She didn’t remember much these days, but she remembered Nala. Not every day, and not always when she wasn’t there, but the minute Nala walked through the door, my mother’s eyes would light up in recognition.
Sometimes, she couldn’t quite recall her name – Nala. I would watch her chasing the letters around her mouth with her pointed tongue, searching for the syllables. It didn’t matter. Through all of it, she remembered her in essence, and it would only take a gentle nudge for the name to come pouring from her mouth, sweet as toffee.
My mother’s memory had been fading for some time before she came to live here. It started with an inability to find the right words. She’d misplace her keys and have to fumble with her fingers, miming the action of unlocking the door to show me what she was looking for.
She’d ask me to make her a cup of tea but find herself tripping over the sugar. She’d chew over the word, lost to her, until giving in and pointing at the sugar bowl instead. We didn’t think much of it, at the time, but I could see how frustrated she was, whenever it happened. She’d shake her head and skim her hand against her hair, tutting as though scolding herself for her mistake, brushing it off as nothing more than a brief lapse. I let myself believe that’s all it was. I suppose, at the time, I didn’t want to recognise the signs, didn’t want to acknowledge them. It was easier not to.
We all know the familiar feeling of purposefully striding in to a room only to stop short, suddenly unsure of what it was we wanted there. It’s like passing under a cool waterfall. It happens to everyone from time to time – but it happened to Mum with increasing regularity, until one day, she came from the room and couldn’t recognise the house she was stood in.
It was awful to see her, collapsed back against the wall and clawing through her mind, searching the hallway for the paintings which hung on the corridors of her childhood home. I pulled out the photo album then, showed her the faded black and white miniatures of the home she had grown up in, compared the two buildings, tried to explain. She asked after Leo, the dog she and my father bought when I left home – a black and tan cavalier with smooth fur and ears that smelled like honey. I reminded her that Leo was buried with my father and she nodded sadly, as though she understood, and sipped her tea in silence, her hands shaking slightly.
I watched her turning her hands, examining her palms, taking in the blooming liver-spots as though for the first time.
I’m tired now. She spoke in a soft, wavering voice. I need to rest.
I nodded and left her with a blanket over her knees, blowing a kiss across the room and smiling as I pulled the front door shut behind me. I raised a hand in greeting to a woman across the road, climbed carefully in to my car, and bent double over the steering wheel. I felt all of the emotion of the last hour pour from me in one huge gush, the tinkering of the teacup against its saucer still chiming in my mind. I knew in that moment that my mother was fading fast, and that nothing I could do would stop it.
‘Time for dinner.’ A young health care assistant comes in to the room, rousing me from my thoughts. She nods at me as she pulls the trolley in line with my mother’s chair. ‘Are you staying?’ she asks.
‘I suppose so,’ I try to smile. ‘I’ll watch her.’
The young woman shrugs and leaves the room, letting me monitor my mother’s meal.
‘What have we got here?’ I say, more to myself than anyone else. ‘Chicken, here you go, Mum, you like chicken don’t you?’
My mother wrinkles her nose and pushes the plate away. ‘Keep it for Nala. I’ll have the pudding.’
I sigh. ‘You can’t live on pudding, Mum. It’s not good for you.’
It’s no use, I don’t know why I’m bothering. She’s always had a sweet tooth. I remember watching her as a child, dishing up huge bowlfuls of stew for my father and I, then sitting down to a sliver of cake herself, kneading the crumbs between her fingers like a little squirrel. I pick up the small pot of chocolate pudding and open it for her – I’d rather her eat the pudding than nothing.
‘Are you going to feed yourself?’ I ask, handing her the spoon.
‘Of course I am,’ she snaps. ‘I’m not a child anymore, Mum.’
I flinch. This has happened once before, this bizarre and unsettling role-reversal. The feeling of it is like glugging down a fizzy drink on an empty stomach and I don’t know how to react so I look away, blinking furiously.
I stare at the tree through the window. It’s been six months now, since my mother was admitted to the nursing home. In that time, the branches on the tree outside of her room have shifted from glittering and stiff to budding green, flourishing in the weak sun-light. Today, the rays of light are pouring steadily through the glass, catching dust in its stream and pooling on the carpet between us.
My mother licks her lips as she finishes the pudding, then smacks them together and I laugh in spite of myself.
‘Are you sure you don’t want any of this chicken now, Mum?’ I ask.
‘No, thank you. Don’t throw it though – it’s for Nala.’
I roll my eyes. ‘I’m sure Nala has plenty of food at home, Mum. You don’t need to keep everything aside for her. Not if you’re hungry.’
‘I’m not!’ Her tone is defiant and I know the battle is lost. She closes her eyes and almost immediately her head droops, her chin resting on her chest.
I stand up and cross to the window, looking out at the lawn below. An elderly couple sit together on a wooden bench, hands clasped together and I wonder which one of them is resident here. Which one of them has watched their life-long partner fade into only a semblance of the person they once were. Which position is worse? Nala will be here soon. I’ll wait until then before I leave.
I cross the room and pick up a photo on the dresser, brushing the dust away with my thumb. A woman who resembles me more than she resembles my mother cradles a dog, her face tilted towards it as her eyes look up at the camera. I smile at the sight of Leo – he was like a second child to them.
I put the photo down and take a seat opposite my mother again, letting my eyelids flicker shut.
I am roused by a soft pattering, like fingernails padding along the linoleum corridor outside. A small, wet nose pokes itself through the gap in the doorway and I hurry to push it open.
Nala bounds past me, interested only in reaching my mother, whose eyes dart open and widen in excitement.
‘Nala! Come on then,’ she says as the dog leaps straight up on to her lap, curling immediately in to a tight ball of black fur. ‘I knew you’d come. Oh she is just so beautiful,’ my mother coos, wide awake now that Nala has arrived.
‘She is,’ I agree, bending to scratch the little dog behind the ears.
A staff member, older than the girl who came in earlier, pokes her head around the door and offers us both a cup of tea. ‘Unbelievable isn’t it?’ she smiles, looking over at Nala snoozing on my mother’s lap.
‘I still can’t get over it,’ I reply. ‘You know, Mum just lights up when she sees that little dog.’ I glance over at her – she looks like the woman in the photo again.
The staff member smiles. ‘They all do. The residents here just love her. And she makes time for each and every one of them, bless her paws.’
Nala belongs to one of the nurses, a young man who rescued her from a shelter when she was only a puppy. He’s been bringing her to work every day since, letting her find her own way around the corridors, visiting the residents in their rooms and laying longest with the most sick. Seeing her curled on my mother’s lap, little tongue darting out to lick salt from the crevices in her palms, I smile.
”I knew she’d come,’ my mother says as she tears strands of chicken meat from her plate and hand-feeds them to the spaniel. ‘She’s my little angel. She always remembers me.’
With that, I turn to leave.