germany and Poland, they visit elders and speak poems of the kind that many of their generation committed to memory. They encourage the groups to join in. In this way poetry isn’t just a record of memories, it is memory itself, accessible by comforting rhythms, rhymes and phrases that nurture people through their days.
And best you take your comfort while you can because there’s pain and ignominity behind those pat phrases. Things you watch, hear and read take on new territories. Call and response. We know how we’re supposed to behave …
…except one side’s ignoring the script.
In my grandmother’s story is the extra tension of things she never wanted to language. A front line fighter in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, she spoke to me all of once about her wartime experiences. So much I want, now, to know. So much she wanted to bury.
So, then, is the death of memory all catastrophe? Or are there things to be thankful for in the sloughing off of knowing? To ape Shakespeare, how quality the mercy in the “last scene of all/that ends this strange eventful history/…second childishness and mere oblivion/sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Sans words, sans memory. What do we have, between us, when these are stripped away?
Well. I’ve got a gold and garnet ring, a wooden plaque saying ‘Tis a blessing to be Polish, a glass jar half full of unstrung amber beads, a handful of scallop-edged photos, four pages of memoir as told to my auntie, and fifty shortish poems. Mine. For her. This is one that my sister Nicky read out at her funeral.
I hold an arc of memories, from the stern matriarch weighed by rosary beads to the gappy starling mouth with puff-brushed hair. I was next to no help in her final years. What can you do on the end of a phone or the other side of the Internet, though? It’s as Dr Louisa Baillie wrote, in Touch: the neglected sense, on this blog: screens give us a skewed sense of life. Like photos do. And poems. Because although I know it’s not literally, actually possible, through the writing and reading of her story I feel she is there: in the text, in the gaps.
I choose to remember in the medium I know best. In the elusive, devastating blackness on white. Words seem so certain until you lose them, and meaning.
Liz Breslin doesn’t know the difference between rhyme and reason but she can write her way out of a paper bag. Her writing is diverse – poems, plays, short stories and a regular column for the Otago Daily Times.
Liz is comfy on the page and the stage and was second runner up in the 2014 New Zealand Poetry Slam in Wellington. She’s heading back up there on August 3rd as a feature poet at Poetry in Motion. Her website is www.lizbreslin.com
You can watch Liz’s performance at the 2016 TEDx Queenstown here: