Today is the first day in Lent that I’ve caught a glimpse of the wilderness.
I went to visit my mother-in-law who lives in a care home as she is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. On the way I popped into a local museum which was showing an art work which responded to some of the artefacts they keep there. It was a small architectural piece in plaster which contained a light box and displayed lots of different images shining out of various windows. Many of the images were very striking, but it was this one of a bereft child and the word ‘GONE!’ which most caught my attention.
When I arrived at the care home, I found my mother-in-law sitting in the lounge. Fortunately for her she has got beyond the stage of realising that there is anything wrong: she no longer tries to escape, or plans to move to Scotland, or hits people as they try to wash her or indeed shows any sign of distress at all. However, as I sat with her today, the woman next to us was in total despair. She kept on crying out that she didn’t know where her bed was, that she didn’t want to be there, that she had been burned and wanted to go home. She turned to me and said, ‘I used to be… I used to be very senior… I was the head of… the head of… milk… all over the world…everywhere…’. Then she turned away again and started wailing and crying and shouting out.
At that point my mother-in-law reached out her hand and held onto the wrist of the other woman. She did not look at her, or smile, or say anything at all, but the gesture was not unkind and for a short moment the woman was calm and still.
In that moment I realised that although she can no longer speak coherently, or use facial expressions, or make connections as she used to through her wickedly naughty sense of humour, she still has the ability to reach out to another person. It would be easy to over-sentimentalise her gesture and to assume that she was trying to comfort the other woman. To be honest she may just have been keen to quieten her down. But in that moment I felt that there was still a glimmer of the person I had known and that she hadn’t yet gone completely.
That was the only hopeful moment there. It was bleak and hard and the sense of loneliness was palpable, despite care staff who are kind, nurturing and caring.
There are many types of wilderness, but few that frighten me more than the prospect of being alone in a mind which knows it is losing itself.