This prompt asks each participant to pull four index cards from a box; each index card has a word written on it. The words I got were: luxuriate, fetal, Iris, and lattice. What I wrote is below.
Scholars believe that Iris Murdoch’s last work was written from a place of dementia; as she wrote, she was already peering over the edge of that vast emptiness. I’ve also heard that was true of Agatha Christie. I wonder. What is that place like, the very edge of it?
At some point, paranoia and anxiety must dominate, and I assume, eventually, these are replaced by a kind of terror, the deep animal awareness that something insidious is climbing the lattice of your very self, introducing an imposter.
What surprises me is that those who have examined the work of these two writers reflected on their consistency as storytellers, and (in Christie’s case, at least), plot and genre, even as they slowly slipped away. The only criticism—or perhaps, the only real indication of their disease—is that each woman’s vocabulary was simplified, compared to their earlier work. The words didn’t come. And who hasn’t had that very experience?
You can do all the crossword puzzles you like, read lengthy, theoretical essays in a foreign language, but you can’t guarantee that you won’t eventually lose your memory. That’s scary, of course. And that moment of realization—I am losing my memory, my very self—must be worse than the later stages of the disease, when people—here: I’ll just say it—when my mother seemed to sleep in a suspended, fetal way, as if slipping out slowly, the same way she came into this world.
But what of those earlier moments? Those fuzzy, “Oh, what’s his name? So and so. What the hell? Where are my glasses? (on your head). Where are my keys?” (in your pocket, or the ignition) moments. We all have those frustrating moments occasionally, but people in the early stages of dementia have them daily, hourly, eventually, minute by minute.
I know my own fear about “getting it, too” comes to the surface when I misplace something. The salt residue left behind from an evaporated puddle of witnessing this madness firsthand. It’s frustrating to lose something, but particularly infuriating (to me) when I am certain I placed that missing object in a specific drawer or box or closet. I can really whip myself up into a rage around this, muttering such phrases as, “I know I put it right here!” and “Where is it?” Nothing is as satisfying for me as luxuriating in the confident knowledge that whatever I am searching for—lighter, reading glasses, a book of poems—is exactly where I remember leaving it last: the kitchen drawer, the glove compartment, or on the night table, right next to the bed. Finding a lost item, especially when I have gotten extremely upset looking for it, is never quite as satisfying. Maybe that’s why people with dementia often pass through an aggressive, angry stage. None of us really know, of course, but imagining it now fills me with compassion.